It’s tempting to predict the future of U.S.-Russian relations by analyzing the candidates currently running for president. But that would be a mistake for three big reasons.
Last week Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (pictured) announced the 2016 presidential bid from the Democratic Party. Photo: AP
Anyone trying to predict America’s foreign policy approach to Russia in 2016 and beyond simply by analyzing the candidates running for president needs to keep in mind the following: The situation will likely look far different to the new incumbent than it does now.
One can hardly predict now what events will happen in the world in 2016 to which an American president will have to respond. In addition, elections have their own dynamic which leads those running for president to say things as part of the electoral campaign that won’t determine what a candidate will do if he or she wins.
The classic example of how this plays out in the foreign policy arena is Turkey. It is sometimes said that among American politicians running for president, the tragic events in Turkey in 1915 were a genocide only in years divisible by four, that is, in years when there is a U.S. presidential election and when candidates are seeking to win the votes of Armenian Americans. In all other years, once in office, presidents see a virtue or at least a necessity not to infuriate Turkey, a NATO ally, by using a term – “genocide” – that is anathema to Turkish leaders.
There are three electoral dynamics that are especially important.
First, all candidates, both those in the party of the incumbent and those in the other party, have a vested interest in setting themselves apart from the current president. If they think that the president is perceived as weak, they will want to stress how tough they will be; if they think that the president has taken unacceptable risks, they will want to send a message that they will be responsible and not put Americans in harm’s way. That does not mean that the various candidates both announced and unannounced do not have real differences, but their statements now have less to do with those than with calculations about how they will look to voters.
Second, everyone running for president seeks to look “presidential,” that is, to appear as someone who will advance American interests but not be “a bomb thrower.” Thus, the candidates will say things that suggest they have and will consider all the conditions and options before they take any decision upon election. American voters may like stirring words, but they prefer to put their trust in those who offer reassurance that the person they install in the White House will not “go off the reservation” and do something radical. Those who fail to pass this “presidential” test have rarely been elected: There is little reason to think that 2016 will be any different.
And third – and this is the most important dynamic of American elections – short of something that constitutes an existential threat to the United States, Americans are not that concerned about foreign affairs. “All politics is local,” as many politicians have said; and in the U.S., that is certainly true. Because of American power – economic, military, political, cultural and otherwise – many people around the world want to know what the U.S. thinks about them and what it will do. But the reality is that Americans don’t think about the rest of the world nearly as much as the rest of the world thinks about the U.S. Elections highlight this.
Yes, all candidates will pledge to “keep America strong” and to “defend our interests” abroad, but the specific meaning of either of those statements will be left largely undefined in the speeches of the candidates and thus anything they do say about foreign countries is more likely to reflect concerns about domestic constituencies for them rather than about the other countries themselves.
None of this will keep people in other countries from trying to read the tea leaves of the various presidential campaigns, but those who do should remember these dynamics and not forget that in the past half century, there have been very few presidents who acted in foreign affairs in exactly the same way or over their entire time in office the way they appeared to suggest they would when running for that office.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.