European Affairs

The U.S. Presidential Election: A Rougher Road Ahead For Europe?     Print Email
Martin Kettle

Bureau Chief, The Guardian

During the summer of 2000, the Harris polling organization interviewed a sample of American voters to identify the issues on which presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush most differed. Asked whether foreign policy was such an issue, just 2 percent of the voters replied that it was. But are the voters really right this time?

Europeans, in my experience, are more evenly divided on this question. Indeed, when they try to weigh up what the impact for Europe of the 2000 presidential election in the United States might be, discussions tend to resolve fairly rapidly into one of two apparently incompatible categories.

The first group, which contains people from both the left and the right, say this election could have an acerbic effect on Transatlantic relations, especially if George W. Bush is elected and, in particular, if the Republicans also manage to retain control of the U.S. Congress. Even a Gore administration, many believe, could also have a more combative relationship with Europe than many of its predecessors.

The second group, which seems to consist of most diplomats, most policy makers, and not a few pundits, holds that the election is really of only marginal significance in the continuing order of things. Often looking down their noses at the naivete of the first group, these worldly, wise observers believe that nothing that happens in November is likely to have much impact on the way that the United States and Europe address the issues on which they either agree or disagree.

Of one aspect of the 2000 election, however, we can be certain. The winner will be a free trade internationalist, not a protectionist isolationist. An avowedly isolationist candidate, Pat Buchanan, is running on behalf of what remains of Ross Perot's Reform Party. He is running because Bush has captured the Republican Party for free trade. Buchanan, however, is facing humiliation on NovemberÊ7.

Nevertheless, neither foreign affairs, nor international trade, nor even defense has been even remotely a major issue in the election campaign, at least up to the time of writing. Both Bush and Gore have made occasional speeches on such subjects, which have been pored over with excessive intensity by those who have a professional obligation to take them seriously.

Bush, in particular, has tried to push defense issues into the center of the political arena, though without great apparent success. It remains the case, though, in the United States as in most other countries, that the outcome of the election will be decided on predominantly domestic issues.

That said, what is the significance of the 2000 presidential election from a European perspective? Most of the signs from Gore are that his policies toward Europe would offer continuity from the Clinton years, but the truth is that he has made few commitments. Strangely, we know rather more about what Bush says he would do as president than we know about what Gore says he would do. Even so, this too is deceptive. In some ways, the more that we know about Bush's thinking the less we can be certain what it would all mean in practice.

Few contenders in recent decades have sought to win the White House with less experience of defense and foreign affairs than Bush. But this inexperience can be - and sometimes is - exaggerated. Bush may not know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, but the son of an avowed "foreign policy president" has already surrounded himself with experienced counselors from the Reagan and Bush Sr. years who seem likely to guarantee a fairly traditional Republican approach.

The Bush team is not united on every policy issue - advisers like Condoleezza Rice and Richard Perle represent moderate and hard-line poles respectively and have already clashed on issues such as missile defense and the Middle East - but the Republicans are committed to reviving many 1980s preoccupations. These include increased military budgets, expansion of U.S. weaponry programs, a more confrontational approach to China and Russia, and an unconstrained approach to free trade, though many lines of policy would remain unchanged from the Clinton years, too.

None of these issues is more divisive for Europe than the national missile defense program, which Bush wants to extend well beyond the limits of the system which Bill Clinton was examining until he handed the issue to his successor. Bush supports sea and space based expansions of the land-based anti-missile system, stirring echoes of the 1980s Star Wars project, and raising issues which go far beyond U.S. borders. In particular, Bush has said he will offer to extend the missile shield to Europe. But what if Europe - or some Europeans - say, "No, thanks?"

Missiles are the most high-profile defense issue which could sour U.S.-European relations over the next decade. But they are not the only one. Rice has said that European nations are going to have to make a highly charged choice between government social programs and the increased defense spending which even the Clinton administration has been pressing Europe to adopt. This could become an explosive divide between the United States and Europe.

Neither Bush nor Gore is an isolationist, but Bush, in particular, aims to ration the extent to which the United States becomes directly involved in peacekeeping measures around the world. Bush would try to set a date for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Kosovo and Bosnia, and would insist on "exit strategies" for any future commitments.

European diplomats are skeptical about such pledges - partly because these were the sorts of things that Clinton used to say before he became president too - but they may underestimate Bush on the issue. Even if they do not, troop deployments both inside and outside Europe are likely to be a constant irritant in relations.

The assumption in most European capitals is that Gore would be an easier president with whom to deal. In terms of policy continuity, that is true, but Gore is more of a defense hawk than Clinton was. His record as a senator was marked by a series of independent votes on defense issues - in favor of the MX missile and the Gulf War, for example - which do not suggest that he will easily accommodate himself to Europe's skeptical views on missile defense.

While defense could be the divisive issue with a Bush administration, some of the tougher battles with a Gore administration seem likely to occur on trade. Both candidates advocate free trade and seek presidential fast track negotiating authority, but Gore has increasingly hinted at limits that would set him apart from Bush. Gore is committed - albeit somewhat vaguely - to making tighter labor and environmental standards an integral part of international trade negotiations. The effect could be to slow the momentum toward further trade liberalization.

While this would inevitably affect a major trading block like the European Union, the big trade showdown issue with a Gore administration seems likely to be genetically modified foods. In one of the few detailed statements that either candidate has made on any trade issue, Gore has reiterated a tough line in support of American food producers, dubbing the EU's position as unacceptable and unscientific, and raising the prospect of retaliatory actions that would certainly not harm his standing with the voters and interest groups. And it is those voters and groups, on November 7 and afterward, who will be the ultimate arbiters of any U.S. administration's room to innovate.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.