Rocking the vote may not rock the boat

November 6, 2012

This week — chads willing — Americans will finally put an end to four years’ worth of electoral Sturm und Drang. Only then can the country begin to ask the question that matters much more than who will win: Will anything change? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is, for the most part, no.

Likewise, this week — politburo willing — the Chinese will finally put an end to a year of bureaucratic angst. The powers that be hope that once a new president is installed, the Communist Party can put months of scandal behind it (Bo Xilai’s trial and Wen Jiabao’s family fortune, to name just a couple) and start to answer the question they’re most eager to put to bed: Will anything change in a new regime? On foreign policy, it’s increasingly clear that the answer is — you guessed it — for the most part, no.

In a volatile world, American and Chinese foreign policies appear, at least for the next few years, set in stone.

Americans — the people, not the politicians — don’t particularly care about foreign policy at the moment. The economic recovery, which few link directly to foreign policy questions, is too important. Anyone who watched the final presidential debate — ostensibly focused on foreign policy — saw two candidates who worked their way back to domestic issues at every opportunity. After a question about forcing Hosni Mubarak from office, for example, President Barack Obama said, “It’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do here at home.” Romney answered a question on America’s role in the world with a critique of teachers unions.

When the candidates weren’t pivoting, they were mirroring one another. Obama and Mitt Romney have different orientations toward the world, but their actual policies are remarkably similar. Both embrace the tactical value of drones; both think Europe’s economic problems deserve benign neglect; both favor free trade. Neither candidate is willing to take a more assertive stance on Syria; both want to get out of Afghanistan and impose tough sanctions on Iran.

Despite the rhetoric, both feel similarly toward China, as well. Each is willing to avoid alienating China on noneconomic issues like Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and human rights. Instead, each candidate wants to look more supportive of U.S. industry in the face of cheap Chinese goods. Whoever wins will put in place selective tariffs, invest in cybersecurity and try to counteract China’s influence in Asia. Don’t believe Romney’s bluster about declaring China a currency manipulator his first day in office — presidents don’t start their terms by provoking a trade war with their country’s most important economic partner.

In China, the particulars of the next government are still in some doubt: Will the Politburo Standing Committee be made up of nine people or seven? How conservative or nationalist will Xi Jinping, the next president, be? Is Li Keqiang, Xi’s slated deputy, an economic reformer? But beneath all that intrigue, China’s outward-facing policies will likely remain the same. Policy in China is made by consensus — strong, independent leaders are not in style (see: Bo Xilai). In the next few years, Chinese leadership is going to be incremental in responding to currency complaints and domestic economic reforms. It’s going to be wary of domestic political reforms, especially in the face of international pressure. And in terms of foreign policy it will likely follow precedent, responding harshly if provoked by Japan or anyone else in the region.

But the biggest factor driving the new Chinese government is that the world is no longer its oyster. Global economic growth is slowing, the Eurozone’s future continues to be shaky, and the U.S. debt trajectory threatens China’s investments. In the face of all this uncertainty, expect the Chinese government to continue to be risk averse.

No matter the country, elections — or backroom deals — don’t always bring change, even when promised. There’s a certain momentum to world events, especially when trouble at home outweighs needs abroad, as it does for the U.S.

Shuffling the deck chairs won’t ensure the boat steers toward a different port.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with China’s Vice President Xi Jinping in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, February 14, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed 

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