Superbarrio Gómez ran the most underreported campaign of the 1996 U.S. presidential election. The masked Mexican wrestler turned social activist showed up in New Hampshire during the primary season and declared himself a “candidate” even though his foreign citizenship rendered him ineligible. Decisions affecting the lives of Mexicans are made in the White House, he reasoned, so Mexicans should have a say in choosing its occupant. It’s a sentiment that’s widely shared: two-thirds of the 26,000 respondents from 32 countries in a recent poll believe that the White House has an important impact on their lives, and for that reason, almost half believe they should have a vote in the U.S. presidential election. (If they did, President Barack Obama would be a shoo-in, according to almost every poll.)
The level of interest in this U.S. election, however, is considerably lower than that of 2008. One reason for this may be that any global citizen tuning in to the campaign’s foreign policy debate would have struggled to find substantial differences between what Governor Mitt Romney advocated and what the White House is doing. There is also a growing sense of the relative decline of U.S. global power. The U.S. remains the world’s most militarily powerful country and its largest economy, but its ability to shape economic and geopolitical events in distant climes has steadily declined over the past decade — whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq, the rapidly changing Arab world or Europe’s debt crisis, Washington struggles to impose its will.
That said, the Oval Office remains the world’s strongest single center of power, and the outcome of Tuesday’s vote will be closely watched. Here are five places where the stakes are particularly high:
1. Syria: Breaking a Stalemate?
Syria’s civil war has killed upwards of 20,000 people, but the country remains locked in an effective stalemate: the regime of President Bashar Assad is unable to destroy the rebels, and the rebels are unable to destroy the regime. Given the sectarian stakes and the danger of igniting a wider regional conflict, as well as a fear of the growing influence of extremist elements among the rebels, the U.S. has held back from direct intervention, and even from enabling the rebels to receive heavier weaponry that could neutralize some of the regime’s military advantages. Both Obama and Romney say they oppose any direct deployment of U.S. military force in Syria, even if limited to enforcing a “no-fly zone” or protecting a rebel-controlled enclave — much to the frustration of allies such as Turkey and France. The Obama Administration is currently focused on forging a single opposition leadership structure based on a moderate consensus, in order to enable greater foreign support to the rebel cause. Many opposition activists and rebel fighters have expressed dismay and anger at what they see as the relative passivity of the Obama Administration in the face of the increasingly bloody impasse. As a result, the fact that Romney has publicly declared a greater willingness to consider arming the rebels — together with the fact that some of his advisers have expressed more hawkish policies toward Assad and his regime’s key backers, Iran and Russia — may give many in the rebel camp reason to hope the Republican candidate prevails on Tuesday.
2. Israel: A Jewish ‘Red’ State?
President Obama won the votes of 78% of Jewish Americans in the 2008 election, and despite the GOP’s best efforts to erode that advantage by painting the incumbent as somehow hostile to the state of Israel — a charge vehemently rejected by the Democrats as well as by a number of top Israeli officials — polls suggest Obama will again secure close to 70% of the Jewish vote, compared with around 25% for Romney. If anything, those numbers indicate that Israel is not the primary issue on which most Jewish Americans vote, since polling suggests that a clear majority of Israelis (around 52%) favor a Romney victory, compared with just 25% for Obama.
Israel, nonetheless, appears to be among the very few countries in the world whose citizens would prefer a Romney victory, perhaps as a result of tensions between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the President’s 2009 efforts to restart the peace process with the Palestinians. Comments made by Romney in a secretly recorded address to donors in Tampa earlier this year (he expressed doubt that any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is imminent, blamed the impasse on the Palestinians and vowed to kick the can down the road) certainly accord with mainstream Israeli thinking. But Romney later expressed his desire to see a two-state solution negotiated by the two sides. It remains unclear what either candidate would do to restart the moribund peace process if elected.
On the Israeli government’s primary concern, Iran, Romney has used more forceful language, but his effective policy commitments — sanctions backed by the threat of military action — appear broadly similar to Obama’s. Still, Romney’s drawing the line at Iran having the capability to build nuclear weapons rather than at actually starting the process, and a statement by one of his top aides that the GOP candidate would respect an Israeli decision to use force against Iran are deemed more pleasing to Israeli hawks. Then again, it’s generally understood in the Israeli strategic establishment that Israel’s optimal scenario is not a U.S. green light for an Israeli attack on Iran but for the U.S. to do the job. And on that front, Romney has also made clear that he does “not believe that in the final analysis we will have to use military action” against Iran.
It’s widely assumed, however, that efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the increasingly dangerous impasse will resume after the U.S. election, and Israel’s hawkish government will likely see a Romney Administration as more open to Israeli persuasion to adopt a hard line in any talks with Iran.
3. China: Big Change? No, Thanks
On his first day in the White House if elected, Romney has vowed, he would declare China a “currency manipulator,” threatening a potential trade war. The Obama Administration, for its part, has tried to make containing China the top U.S. strategic priority. But the Chinese leadership is not particularly fazed. While polls find a strong preference for Obama in Chinese public opinion, the leadership has confined itself to castigating both candidates for China bashing on the campaign trail. And Beijing isn’t taking Romney’s currency threat especially seriously. “Significant parts of the U.S. economy are in trouble, and you need to find a scapegoat, and China happens to be the one,” Chinese analyst Jia Qingguo recently told the Council on Foreign Relations. “But if the past experience serves as a guide, a new President will not significantly change the U.S. policy toward China because the relationship between the two countries has become so close and the interests have become so intertwined. It’s very difficult for a new Administration to significantly change its China policy without bringing a lot of damage to [the] U.S. economy and U.S. national interest.”
Beijing’s preference for stability may lean it toward hoping for an Obama victory, because relations with any new Administration usually start on awkward footing. On the other hand, Fudan University’s Shen Dingli argues that a Romney victory would allow the consummate geopolitical Etch A Sketch moment:
“If Romney wins in November, both he and presumably Xi Jinping will likely shake hands and forget what candidate Romney has said thus far, in much the same manner as both Beijing and Washington have moved beyond the rhetoric of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. But China has reason to be concerned that a second term for Obama — and the continuation of present policies — would present continuous challenges to the relationship. A new President would allow for a clean slate, one that wouldn’t push the United States in a harmful direction with regard to China. And, frankly, the quiet truth is that even if President Romney were to intend irrationally to hurt China, there’s little chance he would actually be able to chart a path to do so in which the United States remained unhurt by its own actions.”
Either way, regardless of what the candidates have said, Beijing appears not to be overly concerned about how their rhetoric would translate into governance decisions.
4. European Union: Austerity or Stimulus?
Yes, yes, the European Union isn’t a country. But the interlinked financial and debt crises of the past four years have demonstrated just how closely tied the fortunes of its 27 member states have become — and also how closely their collective economic fate is tied to that of the wider global economy, first and foremost that of its largest player (and consumer), the U.S. Anemic consumer demand in America is a major problem for European economies looking to revive growth through exports, while the state of U.S. debt has an impact on financial markets everywhere.
Obama is the overwhelming favorite of most European electorates, and the likes of France’s President François Hollande see him as a vital ally in the European debate between the more Keynesian growth-oriented policies of the center-left and the austerity orientation of the center-right led by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Romney’s laissez-faire approach to economic challenges may put him well to the right even of Merkel, and officials in Berlin and other European capitals see the Republican as an unknown quantity, whose policy choices are far from clear. His hawkish talk on Russia and Iran makes most European governments somewhat uncomfortable, while his greater resistance to the regulation of financial markets is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm among the E.U.’s power players.
The relative decline of the U.S., of course, means that Europe is no longer inclined to take a lead from Washington on issues ranging from the size of its military budget and share of NATO commitments to the management of its economies — as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner found a year ago, when European finance ministers simply ignored his exhortations to act more decisively to address their debt crisis. On Tuesday, Europe’s primary concern, like that of most American voters, is to see the U.S. get its own economic house in order as rapidly as possible. A robust American economy, after all, is vital for a global recovery.
5. The (Rapidly Shrinking) Arctic
Of course, the Arctic is even less of a country than is the E.U., but its rapidly shrinking ice cap may give it a more urgent stake in the outcome of Tuesday’s election than any other territorial entity on the planet. The shrinking ice is a symptom of a warming planet — a phenomenon the scientific consensus attributes primarily to the effects of carbon-gas outputs resulting from human activities. But restricting those outputs hasn’t been considered a crowd-pleaser by either candidate in an election race strongly focused on job creation — at least, that is, until Hurricane Sandy’s brutal intervention.
Scientists warn against reducing Sandy to a symptom of global warming, but at the same time note that climate change is a measurable and alarming phenomenon not being addressed by political leaders, to whom it will fall to both curb and change human behaviors that exacerbate the problem, as well as to develop strategies to mitigate the impact of the predictable nasty changes under way in global climates. Rather than an aberrant catastrophe, Sandy may be a harbinger of a new normal.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, originally elected on a Republican ticket, last week endorsed Obama for President on the grounds that he had already taken significant policy steps toward curbing carbon-gas outputs, while Romney had backed away from his previous positions in support of climate action. Bloomberg was essentially backing Obama as the candidate more likely to take the necessary action, even though the President has disappointed many environmentalists. If polar bears could vote, the Arctic might not be thrilled by the choices on offer on Tuesday. But like Bloomberg, they’d probably choose the candidate they believe would be less likely to ignore or evade their plight.