Europeans and the U.S. Election

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 17, 2008

Visiting European politicians, officials, and journalists are hardly rare sightings in Washington, D.C. Indeed they stream through regularly, at all times of year, to get updates on the latest developments in what used to be called the capital of the free world. Lately, however, this constant stream has turned into a deluge. Not a day goes by without visitors from Europe offering an expensive lunch to anyone remotely in a position to tell them who is advising whom, to analyze the latest primary results, to speculate on the next ones, or to predict the policies of the likely party nominees. (The truth, of course, is that most of us know little if anything more than our visitors do about these things, but that rarely stops us from accepting an always pleasant lunch.)

Europe’s interest in the upcoming American election is well warranted, and not only because of the drama of close races or the historic nature of some of the main candidates. It is well warranted because Europeans realize that whereas they have no vote, the outcome of the U.S. election could in some ways impact them nearly as much as it does Americans themselves. As a visiting Italian member of the European parliament recently told Roger Cohen of the New York Times, “We’ve learned that a good or bad U.S. president can make the difference between war and peace. A good or bad Italian prime minister makes no difference at all.”

I won’t touch the notion that an Italian prime minister makes no difference at all (though I could point out that at the time of this writing Italy doesn’t actually have a prime minister). But it is impossible to disagree with the first point. While many analysts and scholars often suggest that U.S. foreign policy is determined primarily by “structural” factors, “objective” interests, or an “enduring” strategic culture, the reality is that individuals—sometimes elected narrowly and for the most capricious of reasons—can have an enormous impact on the lives of people all over the world. Does anyone doubt that U.S. foreign policy over the past eight years would have been very different had Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot in the state of Florida not cost Al Gore the 2000 election and left it to George W. Bush to manage what would become the “war on terror”?

Will the 2008 election matter as much as 2000? All signs are that it very well could, regardless of whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton end up winning what is currently a very close Democratic race to face the likely Republican nominee, John McCain. While widely and rightly seen as a maverick for his willingness to buck the Republican mainstream on issues like campaign finance reform, immigration, and gay marriage, on foreign policy McCain would represent far more continuity with the Bush administration than either of his democratic rivals. Even allowing for the fact that each side is playing for its party’s base during primary season and could move toward the center for the general election, the differences are striking.

Even before 9/11, McCain embraced much of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda the Democrats are now running against. The Arizona senator now calls Islamist extremism the “transcendent” threat of our time and promises to remain “on the offensive,” while Obama and Clinton argue that America must focus on restoring its moral standing in the world even as it vigorously defends against the terrorist threat.

On the war in Iraq, McCain is for maintaining or increasing the number of U.S. forces and says “never surrender” while both Democrats call for rapid if careful withdrawal. On Iran, McCain insists the only thing worse than a military attack on Iran is an Iran with nuclear weapons while the Democrats say only they will “do everything possible” to stop the Iranian bomb and will negotiate directly with Tehran. On trade, McCain strongly supports current and prospective free trade agreements while his Democratic rivals have been led by the coming U.S. recession to question their value. And on Europe, both sides want to restore the health of the shattered transatlantic relationship, but McCain has trouble hiding his view of Europeans as pusillanimous allies.

There are also some important similarities, of course. McCain breaks with Bush and most of his party on the issue of torture – like the two Democrats he wants to ban it unambiguously in law and in practice – and he’s a rare Republican supporter of aggressive action on global warming. But I think these are easily outweighed by the differences and that Europeans instinctively understand that what Americans decide in November 2008 will have dramatic consequences for them and for the rest of the world.

I have some further insights into what is at stake in this race but I need to save something for an upcoming lunch.