U.S. Election: A Nation Divided

Security expert Heinz Gärtner discusses the U.S. election: How will the American vote affect European interests?

Top Stories | Philippe Schennach | November 2012

At the second U.S. presidential debate, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney faced his rival President Barack Obama’s rekindled charisma, but the race remained tight (Photo: Justrin Lane/ EPA / picturedesk.com)

"Americans are like the stock market," U.S. policy expert Heinz Gärtner chuckled, "if something happens, they react very quickly." With the continent engaged in its own economic and financial convulsions, many Euro-pundits forecast an Obama victory. However, as we saw in 2000 and 2004, Americans can be unpredictable voters.

A senior researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (ÖIIP) and lecturer at the University of Vienna, Gärtner is the author of books like Obama: Weltmacht – auf neuen Wegen (2008) or Internationale Sicherheit – Definitionen A-Z (2008). We met in his office, at the ÖIIP, the day after President Barack Obama and Govenor Mitt Romney sparred in their first of three televised debates. "Even after the first debate," he mused, "I still think that Obama has a 70 per cent chance of winning." But at this point, the campaign battle that began on an economic front has moved to foreign policy.

After the death of the U.S. Ambassador in Benghazi, Obama support suffered and The New York Times cited Romney’s "knee-jerk" reaction and remarks after the event as "unpresidential." Romney’s is quoted as saying, the "first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation." Increasingly, approaches to foreign policy are becoming a game-changer.


Opposing camps

America is a deeply divided country – on many levels. According to The Economist, "nearly two in three whites will vote for Mr. Romney; and four out of five non-whites will vote for Mr. Obama." While many feel Obama has governed mostly as a centrist – and in Britain might even be considered a Tory – Romney adopted extreme, Tea-Party-inspired positions to ensure his candidacy.

For Gärtner, "the whole Republican campaign has been based on ideological values and not so much on reality." Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of trying to "turn America into a European-style entitlement society." Romney’s party’s call for small government is an echo of an ideology propagated by the Chicago School of Economics – an institution heavily influenced by neo-classical European thinkers.

Especially through the influence of his book The Road to Serfdom, famed Austro-émigré Friedrich Hayek is often considered the inspiration for this Republican worldview. He believed that if governments were restricted, then extremists like the National Socialists would be kept at bay. But Gärtner views any Republican anti-statist worldview as a pretence rather than an actual belief. "Republicans had supported the government under George W. Bush, so now small government means small Obama," Gärtner says, it’s purely ideology: "If you don’t like the government you simply call on Hayek."

Despite Republican extremism, Gärtner sees the whole of American society becoming more politically liberal: "Nowadays, American civil rights movements have achieved much in regard to gay rights, abortion rights and birth control." However, old issues are being rehashed, "Republicans want to turn back time, and this is also reflected in their approach towards foreign policy." Gärtner sees Republicans returning to "American Exceptionalism", the belief that the U.S., as a global leader, play by different rules than the rest of the world.


Rekindling bi-polar relations

Experience in foreign policy has traditionally been a crux for challengers to sitting presidents. Gärtner describes Obama as a "globalist", having shown his willingness to co-operate on an international scale. With much less political sensitivity, Romney, might require a crash course before taking office.

Many pundits, including Gärtner, believe that Romney has a post-WWII global picture: "With the end of the Cold War, Russia ceased to be a threat for the United States. But if you look at Romney, he still thinks that Russia is the ‘geo-political foe No. 1’." Romney successfully irritated Britons and Palestinians, during his recent trip abroad, further undermining his credibility. After criticising London’s handling of the 2012 Olympics, his next international gaffe was suggesting that a lack of "culture" might explain Palestinians’ income-inferiority to Israel.

Further east, China has been made the bogeyman of this year’s election. According to Gärtner, the Obama administration has successfully engaged with the Middle Kingdom: "More and more, Obama has addressed the issue of human rights. Especially Hillary Clinton, who has made several official trips to China, emphasised the presence of human rights violations in China, which the administration does not accept, but they have not cut ties [with China] on global issues."

Romney’s rhetoric is deliberately tougher; promising voters that he will impose punitive tariffs on China – a dangerous pledge, considering the strain it may place on bilateral relations. "By accusing China of being a currency manipulator and calling them thieves and hackers, he could build up a new polar system." Gärtner also highlights another more dangerous outcome: "At the moment, China’s communist party is facing domestic political problems, so China would have Romney as their political bogeyman."

On a wider scale, Gärtner is more concerned about campaign one-up-manship, and how it will effect U.S. foreign policy: "Of course Obama and Romney have not committed themselves to direct military intervention, neither in Syria nor in Iran. However, Romney tried to push Obama in that direction." Romney has expressed support for Israel and controversially stated that Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear weapon would be sufficient for military intervention.

Should the situation escalate in the Middle East, Gärtner suggests, "neo-conservatives especially, could reference what Romney said in the campaign. Netanyahu might say Iran has the capabilities – what are you going to do now?"

Summing it up, he said Romney’s position is "much closer to war than Obama’s."


Asking around

The international market research agency YouGov recently released a poll suggesting that America’s reputation in Europe would face a serious setback if Romney were elected president. "If we commissioned a new poll in Austria, maybe 85 per cent would have a favourable opinion of President Obama," Gärtner suggested. "Governments, of course, would have to deal with any U.S. administration."

However, he also highlighted an issue dear to the Alpine Republic that would be silenced: "The Austrian government strongly supports nuclear disarmament and they would support Obama’s global zero U.S. nuclear policy. But if Romney becomes president this debate would be dead. During the Bush years we didn’t even talk about nuclear disarmament. We talked about non-proliferation, which is a very different topic."

At the UN seat in Vienna, Obama’s determination to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty made big waves, but it "was put on the shelf, because Obama couldn’t expect to get a majority in Congress."

No matter who wins, Obama or Romney, we can expect gridlock. Gärtner notes that the recent, relentless use of the filibuster makes change slow, if not impossible on some fronts. "Concerning the stimulus, Republicans blocked every new economic stimulus, which is also true for the health reforms." To many Europeans this sort of stalemate seems futile, or politically unwise, if not undemocratic.

Apart from the filibuster, Gärtner calls attention to another "weakness" in the U.S. legal system: "There is also gerrymandering – this means that each party can set the borders of the electoral district according to its advantage." According to the BBC, "every month there are 50,000 more Hispanics eligible to vote in the U.S."

When considering that Obama has been retaining a lead over his challenger in securing the minority vote, the Republican Party has seemingly chosen a strategy that would disenfranchise this core demographic. Republicans have promoted new voter ID laws, which several states have enacted in one way or another, in order to tackle the issue of in-person voter fraud – a virtually non-existent issue. In Texas, a U.S. District Court has recently ruled such measures as unconstitutional, unfairly alienating a high percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics living in poverty.


The state of the nation

Come election day, voters are faced with two very distinct choices. From a European perspective the 24-hour news media coverage exceeds all necessity. "The U.S. media always have an interest in a tight race," Gärtner explained. "If someone is ahead they always find something that would make it exciting again. So that’s the media’s self-interest." Initially portrayed as predictable, the President’s bland performance in the opening debate has pitted the candidates head-to-head. After Vice-President Joe Biden regained some of his party’s momentum against Paul Ryan on 11 October, the last two presidential debates on the 16th and 22nd were seen as victories for Obama.

"To some extent, the media has an influence in how they address the issues," Gärtner continued. And who knows, perhaps his own book, The American President and the New World (Der amerikanische Präsident und die neue Welt), hitting bookstores two days after the 6 November election, will frame the European understanding of the opportunities and limits in foreign policy decisions facing the America’s next leader.

Other articles from this issue