No Crystal Ball

Moises Naim is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

North Korea likes Sen. John F. Kerry. Radio Pyongyang has been broadcasting the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s speeches along with the regime’s predictable denunciations of President Bush. The North Koreans are hardly alone. Opinion polls around the globe reflect deep discontent with the current White House occupant.

The world is bound to feel goaded by statements such as “working with other countries in the war on terror is something we do for our sake -- not theirs.” Non-Americans are probably more at ease with a U.S. leader who says, “I believe in the international institutions and alliances that America helped to form and helps to lead.”

But be careful what you wish for. The first assertion is Kerry’s, the second and more internationalist one comes from Bush.


Although such statements may not accurately represent either Kerry’s or Bush’s natural inclinations, they may reveal more about the foreign policies of the next U.S. administration than any position papers designed to underscore the candidates’ differences. Indeed, the comments highlight a paradox that the candidates will be reluctant to recognize: If reelected, Bush will have difficulty sustaining the foreign policies of his first term, while a first-term Kerry presidency is bound to emulate some of Bush’s more aggressive positions.

First, imagine a Bush victory in November. In a second term, he would find that large-scale preemptive wars of choice are no longer an option. Despite a 50% increase in military spending during Bush’s first term, the U.S. military is seriously overstretched in terms of troops, funding and operational capabilities. If recruiting foreign allies for the Iraq invasion in 2003 was difficult, doing so in support of another U.S.-led preemptive war would be close to impossible. If Americans are directly attacked or unambiguously provoked by a clearly identifiable enemy, the United States would retaliate forcefully. But the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the problematic aftermath of the war have seriously eroded political support at home for international military adventures that cannot be unequivocally and credibly justified.

Overall, the bar for a significant military action abroad is substantially higher than it was following Sept. 11.

In a second term, Bush would also probably try harder to collaborate with Europe and the United Nations, especially on security matters. He has already been forced in that direction in the hope of reducing U.S. exposure to the postwar difficulties in Iraq. Iraq’s reconstruction will sooner or later require a greater U.N. presence, which will require a more collaborative relationship with Europe. Also, Bush’s “greater Middle East initiative” to promote democracy in the region exemplifies the president’s awakening disposition to build international coalitions. This effort sharply contrasts with the policies of unilateral disengagement in the Middle East that marked the beginning of his presidency.

Thus, while the administration’s vaunted aversion to entangling foreign alliances may not disappear in a second term, Bush’s rejection of multilateral action will be far less rigid and ideologically driven than it was in his first four years.

Now consider Kerry. If he wins the White House, he will quickly learn that some of his multilateral instincts will be hard to convert into sustainable policies. Some dictator, somewhere, may be emboldened to test Kerry’s mettle, thus compelling the new president to act forcefully and unilaterally to demonstrate that neither he nor the United States has forsworn the use of force. If the U.N. proves unwilling or unable to bail the U.S. out of Iraq, a Kerry administration couldn’t avoid expanding U.S. involvement there far beyond what it desires -- and far beyond what took place under Bush. While bitter security disputes with Europe have characterized Bush’s presidency, protectionism and transatlantic trade disputes fueled by a weak dollar may become the hallmarks of a Kerry presidency. Kerry may also discover that Bush was correct in dismissing Europe’s enthusiasm for multilateralism as mostly rhetorical and in believing that the European Union lacks the will, the power and the money to act as a reliable ally in international emergencies.

All recent U.S. presidents have learned that despite their immense power, they remain at the mercy of uncontrollable global forces, which can render their personal views and campaign promises largely irrelevant. The Clinton campaign’s famous dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid,” proved a better election-year slogan than a predictor of how often international turmoil would distract his administration from domestic issues. Bush reneged nearly as quickly on his campaign promise to adopt a “humble” foreign policy, wary of active foreign engagements and nation-building efforts.

Against this backdrop, Kerry’s foreign admirers would do well to assume that, despite his best intentions, he may be unable to deliver on his commitment to “a bold, progressive internationalism.” By the same token, Bush’s supporters at home would be well advised to assume that, if reelected, Bush will implement some policies that will break their hearts -- and probably his.