Following is a guest post from Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.
This year’s U.S. presidential primary season has received less attention here in Asia than the previous one, in 2008. This is understandable. For a start, there’s only one proper primary campaign (on the Republican side), since President Barack Obama is effectively unopposed in his camp. Moreover, the “clash of titans” that took place last time between the charismatic Barack Obama, hoping to become the first African American to win the country’s highest office, and Hillary Clinton, hoping to become the first woman to be elected president, was more captivating to foreign audiences than the current crop of Republican hopefuls.
Moreover, the issues that Republican are debating are, essentially, very “American,” and so don’t resonate with Asians. For example, relatively few people in Asia are particularly familiar with (nor particularly interested in) the religious and cultural discourse that has marked much of the Republican campaign. And they know little about the details of the health care debate, which has also consumed much media attention in the U.S. Add to this the fact that none of the candidates this year has a compelling biography comparable to that of John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, and it’s clear why there’s so little interest this time around.
And yet the Republican primary is actually very relevant to Asia. Take the question of “American exceptionalism,” something that Republicans have accused Obama of rejecting. Like the kokutai in Showa Japan or “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in today’s China, the term is hard to define precisely. However, in terms of foreign affairs, it implies a willingness and even responsibility on the part of the United States to use U.S. resources to help shape a global liberal world order.
With this in mind, then, it’s hard to argue that Obama has really deviated from this belief. Indeed, his record as commander-in-chief positions him in the tradition of men like George H.W. Bush, who preferred diplomacy, but who didn’t hesitate to use military means, preferably in coalition with allies, when they saw no alternative. Indeed, if anything, Obama’s willingness to pour American (and Allied) blood and treasure into the hopeless Afghan War suggests a greater belief in the transformational potential of military means than the first President Bush’s quick end to the Gulf War implies he held.
In fact, it’s the Republican candidates who appear determined, albeit inadvertently, to put an end to the United States’ leading role in international affairs. For a start, their commitment to slashing government spending at a time when stimulus seems more logical, will only hurt defense and diplomacy efforts at the Pentagon, State Department, USAID and the World Bank.
Second, U.S. foreign policy success since 1941 has been based on a mix of military power and diplomatic skill. When all the major Republican candidates take on a president for apologizing for the burning of Korans in Afghanistan, and espouse the most bellicose views possible on the Middle East (for example, echoing some of the most extremist Israeli politicians and Saudi officials on Iran), their rhetoric belies a dangerously simplistic foreign policy philosophy.
Finally, the leading candidates’ rejection of efforts to develop post-oil alternatives for energy amount to the offering of unlimited financing to the oil-rich autocracies of Southwest Asia, which in the process gives succor to groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban that receive funding from wealthy sympathizers in the Persian Gulf nations.
The reality is that the views of the leading Republican contenders for the Oval Office are very much at odds with the mainstream post-World War II Republican tradition represented by Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
It may be that if a Republican (most probably Mitt Romney) is elected president in November, he will jettison his campaign rhetoric and embrace this tradition, a tradition that the second President Bush himself abandoned. But this is far from certain. If the campaign rhetoric is allowed to become a reality, it will undoubtedly hamper the United States’ ability to act as a global power. And the consequences will be particularly unpleasant for America’s Asian allies.