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Marco Vicenzino Headshot

Foreign Policy Continuity, No Debate

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As the U.S. presidential election remains locked in a statistical tie, a recent BBC poll shows overwhelming global preference for President Barack Obama. For international public opinion, a victory by Governor Mitt Romney would be confounding. Immense suspicion and speculation surround his potential foreign policy.

The bottom line: Just as continuity in foreign affairs generally prevailed from President George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the same will largely apply to a new commander-in-chief. Apart from the likely volume increase on the rhetorical front and potential gaffes, a Romney administration will retain consistency on most major policies.

These include a broadly multilateral approach on Iran barring an eventual military strike, an enduring love-hate affair with Europe, an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with terrorists, no direct intervention in Syria without greater collective consensus, sustained engagement with the broader Middle East, a continuing draw-down in Afghanistan, a pragmatic relationship with China despite "currency manipulation" threats, an increasing presence in Asia, the sporadic glance at Latin America, and a gradually unfolding rapport with Africa.

Stewardship over America's foreign policy is dominated by the complexities of multi-tasking in a multi-polar world where no clear paradigm emerges for the foreseeable future. Judged within the context of increasing global disorder in recent years, President Barack Obama deserves credit for achieving a degree of stability, albeit fragile.

However, within the context of expectations created upon assuming the presidency, Mr. Obama overpromised and underdelivered in foreign policy. He is not the transformational leader desired. His 2008 campaign agenda remains largely unfulfilled, particularly in the Middle East which was central to the final debate. After his historic 2009 Cairo speech, Gallup polls had the president at 36 percent in regional approval ratings. Since 2010, it has hovered around 19 percent.

Despite high rhetoric, Mr. Obama's current international agenda remains largely devoid of any relevant grand strategy or vision. It has been mostly reactive and shaped by events. Killing Osama bin Laden could score points in a political campaign but cannot amount to an effective foreign policy.

The third and final presidential debate on foreign policy did not defy expectations. Little emerged apart from some memorable sound bites. Despite President Obama's commanding performance, limited public interest in foreign affairs works to Governor Romney's advantage. The governor concocted just enough clichés to get by. Like the president, he desperately seized upon any opportunity to revert to the electoral determinant, America's economy.

From a broadly international perspective, the presidential debates were unfailingly true to form. The lively and energetic performances were accompanied by lofty rhetoric, limited substance, a selective approach to facts and deliberate avoidance of specifics. Even with relentless attacks on Romney's domestic and foreign policy agendas, President Obama offered little, if any, clarity of his own. His vigorous displays in the second and third debates still did not fully compensate for the damage incurred in the first encounter. It was greater than originally anticipated. His pre-debates electoral edge eroded.

Overall, Romney used the debates to recover lost ground and achieve a general parity in the polls. They provided a critical opportunity to connect with ordinary Americans. Prior to the first debate, he largely failed. Until then, Obama's team had adeptly defined Romney's image and set the electoral tone. Romney's blunders further assisted, as did his inability to convert the campaign into a referendum on Obama's stewardship of the economy.

Romney's October debate dividends could still prove too little, too late. Should he encounter defeat on November 6, much will be attributed to potentially irreversible damage incurred during the summer and September 2012.

International public opinion would be jubilant but still remains a bystander in the process. However, in a globalized world it can no longer be completely disregarded.