This Tuesday [March 27, 2012] I attended a talk on “The Upcoming U.S. Presidential Elections and U.S. Foreign Policy” by Dr. John C. Hulsman, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS). The talk was held at the Bibliotheca Albertina, the main university library in Leipzig, and presented by the AmCham Forum of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany.
Hulsman, who described himself as a left-leaning Republican, has worked for a number of think tanks, among them the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, the conservative Heritage Foundation, and the German Council on Foreign Relations.
In his talk, Hulsman argued that five issues were crucial to current developments in US foreign policy:
- the decline of the US economy
- the decline of the European economies
- the Arab Spring
- rising powers such as India and China
- the question of an Iranian nuclear program
Elections and Political Views in the US
Concerning the elections, Hulsman said that polls show that more more Americans consider themselves conservatives [He was probably talking about this Gallup poll].
Independent Voters in the US
Presidential elections in the US, Hulsman mentioned, are won by courting independent voters, who are neither attached to Democrats or Republicans.
These independents are disaffected and are most concerned about the economy.
In 2008, independents were largely for Barack Obama. Before the crash of investment bank Lehman Brothers, however, John McCain was ahead of Obama in the polls with independents.
In 2010, independents swung back to Republicans, mainly because of opposition to the Obama administration’s health care reform bill.
To independents, Hulsman explained, the health care reform was another ‘entitlement,’ which they dislike, and they felt that their main concern—the economy—was neglected.
[Here is a Pew poll from April 2012 on general election preferences.]
Economic Troubles Illustrated
To illustrate the severity of economic troubles in the US, Hulsman gave these examples:
One third of Americans have no retirement savings. When the Social Security system was initiated, life expectancy was much lower than today. During the 1990s, many who owned real estate, such as a house, felt this was securing their retirement.
One fourth of all homes in the US are now ‘underwater,’ meaning that homeowners owe the bank more in mortgage than the house is worth on the market. The house thus loses saving potential and becomes a drag for the owner. Hulsman said that the Hayekian idea (after classical liberal Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek) would have been to just leave the keys and get out of the house.
One fifth of all savings were wiped out during the financial crash that started in late 2007. Hulsman stressed that in a federal system such as that of the US, it is important to examine the respective figures for state and local levels to get the full scope of the financial crisis’ impact.
If the US economy would not grow by eight per cent, it would not be able to cushion these problems.
Anger at Washington and the Labor Market
Hulsman explained that part of the general dissatisfaction of voters with the Washington establishment is the great disparity of experiences in the labor market.
Jobs within the Washington political class are generally very secure, and it is hard to get fired. On the other hand, regular employees and workers get fired very easily in the US, compared to Germany.
The economic difficulties of the US, Huntsman noted, might produce a spillover effect with ramifications for foreign policy, due to constraints on the federal budget. The high costs of war and nation-building [see below] come under closer scrutiny in this climate.
The Republican Primaries in Early 2012
In January 2012, Mitt Romney was twenty points ahead with independents in the polls.
This time, more Republican primaries allocate their delegates proportionally.
By doing so, they adopt the Democratic system of primaries, wherein two candidates fight for the nomination.
Splitting the Republican Vote with Culture Wars
A problem for Republicans in their relationship with independent voters is their focus on ‘culture war’ issues such as abortion, contraception, and the separation of church and state. For instance, Rick Santorum has put the issues of contraception and state-church separation front and center in his campaign. This does not fit well with independents, who worry most about the economy.
As of March 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are splitting the conservative vote. This is beneficial to Mitt Romney, who is considered the more socially moderate Republican candidate.
Romney, Hulsman noted, does not like to talk about social issues. He is simultaneously forced to move to the right o social issues in order to appease conservatives, while trying to avoid alienating independents.
Hulsman bets his money on Romney becoming the Republican nominee in the end.
Obama’s campaign narrative to counter Romney will be that he stopped the ‘Great Depression.’
Partisan Differences in Foreign Policy
How would Republicans and Democrats differ on foreign policy?
Hulsman said that Republicans are always to the right of Obama and the Democrats, for instance on the issue of Israel.
Current Challenges in US Foreign Policy
Dealing with a Multipolar World
An ongoing general challenge for the US is how to deal with the new multipolar world, exemplified by the rise of countries such as Brazil, India, China, South Africa, or Malaysia.
The European financial crisis the tensions with Iran are examples of issues that the US cannot control alone. This is a new situation for the US and makes the Obama administration nervous.
The Arab Spring
Hulsman was skeptical about the long-term success of the Arab Spring, saying that he viewed it in Burkeian terms. History shows, he said, that the most well-organized groups prevail in revolutions. In Egypt, this would be the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. While Hulsman was optimistic about the situation in Tunesia, he had a very bleak outlook about developments in Syria.
Obama’s foreign policy style, Hulsman held, is basically one that focuses on limiting losses.
Iran, the US, and Israel
Hulsman noted that the US government realizes its own security interest does not equal Israeli security interest, even if both are close allies.
To illustrate this point, Hulsman explained that the US and Israel have different red lines in considering military action against Iran.
For Israel, an Iranian capability to build a nuclear weapon would be a reason to attack. For the US, the actual possession of nuclear weapons would be that flashpoint.
In Israel, the hawkish faction around Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Avigdor Liebermann want a military strike, but cannot get a majority of the population behind them without US support.
In addition, several former Mossad chiefs have publicly argued against attacking Iran.
In the US, public opinion is such that 75% strongly support Israel, but also do not want a unilateral strike. In Israel, the number concerning a unilateral strike is similar.
If Iran would at some point in the future have a nuclear weapon, nuclear proliferation would spread throughout the Middle East, especially the gulf states.
A bombing of Iran would have terrible results, according to Hulsman. If Israel attacked Iran unilaterally, that would perhaps set back the Iranian nuclear program for a year. But the high price to pay would be that hope for peace in the Middle East would be gone for a generation. Already now, an Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz has caused a spike in oil prices.
Currently, Washington talks to Tel Aviv to convince the Israelis to get more time to let the sanctions on Iran work.
Hulsman told the audience to behold the coming September, because the chance of a military strike at this time would be fifty-fifty.
Concerning Afghanistan, Hulsman, who is opposed to neoconservatives, held that it was a case of failed nation building, with a cost of $ 1 million per soldier per year. He said that failed nation builders always claim they need more time and money.
The US, the EU, and Global Influence
On the US as a global ordering power via the EU, Hulsman said that if the EU wants to play a greater role, it needs to spend more on defense. He said that the US cross-subsidizes European defense, while European nations spend very few on defense, and more on their social systems.
Here is a video from the US Embassy in Germany featuring John C. Hulsman talking about the 2012 elections: