The US presidential debates are over and November 6 will decide whether Barack Obama stays or leaves. The world’s schmaltzy 2008 romance with change is over. That Tuesday on November 4, when Obama delivered the victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park, there were much tears of joy. Four years of realism have buried that optimism. If Obama loses, not many would shed tears at his loss; if Romney wins, there will be no tears of joy.
The year 2012 is hardnosed. That’s a good, no-nonsense starting point. So, what happens if Romney wins — would US foreign policy undergo a major change?
Hardly. On the campaign trail and in their respective platforms, there have been differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on climate change, development assistance, human rights, the role of the United Nations, global economy — a major pressing point for the Democratic platform — the importance of international treaties and law, the threat of nuclear proliferation, developments in the Middle East etc.
But campaign trails and platforms are just that — strategies to get into the White House. Platform documents are about wordsmithry; experts are hired to sell and innovate and get the candidates to put the best foot forward, in short play with and create perceptions. But when candidates reach the White House, institutions take over and actual policy conduct shows little difference in pushing the perceived or real interests of the US.
For instance, in theory, Democrats refer to the UN and other international bodies as ‘a centrepiece of international order’. They talk about the need to ‘reform international bodies and strengthen national and multilateral capabilities to advance peace, security and opportunity’. The Republicans express their wariness of increased multilateralism that could erode ‘American sovereignty’. They would want to retain the space for the US to act unilaterally.
In practice, Democrats are as quick to ignore international law requirements as the Republicans, the use of drones being a case in point. Similarly, the Obama Administration continued with President George W Bush’s policy of undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to strengthen Washington’s civilian nuclear deal with New Delhi even as the Democrats’ National Platform document described the NPT as “the bedrock of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”.
There is one difference though, but it is at a broader level. The Democrats have a more nuanced approach to multilateralism and, by extension, unilateralism. In the areas of climate change, global economy and a host of other multilateral regimes, Democrats show a higher regard for multilateralism because they perceive that compliance with international law and treaties in certain cases helps increase America’s security rather than undermine it.
Be that as it may, from Pakistan’s immediate and long-term perspective, it is the US policy in West and South Asia, which is central to Islamabad’s interests. Going by both the platform documents, as well as the presidential debates, especially the last one, it is difficult to see how anything would change in the event of a Romney win.
The GOP platform has this to say: “The aftermath of the last decade’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has put enormous pressure on the political and military infrastructure of Pakistan, which faces both internal terrorism and external dangers. The working relationship between our two countries is a necessary, though sometimes difficult, benefit to both, and we look toward the renewal of historic ties that have frayed under the weight of international conflict.”
These lines seem to imply that Romney would try to reach out to Pakistan where Obama, a Democrat president, created a gulf between the two countries.
However, during the debate, Romney agreed with Obama’s policies on the use of drones and unilateral action where and when necessary. He also agreed that Pakistan is important (for all the wrong reasons): it has nuclear weapons and is building more; it has terrorist groups; it has the Taliban; it has a weak civilian government. Romney, therefore, agrees with Obama that the US cannot walk away from Pakistan but equally, that the US must make aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan’s presumably good behaviour.
Nothing new here. Both camps use veiled and not-so-veiled qualifiers in respect of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan is sovereign until America perceives a threat to its national security; when and where it does, it will act to safeguard US interests even if that runs counter to Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The Obama camp, to the extent of its campaign document, says that the US will not make permanent bases in Afghanistan even as it talks about the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan and, behind the scenes, is exerting pressure on Kabul to agree to give bases to the US and enter into a Status of Forces Agreement with Washington.
The Romney camp has not made clear whether, if it considers the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan against the US interest, it would reverse the decision of the Obama Administration to get out of Afghanistan by 2014. Nor is there anything in the GOP document that details how Washington would convince its Nato allies were it to decide not to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In reality, if Romney were to win, the withdrawal will still take place with the US keeping 15,000 to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. There is no way a Republican president can find troops to put on the ground. The Republican stress on overwhelming force will give way to the current Democratic reliance on new technologies and leaner, quick forces to fight the wars of the future.
Relations with Pakistan are unlikely to undergo any major change for the better, especially if there is no political reconciliation within Afghanistan. It is safe to posit that outside of the campaign mode and manifestos, US policies in the region would more or less remain unchanged. This could mean more instability because while the US as the biggest actor has the ability to influence the course of events, it is also now a victim of the fog of war its own policies have helped create in this region.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!
Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2012.