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Does Foreign Policy Campaign Rhetoric Matter?

One of the recurring themes in this bloggingheads discussion between Dan Drezner and Heather Hurlburt is whether a candidate’s campaign rhetoric on foreign policy means anything. Drezner maintains that it usually doesn’t mean very much at all in terms of knowing how the candidate will conduct foreign policy, and Hurlburt insists that a candidate’s statements have some significance. Hurlburt is right that Obama’s conduct of foreign policy has matched up with what he proposed as a candidate. For good or ill, Obama has done more or less what he said he would do, which is not the same thing as what many of his supporters hoped or imagined he would. Along similar lines, the two differed somewhat in their views of the recent Miller article that advanced the idea of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus against starting new wars. I agree that Miller has minimized the differences between Obama and Romney, and Drezner unduly minimizes the importance of campaign rhetoric as a reliable indicator of what we can expect from a candidate once he is in office.

It’s true that candidates can get away with making statements on foreign policy that would be scrutinized and criticized much more if they were made about issues that matter to a major domestic voting bloc. For instance, Romney can safely produceone ridiculous foreign policy op-edafter another, and it seems to have little effect on his electoral prospects. That’s especially true in an election year when foreign policy seems to be even less important to voters than usual.

It’s true that very few voters pay attention to or care about foreign policy issues, so candidates have more flexibility to adopt positions that may not be popular with the public. By the same token, candidates also have much less flexibility to adopt positions that contradict what foreign policy pundits and analysts in their party want to hear. For that reason, we can assume that the positions candidates take during campaigns tend to reflect accurately what their party’s foreign policy elites are thinking. Even if the candidate goes overboard and overstates the position favored by his top advisers, it is still possible to discern the leanings and assumptions that informed his excessive rhetoric. It is a safe bet that the views of a party’s foreign policy elite are not going to change dramatically between the election year and the time that the candidate assumes office.

Let’s take a specific example from the 2008 cycle. Viewed one way, the policy differences between McCain and Obama were not all that great, but there were some meaningful distinctions between them on certain issues that gave attentive observers reliable signs of what Americans could expect from the candidates if they were elected. Consider how McCain and Obama talked about Russia policy during their debates in 2008. Obama said many of the same things that one would expect to hear from a Russophobic Republican: Russia was “resurgent and aggressive,” Georgia and Ukraine should be allowed to join NATO once they qualify for membership, etc. At the same time, he also said, “Now, we also can’t return to a Cold War posture with respect to Russia. It’s important that we recognize there are going to be some areas of common interest.”

Back then, it wasn’t much to go on, and it would not have been obvious then just how interested Obama would be in pursuing improved relations with Russia, but the basic direction of Obama’s developing Russia policy was discernible. It was something that set him apart from his more bellicose, confrontational opponent. If someone watching the campaign in 2008 wanted to know which candidate was more likely to treat Russia antagonistically, he would have been able to find out by listening to the candidates’ campaign rhetoric. One could find similar examples relating to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drezner is most likely correct that a Romney administration wouldn’t actually withdraw from New START, but I wouldn’t be so sure. George W. Bush argued for developing missile defense frequently in his campaign rhetoric in 1999 and 2000, and then once in office withdrew from the ABM Treaty early on in his first term. Since Romney has made his hostility to New START a central part of his criticism of current Russia policy, it is conceivable that he would press for U.S. withdrawal from the treaty as part of his broader repudiation of all things related to Obama. Almost every elected Republican has felt obliged to denounce the treaty as a horrible deal, and Romney decided early on to identify himself as a treaty opponent. Would it be a major blunder to withdraw from the treaty? Yes. Regardless, the major political weakness of current Russia policy is that it definitely does not have bipartisan support. Unlike NAFTA, which had significant bipartisan backing, there is virtually no Republican support for New START. Whatever Romney decides on New START, what we can take for granted is that Romney would make no attempt to negotiate more arms control agreements of any kind.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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