The US presidential election is around the corner. The two candidates, incumbent President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, have tried to attract voters through series of rallies, debates and political ads.
In the final week of the presidential race the two candidates were confronted by the Frankenstorm Sandy. On Tuesday, in the aftermath of the hurricane, Romney visited Dayton, Ohio relief center, while Obama visited the Washington DC Red Cross Headquarters.
However, it is the last fierce debate about foreign policy at Lynn University in Boca Raton between them which has most captured the attention of the public at home and abroad. The debate partly reflects the direction of future US foreign policy to American voters and the international community.
What message has the foreign policy debate sent to US friends and allies in the other parts of the world?
First, both Romney and Obama have tried to illustrate the close link between domestic and foreign politics. The two argue that once the US government is secure domestically, it will be capable and confident in executing foreign policy.
The maintenance of US leadership of the international community will be more influenced by domestic concern. Thus, future foreign policy could focus mainly on “intermestic” issues, the merging of international and domestic issues.
The foreign policy debate focused mainly on trade with China, the Benghazi attack, the Iranian nuclear program, troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the political turmoil in the Middle East and relations with Russia and Israel.
However, the overall debate revealed more agreement, such as the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, than disagreement.
Romney tried to highlight the failures of Obama’s foreign policy. By focusing on the strength of domestic economy, Romney’s projection is that he can maintain the US leadership at the international level.
Obama tried to underline how his foreign policy has achieved some success and emphasized that foreign policy is an instrument to keep Americans safe.
The debate involved accusations from each candidate about accuracies in one another’s statements. For instance, Romney accused Obama of not promptly responding the Benghazi terrorists attack because he was busy with his campaign.
Second, Obama’s position as incumbent and commander in chief gives him an advantage in foreign policy. Obama is more confident because in his view the US is much stronger now than when he took office. Hence, we will not expect any major policy shifts if Obama is reelected, while we can expect less multilateral cooperation if Romney wins the election.
Obama only mentioned Asia once, and Romney did not even mention the region as a future world economic power. Although the US and Indonesia have had great relations in the second term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Obama did not even refer the progress of US bilateral relations with Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world. This omission might indicate that Indonesia is not a landmark on the Obama administration’s foreign policy map.
Third, the way the candidates perceive security threats may indicate countries that are potential partners and enemies and whether the US will use force, sanctions, or soft approaches in dealing with future threats.
While Obama argued that terrorist networks are major security threats, Romney asserted that the Iranian nuclear program is the most significant threat to the US and international security.
These divergent perceptions of security threats and the instruments to confront them reflect the potential directions of future policy, but it does not actually reveal the candidates’ platforms. Discussed policies might not be executed when the candidate becomes the leader of the Western world.
Although the President leads the process, other actors may influence his decision making. It is necessary therefore to observe national security and foreign policy experts who will be in his inner circle, serving as his national security advisers
The issue is not whether Indonesia will be better off if Obama or Romney wins. It is a matter of how Indonesia can take the initiative to gain relative advantages from the new US administration.
The Obama administration has been more oriented toward multilateral cooperation than the Bush administration.
The new administration will determine either the US continues with Obama’s foreign policy goals through partnership or it shakes the existing pattern.
The writer, a lecturer at the department of international relations, Paramadina University in Jakarta, is a Fulbright-DIKTI doctoral student in the Department of political science, Northern Illinois University, Illin