The third US presidential debate: a consensus on Asian Pacific security
24 Oct 2012|

Governor Romney and President Obama during the second Presidential debate, 3 October 2012

I’m currently attending the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Honolulu, the fifth such meeting to be held in Hawaii as part of the now 20 year-old venerable Australian American Leadership Dialogue process. It’s an interesting setting to watch the third Presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

This debate focused on foreign and security policy, although Governor Romney was certainly keen to bring discussion back to the state of the American economy at every opportunity. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney performed strongly in the debate. On that basis I would score the debate narrowly in favour of Romney for two reasons. First, foreign policy should be a natural area of advantage for an incumbent President, because Obama has after all been directing the policy for the last four years. Second, Romney came across as looking largely on top of the issues, and cut a credible image as someone who could become the Commander-in-Chief. That’s no small achievement for a candidate who has had very little foreign policy experience in his political career to date.

A striking feature of the debate was the number of occasions where the President and Romney found reasons to endorse each other’s position on key strategic issues. For example, on Afghanistan both candidates rather pointedly ignored the moderator’s question about what the US should do if Afghanistan was not in a position to handle its own security requirements by 2014. Obama and Romney both said that US forces would largely be gone by 2014. In this sense, it’s reasonable to expect an accelerated withdrawal timetable regardless of which candidate wins the presidential election.

On the question of Iran, both candidates were very firm in saying that it was not acceptable for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons. Obama deflected any discussion of the reported negotiations which have been taking place between the US and Iran. Both candidates emphasised that military action would be a course of last resort and made very strong expressions of support for Israeli security. These aren’t unexpected positions, especially during the course of a US presidential election campaign.

One clear area of difference was defence expenditure. Romney maintained that he will not cut US defence spending as the current administration has. In fact he proposed to increase US defence spending by an additional $2 trillion. Not surprisingly the candidates sparred over just how realistic it is to propose spending increases of that amount. One of the sharpest exchanges between them took place over the question of the numbers of ships in the US Navy. Romney criticised Obama for allowing the US Navy to reduce to some 285 ships, and said that this reflected the smallest US Navy since 1917, to which Obama replied that in the modern era the US military had less need of horses and bayonets as well. It was an amusing but rather high-handed retort that will not play well with the US Navy or pro-defence audiences.

On China, the positions of the candidates have been well rehearsed. Obama described China as a potential adversary but also potentially a partner in the world community—if China is prepared to play by the rules. Romney likewise said that the US can be a partner of China and that the US did not need to be an adversary of Beijing in any way shape or form. Romney repeated his comment that, on day one of his presidency, he would designate China as a currency manipulator. And while the moderator asked whether that meant he’d start a trade war, it remains to be seen what that really means in practice. Both candidates were talking primarily to a domestic audience in making these remarks. I struggle to identify any significant difference between them on their approach to China. While Romney’s rhetoric is stronger, both he and Obama appreciate the importance of a well-managed relationship with Beijing.

After strenuous efforts to bury the term ‘pivot’ and replace it with the term ‘rebalance’, State Department officials will perhaps be dismayed by President Obama referencing the US pivot to the Asia Pacific in his closing remarks. At least by implication that may be the closest that a presidential debate has ever come to referring to an element of policy closely engaging Australia. Again, there does not appear to be any substantive differences between President Obama and candidate Romney on long-term importance of the Asia Pacific to America’s interests.

Overall, the debate on foreign policy was in many respects an unexpectedly substantive exchange between two credible candidates.

Not many US votes will be swayed by foreign policy considerations but the third debate points to substantial areas of bipartisan support for policies which will continue to prioritise the Asia Pacific and will be of long term benefit to Australian strategic interests.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Barack Obama.