What Kerry Versus Bush Means for the World

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

October 26, 2004

As public opinion polls confirm that large majorities of people around the world hope that John Kerry defeats George W. Bush next Tuesday, some commentators have begun to downplay the differences between the two men. A Kerry administration, they rightly point out, would still strongly back Israel, take a hard line on the Iranian nuclear programme and refuse to ratify the Kyoto treaty on climate change—and it would, of course, be unable to “un-invade” Iraq. But the view that the only difference between Kerry and Bush would be diplomatic “style” vastly understates what would indeed change were Mr Kerry to win.

The differences between Mr Bush and Mr Kerry go to the heart of the conception of how to conduct foreign policy. It is true that even Democrats have shown unilateralist tendencies and Mr Kerry’s top two candidates for secretary of state—Joseph Biden, the senator, and Richard Holbrooke, former United Nations ambassador—have both ruffled European feathers in the past. But a Kerry administration would come to office much more conscious of the need to work with other countries than a Bush team that still refuses to accept the need for a powerful America to compromise. Just as in 2000 the Republicans were determined to avoid what they thought was the Clinton administration’s excessive deference to allies, the Democrats would come to power in 2004 conscious of the opposite mistake—showing disdain and disrespect for allies.

Regarding the key proliferation challenges of Iran and North Korea, Mr Kerry has said he would seek active engagement, in contrast to Mr Bush who deals with North Korea only through six-party talks and with Iran not at all. Mr Kerry has put on the table a sort of “grand bargain” for Iran that would include technical assistance for a peaceful nuclear energy programme in exchange for proof that the country is not developing nuclear weapons. He would still take a hard line toward Tehran and seek European support for sanctions if it refused to co-operate, but his approach would involve significant carrots for Iran as well as bigger sticks. Mr Kerry is also determined to bring about a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace, in contrast to the hands-off, never-disagree-with-Sharon approach of the current administration. Mr Bush wanted to avoid what he saw as the Clinton administration’s futile efforts in the region and believed that the example of Iraq along with American power and steadfastness would oblige the Palestinians to compromise. But that approach has not worked. Mr Kerry would immediately name a special envoy to the region—maybe Mr Clinton himself—and make a peaceful settlement a top priority.

On Iraq, it is true that Mr Kerry cannot wave a magic wand and reverse the US-led invasion. But unlike Mr Bush, he would acknowledge the difficulties of the situation and the mistakes the US has made and genuinely involve the United Nations and European allies in the future of Iraq.

Finally, Mr Kerry would adopt a new attitude toward some of the multilateral treaties that Mr Bush has rejected. Ratification of the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court treaty and the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, all unpopular in the US Senate, would remain unlikely. But he would seek to re-engage with the rest of the world on all these issues, and to propose, for example, alternative initiatives on global warming and renewing co-operation with the ICC. He would also bolster the US commitment to nuclear non-proliferation by ending US development of some new types of nulear weapons the Bush administration has proposed.

What if Mr Bush wins? International speculation that a second Bush term would dramatically depart from the first overlooks the president’s fundamental commitment to his world view and unwillingness to bend. The man who invaded Iraq in the hope that it would shake up the Middle East and passed massive tax cuts to try to stimulate the economy is a risk-taker who believes in his mission. Thus, it would not be uncharacteristic of Mr Bush in a second term to appoint Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as national security adviser and Donald Rumsfeld to the Pentagon, and to ask the world: why didn’t you believe me when I said we would stay the course?

If US policy in a second Bush term were moderated it would not be because of any fundamental reversal of mind-set or a significant change in personnel. It would simply be that with massive budget deficits, the army bogged down in Iraq and most of the world against it even a very powerful America would start to feel the constraints of reality.