America’s new president-elect, George W. Bush, is still a blank slate for much of the world. Even among America’s closest partners, there is considerable anxiety about the United States’ willingness and ability to engage constructively around the world. The Europeans, always nervous when a new president (especially when not from the incumbent party) is elected, are asking even more questions than usual: What will the new president’s foreign policy views be, and how will they shape U.S.-European relations over the next four years?
There are good reasons for these questions, because the first thing we know about Bush’s foreign policy views is that we don’t know very much. Eight years ago, America also chose as president a youngish southern governor with little foreign policy experience, but Bush’s track record on foreign policy pales even compared to Clinton’s in 1993. (Clinton had at least studied abroad, done a graduate degree in international relations, and spoke a bit of German.) Bush, on the other hand, has reportedly taken only three foreign trips in his life (other than visits to neighboring Mexico), even though his father had been a President, Vice-President, UN Ambassador, and representative in China.
The second thing we know is that to the extent Bush has foreign policy views, they seem to be highly traditional ones. In great contrast to Al Gore’s focus on “new agenda” issues—such as the environment, immigration, and humanitarian intervention—Bush and his advisers have focussed on restoring American military power, avoiding intervention in ethnic conflict, and defending a much narrower interpretation of the national interest. Europeans are sometimes surprised to learn that a country that spends $300bn on defense has a president who thinks we need to spend much more, but that is indeed the case. The agenda is so conservative that critics charge that Bush’s team of heavyweight foreign policy advisers (led by Vice-President Richard Cheney and likely Secretary of State Colin Powell) is the best one imaginable—for the 20th century, or maybe even the 19th.
Third, we know that regardless of the agenda Bush will want to pursue, he is going to have a difficult time pursuing it because of the very way in which he got elected. It is not that the new president will not have the full reins of government in his hands or that he will somehow be illegitimate—fears of a “constitutional crisis” disabling America’s ability to act in the world were always overblown. Rather, the difficulty stems from a combination of other election-related factors: a Congress divided right down the middle; the increasingly bitter and partisan atmosphere that prevails in Washington; and the lack of any perceived mandate to pursue his foreign policy goals.
Because Congress holds the purse strings to fund foreign policy (not to mention its role in confirming appointments or ratifying treaties), Bush may need Democratic support. And Democrats, not forgetting the Republican Congress’s treatment of the Clinton administration and already thinking about the 2002 elections, are unlikely to go out of their way to help.
Added to all that is the fact that Bush’s conservative approach to foreign policy in a number of specific areas may clash not only with his uncertain mandate at home but with the goals and policy preferences of the European allies. Bush, for example, is a strong proponent of national missile defenses, and has pledged to move forward vigorously with deployment of a system, even if it means abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. A key decision will come next year after the system currently being developed by the Clinton administration is further tested.
During the election campaign, the Bush team consistently argued that U.S. military forces were “underfunded and overcommitted” and called for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Balkans. This would be part of a “new division of labor” according to which the United States would deal with places like Asia and the Persian Gulf while Europeans would take over peacekeeping jobs in Europe. A few weeks before the election, Bush also spoke out in favor of enlarging NATO in 2002. He has generally taken a tough line on dealing with Russia, and made clear that Moscow would have no veto.
Bush’s conservative principles also lead him to take a strong stand in favor of free trade and capital flows. Thus he will no doubt press the Europeans to implement World Trade Organization decisions on beef hormones and bananas. And he is unlikely to intervene in currency markets, however low the euro may fall against the dollar.
On all of these issues, agreement with Europeans is far from guaranteed, so Bush will have to earn it. And the domestic conditions in which he will have to do so are not propitious.