By Sanjay Pulipaka and Payal Ghosh*
This year, foreign policy issues have not yet been at the centre-stage of the US presidential election campaigns. While the Iran nuclear deal did grab headlines, domestic political matters such as race relations, responses to economic inequity, the US Supreme Court judgments on same-sex marriage and health care reform seem to be engaging the voters.
More than a dozen candidates have announced their plan to be the Grand Old Party’s (GOP)/Republican Party’s candidate in the US Presidential elections. In spite of the numbers, there seems to be very little diversity in their foreign policy positions. Many of them have been calling for an aggressive foreign policy posture, which is routine during an election campaign. It is assumed that for an effective political communication, nuance needs to be discarded and muscular foreign policy posture tends to attract the voters. It should be noted that the GOP candidates are calling for interventionist policies, even when the memory of US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan is still fresh in the minds of the many. There could be two reasons for this: first, the GOP candidates think that there is a sizeable constituency which is calling for a proactive foreign policy; and second, at least some components of the hawkish rhetoric are in consonance with the candidates’ world views.
For many GOP candidates, US-centered unipolarity defines the structure of the international politics and in spite of less than successful interventions in the recent past, the US continues to possess capabilities to shape the political events happening across the world. Jeb Bush succinctly summed up this understanding when he said, “the United States has an undiminished ability to shape events and build alliances of free people….We can project power and enforce peaceful stability in far-off areas of the globe.” To enhance the US capacity to project power, Chris Christie has been calling for increased military spending.
The GOP candidates are of the opinion that President Obama is undermining the alliance/friendship networks built over the decades. As Ben Carson opined, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons with an understanding that the US would back them and therefore, it becomes imperative for the US to help Ukraine with all that is necessary to maintain its sovereignty. The Obama administration, according to Ben Carson, has fallen short on its commitments to its friends. Similarly, Carly Fiorina referring to Arab allies, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey stated: “there are a whole set of things we’ve been asked to do by our allies who know this is their fight, and we’re not doing any of them.”
According to the GOP candidates, the US response to the Ukraine crisis and the recent Iran nuclear deal demonstrate that the Obama administration is not standing up for American allies. The GOP candidates feel that the collapse of trust between the US and its allies will undermine US capacity to project power in various parts of the world. However, there are challenges with an unqualified support to the allies and arming various groups to fight the adversaries. There is a possibility of getting entrapped in conflicts that are in the interests of allies but not in the interests of the US. There is no certainty that the weapons distributed to friends/allies will not fall into wrong hands. For instance, Rick Perry also expressed his dismay at the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) using the American tanks. Similarly, Rand Paul noted, “ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party, who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS.”
Reports of China’s cyber espionage activities have agitated many GOP candidates. Terming cyber attacks as akin to a military attack on US military installations, Mike Huckabee called for immediate retaliatory cyber strikes on cell phones and bank accounts of Chinese officials. Referring to Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Donald Trump indulged in his usual sensationalist rhetoric by stating, “you have a problem with the ISIS, you have a bigger problem with China.” For Marco Rubio, promotion of human rights in China is an equally important task and therefore, it becomes imperative to demand that ‘China allow true freedom for its 1.3 billion people.’
Incidentally, Marco Rubio terms India, the world’s largest democracy, as a key partner of the US in the coming decades. In an op-ed written last year, Rubio identified three areas to strengthen India-US relations viz., deepening security cooperation; encouraging greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan, the Middle East and East Asia; and upgrading the economic relations through Bilateral Investment Treaty. As the campaigns gain momentum, it is distinctly possible that the other GOP candidates will occasionally articulate similar sentiments, though India has rarely been an election issue.
Among the Democratic Party’s candidates, Hillary Clinton, because of her stint as a Secretary of State, comes with robust foreign policy credentials. On the other hand, the GOP candidates have some catching up to do. Overall, it appears that the GOP candidates are approaching various foreign policy issues as though they can be dealt with in water-tight compartments. As a consequence, their foreign policy statements tend to give the impression that there is a need for simultaneous aggressive actions to cripple the ISIS, contain Russia, respond to the rise of China, promote human rights and completely destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. However, many of these issues are inter-related, and a grand strategy to address these questions simultaneously needs to be articulated. Instead of issue-oriented responses, articulation of a ‘grand-strategy’ might find greater resonance with American voters.
*Sanjay Pulipaka is a Consultant and Payal Ghosh is an Intern at ICRIER, Delhi.
Courtesy: ORF US Election Monitor