Published On: Mon, Nov 5th, 2012

Foreign Policy: On the Backburner this Election

Since when did the Middle East become the “rest of the world”? For those of you who had the chance to tune in to the last US Presidential debate on foreign policy, you might have been surprised to hear the discussion jump from Egypt, to Iran and Israel, to Syria, to Libya, for a brief moment to China and then back to Pakistan and Iraq. Why was this and what happened to the rest of the world? What role is foreign policy going to play in the election at all?

While the US East Coast feels the impact of Hurricane Sandy, the economy comes to a sudden halt and livelihoods are destroyed across what is arguably the richest part of the United States, the presidential candidates carefully race to the finish line. With unemployment remaining a key issue, the economic crisis not fixing itself as quickly as everyone hoped, Obama’s light at the end of the tunnel is flickering. While having killed Bin Laden, and led a successful NATO operation in Libya, Obama’s foreign policy has been relatively impeccable in comparison to the mess that Romney made with his few trips in the international circuit. However, as a consequence of the domestic situation in the US being so appalling, foreign politics is no longer a key issue in the mind of the American voter.

The all-encompassing quality of the US domestic situation is overpowering the country’s role to maintain its stance at the “ethical” policeman on the international front. While US foreign policy remains unalterable without complex procedures to revoke treaties or declare the end of peace, the foreign political rhetoric of the US presidential candidates does not matter as much as Obama had hoped. Foreign policy simply explores each candidate’s rhetoric, rather than providing for different solutions to problems faced not only by the USA’s enemies, but also to its allies. While several news sources argue that Obama won the debate, Mitt Romney’s viewpoints remained quite similar to those of Obama, varying only in rhetoric. Nevertheless, on most occasions, Romney simply agreed with Obama, rather than providing a different viewpoint on the issue.

The fact is, two significant points in the US elections shadow Obama’s strengths. The first, being the fact that the US economic situation is the most important theme in this year’s election (rightfully so). Regardless of Obama’s best efforts, people fail to understand that the economy cannot repair itself in the short timespan during which Obama came to office. The economic issues in the US are deeply entrenched into society, and this cannot be reversed in a matter of four years. In this, Romney has an upper hand, having written a whole article explaining his 5-point plan to revive the economy. The reason this works for Romney however is because he has yet to be president, providing him with a blank slate in terms of discussing any kind of economic policy. Obama once had a blank slate as well, and Obama used this blank slate to promise to redeem the USA’s stature in foreign policy, something that Bush’s politics had arguably disfigured during his 8 years in office.

More importantly however, the fact that after the September 11 attacks, the US media has become fixated on the Middle East eliminating the rest of the world from important US foreign policy debates. While Obama has been progressive in the US’s stance in the Middle East, the fact of the matter is that Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State has visited more countries than any other Secretary of State before her. Susan Rice has held the USA’s best interest in mind, but has been open to working with other member states of the United Nations. The importance of Susan Rice in the Obama administration, also demonstrates the importance of Obama’s commitment to international peace and cooperation. Obama has improved, through the joint-NATO intervention in Libya, the USA’s stance in NATO and its relationship with its European allies. Regardless of the turmoil in the Middle East, which like the US economy cannot be repaired in a four-year term, Obama has worked to improve the USA’s role in international relations through politics that are very much different than those of Bush, and Romney for that matter. This was evident in Romney’s trip to London during the Olympics where he rudely criticized one of the USA’s most important allies. The focus on the Middle East by the American media has indeed decided to focus the discourse on the Middle East and the rise of China, regardless of the turmoil occurring just below their own borders, and the allies that might be lost due to the rise of China, or the European debt crisis.

In conclusion, the void in foreign politics in the US election is being filled by the role of the US in the Middle East, while the rest of the world remains very low on the list of US priorities. Unfortunately for Obama, his work in foreign politics with the rest of the world is neglected because of the turmoil in the Middle East. Because foreign policy took the backburner in this election, Obama is at a disadvantage, seeing as the main issues of the election are actually areas where drastic progress is not plausible nor possible.

Neelam Melwani  graduated with a Bachelor's degree from University College Utrecht, with a major in International Relations and History, and a minor in Anthropology. She's currently pursuing a Master's degree in Globalization and Development studies at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

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