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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Foreign Policy Issues and the Next President

Daniel Serwer, scholar, Middle East Institute and professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)
Washington, DC
November 6, 2012

6:30 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. This, the last briefing of the evening before we enter into the time when all those results are going to be coming back and probably some of the most interesting parts of the evening of course, but a very interesting part, and I know a very popular part of the evening is this briefing on foreign policy and the next president. Daniel Serwer is here. He is a scholar, Middle East Institute and professor, School of Advanced International Studies. So without further ado, Dan.

MR. SERWER: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here and to attempt to tell you something you don’t know. But you’ve all been watching so closely, that’s going to be very, very difficult.

Let me just take a moment to invite those who are standing behind the cameras to come forward, take a seat.

MODERATOR: I think a lot of those are cameramen, operating the cameras.

MR. SERWER: Some of them, but there are a few guys stuck back there. Yeah.

I’ll open with just a few remarks and then we’ll go to questions. Foreign policy has obviously not played an enormous role in this election campaign. Why is that the case? Well, it’s the case partly because there have been more important domestic issues on which the candidates differed rather sharply. And on the foreign policy issues there was, it seems to me through the campaign, a growing convergence that was obvious, at least to foreign policy experts during the debate, that there was very little real substantive difference between the two candidates.

Even where there had appeared to be some in the past on Iran, on Syria, on the Middle East, those differences simply did not get articulated, and in fact I would say more than that, Mr. Romney conformed his ideas in many respects to the current Administration’s during the debate.

On things like the pivot to Asia, I think there’s a broad spectrum of agreement in the United States. I just don’t think that there’s anyone disagreeing with that. On Israel-Palestine, Mr. Romney appeared to veer sharply away from established American policy of seeking a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, but he quickly came back to the consensus position during the debate and on many other occasions. You can ask whether that’s entirely sincere or not, how would he actually behave in office. I can’t really answer those questions. I do think that there was a growing convergence on Israel-Palestine.

And even on Iran and nuclear weapons, there’s some difference of emphasis, but there’s no real difference in policy. And the policy is to tighten sanctions, seek a negotiated solution, and be prepared to use force if necessary.

On Syria, Mr. Romney took a somewhat stronger position in favor of giving heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels. That is a difference that has very little resonance in the American body politic, which isn’t following Syria very closely. So it had very little impacts in the campaign.

So on these policy issues – and there are many others that you’ll want to ask about – some of my Balkans friends are here, and they’ll no doubt want to ask about Balkans issues because those are issues I know well – but frankly, there isn’t much daylight on policy questions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney that I can tell.

Where there is a big difference, a difference that was not discussed at all during the campaign –there was speeches made about it, but there was no real joining of the conversation – is on budget. The Obama Administration plans a kind of steady state budget for both the Defense Department and the State Department. That would maintain a strong American defense, but also give our diplomats a measure of what they need. I don’t think it’s quite enough, but I think it’s a measure of what they need.

Mr. Romney has very different plans if he is, in fact, wedded to the Ryan budget. The Ryan budget decimates what’s known as the 150 account, which is the foreign affairs account. It decimates spending in the State Department, USAID, and really, really cuts way back. You have to, of course, remember that in the foreign assistance part of the budget, a lot of the money is already spoken for because it’s committed to Egypt and Israel and a few other places. So when you cut, you cut right back to that bone. And when you do that, the rest of the world gets virtually nothing, including embassy security gets very – gets a big cut under the Ryan plan. It’s really quite dramatic.

So on budget, and budget is important to a number of the countries from which you come, there is a big difference. Of course, this is a difference that has to be worked out in the legislature. The Tea Partiers in the House can’t have exactly what they want; they will face significant opposition if the Senate remains in Democratic hands. I should also mention the possibility of the sequester, which the President has said won’t happen, and how he knows that, I don’t know, because, of course, it’s unknowable. But the sequester is even worse for the foreign affairs side of the budget than the Ryan budget would be. And it’s very, very bad for the Defense Department as well.

I certainly hope the sequester doesn’t happen, and I think there is a big difference between the two on budget issues when it comes to foreign policy, not so much on the policy issues.

MODERATOR: Okay. Dan, thank you very much. And before we go to the questions, let me remind you that we’re joined by our colleagues in New York, so if there are any questions in New York, just go to the podium there, give your name and organization, we’ll call on you. And the same is true here in Washington. So, any questions?


QUESTION: This is –

MODERATOR: Wait for the microphone, please.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. Yes, (Inaudible) newspaper at Egypt. Given the fact that Governor Romney has no background in politics generally, that was reflected in the foreign policy debate, the last one, whom do you think are going to grasp the policies if he wins today? Thank you.

MR. SERWER: Well, you’re asking me to predict who the Secretary of State will be, who the National Security Adviser will be. (Laughter.) The candidates for those positions are well known. They are the – I think there are 20 or 22 foreign policy advisers in the Romney camp. There are probably more by now, because those numbers always grow quite dramatically. And some of those people are extremely well known. Some of them are very hard line, I would say, rightwing people, like John Bolton. Others are far more moderate people. I would count my colleague Eliot Cohen in that category. It’s anybody’s guess who is going to shape these policies.

But if we can hope that the candidate, once he becomes president, if he becomes president, sticks more or less with what he said in the campaign – certainly towards the end of the campaign he was talking a much more moderate line of continuity with Obama policies, rather than a sharp break.

The main claim of the Republicans in this campaign has been that Obama hasn’t shown leadership; he hasn’t shown enough resolve. That’s a very – it’s a difficult criticism to get your arms around, because what does it really mean? And how precisely would you show leadership? Well, it depends on circumstances. If it is a terrible storm in New Jersey, you show leadership by joining with the Governor of New Jersey in the relief effort. We don’t know how Mr. Romney would handle foreign policy crises, but we’ve never known how new presidents handle foreign policy crises. We can get over it.

MODERATOR: Okay. Another question? Yes, right here.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m (inaudible). I work for the Armenian television. The same difficult question on the other side, if –

MR. SERWER: For which television?

QUESTION: Armenia. Armenia First Channel. So if Obama is reelected, then who are the candidates for the Secretary of State, on this side? It’s – I know numerous names are being circulated, but what about John Kerry’s candidacy? Who has the most likelihood?

MR. SERWER: Yeah. I think it’s very difficult to predict at this point. I wouldn’t even be 100 percent sure that Hillary Clinton will leave, though she said very clear that she’ll leave. (Laughter.) Maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part.

John Kerry is a sitting Senator. If he resigns to become Secretary of State, there has to be a new election in Massachusetts. And given the difficulties the Democrats have had in this round with Massachusetts, I’m not sure they want to go for that again. And the majority in the Senate, if they are able to preserve it, is very, very important to the Administration and to the Democrats. So I’m not sure if John Kerry, who is an obvious name, is a likely name. There – anybody can think of others. On the way over, I was listening to NPR. They mentioned Bill Burns as a possibility; everybody knows that Susan Rice is a possibility, but would have some difficulties in confirmation, given the controversy over what happened in Libya. It’s anybody’s guess. The decisions of a single person are always very difficult to predict.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question in the back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Washington, D.C. bureau. What are you expecting in U.S.-Russia relations if the Republicans will come to power? As you know, the main priority of Barack Obama’s foreign policy was reset policy. Thank you, sir.

MR. SERWER: Well, I – if I had to guess where a policy of greater resolve would be applied, it would be with Russia. I don’t expect it would be truthful or very pleasant, but I suspect that, even with an Obama reelection, we face a toughening up of American policy towards Russia. I think the Americans have the feeling that they didn’t get as much out of the reset as they would’ve liked, and that if they’re not going to get something better than that, that they may as well toughen up a bit.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question right here.

QUESTION: Oh, hi. (Inaudible) Hindustan Times, India. Presuming Mr. Obama wins, what do you see him doing differently or more in the second term? Presidents are known to go after foreign policy and leave behind some kind of legacy, foreign policy legacy, try to, at least, in their second terms. Clinton did, for instance. Thank you.

MR. SERWER: It’s difficult to predict. Mr. Obama was clearly burned on the Middle East, that is he tried to achieve something; he was unsuccessful, for whatever reasons. Would he try it again? Frankly, the politics, the domestic American politics of the Middle East are such that only a second-term president, in my view, can now deal with this issue because he has to do things that will be unpopular in the American public. Will Mr. Obama take that route? I think it’s difficult to say. I just don’t know.

I think he’s very serious about the pivot to Asia. And he hasn’t been entirely successful at pivoting to Asia. But here’s something that I think is very important for the foreign press to understand, that there are some things changing in the United States that will open up new policy – new possibilities for American foreign policy. And the most important of them is the rise of domestic oil production and of oil production not only from domestic sources but from Canada and Brazil, which are essentially reliable sources of energy.

If – getting oil from reliable sources does not make us invulnerable to price hikes. If the world price of oil goes up, it goes up every place. But it does reduce the pressures for America to play the role it has played in the Middle East, vis-à-vis the oil-producing countries. And I think it will be very interesting to watch in the next four years, because this is changing so rapidly that even a few years will make a big difference in where America’s getting its oil. And it may get much more, also, from Africa, which is also relatively reliable.

So I think if I were a reporter keeping my eye on things that might affect American foreign policy in the next few years, I’d keep my eye on oil and oil politics. I think it – that may change quite a bit.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question right here.

QUESTION: Hi. This is (inaudible) from CNBC Pakistan. What change of policy do you see if Republicans win, specifically regarding Pakistan?

MR. SERWER: Well, here, too, the question of resolve arises. I think no one, including in the current Administration, is very satisfied with the American relationship with Pakistan. And there’s a lot of nervousness about Pakistan in the circles I run in. When people talk about why it is that we feel we have to remain in Afghanistan as long as we do, and why do we have to keep troops there even after 2014, it’s really all about Pakistan. It’s not about Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a big problem for the United States because it’s a country that has nuclear weapons; it’s a country that, whether it wants to or not, harbors a substantial number of Islamic extremists and terrorists. And it presents big problems for the stability of Afghanistan; it’s a big challenge for India. It’s one of those problems that doesn’t go away, and – but I think you can expect even a second Obama Administration to be a bit tougher with Pakistan.

MODERATOR: Okay. A question right here on the side.

QUESTION: Thank you. Astrid Doerner with Germany’s business daily Handelsblatt. On the pivot to Asia, could you elaborate a bit more? China has been a topic in this election and their economic interests the U.S. have in their – changes in the political leadership in China also. So how could that pivot actually look like?

MR. SERWER: Well, it looks like many things. It looks like more diplomatic attention not only to China, but to Vietnam, to Burma, to Thailand, to Malaysia, to lots of places in Asia. It looks like more attention to the U.S.-China relationship, especially with respect to trade and investment, protection of intellectual property in China, and some issues that the Americans are unsatisfied about. And of course, it includes a military dimension of movement of American – the American Navy in particular towards the Pacific.

I don’t think – I mean, there is a small increase in ground forces as well, the Marines in Australia, but I don’t think that’s in the future. I think it’s the Navy presence that the United States will rely on in Asia.

MODERATOR: Okay. A question here in the front. Hold on a second.

QUESTION: Good evening, Mr. Serwer.


QUESTION: Okay. Good evening, Mr. Serwer. (Inaudible), Voice of America. Even if Obama got reelected or Romney’s the new president, do you expect some kind of speed up the process in the name issue between Macedonia and Greece? Thank you.

MR. SERWER: No. (Laughter.)


MR. SERWER: Let me say that – just for the sake of the others, that the issue is that Greece doesn’t accept Macedonia being called Macedonia. I just don’t see any opening for a solution to the name issue, and frankly, I hope to see Macedonia a member of NATO not by resolution of the name issue, but by acceptance of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a member of NATO. But that’s another big issue, and I don’t want to distract attention from other matters.

MODERATOR: We’ll turn now to the Foreign Press Center in New York. Go ahead with your question, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ahmed (ph) (inaudible), daily newspaper of Egypt. I have a quick question. Does a second presidency for President Obama or the first presidency for Mitt Romney indicate there’s going to be a substantial change with the policies with regard to foreign aid – I’m speaking about North African region, Egypt, Tunisia – in accordance with the agreements that have been – or the promises made in Deauville, France during the G-8 summit last summer?

The second part: Would President Obama in his second term take a hardline stance against an Islamist government in this part of the world after the Arab Spring? With regard to women’s freedoms, with regard to minorities, how do you foresee a second term for President Obama and a first term for Mitt Romney, whichever ways it go?

MR. SERWER: Yes. I’m not sure about the specific commitments at Deauville, but in general, if Mr. Romney is elected, there will be much lower budget available for all foreign assistance. He won’t ask for it, and the House will budget it at very low levels. Now, there are some commitments I indicated earlier, like the commitments to Egypt and to Israel, that are hardcore commitments that I think will be kept. But that just means that everything else gets cut even more.

So I do think it will make an enormous difference if Mr. Romney is elected when it comes to foreign assistance. He’s also indicated – and I recommend highly the speech he gave on foreign assistance. It’s a very sensible speech that ties American foreign assistance much more tightly to creating the conditions for economic growth and development, and much less direct assistance to economic enterprises. And frankly, I think that’s a good direction anyway, whatever administration is in power.

But I do think that there will be virtually no money available for any foreign assistance to any but the very top priority countries if Mr. Romney is elected and the House remains in Republican hands. The Senate will lean in the direction of a higher budget figure for foreign assistance, but that’s going to be very difficult if the Democrats don’t have the White House.

On women and minorities, I think you can expect any American administration to take a pretty hard line on treatment of women and minorities in Arab Spring countries, whether they are governed by Islamists or not. What I think you can’t expect, because we haven’t seen it yet, is support for women and minorities – and I might even say women and a majority – in a place like Bahrain, which has not had a successful Arab Spring revolution. And the Administration has remained less critical certainly than I would like of the monarchy in Bahrain.

But where democracy really starts to take root – and that certainly includes Tunisia and Egypt and Libya and I hope someday soon in Syria – I think you can expect the Americans to put human rights high on their list of priorities and to be very committed on women and minority rights.

MODERATOR: A question in the back now?

QUESTION: (Inaudible), Taiwan. Do you see any differences between the two candidates, their approach to the process of relocating or rebalancing resources from the Middle East to Asia? And that’s the first question.

And the second question is: Obama is seen as less tough on China compared to Governor Romney, and given the economic situation in this country, do you think once Obama is reelected he will take a tougher stand towards at least the economic issues with China?

MR. SERWER: I don’t think there’s much difference between the candidates on the rebalancing towards Asia. I think among foreign policy experts, this is not a subject of dissent from many people. This is – there’s a strong consensus in that direction.

When it comes to China, this is one of those difficult subjects that, because we were in an election campaign, some things were said that don’t make much sense. The fact is that China has revalued its currency to some degree, and if it’s a currency manipulator in the last few years, it’s a currency manipulator in what the Americans would regard as the correct direction, so why are we criticizing them? And if you label them a currency manipulator on your first day in office, the first thing they’ll do is stop the revaluation of the renminbi – I never pronounce it right – and you’ll be in a more difficult situation than we were without declaring them a currency manipulator on the first day in office. So this is one of those things – I mean, I regard this as a gross stupidity.

MODERATOR: Question here in front.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Can you tell us (inaudible) maybe John Kerry will be the next State Secretary? Do you think that he will follow the steps of Madam Hillary Clinton, or he might – he has not vast knowledge of the Balkans well or the countries waiting for Euro-Atlantic integration. On the other hand, Mr. Burns has knowledge of Balkans.

MR. SERWER: I’m never sure how much the personal knowledge of the Secretary of State of a particular region of the world really has a big impact or not. I mean, there’s a whole apparatus there. I used to be part of it. I know very much very well how strongly that apparatus supports the Secretary of State. No matter what the subject, they’ve got people who can bring a Secretary of State up to speed. I have tremendous respect for the professional Foreign Service, and I think if Mr. Kerry is Secretary of State, he’ll get briefed up on whatever is a priority.

MODERATOR: Question right back there.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) from Korean Broadcasting System. Could you tell us the difference between Romney and Obama in their policies with regards to nuclear North Korea?

MR. SERWER: To my knowledge, there’s been very little discussed in the campaign. I’m not sure I have any clear indication of what Mr. Romney himself thinks on this subject. He has some advisors, like Mr. Bolton, who are very belligerent on this subject and who would be happy to see the North Korean regime collapse tomorrow. Actually, I know a lot of people who’d be happy to see the North Korean regime collapse tomorrow. But there’s a difference between thinking that would be a good thing and actually trying to make it happen or throwing away the relationship that has been developed with North Korea.

The Obama Administration has actually been very tough on North Korea. It’s done some things I find it hard to agree with, in making humanitarian assistance conditional, in fact. So it’s very hard for me to define a clear difference at this stage. I just don’t know how Romney would handle the situation differently.

MODERATOR: We’ll go back now to our Foreign Press Center in New York. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Cristiano Fuentes (ph) from RTP International, from Portugal. My question is regarding the two candidates, Romney and Obama. What are the main differences between these two candidates regarding the euro crisis and, of course, what’s happening in Greece, Portugal, or Spain?

MR. SERWER: The euro. I don’t think there’s a lot of difference that I know of between these two candidates on the euro. I think what you’ll find generally among Americans who care is that we like the euro. We like it not only because it enables – I’m going to Europe tomorrow and I only have to carry one currency in my pocket. We like it not only for that reason, but because it has, for some years, helped to create a very large economic area that is likeminded with the United States in the sense that it’s a free and open economy that welcomes trade and investment. And that’s a good thing, so far as we’re concerned. And a stronger Europe is a good thing.

I think the main concern in the United States is that policies taken to protect the euro should not limit growth as much as they have in Europe. Now, that doesn’t mean that we back the protesters in the streets of Athens and Lisbon. But it does mean that the Americans are concerned, it seems to me, that Europe not take a deep dive into recession and that its institutions should do whatever is necessary to maintain the euro and to restart the European economy, which is clearly in difficultly. The Obama Administration, I’m sure, was holding its breath for months now until this very day that nothing terrible should happen to the euro in Europe, and I think that attitude will continue, whichever candidate wins.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question in the back there.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Magazine, Romania. If Mitt Romney wins the elections, do you think the Republicans will make any changes in the missile defense system, because I know that they don’t agree to the Democrats? And if yes, do you think it would be wise to change that system?

MR. SERWER: You ask an interesting question, and I’m afraid I just have not followed closely enough. My impression is that we’re beyond the point of no return with respect to the things that are to be constructed at this point. Whether there is – whether there are other things that can be done that the Republicans would prefer, I don’t know. Personally, I have very little confidence that one missile will ever hit another missile, but for those who do, this is a terribly important issue.

MODERATOR: Okay. Question right back there.

QUESTION: Evan Yu (ph) from Hong Kong Newspaper. Nationalism is on the rise in China and also in Japan. How the new administration is going to handle this situation?

MR. SERWER: This – over the islands?

QUESTION: Not only, but the local domestic politics, it seems that both Japanese politicians and Chinese as a whole is getting more nationalistic.

MR. SERWER: Yes. I think you’ve raised a terribly, terribly important issue, which is going to be important for the next four years, without a doubt. There are no issues in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, that can’t be resolved amicably by negotiation. But negotiated solutions are only possible if domestic politics will allow it. And the direction that things have taken in Japan and China is a very dangerous, nationalist direction that could – we could all live to regret.

With all due respect to the issues involved, the Senkakus or Diaoyus – I forget what they’re called – they’re not worth fighting over. I mean, it’s that simple. They’re not worth fighting over, and anybody who suggests they’re worth fighting over hasn’t been to war, and in particular hasn’t seen the kind of war that Japan and China could conduct against each other.

So there’s a need for negotiated solutions, and part of the problem in Asia is that it is not – the Asian countries are not interlaced in a security structure the way the European countries are. The problems between France and Germany were even worse than the problems between Japan and China. There’s no question about that. But at the end of World War II, we made sure that these countries were thoroughly embedded in a security architecture, which has kept the peace now for many decades.

That’s security architecture doesn’t exist in Asia. And we’ve managed without it because the United States was there and was accepted as the balancing power. But you know American power can only be the balancing power as long as the Chinese and Japanese and others accept it as such. And it can’t be as absolutely dominant as it once was.

So we’re in a very dangerous moment in the disputes over these various islands. Americans have no focus on this issue at all, because it’s hard to imagine that anybody would worry about a little rock. But Americans should remember we worried about this stuff. There were disputes between our states. You ask my why – you ever wonder why National Airport is in the District of Colombia? It’s in the District of Colombia because the line between Maryland and Virginia runs along that side of the river, not down the middle.

So, I mean, these issues were debated and taken to the Supreme Court in the early years of the American republic, so I don't want to minimize – I know we all get excited about these things, but the dangers are enormous in Asia.

MODERATOR: Okay. Any other questions? Just one more back there. Okay.

QUESTION: My name’s (inaudible). I’m from (inaudible) Television. Just to expand on question my colleague from Georgia says regarding Russia, how do you see – why did Obama Administration choose the restart policy? And obviously it seems that it failed. And what could be the answer from now on? You said it will be suffering in what sense? Okay. Thank you.

MR. SERWER: Well, I didn’t say the restart policy failed. I said it didn’t give us as much as we might have liked. It did give us a Strategic Arms Treaty, if I remember correctly, and that is a very good thing because it enables us to get rid of a lot of nuclear weapons we didn’t need. And there have been other benefits as well. But I think the feeling is that, especially in Syria, the Russians have played a very strong hand on the wrong side of things.

The Americans hands, however, have been somewhat tied, and people find it difficult to imagine why the Americans won’t give heavy weapons to the Syrians. And I can tell you a few reasons why. They can’t afford to lose the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan, which is one of the retreat routes for the Americans out of Afghanistan – I shouldn’t say retreat – withdrawal routes for the Americans out of Afghanistan. And they need the Russians for the P-5+1 talks with Iran on nuclear issues. They can’t afford to have the Russians turn their backs on the sanctions.

So Russia has some things that we need right now. But I think what Putin is doing is building up – he feels resentful of American efforts to expand NATO too close to the Russian homeland. We feel not well treated. And I think there might be not a – not certainly a cold war, but I think there might be occasions on which the Russians find the Americans much less cooperative than they might otherwise have been. That’s particularly true because of the somewhat autocratic turn that Putin has taken in domestic Russian politics. And Russian democracy is not a consolidated fact, and the Americans are concerned about that, I would say.

So predicting exactly where and how the Americans will stick it to the Russians as the Russians have stuck it to the Americans might be difficult to do. A stronger Russian expert than I am might be able to tell us a couple of places, but I think the American mood right now is not to give away anything for free to the Russians.

MODERATOR: Okay. Any other questions? One last one, we’ll take it.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you so much. Okay. Again, I’m Jasmin Sadhenya (ph) from (inaudible) Newspaper in Egypt. There is a disagreement among the Republicans generally regarding the foreign assistance because McCain has previously declared that some of the Republicans do support the continue with of giving foreign assistance to Egypt so that the U.S. would not, in turn, cut the foreign aid to Israel. Do you think if Egypt – if the U.S. cut the assistance to Egypt, would it cut it also to Israel or not? Thank you.

MR. SERWER: No, I’d regard – I thought I made that clear – I regard the foreign assistance to Israel and Egypt as virtually guaranteed. But if you lowered the overall foreign assistance budget and guarantee Israel and Egypt and few other countries what they think is coming to them, that means that there’s not much for anyone else. And that’s where the limits on the budget really hurt. It’s not going to hurt – I don’t think it will hurt Egypt and Israel. I think it might hurt a lot of other countries.

MODERATOR: Okay Dan. Thank you very much for joining us tonight. We certainly appreciate it.

MR. SERWER: My pleasure.

MODERATOR: Great. Wonderful. And thank you for joining us. Don’t forget we’re going to be staying open tonight until the results come in. So stay with us. Thanks.

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Daniel Serwer blogs at He is also on Twitter: @DanielSerwer.