Issues for the 2012 Presidential Election

The United States of America is about to enter a presidential election year.  Actually, it already has entered the political season.  The election of 2012 will most likely turn on economics, but as Andy Johns pointed out in his blog, foreign policy is always important and next year’s contest will be no different.  In addition, the Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, the president and executive director respectively of the American Historical Association, have called upon historians to be more engaged with the general public.[1]  It would seem that diplomatic historians have an advantage in this regard with the coming political season. 

The intent of this essay is to suggest that we become involved in the process by using our expertise to raise issues and/or advance policy ideas.  As Johns notes, any election shapes the policies that are pursued in the four years that follow.  I will not recommend any specific  policies—our political sentiments vary a lot—but it does strike me that there are certain issues that merit our input, be it in guest editorials in national or regional newspapers, essays on blogs, talks we give to local university and civic groups, or policy papers that we write for the candidates.  Our regional, foreign policy, and historical expertise, could make important contributions to the national debate that is beginning.  Some of the more important issues are:

1) What type of internationalism does the nation want to pursue?  Although many commentators often use the word “isolationism” to invoke a dreaded alternative to their ideas, that concept seems dead politically as long as the United States wishes to maintain its enormous national economy that depends on foreign trade and requires sources of energy that are cheaper than what it can produce domestically.  The nature and mission of U.S. foreign policy then is one of the more important issues that should be debate.  Throughout the twentieth century—even during the Cold War—the USA alternated between two different foreign policy approaches.  Both were designed to do the same thing, but had very different means.   A number of terms have been offered to describe them: “idealism” and “realism” being the most common ones.  One tried to spread democracy as an ideology often described as “Wilsonianism.”  The other approach was more restrained, but promoted democracy through a tolerance for diversity. 

2) How should the United States work with our allies?  Or should we work with them at all?  They are plenty of examples in history of alliances and coalitions working well—the British and Americans in World War II—being only adequate for the immediate needs at hand—think the Americans and French in the American Revolution or the western allies and the Soviet Union in World War II, or abject failures—see the relationship Austria had with Germany in World War I or any of the coalitions that formed against France between 1793 and 1812.  The traditional idea is that whole of an alliance is greater than the sum of it individual members.  In my book Allies Against the Rising Sun: The United States, the British Nations, and the Defeat of Imperial Japan (2009) I found that this is the case even when nations bring military units to a fight that displace stronger ones of their allies, because of political and diplomatic factors.  Patricia Weitsman of Ohio University, however, argued in a New York Times editorial that small allies are not worth the bother.  “The United States should use coalition warfare when it reduces the costs of prosecuting war, not when it greatly increases them. If a coalition is to serve any function other than augmenting one’s war-fighting capacity, we should think twice before forming it.”[2]  Working with allies means listening and responding to their input.  As William Stueck pointed out in Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History (2002), the small powers of the United Nations Command kept the United States from escalating the conflict when China entered. 

3) What policies should the United States pursue in the Middle East?  The Arab spring appears to have changed the complexion of the region.  “The status quo is not sustainable,” President Barack Obama declared earlier in the year.  “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”[3]  But he repeated that comment about the status quo in describing the situation between Israel and the Palestinians.  Should the USA be as close to Israel as it has been in the past?  What type of presence should the United States have in the Persian Gulf?  How—should it withdraw from Afghanistan? 

4) How to deal with China?  Is China a threat?  Even if it is combative towards U.S. interests, do they have the ability to sustain their own economic growth and project power into the Pacific?  Is it a concern that we need to prepare against or can we cooperate with them and allow for a peaceful growth of their power? 

5) How to deal with North Korea, or even if we should deal with North Korea?  Should it be on a bilateral basis or through the six party talks? 

6) What to do about Iran and its nuclear program?  Should we impose a boycott?  Initiate military action against Tehran?  Or accept the inevitable and prepare the region for a nuclear Iran?

7) How do we protect the security of the homeland: The biggest issues are from a weapon of mass destruction.  The main concern is on nuclear weapons, but there are other legitimate concerns.  These include chemical and biological weapons.  Remember the anthrax scare in the fall of 2001?  Other issues include attacks against the national infrastructure.  These efforts will come either in the realm of cyber space or an electromagnetic pulse attack.  We saw one form of what this would do in the film Ocean’s Eleven (2001), but a real attack could do real damage to the ability of the nation to offer basic functions to its people.  Think back to the Y2K fears of the late 1990s.  These issues are not the evil fantasies of a couple of scare mongers.  My home institution, the U.S. Naval War College had its entire internet access shut down by foreign attack in 2006. 

8) What should the nation do about border security?  This topic is basically part of homeland security, but it is the one that has been getting the most attention.  Does it deserve it, or is it a distraction to other more serious issues about homeland security?  How much resource wise should the nation put into securing borders versus the other homeland defense concerns?

9) What should the United States do about India vs. Pakistan?  Many of the issues between these two countries are historical in nature and go back decades.  Some are more contemporary.  Is Pakistan a friend or a foe of the USA?  Some journalists are advancing strong views on this issue.[4]  Are they right?  Or might a more realistically question be: is Pakistan just being difficult in that it is pursuing goals that are significantly different from those of the United States, and using methods that Americans find objectionable?  How much responsibility do American policy makers have for the uneven relationship between these two countries and can they pursue different policies to reduce these disputes? Can the USA do anything to resolve the differences between India and Pakistan?  Is a resolution of the Kashmir issue possible that will be acceptable to both nations?

10) How should the military be cutbacks?  The strategic situation of the United States today is comparable to the ones the Romans enjoyed in the 150s or the British in the 1880s.  The United States can project its power into any domain it feels is important to its interests: air, land, sea, space, or cyberspace.  More importantly, it can keep threats to its vital interests from developing in these areas.  Given the failure of the congressional super committee to reach agreement, the department of Defense is going to take $450 billion in cuts.  The issue then becomes in what regions does the USA decide to put its resource.  It appears that South Asia and the Pacific are the future, and concerns about strategic stability in Europe are in the past tense.   “We are here to stay,” President Barack Obama said when he was in Australia earlier this year.  He also said that defense cuts “will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.”[5]  Those factors are why the U.S. is stationing Marines in Australia.  This commitment comes, though at the expense of other areas.  What are the tradeoffs?  How stable is Europe?  History suggests not that much. 

11) How do we structure the military?  In many ways, large and small force structure is a closely related topic.  It make a long complicated story short, militaries are often designed to fight certain types of war and cannot readily adjust to other types.  A navy designed to with big capital ships (aircraft carriers and cruisers) to fight the fleet of another navy is not going to do well in minesweeping or hunting submarines; a navy that invests a lot into submarines is not going to do well with amphibious lift.  The same goes for armies and air forces.  Do we want a heavy mechanized army that is designed to fight  in the mountains of Korea in winter or do we want a smaller, constabulary-like force that is good at counterinsurgency in urban settings and dessert environments?  One requires an investment in certain technologies, while the other requires putting more money into personnel, and the costs associated with their upkeep (training, medical care, and pensions—eventually).  We also need to decide what we want to do in the air.  Drones appear to be the wave of the future.  While they can loiter for days over a target and provide a lot of intelligence, they are slower than World War I era biplanes, can be brought down with the small guns rather than missiles, or can have their control mechanisms jammed with the type of electronics that you can buy at a Radio Shack.  All that means, they can be used in only certain regions of the world.  The money and training time that is invested in this type of equipment means aviators are not doing other things, like doing strategic bombing.


[1] Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman, “The Imperative of Public Participation,” Perspectives on History (May 2011) http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2011/1105/1105pre1.cfm

[2] Patricia Weitsman, “The High Price of Friendship,” The New York Times, August 31, 2006

[3] “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” May 19, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/19/remarks-president-middle-east-and-north-africa

 [4] Jeffery Goldberg and Marc Ambinder, “Pakistan: Ally From Hell,” The Atlantic (December 2011)

[5] “Remarks By President Obama to the Australian Parliament,” November 17, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/17/remarks-president-obama-australian-parliament