Now that the debris of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in the United States have been swept away, you’d think there should now be some peace and quiet on the American political landscape. No such luck. The sound and the fury of the political campaign will keep rising to a crescendo and both sides will say all kinds of stupid things until the votes are cast on Nov. 6.
So will Barack Obama be reelected or will Mitt Romney be no. 45? There is no lack of crystal-ball gazers who say that Obama will win, perhaps by a landslide. There are just as many seers who say that Romney will waltz away with the election. The truth is nobody knows.
Most of the polls today show a slight Obama lead that is well within the margin of error. On the other hand, the accumulated conventional wisdom of past US presidential elections says that when the electorate think the economy is going down, the incumbent or the administration candidate must lose.
The presidential debates don’t matter much, unless one of the candidates fumbles all over the place or his mind goes blank and he forgets his own name. Foreign policy is even less of a factor. The average American voter doesn’t give a hoot about democratization in Myanmar or whether Palestine attains statehood. The burning issue is: who gets the credit for spilling Bin Laden’s brain?
But to Asians and the rest of the world, it matters greatly that the tenant of the White House wields a foreign policy conducive to global and regional stability and peace. Too bad, we have no say on this.
Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, should be the icon of sophisticated Republican foreign policy. But when she spoke at the GOP convention she stressed American “leadership abroad,” “peace through strength,” “military capability,” and “technological advantage.” And, of course, “American exceptionalism.” These may be bragging rights but if you’re a sensitive Asian, they grate on your nerves.
As to Romney, his foreign policy seems to be to pour money into the military establishment, ensuring that the United States remains the world’s armed-to-the-teeth policeman — never mind if there’s not much money left for social services that impoverished Americans so desperately need. And never mind if this chauvinism will intensify the arms race with China. He’s also in the habit of bashing China as currency manipulator. And of threatening to bomb Iran to pamper the warmongering Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahahu.
And Obama? Some Republicans won’t let you forget that when he came to East Asia for the first time in 2009, he bowed frequently and deeply to everybody. He even bowed to his tour guide. Shaking hands with Japan’s emperor, he bowed so deeply his critics snorted that John Wayne must be turning in his grave. But what others call obsequiousness, Obama calls strength. In effect he was saying: we are no longer imposing our solutions on you. We’re strong and confident enough to engage you on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest.
Still, he was called a wimp.
And yet, after an era of American neglect of East Asia, this wimp made the military and diplomatic pivot to the region in 2011 to the consternation of China and puzzlement of other regional powers. Eventually the region’s nations will see this as a demarche that, if executed with finesse, could be the great balancing act that would ensure Asia-Pacific stability. The pivot, as Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa once observed, could be an opportunity for cooperation on non-traditional security threats.
OK, Obama knows something about foreign policy. But does the American voter give a damn? Let’s hope he does, or the United States will become the bogeyman of the 21st century.