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.