Bush or Kerry: Why the Substance of US Foreign Policy Will Not Change

Bush or Kerry: Why the Substance of US Foreign Policy Will Not Change


This is the biggest foreign-policy election in the United States since 1968. Because preventing nuclear terrorism will be the defining national security issue of the next administration, Iraq, Iran and North Korea will dominate US national security concerns. This means that US foreign policy will not fundamentally shift from the past four years, even if John Kerry wins the White House.


More than 75% of Europeans oppose US President George W Bush’s foreign policy, according to a June Gallup poll conducted for the Washington-based German Marshall Fund. Another poll by GlobeScan in 35 countries shows that people around the world overwhelmingly would prefer Kerry as US president instead of Bush.

Bush may be a highly polarising figure, but on most issues of concern to the international community, many people might be surprised to learn that a Kerry Administration would essentially maintain the status quo in US foreign policy. In fact, Rand Beers, the national security adviser to the Kerry campaign, has said that ‘in many ways, the goals of the two administrations are in fact not all that different’. Instead, members of Kerry’s inner circle only promise ‘stark contrasts’ of personality and style between Bush and their candidate.

To be sure, the problem of Iraq will not disappear on January 20, 2005 and policy options for either Bush or Kerry are limited. Although Kerry might accelerate a US troop pullout, he could not engineer a total disengagement because military and diplomatic realities render any quick fix elusive. Moreover, despite his criticism of the Bush Administration’s post-war performance in Iraq, Kerry agrees with Bush that walking away from Iraq now would embolden the enemies of the US.

And whether it is Bush or Kerry in the White House next year, defusing the nuclear proliferation crisis with Iran will constitute one of the most complex and pressing challenges facing the next administration. Because Iran occupies a central position in the Middle East, its internal and international conduct have wide-ranging repercussions for the region as a whole and for US interests within it. Any US president would view an anti-American, nuclear-armed Iran as a major threat to US interests.

In limited ways, Kerry might be more palatable to foreign critics of the US. His administration could become less confrontational on trade issues and soften rhetoric about pre-emptive war. But these would be largely cosmetic changes. International expectations that Kerry would mark a fundamental shift from the foreign policy of the past four years are misplaced because this election will not change underlying US interests abroad. Moreover, pre-empting visible threats is now practically mandatory for any president because Americans demand it, and Kerry is in essential agreement with Bush’s vision of the worldwide terrorist threat. And, on the issue of multilateralism, Kerry has said: ‘I will never turn over America’s national security decisions to leaders of other countries’.


One key difference between John Kerry and George Bush often cited in the presidential campaign is how each would enlist other nations in battling terrorists. Often this is simply a question of how much help each would seek from other countries in fixing Iraq, especially with military assistance.

Kerry argues that only a new president can change the dynamic in Iraq, bringing in new international troops as well as the support of Arab countries. But others say the candidate overestimates the primacy of personality in international relations and the difference the mere fact of a new president will make in healing the rift with countries like France and Germany.

With Kerry in the White House, allies in Europe might find themselves under heavy pressure to match multilateral rhetoric with money and troops. But even if Kerry could secure greater political and economic support from NATO in Iraq, substantial military support from allies will not be forthcoming. Of the 2.5 million personnel nominally under arms in Europe, at most 3% are deployable. Moreover, given the growing insurgency in Iraq, it is unlikely that other countries now would take the political risks involved with deploying troops there just because the White House has a new occupant.

DC Power Shift: The Realist Ascendancy
George Bush is not the first president to frame the US foreign policy debate in sweeping big-picture terms that link the US with the progress of liberty abroad and promote the use of American power to pursue American ideals. Almost every Democratic president over the last 100 years –Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Carter and Clinton– has made the case that the US should stand for something in the world and pursue broad goals. It was Madeleine Albright who said ‘If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future’. And John Kennedy began his inaugural address by pledging to ‘pay any price’ to ‘assure the survival and success of liberty’.

This also happens to be the way most Americans think about the war on terror because Middle Eastern terrorism is directly related to the fact that people in the region live under dysfunctional dictatorships. Therefore, either Bush or Kerry would pursue foreign policy initiatives that serve the larger goal of reducing the long-term threat of terrorism by bringing democracy to the Middle East. In fact, Kerry has always endorsed the promotion of democracy in the Middle East as a long-term goal.

The post-war experience in Iraq, however, is forcing the US to come to terms with its own limitations. This is driving a power shift in Washington that is rebalancing influence away from neoconservative ideologues and towards traditional realists. An example of this shift was when Bush reassigned responsibility for post-war Iraq away from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (a neocon) and gave it to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (a realist). Power seems to be shifting away from those hawks who embrace American hegemony as a righteous cause and see Iraq as the first step toward a grand democratic transformation of the Arab world. That power seems to be increasingly moving to moderates who recognize US limitations and understand that by getting bogged down in grand designs for Iraq, Washington is failing to deal with other urgent threats in Iran and North Korea.

Indeed, Iraq has become so messy and expensive that not many are seriously talking about pushing the core neoconservative agenda –regime change– anywhere else, and diehard neocons now worry about the re-emergence of ‘neo-isolationism’. In fact, some Europeans worry that what they consider Bush’s over-ambitious foreign policy will be followed in the US by an isolationist backlash.

This is unlikely to happen. If the Bush Administration is moving closer to the centre, John Kerry and the Democratic Party have shifted sharply to the right on foreign policy. In fact, mainstream liberals are actually running to the right of Bush on national security policy and enjoying some success in that unlikely enterprise. So-called ‘liberal hawks’ are demanding larger standing armed forces and want more of them stationed abroad than does Bush. Moreover, the 2004 Democratic Platform adopted on July 28 complains that the Bush Administration ‘did not send sufficient forces to accomplish the mission’. The platform also justifies the ongoing US military occupation of Iraq by saying that ‘having gone to war, we cannot afford to fail at peace. We cannot allow a failed state in Iraq that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a destabilizing force in the Middle East’. The platform also asserts that ‘with John Kerry as commander-in-chief, we will never wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake’.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of the liberal hawk position on foreign policy is found in an October 2003 report by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), which is a think tank closely associated with the Democratic Leadership Council. The report, entitled ‘Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy’, endorsed the invasion of Iraq because the previous policy of containment was failing, and Saddam Hussein’s government was undermining both collective security and international law. PPI says that the progressive internationalism strategy draws ‘a sharp distinction between this mainstream Democratic strategy for national security and the far left’s vision of America’s role in the world. In this document we take issue with those who begrudge the kind of defense spending that we think is necessary to meet our needs, both at home and abroad; with folks who seem to reflexively oppose the use of force; and who seem incapable of taking America’s side in international disputes. We also argue that a strong international leadership should not be equated with toothless multilateralism that puts the quest for consensus above the hard and risky business of grappling with chaos, of dealing with real conflicts, and confronting real enemies and aggressors. And we warn against an anti-globalization agenda that not only hurts our economy but that condemns developing countries in the world to poverty. So, however troubling the Bush record is, we think that the pacifist and protectionist left offers no viable alternative’.

As foreign policy realists in both parties consolidate their influence in Washington, stability rather than a fully functioning democracy might become the more realistic goal in the Middle East. In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have scaled back their expectations for Iraqi democracy. Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently said that Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is ‘good –tough– but no democrat’. Rather, he is ‘in the Mubarak mould’. The Egyptian model may not be what the Bush Administration’s nation-builders and democracy-exporters hoped for, but Biden believes it is not an outcome to be disdained. Biden is mentioned in speculation about possible secretaries of state in a Kerry Administration.

Congressional Elections
While most attention is focused on the presidential election in 2004, Americans will be voting at the same time to elect thousands of others to a wide variety of offices. The congressional elections are important because of the central role the Congress plays in shaping US foreign policy.

Elections for the US Congress in particular may be as competitive and nearly as important as the presidential campaign. In sum, partisan control of the House and Senate is at stake in 2004, due to the very close balance of power in the Congress between the two major political parties. Indeed, although Republicans have unified control of the federal government, they hold only a 12-seat majority (out of 435) in the House of Representatives, and just 51 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

There are only 34 Senate seats up for election, 19 currently held by Democrats. In addition, fewer Republicans had close races the last time out, and 22 races will be in states that Bush won in 2000. It therefore appears unlikely that the Democrats can anticipate winning any Senate seats. Hence, the Republican Senate majority appears safe.

Moreover, most professional election trackers believe that Democrats have no chance of regaining their majority in the House, no matter what happens in the general election, because foreign policy and the war on terrorism are the central issues in 2004. Therefore, if the Republicans manage to maintain control of the House and Senate as well as the White House, it would be viewed as a political mandate to continue pursuit of a robust, proactive and interventionist US foreign policy.

Key Foreign Policy Challenges
Bush and Kerry seem to agree on most of the main foreign policy issues that will confront the next administration. A close examination of the two candidates’ positions suggests that their approaches are surprisingly similar in substance, even if they differ somewhat in style.

For example, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes are at the very top of America’s foreign policy agenda, and there will be a lack of attractive options for whichever administration enters the White House in January.

The Bush Administration has yet to forge a clear strategy on how to deal with Iran, partly because of the vexing insurgency in Iraq and partly because there is a debate under way within the White House between hard-liners and advocates of diplomatic engagement with Tehran (for a detailed analysis of the Iran problem, see Iran and Nuclear Weapons, ARI, Real Instituto Elcano, 24/IX/2004). Moreover, in a situation similar to Iraq before the war, Washington is also in considerable disagreement with key allies over how to handle the threat. Kerry would, like Bush, insist that Iran renounce all domestic processing of nuclear fuel. Kerry in August said that the United States ‘must work with our allies to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program and be ready to work with them to implement a range of tougher measures if needed’. The Democratic Party Platform goes so far as to imply an American right to pre-emption by stating that ‘a nuclear-armed Iran is an unacceptable risk to us and our allies’. Therefore, any distinction between the two candidates on Iran rests on Kerry’s contention that he could better line up European support for action against Tehran.

On North Korea, the Bush Administration has pursued a multilateral approach by insisting that discussions with Pyongyang also include Russia, China, Japan and South Korea. These talks, however, have made no discernible progress and are now stalled. Moreover, although Bush has named North Korea as a member of the ‘axis of evil’ and has spoken passionately of the human rights abuses of Kim Jong Il’s regime, the White House has not taken any concrete steps to pressure the regime to change its ways.

Kerry has hinted that he would try to jump-start the North Korea talks with a bilateral deal like the Agreed Framework negotiated by Bill Clinton in 1994. Under that agreement, the US agreed to supply Pyongyang with materials for safeguarded civilian nuclear power plants and food and other aid in return for North Korean promises not to develop nuclear weapons. However, as the North Koreans admitted after Clinton left office, they have not kept those promises and there does not seem to be much reason to believe they would keep similar promises if made in return for US aid in a second Agreed Framework.

Bush’s approach probably has a greater chance of getting genuine concessions from Pyongyang because it relies on getting North Korea’s neighbours to apply pressure; those neighbours, especially China, provide much more in the way of aid to the North Korean regime. But no one can be sure Bush’s policy will work. And it is not at all clear that any agreement that ended the North Korean nuclear weapons programme would undermine the regime any more than Kerry’s apparent policy would.

In another key foreign policy issue, Kerry shares the Bush Administration’s support for the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Kerry and his top foreign policy advisors meet regularly with Sharon’s cabinet members. Kerry also sharply criticised the International Court of Justice over its ruling against the Israeli government’s construction of a wall inside the West Bank. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Kerry said ‘Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense’.

National polls show that Republican voters are now more pro-Israel than Democratic voters, and the voting records of Republican and Democratic House members show the same thing. But Democrats are just as committed to maintaining Israel’s military dominance of the Middle East, and the Democratic Party Platform pledges to ‘insure that, under all circumstances, Israel retains its qualitative edge’. Regarding the city of Jerusalem, the platform insists that ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain undivided’. The platform also dismisses as ‘unrealistic’ any obligation for Israel to completely withdraw from lands seized in the 1967 war and denies Palestinian refugees’ right to return, insisting that they instead only be permitted to relocate to a truncated Palestinian state which Israel might allow to be created some time in the future.

Kerry was also one of the Senate co-sponsors of the Syria Accountability Act. Among the formal findings in Kerry’s bill justifying its imposition of sanctions and implicit military threats against Syria were estimates of Syria’s military capabilities made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

US relations with Europe are also likely to improve at least somewhat during the next four years –even if Bush is re-elected– because of a change of leadership in Brussels, not Washington. Political leaders of the European Union’s 25 member-states chose José Manuel Durão Barroso, Portugal’s former prime minister as the European Commission’s next president. Barroso, who will take office on November 1, supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and played host to a pre-war summit meeting with the leaders of the US, the UK and Spain in the Azores Islands.

Barroso has chosen for key commission posts free-market advocates from the UK, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland –all of which have troops in Iraq– while giving relatively less important posts to France and Germany. By design or otherwise, he has assembled a commission dominated by politicians with strong Anglophone roots in the pro-NATO and Atlanticist camp of European politics.

For all the talk about the damage the Iraq war has done to EU-US relations, the rise of Anglophone Europe is a plus for the US. Barroso has said Europeans should help the US on Iraq. He also said he wanted to see a ‘good, close, cooperative’ relationship with the US. ‘It is in our interest to work with them… I don’t like to see the EU in a secondary position. Partnership needs respect and that works both ways’. This contrasts sharply with outgoing EC President Romano Prodi’s rhetoric about Europe as a rival superpower.

On the issue of multilateralism, the immediate effect of 9/11 has been a reassertion of American dominance in international affairs. By itself, multilateralism never has been and never will be a goal of US foreign policy; both Bush and Kerry recognize that consensus is not an end in itself. Moreover, the United Nations is an instrument of US power and neither Republicans nor Democrats want to use the UN to tie down their own country. Bill Clinton brushed the UN aside whenever it was in the US interest to do so, and George Bush or John Kerry will do the same. And both Democrats and Republicans are well aware that the UN is broken, but reforming the Security Council will not be a US priority for the next administration.

Finally, anti-Americanism has risen on President Bush’s watch, but it is not all Bush’s fault. Blaming Bush is simplistic because if anti-Americanism could be fixed with a vote, then it was never much of a serious problem in the first place. But it is a serious problem, and it will not go away. The 9/11 attacks were planned while Bill Clinton was president and anti-Americanism in Europe ran hot during his term, too. US power breeds its own resentment, and anti-Americanism will be a feature of the world’s political landscape until US military power is matched. Kerry might be able to finesse this problem somewhat, but he cannot fix it.


Whether it’s Bush or Kerry in the White House next year, there will be little change in the substance of US foreign policy. There will still be a doctrine of pre-emption, still a readiness to act unilaterally if the allies hang back and still a strong American consensus that the war on terrorism is real and must be won. US administrations of both parties have always put US interests first, and this will not change, because it is smart politics.

Soeren Kern
US foreign policy analyst and former managing editor of Arms Control Today