Why the U.S. Election Mattered

The 2008 Presidential election will have a major impact on U.S. foreign policy—but not for the reasons many think.

Whichever side one listened to during the campaign, the policy differences between Barack Obama and John McCain were said to be stark. McCain would pursue victory in Iraq; Obama would bring the troops home. McCain would push free trade; Obama would restrict it. McCain was a hawk who would take on a world full of evildoers; Obama was a talker rather than a fighter who would restore diplomacy to its pride of place. (Story continued below...)

Most of this, of course, was bunk. Campaign discussions take place in a mythical world where issues are simple and ideological, and there are clear right and wrong answers. The invocation of those answers by candidates is a political act rather than an intellectual one, designed to accentuate or blur differences between them to curry favor with key constituencies at key moments. In the real world, by contrast, foreign-policy issues are complex and practical, with only bad and worse answers—all of which usually involve unpleasant trade-offs and inevitable disappointments. So as a rule, campaign rhetoric is a lousy guide to post-election policy, and this cycle is unlikely to be an exception.

In truth, moreover, there are no longer many great debates about the basic course of Washington's relations with the world. The Obama administration, like its predecessors, will try to maintain Great Power peace and a liberal trading system while spreading freedom abroad at the margins—where it is not too difficult or costly. It will use both unilateral and multilateral action as seems appropriate. It will neither rule the world with an iron fist nor retreat into isolation but will engage reluctantly, pulled away from domestic issues by shifting perceptions of external threat or opportunity. Under Obama, most U.S. policies toward most issues will remain essentially unchanged—as they would have no matter who was elected in November.

So why, then—beyond its obvious symbolism and initial burst of foreign good will—will Obama's election have a major impact? Because the world today is full of serious and complicated challenges that call for sophisticated adult management by the world's hegemon—something an Obama administration is likely to provide and that McCain's wouldn't have.

The hallmark of George W. Bush's presidency, particularly in its early years, was disdain for technocratic competence and prudence. Whether because of politics or ideology or mere incuriosity, little attention was paid to conventional professional expertise. As the disillusioned social scientist John DiIulio, brought in to help run the new administration's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, put it early on, "there is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus … The lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking." DiIulio was referring to domestic policy, but the same attitude applied to foreign and security policy as well, typified by the still-baffling failure to plan seriously for handling Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In the end, Bush's many failures were due more to amateurism and irresponsibility than to substantive policy choices.

A McCain administration might have displayed some similar characteristics. John McCain has an impressive record as a legislator, but he ran for president on biography and character, not policy. From his selection of an inexperienced and intellectually undistinguished running mate, to his stumbling response to the financial crisis, to his hoary political attacks, McCain's campaign decisions did not inspire confidence in his future governance. McCain saw every problem as a morality play with himself as the hero, betraying annoyance at hints of complexity and nuance.

Barack Obama's campaign, meanwhile, was characterized above all by disciplined intelligence. From his painstaking organization during the primaries, to his selection and management of highly capable subordinates, to his sobriety and judiciousness throughout, he displayed precisely the qualities the Bush administration has lacked. Like all great politicians, Obama is something of a blank slate onto which admirers project the qualities they wish to see, not all of which may actually appear in the crunch. Still, it is telling that not just idealists and visionaries expect him to be their champion. So do large numbers of technocratic professionals in and around government, who are eagerly awaiting not only the passing of many hapless Bush appointees but their replacement with first-rate public servants.

This respect for professionalism, more than any fetish for bipartisanship or general desire to maintain continuity in sensitive areas, is what led Obama to consider asking Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to stay on in the new administration. For Gates symbolized better than anybody else the Bush team's belated recognition that competence matters. As the defense analyst Noah Shachtman described Gates's appeal in 2008, commenting on the Obama camp's publicly expressed interest in him, "since Gates has been brought in, things have started to turn [at Defense]. Budgets have begun to return to reality. People lose their jobs when they can't do them right. Experts in their fields are being heard. Sound policy is often trumping adherence to political orthodoxy. And the Pentagon is slowly, slowly starting to focus on today's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."

The implications of such an approach to U.S. foreign policy more generally will be interesting to watch. Those expecting immediate or dramatic change are likely to be disappointed (or relieved, depending on their perspective). The new administration will deploy more hopeful and soothing rhetoric, play better with others and quickly adjust policy on a few high-profile issues with primarily symbolic importance (banning torture, taking steps to close the detainee camp at Guantánamo Bay, etc.). But it will continue to prosecute operations in Iraq (at least for a while), pursue the "war on terror" (under a less bellicose heading) and cheerlead for globalization. At first glance an Obama administration, like many of its senior staffers, will look like the Clinton administration on a particularly good day, minus the soap opera.

Despite what many will argue, however, this will actually be cause for celebration rather than concern, since the global situation confronting the incoming Obama administration will not be uniquely perilous. Yes, the United States is stuck in difficult conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But other new presidents have been dealt weaker hands in more significant wars (think of Eisenhower and Nixon). Yes, Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons. But nuclear proliferation has been one of Washington's major headaches for six decades. And yes, the Russian bear is growling. But today Moscow poses a nasty regional problem, not a world-historical global one. Even the economic and financial crisis, as serious as it is, will not call into question the future of capitalism or trigger revolutionary upheavals in major countries the way the Great Depression did.

Though it's unfashionable to say it, the basic framework of contemporary global politics is actually in relatively decent shape (at least from a long-term perspective) and is likely to remain so for years to come. The United States remains the planet's dominant power, and most of the other major powers are its democratic allies. Research shows that economic, social and political development are linked and mutually reinforcing, meaning that the tides of modernity flow in the direction of liberalism. And even with the current economic crisis, large areas of the world are growing steadily and offering progressively better lives for ever-larger shares of their populations.

Precisely because he is so smart and pragmatic, Obama is likely to recognize that his central challenge is to right a listing ship of state and get it moving forward again—rather than to chart some fundamentally new course. And as he does so, the impressive returns on good seamanship will gradually become apparent.

Since the new administration will have to clean up various inherited messes and do so in highly straitened circumstances, its initial accomplishments may appear underwhelming. But the essence of prudence is avoiding unnecessary trouble, so many of its true successes will be notable less by their presence than by their absence. And since so many contemporary problems can only be managed or contained rather than solved, critics will always have plenty to complain about. But just as the Bush administration proved to be a lesson in the bad things that happen when public policy is not taken seriously, so an Obama administration may well become an ongoing lesson in the good that can happen when it is. And if that's how things work out—if Obama's style is matched by substance—then his presidency might almost live up to the extraordinary hype accompanying its arrival.