[Overseas view]Presidential perspectives

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[Overseas view]Presidential perspectives

What should we expect from a President Barack Obama or President John McCain? For the decisions that will help determine the future of America’s role in the world, with implications for global markets and international politics, the 2008 presidential election offers clear alternatives.

The result of the presidential election is just one of many factors that will make an important difference in determining U.S. policy. The current economic slowdown, the cost of U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, public demand for resistance to changes in the global economy, and a Congress determined to scale back America’s overseas commitments will each limit the next president’s room for maneuver.

The U.S. Congress will very likely be controlled by Democrats until at least 2010. The party’s congressional candidates enjoy a big fundraising advantage. More than two dozen Republicans have announced they will retire from the House of Representatives. The GOP must defend 23 Senate seats versus 12 for Democrats. Throw in the Bush administration’s historically low approval numbers and it appears all but certain that congressional Democrats will be celebrating in November.

Among other things, a newly fortified Democratic majority will pressure the next president for early withdrawal from Iraq and adopt a more skeptical approach to trade deals and foreign investment in U.S. assets than we’ve seen in quite some time. On many issues, Congress will prove the driving force.

Yet, the presidential election will have enormous significance for the future of American foreign and economic policy, because Obama and McCain offer very different sets of political strengths and weaknesses.

Conventional wisdom suggests that McCain’s national security experience would make him the more effective foreign-policy president and that Obama’s deeper knowledge of (and interest in) domestic policy makes him a better choice for those more interested in positive change at home. In both cases, the conventional wisdom may well prove wrong.

On domestic policy, McCain’s lack of experience on economic issues ensures that he will form an economic team with some of the most capable minds his party has to offer. McCain’s Senate voting record suggests that he’s a centrist and consensus seeker with a long history of working with liberal Democrats like Edward Kennedy and Russ Feingold on domestic issues. If nothing else, McCain has far more Senate allies than Obama has ? friends who can help him rein in the profligate spending proposals and draconian legislation aimed at China’s trade policy that are likely to emerge from the House.

Though a McCain victory would surely provoke an early (and bitter) showdown over funding for the war in Iraq and a timetable for troop withdrawals, issues like immigration reform, stem-cell research and climate change would offer McCain much common ground with the Democratic congressional leadership.

An Obama presidency would enable Congress to pass a steadier stream of legislation that a Democratic White House might well sign into law, but much of that legislation would further polarize Washington. In addition, though Obama isn’t the protectionist he sometimes appears on the campaign trail, the markers he set down before primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania suggest that he is unlikely to resist early congressional efforts to add environmental and labor provisions that could kill a number of future bilateral trade proposals.

Foreign policy is a different story. John McCain’s first substantial political experience came as a self-described “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” His formative life experience came as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It’s hardly surprising then that the Arizona senator is essentially a Cold Warrior, one who sees international politics primarily in terms of an extended struggle between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes.

That’s why he’s called for Russia to be excluded from the G7 group of industrialized nations, why he’s more hawkish on China’s military expansion than any of his Democratic rivals, and why he has called for a “League of Democracies” that would pool the combined strength of like-minded states into an institutionalized version of the so-called “coalition of the willing.”

Obama’s foreign-policy strength comes from his deeper curiosity about America’s role in what Fareed Zakaria calls a “post-American world.”

Washington now faces a very different set of challenges than those Ronald Reagan inherited in 1980. Obama’s willingness to rethink conventional assumptions about American power and the importance of engaging a broader range of states to address 21st century problems in international politics provide him with a better opportunity than McCain to forge the coalitions (of all kinds) on which Washington will have to rely as states like China, India, Russia, Brazil and others play a larger role on the international stage and in the global economy.

As Barack Obama and John McCain compete for votes this fall, the world will be watching closely to better understand how the two men differ from George W. Bush.

Though the next president will inherit the limits on his power that all presidents face, this year’s candidates represent different generations of thinking on how best to address the challenges facing the United States as the transition toward a new political and economic balance of global power gathers steam.

*The writer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

by Ian Bremmer
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