Korea and the U.S. Elections

john-feffer-korea-washington-elections-2012It’s election time in the United States, and once again Washington doesn’t care about Korea.

I realize that this is a difficult pill for Koreans to swallow. Koreans naturally believe that, since Korea is at the heart of East Asia and East Asia is at the heart of the global economy, American politicians and voters care deeply about what happens on the peninsula.

Koreans are encouraged in this illusion by the American pundits who appear in the Korean media. Already engaged on Korean issues, these pundits, and I include myself in this group, present a very unrepresentative slice of U.S. public opinion. These pundits care about Korea. Most Americans would have difficulty finding the peninsula on the map.

During this election year, U.S. politicians will of course make ritual pronouncements in support of the U.S.-ROK security alliance. And they will also make ritual threats about North Korea and its nuclear program. But the bottom line is that American politicians take the alliance with South Korea for granted and wish that North Korea would just stay quiet so that Washington can ignore it for as long as possible.

In this way, American politicians reflect the preoccupations of American voters.

Foreign policy in general won’t play much of a role in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections in the United States. In Gallup polls over the last few months, voters indicated that – no surprise – economic issues were most important to them. They rarely mentioned international issues. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan barely registered. Neither did relations with China. Korea didn’t make it on the list.

Even though foreign policy is not the top concern of U.S. voters, they do think about global issues. But even though most Americans own several South Korean products and know enough about North Korea to make jokes about the leadership in Pyongyang, they pay more attention to other parts of the world. They’re worried about the economic situation in Europe. They’re concerned about the places around the globe where American soldiers are in active combat. They worry about terrorism. To the extent that they care about Asia, they speculate about the rise of China and whether it presents an economic or military threat to U.S. power.

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will certainly address foreign policy issues during the campaign. To ignore the rest of the world is, after all, not very presidential. But they know that the election will be won or lost according to the economic indicators and how they are interpreted.

Foreign policy will be a virtual non-issue in the 2012 elections, largely because President Obama has robbed the Republicans of their favorite talking point: the weakness of Democrats.

Obama has managed to outflank the hawks by implementing a militarist policy that stands in ironic contrast to his Nobel Peace Prize. Although he more or less ended U.S. involvement in the Iraq War – a key campaign promise from 2008 – Obama has largely kept the rest of the Bush doctrine in place. He put an even greater emphasis on extrajudicial killing, with the execution of Osama bin Laden and a dramatic increase in drone warfare in Pakistan. He surged in Afghanistan and intensified the war on terrorism in Africa. He increased military spending and, however reluctantly, boosted spending on the very nuclear weapons he’d promised to abolish in a fine speech in Prague in 2008. He showed little interest in pushing for diplomatic solutions with North Korea and Iran. And he has done little to restrain the militarism of U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

All of which means, of course, that Mitt Romney doesn’t have much room for maneuver on foreign policy issues. In the primary and the subsequent presidential election in 2008, Hillary Clinton and John McCain attacked Obama for his presumed naiveté in promising to extend the hand of negotiation to all those who unclenched their fists. With the exception of Burma, however, President Obama hasn’t gone out of his way to reach out to U.S. adversaries.

Obama’s militarist policy has pushed Romney into taking rather unpalatable positions, such as his support for even greater military spending – at a time when even the Pentagon has acknowledged the need for cuts. As president, he would show even less enthusiasm than Obama for diplomacy and multilateralism. In most other respects, though, President Romney would continue Obama’s policies much as Obama continued his predecessor’s.

The convergence of the views of the two candidates is even more obvious when it comes to Asia and Korea. Both support an expanded military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Both register concern over China’s increased military expenditures, and both support stronger alliances with friends in the region. Obama has pushed for the Trans Pacific Partnership to promote free trade among America’s friends in the region. Romney supports basically the same thing under a different name: a “Reagan Economic Zone.”

Romney has implicitly criticized the Obama record on North Korea by calling for harsher policies toward Pyongyang and an end to all the “carrots” offered to the regime. But Romney’s harsher policies – more sanctions, more pressure on China – are already in place. And there haven’t been any serious carrots for North Korea since George W. Bush removed the country from the terrorism list in 2008.

There are obvious and very important differences between the candidates. Obama is a smarter, more adroit, and more globally sophisticated politician. Romney, because he leads a party that has drifted ever further into fanaticism, has jettisoned his earlier moderate policies from his time as governor of Massachusetts. Pressured by the hard right, represented by his vice-presidential pick, Paul Ryan, President Romney would likely return America to the embarrassments of George W. Bush, the economic lunacies of Ronald Reagan, and the divisiveness of Richard Nixon.

But when it comes to foreign policy, don’t expect the presidential elections to produce any major changes. That applies in particular to the Korean peninsula. In the short term, at least, significant transformation is as unlikely in Washington as it is in Pyongyang.

John Feffer is currently an Open Society Fellow focusing on Eastern Europe. He is on leave from his position as co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.