Barring some unanticipated event, Barack Obama is set to become the 44th President of the United States.
I think it will take something quite big to remove his lead.
Obama has sounded off against free trade agreements in order to court domestic constituencies. He has railed against Chinese dominance in the US consumer market and called for measures to stop the export of US jobs. This puts him at odds with Senator McCain and leading sectors of the US business community as well as foreign trading partners such as New Zealand. He will therefore have to reverse the US’s commitment to free trade, or betray his protectionist promises and abandon his working class supporters once in office.
This will be fascinating. We probably have not had a protectionist in office since Jimmy Carter. Arguably Bush was semi-protectionist in action if not in rhetoric. McCain would be the most pro free trade President the US has had. I suspect Obama will drop much of his protectionist rhetoric in office, but will not see out any free trade opportunities. I see very little hope for a successful WTO round under Obama.
The same is true for Obama’s stance on Israel. He claims that he will break the deadlock in US Middle Eastern policy by taking a fresh critical look at its relationship with Israel, but then pledges that his administration will never do anything to compromise the special bond that the US has with the Jewish state. He promises to address the Palestinians as full partners in the peace process, then speaks of a unified Jerusalem, contradicting the Palestinian stance on the sacred city. He cannot have it both ways. He will have to backtrack on at least one of his promises which augurs poorly for the prospects of real change in the status quo.
I can’t see him sticking with his undivided Jerusalem pledge.
Senator Obama, like so many others, speaks of eliminating oil dependency. Yet he opposes offshore and land-based drilling in the US. Although the Saudis, Kuwaitis and various smaller Emirates understand that election rhetoric destined for domestic consumption does not mean a shift in ongoing relations, it does mean that continuance of these relations could have negative domestic repercussions down the road.
Obama may find, like Kevin Rudd, that people blame the Government for a lack of supply.
Over-reliance on the military because of the failure of “soft” power or multinational approaches makes the president and his foreign policy advisers beholden to the uniformed command. Obama’s limited and tenuous relationship with the US armed forces means that he assumes office having to establish a rapport with the military leadership before asking them to fulfil their obligations to the country and constitution. Obama’s refusal to recognise that the so-called “surge” strategy has borne fruit in reducing levels of violence and promoting indigenous political solutions to post-invasion nation-building efforts in Iraq only complicates the picture. This leaves the possibility that the military will obey his commands, but that does not mean that it consents to his authority.
It will be interesting for how long Obama will be able to stick to his line that the surge has failed.
All of which is to say that contrary to the hopes of many inside and outside of the US, an Obama presidency will not necessarily bring with it an immediate change to more positive international relations. The way he handles his first policy crisis will determine whether that becomes fact or fantasy.
I think Obama will have more positive relations initially than Bush (or McCain). But as Paul says the test will come with his first crisis. What does he do when North Korea starts building nukes again? Or when Iran declares itself nuclear capable?