The Lariat sat down with Dr. Sergiy Kudelia, assistant professor of political science, on Tuesday to provide some insight on how the two presidential candidates will implement American foreign policy and act in international relations. Dr. Kudelia teaches two classes specializing in politics in Russia and social movements in non-democratic regimes. He is a member of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS), which is a global network of social scientists who conduct policy relevant research on the former Soviet Union.
Q: There has been a lot of conversation about managing American spending, and what the connection looks like between America’s current economic condition and the resources we have available to devote to our international purposes. As a political science professor, do you see the candidates credibly explaining how they are going to pay for what they are going to do abroad?
A: Well let me first start by saying that generally the foreign policy or the budget of the State Department is much smaller compared to the budget of the Pentagon. If we are to look at the foreign policy programs of the candidates and analyze the costs of each of the foreign policy proposals we should primarily look at the investments the candidates are going to make in regard to the military. And in this sense both Mitt Romney and Barak Obama are in favor of scaling down the military presence of the United States around the world. Mitt Romney supports the deadline that Barak Obama set for the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. He is also in favor of not committing American troops anywhere else around the world. It was clear during the vice presidential debates that the Romney-Ryan team are not willing to commit themselves to any large scale military action in the Middle East, specifically in Iran. Based on the current trend we should not expect any increase in military expenditures in the next four years.
From what I can tell neither of the candidates are really in favor of any serious withdrawal of the United States from the world. So its not likely that they’re going to cut the State Department’s budget substantially. We are probably going to see the same investments in the diplomatic efforts around the world, and there is not much of a discussion about scaling down that dimension of foreign policy.
Q: Much of the time, each party takes a specific tone in their rhetoric. Republicans can have a hardline approach, while Democrats can have an appearance of a more understanding tone. Do you think we will see either candidate, if elected, stray from these party stereotypes as they react to current international issues?
A: First of all I don’t think the differences are necessarily stereotypes. There are genuine differences in the approaches that both Romney and Obama advocate. I agree with the idea that Romney, in general, is pushing for a more hardline approach in dealing with authoritarian regimes. And in this sense he is continuing a longstanding Republican tradition of being principled on the issues of democracy and human rights, and taking a more hardline position in dealing with dictatorships around the world as Reagan did in relations with the Soviet Union, his peace through strength argument, as George W. Bush did with his doctrine of supporting democracy abroad and his support for various electoral democratic revolutions around the globe. Romney seems to be advocating a very similar approach.
By contrast, Obama has been quite soft in his criticisms of democratic regression in Russia. He has been known to be willing to open up and negotiate with Russia on important arms control deals and investing in relationship with then-president Dmitry Medvedev, despite all the authoritarian tendencies in the Russian regime and over looking many of the violations of democracy in Russia. Similarly, his position on Egypt as the protests started was also very unclear. For several days the State Department was trying to support [President Honsi] Mubarak, and only after it became clear the protests were about to succeed did the United States decide to drop their support for Mubarak and demand his resignation.
In general, one would expect Romney to follow a more hardline approach even if he is in office. Certainly there will be more constraints that he will have to face because after all both Russia and China are important partners in the security sphere. So his rhetoric will not be as tough as it is during the presidential campaign, but still we will probably expect more more clear criticisms coming from the White House in relation to the political regimes in China and Russia.
Q: What is your specific opinion on the candidates’ stances on American alliances? Do you see either candidate as strengthening alliances abroad?
A: Let me start first by saying Obama really made a major turn in relations with the outside world compared to his predecessor George Bush, who was famous for taking unilateral actions whenever he deemed necessary. Obama, some of his critics say, has tried too much to reach out to other countries that are not direct allies of the United States and explain American actions before choosing a particular policy or particular stance. He also favored multilateral actions, with Libya as an example, with the support of America’s European allies. He even allowed America to play second fiddle in Libya, where Italy and France were really leading that military operation.
Mitt Romney, who has been arguing in favor of returning to the policies of unilateralism, would probably lead to short-term strain with America’s allies. Surely his trip to Britain, where he made a number of gaffes and his statements showed that he is not prepared to take the positions of some of his allies seriously. On the other hand, if you take Israel, another critical ally of the United States, here Mitt Romney shows a much more serious commitment than Obama does, at least rhetorically. Certainly behind the scenes, Obama has been known to try and resolve the Iranian crisis, taking the Israeli national interests into account. But Romney was more pronounced in his statements in support of Israel.
So I would say, in the international organizations and in multilateral settings like the NATO and the United Nations, Romney’s election would probably make many of the allies concerned and lead to an increase in tension in the short term in America’s relations with its allies around the world.
Some of the key areas, like the Middle East and America’s relation with Israel, will actually be strengthened by Romney’s election.
Q: Where do you see the greatest threats internationally to the United States, specifically as it relates to state actors or terrorist organizations?
A: The main national-security challenge that any president that comes into the White House will face is the challenge coming from Iran. The next four years will be decisive in the development of the nuclear program in Iran, and in deciding which direction that nuclear program will develop. Whether it will develop into a full-fledged, militarized nuclear program that will lead to the production of a bomb or if it will be frozen at some point because of the international pressure from the outside. So Iran does not present a direct military threat from the United States. It’s not going to develop any time soon a nuclear weapon that it can deliver to the American territory. But because of its direct military threat to its key American ally in the Middle East in Israel, Iran certainly represents a country that threatens Americans international interests abroad, as they have been defined both by the Republican administration and Democratic administration. Both rely on the survival of Israel as an independent state. This is the main national interest of the United States in the Middle East.
So as a result, the likelihood of another military conflict in the Middle East increases with the development of a nuclear bomb in Iran and with the possible airstrikes in Iran by Israel. The United States will have to respond, most likely to join that military action of Israel or even to lead that military action depending on agreements between the next president of the United States and Israeli leadership.
That participation in action will lead to additional national-security threats related to the strengthening of terrorist groups around the world because of an Iranian response to American asymmetrically, and this is the only possible Iranian response through the use of terrorist cells who would be trained to commit terrorist attacks in American territory, or against American military units or American civilians around the world.
This is the main national-security threat. As we can see both the likelihood of a major military conflict in the Middle East and the proliferation of strong terrorist cells who may be working to harm America’s interests around the world and within the United States.
Q: Do you think that there are relevant issues internationally that the candidates should be discussing that are not currently a part of their conversation?
A: One thing that strikes me in the current debates on foreign policy is the over-presence of national-security issues that dominate discourse of both candidates. It has been a truism, of sorts, over the last 10 years to talk about the importance of “soft power” in America’s relations with the outside world.
By soft power, political scientists mean the use of symbolic resources as a tool of foreign policy influence. It has been used in the past to promote America’s interest in the world. A good example is America’s influence over the Soviet Union in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was through America’s influence of popular culture and its rhetoric on human rights and political freedoms that America managed to gain support from the residents of the Soviet Union in different national republics.
What I am surprised about is the absence of the discussion about how America’s soft power can be effectively used in the next four years to increase America’s interests abroad. The lack of substantive discussion on the issues related to humanitarian assistance to the lesser developed parts of the world, the lack of discussion on how America can resolve humanitarian crises like the famine in some African states, or how America can act as a mediator in the civil wars around the world that do not necessarily have a direct influence on America’s national interests but help America to raise its positive profile in the world in general.
This is the key issue, the absence of the discussion of humanitarian issues in the foreign policy debate, and the dominance of the discussion of strategic interests of the United States related to the use of America’s use of the military abroad and related to its economic interests for an economic policy.