The Foreign Policy Divide: Obama

Commentary | September 05, 2012

The central debate in the U.S. presidential campaign is whether people are better off economically than they were four years ago. For supporters of Barack Obama, of course, the answer is “yes.” For supporters of Mitt Romney, it’s “no.” Pretty simple.

The “are you better off” question is more complicated when it comes to foreign policy, however. Are U.S. national interests more secure than they were four years ago?  At the Democratic convention in Charlotte, party leaders were quick to trumpet the killing of Osama bin Laden as compelling evidence that the country is safer than when President Obama took office. But U.S. national security and foreign policy concerns cannot be reduced merely to measuring the relative strength or weakness of al Qaeda.

Last week we looked at the Romney campaign’s foreign policy platform, which, his opponents charge, fails to offer specific alternatives to Obama’s positions. But if Romney’s lack of a track record on foreign policy may be an exploitable vulnerability, the current administration’s four-year policy record also provides a clear target for the Republicans.  While there is no doubt domestic economic factors will dominate the campaign and some of the disagreements on foreign policy between the two camps may be deliberately overdrawn, Obama and Romney are likely to spar repeatedly on these issues.

Recent polling data confirms that Obama is viewed as strong on foreign policy/national security. August polls from CNN, Fox News, and Washington Post-ABC show Obama with a significant advantage over Romney (51 percent to 44 percent, 51 percent to 38 percent, and 48 percent to 37 percent, respectively) when Americans are asked who they  trust to handle foreign policy better. This is a unique position for a Democrat to be in; traditionally, Republicans have been seen as stronger on the foreign policy/national security front. With Obama and Romney still deadlocked in the race for the White House, the Obama campaign can be expected to expend considerable energy highlighting the gap between Obama’s and Romney’s foreign policy credentials—and the Romney camp will continue to attack the administration’s record.

Below, we review the Obama administration’s foreign policy record and positions, an examination that closely corresponds to our look at the Romney camp’s views on foreign policy during the Republican convention last week.


Candidate Obama’s tough talk on China was quickly tempered by geopolitical and geoeconomic realities once he assumed office. There has been plenty of dialogue: Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao have met a dozen times, and countless meetings of officials and experts have attempted to nurture more collaborative ties. Still, the plain truth is that the relationship continues to be racked by tension and conflicting interests.

One of the major hallmarks of Obama’s first term was the “pivot” to Asia as the United States grapples with China’s unabated economic and military rise. This pivot has included the deployment of Marines to Australia, and the United States pushing China, unsuccessfully thus far, to defuse the South China Sea territorial disputes with its neighbors. This issue continues to be a source of significant tension in the region and also provokes fears of disruption of major shipping lanes. Then, too, there are the perennial disputes about the status of Taiwan and congressionally-mandated arms shipments.

Although Beijing has reacted negatively to Romney’s statements on China, Obama’s policies also continue to spark widespread criticism. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on what will likely be her last official visit to China, the Chinese government called on Washington to observe “the trends of our current era and the general wish of countries in the region.” With regards to the South China Sea, the United States is not directly concerned and thus should not be involved in the dispute, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. And on Syria, China refuses to budge. In short, the ongoing dialogues with Chinese officials have not produced breakthroughs.

There is, in short, no shortage of frustration in the relationship. Syria, Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, and concerns over currency manipulation will continue to be issues that shape the direction of this critical bilateral relationship. Obama will likely continue his current policy of engaging the Chinese government in dialogue while also confronting concerns over economic policies (by, for example, continuing to use WTO dispute mechanisms to address concerns over unfair trade practices); he will also increase the U.S.’s military presence in Asia and strengthen bilateral relationships in the region to counter Chinese influence.


Although frustrated by the Russian government’s crackdown on dissent at home, its blocking of international action on Syria, and its propensity to complicate U.S. policies on Iran, the Obama administration does not see Russia as the geopolitical threat that Mitt Romney apparently does. After all, it was thanks to Russia—and 13 Republicans in the Senate—that Obama could claim one of his major foreign policy successes: the negotiating and signing of the new START treaty.

The Obama team denies the Romney camp’s claims that the “reset” with Russia has been a failure, and they can point to Russia’s long-awaited entry into the World Trade Organization as one sign of genuine progress. But whatever accomplishments there have been, they are most likely a first-term phenomenon. Although Obama has signaled his willingness to constructively engage the Russia more than Romney would, the “easy” issues in the relationship have been resolved—and none of them were actually easy. There is room in the relationship for greater engagement in the economic sphere, especially if the U.S. Congress repeals the Jackson-Vanik amendment and grants Russia permanent normal trade relations. But human rights, missile defense, Syria, lingering Russian bitterness over Libya, and Iran will complicate the bilateral relationship, no matter who is in the White House.


The Obama campaign repeatedly hits at the fact that when Obama took office in 2009, the United States was involved in two long-term wars and now it is out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan. Both actions have been largely popular with the American people. Romney failed to mention Afghanistan in his speech at the Republican National Convention—a curious oversight given that he is seen as weaker on this issue than Obama (but he did address the issue the day before in a speech to the American Legion in Indiana). The Obama campaign promptly pounced, highlighting the decimation of al Qaeda’s top leadership, the success of the surge, and the Strategic Partnership, which provides for a limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for the next decade.  

The administration is committed to adhering to the 2014 drawdown timeline and transitioning from an active combat mission to eliminate al Qaeda to a train-and-assist mission to ensure that Afghan forces can provide long-term security. Despite the spate of green-on-blue attacks that are tragically grabbing headlines, Obama is likely to maintain the drawdown timetable.


A nuclear Iran is a prospect that no U.S. president wants to face. Candidate Obama declared that he would try to negotiate with Iran. Once again, geopolitical realities tempered optimism that such negotiations could succeed. Obama moved to continue to sanction the Iranian government, managing to get Russia and China to approve harsher sanctions in 2010. Yet despite multiple rounds of sanctions, there is mounting concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and possible nuclear program. And while the administration says the door is always open for engagement, the military option is being discussed in a way that it has not before.

The focus on the possibility of military action is driven in part by the Romney camp’s declared willingness to use force in response to Iranian nuclear capability, as well as by Israel’s growing unease with what it sees as Iran’s growing nuclear potential. This highlights what the real difference is between Romney and Obama on Iran: Romney has called Iranian nuclear capability, short of actual possession of a nuclear weapon, a threat.  This may lower the threshold for U.S. military action.


Given the relative success of NATO action in Libya, which resulted in the overthrow and death of Muammar Gaddafi, there have been calls in the United States to undertake similar actions in Syria. Obama has thus far rejected U.S. military involvement in Syria, and he has also said no to arming the Syrian opposition—a proposal Romney has supported. In part, the Obama administration’s position may be influenced by the near certainty that China and Russia would veto any U.N. Security Council actions that call for armed intervention; both governments have already vetoed economic sanctions against the Bashar al- Assad regime for its brutal crackdown. But Obama has warned Assad against moving or using Syria’s chemical weapons, declaring this a red line for the United States.

Defense spending

As the United States moves to further decrease its military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is focusing on the size of defense spending and its contribution to the ever-growing national debt. The administration is confident that defense spending can be slowed down without impairing U.S. military capabilities—a notion that Romney and many Republicans reject outright. Rather than hold defense spending as sacrosanct, Obama has said that “the size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around."

The administration released a defense strategy document  that “transitions our Defense enterprise from an emphasis on today's wars to preparing for future challenges, protects the broad range of U.S. national security interests, advances the Department's efforts to rebalance and reform, and supports the national security imperative of deficit reduction through a lower level of defense spending.” Romney has attacked Obama for hollowing out the military and has called for increased defense spending.

Obama is not proposing cuts to the defense budget but slowing the rate of growth of the defense budget, which has nearly doubled since 2001. The Pentagon’s five-year budget limits the rate of growth of the defense budget to the inflation rate. But even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and some other officials in the administration seem to agree with Republicans that sequestration, which would mandate $600 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in the Pentagon over ten years, is a bad idea. Obama signed the legislation mandating sequestration if Congress does not come up with alternative spending cuts, which may make him vulnerable on that score. But this could be neutralized by the fact that Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, voted for the measure.


Calling cybersecurity “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face,” Obama ordered an assessment U.S. cybersecurity policies and structures. The resulting Cyberspace Policy Review recognized that the United States was not organized to deal with threats in cyberspace and adopted an action plan so that the government could better coordinate its defense of cyberspace. What Obama undertook in his first term is thus remarkably similar to the Romney plan to undertake a full interagency initiative to develop a national cyber strategy.

Jacqueline McLaren Miller is a Senior Associate in EWI's Strategic Trust-Building Initiative, where she runs the U.S. program. Thomas Cuffe provided research for this report.