The United States and the World

11/02/2012 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

There has been a considerable amount of relevant commentary published following the October 22 debate between Obama and Romney on U.S. foreign policy. And while during the debates Iran was mentioned 45 times and Israel 34 times, and Europe and Palestine were not mentioned at all, this should not be taken as an indicator of U.S. interests, but rather of voters' interests, and therefore of the possibility of winning the votes of an electorate that is divided on certain issues and unaware of others.

Former leaders of shin beth, the Israeli secret service agency, along with their American counterparts, know that Iran is not close to acquiring a nuclear bomb, which in any case, it would not be able to use without being vaporized by Israel and the United States first, an idea already expressed by former French President Jacques Chirac before he had to withdraw his statement. Iran is not a threat to the United States. It is an authoritarian, even totalitarian, country with a failing economy, and Ahmadinejad is not the one holding the reins of power. He serves as a sort of bogeyman, like Saddam Hussein did before in Iraq. The undemocratic nature of a regime that fixed the elections in 2009 is not in question, but this doesn't mean it poses any real geopolitical risk for the United States. Iraq was led by a somewhat more bloodthirsty butcher, but, as it was affirmed by an American presidential commission, it had no weapons of mass destruction and therefore was not a threat to the United States. Talking so much about Iran is not in keeping with the fundamental problems the United States must face. If, as some analysts have suggested, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's goal has not really been to launch a military operation against Iran, but rather to wipe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the American political agenda, then he has been completely successful. Palestine has gone unmentioned by either candidate.

On Israel, both candidates agree, as is the case on many foreign policy questions, but they are still seeking to highlight minor differences between their positions to attract a specific portion of the electorate: Jewish voters, who traditionally vote for Democrats at a rate of over 75 percent. Both are in favor of strong military, political and financial support of Israel. Obama has shown this by his actions while in power, and Romney couldn't have done more than he has. He wouldn't go to war against Iran for the same reasons Obama wouldn't: the American military doesn't want to hear of it, and so the current policy of sabotage and targeted assassinations of scientists, in coordination with Israel and the MEK group, which is problematic from a legal and ethical standpoint, is more than likely to continue.

China was mentioned in a ludicrous way by Romney, because he wants people to believe he would be tougher, but on this issue as well there is little fundamental difference between the candidates. As Hillary Clinton put it, one has to be careful when talking to one's banker: China is one of the bankers buying American debt, and it also ensures the success of certain American capitalists, such as the leaders of Walmart. The geopolitical realities and electoral debates are worlds apart.

Europe was almost completely absent from the debate, except when Romney predicted a Greece-like future for the United States if Obama were re-elected. But this statement is devoid of meaning because the U.S., the number one economic power, while as much in debt as Greece, can produce new currency and sell its treasury bonds, and therefore does not risk facing exorbitant rates for its loans on the markets. There is a strong lack of interest in Europe, while everywhere in Europe, the media is totally focused on the American elections, creating special reports, interviewing American and European experts, describing the elections as a societal choice with global implications. Is it simply a typical difference in interest between a stronger and a weaker country, like the one between France and Tunisia, or between Great Britain and Gambia?

The world is more interested in the United States than the United States is in the world, aside from countries or zones they are at war with, or even those they have a particular relationship with, essentially only Israel, because even the "special" relationship with Great Britain doesn't draw a crowd. Nevertheless, here we need to distinguish the voters from the leaders. Obama has stated on several occasions that Europeans need to solve the Euro's problems and has implicitly criticized Germany's positions. Economically, Europe remains a major partner for the United States. The austerity measures chosen by European leaders are not only creating recession and poverty in Europe, but will have effects on the American economy itself, which cannot depend exclusively on trade with South-East Asia. This has not been part of the debates but is fundamentally more important than the Iranian president's saber-rattling.

The world-wide focus on the United States is obviously a reflection of its military, economic and cultural domination. The relative decline of the American economy goes hand in hand with the diversification of cultural influences, and military domination has been relativized by two types of phenomena. As Paul Kennedy had already written in the '80s in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:Economic Change and Military Conflict From 1500 to 2000, all empires or dominant countries go through a phase of imperial overstretch. If the economy loses momentum and others begin to catch up, then pure military domination becomes more difficult. In addition, U.S. military domination, as undeniable as it is if you look at military spending, is not very useful in the case of asymmetrical wars against a weaker enemy using guerilla tactics on its own terrain, as in Afghanistan.

The world is watching the United States while they, whether it is election season or not, navel-gaze. Romney's gaffe where he did not know that Iran does not need Syria to have access to the sea is symptomatic of this disinterest in the world, even on the part of a man who wants to lead the most powerful country on the planet. Obviously, political commentators and academics are interested in the world, but not the general population who get their news from TV, from which the world has all but disappeared. That said, the Pew Research Center has conducted some very good opinion polls about the United States' image in the world which show a positive image in Europe, but criticism about the drones. At the same time, these polls also show a belief in the United States' economic decline. American foreign policy will not change significantly with the election of either candidate, but mostly it will evolve in reaction to geopolitical or economic changes around the world.