As the United States heads for the 2008 presidential election, American voters as well as Republican and Democratic candidates alike will be “more open-minded about new ideas” because they do not need to consider continuity from the current administration of President George W. Bush, according to Strobe Talbott, president of The Brookings Institution.
The 2008 campaign is the first in 80 years in U.S. history in which neither an incumbent president or vice president is running, and it also comes as even the Republican candidates are distancing themselves from what is widely perceived as Bush’s “diplomatic disaster” over the war in Iraq, Talbott, a former deputy U.S. secretary of state, told a luncheon speech during the May 21 Keizai Koho Center-Brookings symposium.
Normally, U.S. foreign policy is put on hold in a presidential election year because diplomacy does not significantly affect the campaign. It is bad news when diplomacy is a campaign issue, as in the 1968 election when then-President Lyndon Johnson had to give up seeking a second term, he said.
When Bush was re-elected for a second term in 2004, voters accepted his argument that the Iraq war was part of the broader U.S.-led war on terrorism, Talbott said. Today, it is a common perception across party lines that the Iraq war was a disaster, he added.
This has tipped the partisan balance in U.S. politics obviously in favor of the Democrats, Talbott said, but he also warned against holding any prejudice over the outcome of the November 2008 election, noting that the result would depend on who will be the final candidates from the two major parties.
Talbott noted that there has been a “profound shift” in the Bush administration’s world view as U.S. problems in Iraq drag on.
The largely unilateralist view in the first term of his presidency has been replaced by greater emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism in the second, as illustrated by the changes in its policies on Mideast peace and North Korea’s nuclear programs, he said.
This is a positive trend that will likely continue until at least the new administration takes over in January 2009, Talbott said, adding that Bush’s successor — Republican or Democrat — will probably not be a unilateralist. And this is an opportunity that countries like Japan should seize as they pursue pressing diplomatic issues like the creation of a follow-up mechanism to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming.
During the symposium, Carlos Pascual, vice president and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings, said Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will continue to be the Bush administration’s main diplomatic concerns, although Mideast peace and North Korea have been added to the agenda during the past year.
While the civil war in Iraq will ultimately require an “intensive, multilateral approach for a political settlement,” the U.S. will continue to rely on the use of military force to deal with the situation in the country, Pascual said.
And by mid-2008, the Bush administration — under pressure from the Republican Party — might be forced into a change in Iraq strategy that may not be the best choice, he warned.
In contrast to these troubled fronts, the Bush administration during the past 6 1/2 years managed to maintain positive relations with countries in East Asia — except for ties with South Korea, which were strained over the U.S. base issue and responses to the North Korean problems, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings.
U.S. relations with Japan have generally been good — especially with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Bush building a personal friendship, O’Hanlon said, adding that most presidential candidates for the 2008 campaign “will try to preserve what has been going on in the U.S.-Japan alliance, not change it.”
He also said U.S. ties with China have over the years been in “fairly good shape” — even though the Taiwan and trade disputes remain as potentially unsettling issues.
O’Hanlon described the Bush administration, after the first several months of difficult ties following the EP3 spy plane incident, as pursuing a “pragmatic” policy toward China, noting that it did not allow differences in opinions to escalate into a major problem in the relationship.
For example, the two countries differed over the war in Iraq, but they “handled that issue in a much better way” than the U.S. handled its differences with France and Germany over the issue, he pointed out.
Akihiko Tanaka, a professor of international politics and director of the Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo, was more cautious.
While the “basics” of U.S. relations in East Asia may be in good shape, it is questionable whether the Bush administration really has coherent policies toward the region that go beyond the very basics, Tanaka said.
“Or it could be that each individual official of the administration has his or her policies and you cannot tell which are really the policies of the U.S.,” Tanaka said.
For example, the Washington-Pyongyang stalemate that continues despite the deal reached in February over the frozen North Korean assets in a Macau bank raises serious doubts as to whether there is confusion in U.S. policies toward North Korea, he pointed out.
Tanaka also said it is hard to see how the Bush administration is trying to balance its diplomatic relations with China and the increasing U.S. concern voiced against Beijing over trade disputes.
Such inconsistencies in U.S. policies may not be surprising, he said, given that Washington’s diplomatic and trade policies have entered a phase of transition into the next administration.
Except for matters of crucial importance to American interests, one should perhaps not expect any coherent U.S. diplomatic policies based on long-term perspectives until the end of the 2008 campaign, Tanaka said. “So for the coming 1 1/2 years, East Asia will probably have to live with a directionless U.S. policy toward the region,” the professor said.