Today, Barack Obama will speak about foreign policy at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention, followed by Mitt Romney who will speak at the same convention tomorrow. Romney, who has been criticized in the press for his lack of foreign policy and national security experience, is then scheduled to travel abroad, in an attempt to strengthen his reputation on foreign issues. He will go to London to speak at the start of the Olympics—an opportunity to build on the transatlantic relationship—and then to Israel and Palestine to speak with representatives of both nations.
Being an election year, Obama has seemingly put foreign policy on the back burner because maintaining stability with a focus on domestic issues tends to help win votes. It will be interesting to hear this week what both candidates have to say on the pressing foreign policy issues like Syria, Afghanistan, and tensions in southeast Asia, but there are also ominous proliferation issues, like arms control relations with Russia and the Iranian nuclear program, which the newly elected President of the United States will need to manage as early as possible into his term.
On relations with Russia, Obama has chosen cooperation and transparency during his Presidency, illustrated with the likes of the New START Treaty and this summer’s announcement of pushing for more talks and reductions with Russia. On the issue of missile defense, Obama scrapped the Bush system, but the new plan includes upgraded SM-3s in southern and central Europe becoming operational in 2015 and was described by Robert Gates as a stronger system. However, in a private conversation that was caught on microphone at the Nuclear Security Summit in March, Obama acknowledged to former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after November to deal with Russian concerns on ballistic missile defense.
Romney, on the other hand, has labeled Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe and it is evident that this type of Cold War thinking will make negotiations with Russians under Romney’s leadership extremely difficult. If he is elected president he will have to make a U-turn on some of what he has said about New START (in 2010 calling it one of Obama’s worst foreign policy mistakes) and will be forced to work on transparency issues agreed under NATO’s Deterrence and Defence Posture Review.
In the Middle East, the ‘drumbeats of war’ have been getting louder as tensions continue to rise over Iran’s nuclear program. It is clear that the diplomatic talks between the E3+3 (P5+1) are not advancing, stymied by the looming U.S. Presidential election, and likely to be hampered further in 2013 by the Iranian Presidential contest. Obama, backed by Congress, has opted to squeeze Iran with tighter economic sanctions and to avoid any attacks for now. Romney has already said that he might strike Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear weapons state. Iran’s nuclear intentions are also a matter of concern for U.S. allies and other countries in the region, and have the potential to damage other processes like the 2012 Conference for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that may yet be held in December.
But for all the talk of military strikes, increased sanctions, and closing windows of opportunity, the future is far from certain and there are still reasons to be optimistic about cooperation. It does, however, remain clear that uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear program will continue to be a major foreign policy issue for both candidates in the run up to the election, and for the U.S. President in 2013.
These are the views of the author.