Do not expect a radical change in America’s foreign policy if Obama is elected

by Markku Ruotsila Dr Markku Ruotsila is Adjunct Professor of American Church History at the Department of Church History, University of Helsinki; and Adjunct Professor of American and British History
Department of History, University of Tampere

As senator Obama is heading for his election victory, the expectations for him in Europe could not possibly be more unrealistic and without foundation. It has become an accepted truth that as soon as he has been inaugurated there will be a complete about face, a total rejection of the foreign and military policies of George W. Bush. Western Europe expects a transformation of the United States into a duplicate of itself, which puts its faith in the United Nations and the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.

This is a fallacy. Obama will not move away from Bush's main foreign policies for the simple reason that these have come to be consensually accepted across party lines.

For reasons of electoral tactics other views may be put forward, but the fact remains that Bush's principal foreign policies are not a departure from the U.S. foreign policy tradition as represented by both main political parties.

Bush has done nothing that his predecessors did not do before him - often in exactly the same manner. Neither will Obama be an exception since the interests of the United States and the country's ideological view of its role in the world are constant now and into the future, as they have been throughout the history of the country.

Concerning the war in Iraq, the only point of contention is whether or not the country should have gone into war in the first place. However, this question will be for historians to answer and will not influence Obama's future policies.

Iraq is no longer an election issue. The surge strategy for combating terrorism implemented by Bush during this year has produced the promised results and opened the possibility of a gradual withdrawal of American troops.

Both Obama and his rival John McCain agree that troops withdrawn from Iraq should be deployed in Afghanistan. Like Bush, they want to continue using military force in particular in the war against terrorism.

That said, Obama also emphasizes non-military actions against terrorism. In the heat of the electoral battle, many have, however, overlooked that he does not differ from president Bush in this respect, either. Bush has increased non-military economic and humanitarian aid and funding for propaganda efforts more than any other U.S. president since the beginning of the cold war.

It also cannot be assumed that Obama would give up the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, other than rhetorically.

He did not think that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat that would have called for a pre-emptive war. But nobody should doubt that Obama would act exactly the same way as Bush were some country to pose a threat during his presidency that he considered as serious as the Bush administration considered Saddam's Iraq and its quest for weapons of mass destruction.

Historically, Democratic presidents have been just as likely and just as keen to engage in pre-emptive wars as Republicans.

Bill Clinton went to war in Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti when none of these three countries had attacked the United States. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson acted the same way in Vietnam and Harry Truman in Korea.

Franklin Roosevelt went to war against Nazi Germany in the 1940s although it had not attacked the United States, and Woodrow Wilson engaged in the First World War even though no country had directly attacked the United States itself.

The United States has never had a president who would have allowed the United Nations or any other international organisation, let alone "the international community", a right to veto its foreign policy decisions. Obama too has promised to act independently - with military force if needed - to defend the interests of his country even when no other country approves.

Like all his predecessors in the White House, Obama would co-operate with the United Nations when it would be in the interest of the United States to do so. Otherwise he, too, would act unilaterally.

Being suspicious of international organisations is part of the deepest traditions and self-image of the United States. The whole idea of being American is based on the belief that the country created in the New World in the late 18th century is superior to all others. Both Bush and Obama are believers in this civil religion.

The foreign policy of a Barack Obama presidency would, then, differ from that of George W. Bush in style, not in substance. With his background, Obama is better placed than Bush to understand that the rest of the world wants to be taken into consideration and treated as an equal. And when this will not happen, his extraordinary rhetorical skills will help him appease the rest of the world.

A change in style may be enough to dispel the anti-Americanism created during the Bush era. However, no one should expect that the main foreign policy principles of the United States will have changed.

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