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Bush, Kerry Differ Slightly on Foreign Policy, Scholars Say

by Jeff Shaw

Small but significant differences between the major candidates emerge on issues of international relations, interventionism and military spending, but progressive critics are hesitant to give Kerry high marks.

Oct. 29, 2004 – While John Kerry might not represent a 180-degree turn from George W. Bush on foreign policy issues, scholars say, he would bring certain elements to the table that Bush has lacked -- including, some contend, greater competence and a willingness to use non-military tools in the foreign policy toolbox. Though both candidates are avowed interventionists, the way they approach the use of American power is likely to differ in certain ways.

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Kerry is "more knowledgeable, more experienced and less ideological than the incumbent president," said Stephen Zunes of the progressive think tank Foreign Policy in Focus. But people expecting a major realignment of international relations thinking if Kerry is elected, Zunes added, may well be disappointed.

"On some of these [foreign policy] issues ... there’s not that big a difference," said Zunes, also a professor at San Francisco State University. "There are very clear differences on domestic policy -- the environment, civil liberties, women’s rights -- but on foreign policy, the differences aren’t as great as a lot of progressives would like to hope."

Besides the Israel-Palestine conflict, Zunes said the candidates have a similar attitude toward American power projection, one that countermands international norms. He pointed to Kerry’s vote in support of a resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

The candidates also differ on nuclear proliferation, which both Bush and Kerry named as a top-tier threat during the presidential debates. Observers agree that Kerry is more likely to adopt a cooperative approach to anti-proliferation efforts.

"Granting Bush this unprecedented power to invade Iraq, as Kerry and Edwards did in 2002, wasn’t just a matter of political judgment -- it was, in effect, a negation of the UN charter," Zunes said. That document permits the use of force only in self-defense or when explicitly authorized by the UN Security Council. Neither condition applied to the war in Iraq, according to most international interpretations, including that of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Kerry’s speeches on the stump have shown a "rhetorical strategy [designed] to match Bush bomb-for-bomb," said Stephen Shalom, professor of political science at William Paterson University. "The question is: is that the foreign policy he's going to carry out?" Though the answer is unclear, Shalom estimates that Kerry’s eye to international relationships might make him less likely to intervene in other nations and conflicts.

"My guess is that Kerry would be less inclined to rush to war like the Bush administration did," Shalom said. "When Kerry says he wants to be multilateral, sure, he wants that to be a US-dominated multilateralism -- but that does put some check on the likelihood of his starting a war. Multilateralism matters not because Kerry offers a principled criticism of US foreign policy, but because it would put a check on Kerry's interventionist tendencies."

An explanation for the similar rhetoric and substantive differences between the two candidates, analysts suggest, can be found in their respective party bureaucracies.

"The problem with Kerry is that he still takes advice from the wing of the Democratic Party that has a record of favoring foreign intervention," says David Hendrickson, Robert J. Fox Distinguished Service Professor at Colorado College, noting that current speculation holds that Kerry would name Richard Holbrooke secretary of state if elected. Holbrooke was a key figure in the US military campaign in the Balkans in the 1990s.

William Hartung, president’s fellow at the World Policy Institute, an internationalist think tank, says that campaign rhetoric often does not reflect how a president will react once the rubber meets the road. Besides their parties, presidential decisions often depend on answering to constituencies and the unpredictable variability of international events.

"On paper, it looks like Bush is a neoconservative and Kerry is a liberal internationalist. When it comes to having to apply their policies, it gets a little messier," Hartung commented.

In Iraq, for instance, Bush eschewed multilateral measures -- but he had to go back to the UN for assistance with elections. On North Korea, Bush had to think twice about saber rattling because of regional complexities and military realities.

Similarly, Kerry talks about working closer with allies, but "there may be circumstances where that won’t be possible," said Hartung, including an increasingly dangerous and unstable Iraq.

Shalom says that though there is only "a marginal difference" between the two on the theoretical question of when the US should intervene in foreign affairs, "the anti-war movement would be more likely to influence a Kerry administration than a Bush administration."

There are, however, several clear policy distinctions to be made between the two candidates, Hartung said.

First, Kerry has said he won’t go full-speed ahead with deployment of missile defense, one of Bush’s pet projects. Instead, Kerry would redirect the funds toward increasing US special operations troops by 40,000. Out of approximately $10 billion budgeted for missile defense each year, Kerry plans to shift $2-3 billion toward his plan for the military.

Kerry also opposes research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. Opponents say that developing a new generation of bombs could result in a new arms race, but the Bush administration plans to move forward with research.

Additionally, Kerry favors working through treaties and other international agreements more than Bush does. While Kerry has indicated that there are problems with the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, he has criticized the president for entirely withdrawing from the negotiation process. "[Kerry] would have the United States be more constructively engaged than this administration has been on many issues - be it arms control, the environment or what have you," said Hartung. "I think [Kerry] would find a way for the United States to participate."

Kerry has been critical of the Bush administration’s refusal to sign onto the International Criminal Court and has spoken well of the Court, but Kerry has fallen short of commitment to signing it in any form. He has, however, been an outspoken supporter of the international ban on landmines.

The candidates also differ on nuclear proliferation, which both President Bush and Senator Kerry named as a top-tier threat during the presidential debates. Observers agree that Kerry is more likely to adopt a cooperative approach to anti-proliferation efforts. The democratic candidate has repeatedly criticized what he calls Bush’s inattention to the Nunn-Lugar program, a project that attempts to collect and dispose of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.

Kerry’s plan to ramp up the Nunn-Lugar efforts "is one of the more powerful arguments [Kerry] has made," said Zunes. The spread of loose nuclear weapons, which the program aims to prevent, represent "a far more likely scenario of the ultimate horror -- a nuclear terrorist attack on America -- than Iraq ever did."

"It’s very difficult to understand why there’s been such a lack of progress on Nunn-Lugar, on locking up access to Russian nuclear material," agreed Hendrickson. "That’s a serious problem, and the Bush administration has not shown enough attention to it." Hendrickson said he believes Kerry would provide a different approach.

One area where there is "almost no difference" between the two candidates is policy toward Latin America, said Shalom. Both candidates want to bring down Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, and both intend to maintain the longstanding trade embargo. Bush has taken a slightly harder line, says Shalom, recently tightening the embargo by placing further restrictions on American families who wish to visit or send money to relatives in Cuba. Kerry has said he opposes these measures, Shalom notes, but considers this one of several "slight differences in tone and emphasis -- certainly nothing that talks about a different kind of foreign policy."

If Kerry is elected, though, Shalom does expect certain differences in American covert action toward Latin America.

"I think that some of the actions under the Bush administration that were so crude and stupid -- like backing the Chavez coup when they could have waited a day to see what happened, and not made themselves look like thugs -- I assume Kerry would be more professional about that," he says. "They're still going to have the same basic orientation toward Colombia, the intention to destabilize Venezuela, and the intention to fit the entire continent into the neoliberal mold."

Another longstanding principle of American foreign policy has been support for authoritarian allies. This, according to Shalom, is unlikely to change regardless of how the November 2 vote shapes up.

"The US continues to support, as it has always supported, reactionary and authoritarian regimes that support US interests," he said, citing Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and nations such as Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union. "That's been a long-term pattern, and I don't see any difference between Bush and Kerry on that."

To Hal Harvey, environmental program director at the Hewlett Foundation and co-author of the book "Security Without War," this highlights a need for America to look more critically at alliances.

"The question we should be asking is, what's the best way to build an American foreign policy that reflects our true values … [such as] democracy, human rights and environmental sustainability?" asks Harvey. "You can't, on the one hand, support dictators running oppressive regimes because they're friendly [to the US] and on the other hand call yourselves the beacon of freedom. This does not go unnoticed around the world."

Alliances aren’t valuable in and of themselves, Harvey contends, and basing foreign policy on respect for human rights is a better strategy than simply backing any ally -- purportedly democratic nation or otherwise -- that professes allegiance to the United States.

In the future, Harvey expects ecological crises to cause military crises, events that require substantial planning and "aggressive diplomacy" to solve. Kerry, he says, is the more forward-thinking of the two candidates on these matters.

"When you look at the long-term trends that are going to drive security, you have to look at this gross disparity of income and at environmental destruction," said Harvey, arguing that the AIDS crisis and potential food shortages in Africa could create harrowing future conflicts. "We're going to see environmental refugees in the tens of millions in the not-too-distant future. Kerry's been in touch with those long-term trends, and he's been a terrific leader, especially on environmental issues."

During the first presidential debate, Kerry appeared more willing than Bush to consider some type of intervention in the Sudan, where even the US State Department says genocide is in progress. At least one scholar has more faith in Kerry than Bush to handle this crisis wisely.

"If an intervention could prevent genocide, I think he’d be more willing to [engage in it] than Bush," Zunes said. "At the same time, I think he’d be less likely to use humanitarian intervention as an excuse for an intervention that actually has ulterior motives."

Shalom, whose 1993 book Imperial Alibis is a comprehensive analysis of US interventionism, does not believe that the US should send troops to Darfur. The African Union, he says, would be in a better position to offer assistance, since the US has a track record of intervention for dubious purposes.

"The US's dirty hands don't lead me to oppose all intervention -- but they lead me to be very careful about it," Shalom says.

One thing that surprises Hartung is the hawkish way in which the foreign policy debate has been framed, especially in terms of the defense budget. "Not only is there no talk of cutting military spending, but there’s no talk of even holding the line," said Hartung. Both candidates are talking about increasing military spending, though Kerry’s planned cuts in missile defense could offset his other defense spending plans.

This has inflamed some progressives and fiscal conservatives, but Zunes says that with many segments of the country united in opposition to Bush, little is being said on the matter.

"Against almost any other Republican incumbent in history, I think there’d be much more public stress at Kerry’s positions," Zunes said. "But given what’s at stake here, and given that Kerry is more thoughtful and pragmatic, I think most progressives are content to keep their mouths shut until he’s in office."

Editors' Note: This article is the eigth in a series of pieces taking a serious look at the actual issues facing American voters (and non-voters) this election season -- not in partisan commentary format, but as hard news exposing a plurality of views. As the campaigns of both major parties focus more on gossip and rhetoric than on substance, The NewStandard will investigate what we can expect from each candidate, including how their positions differ (or do not), as well as alternatives overlooked or downplayed by politicians and the mainstream media.

For the previous articles in this series see:
"‘Small Businesses’ Debate Intentionally Skews Reality, Critics Say"
"Bush and Kerry Jockey to ‘Out-Sharon’ Each Other"
"Immigrants Kept in the Shadows by Presidential Frontrunners"
"Civil Liberties Considered Peripheral by Major Candidates"
"Labor Organizers Call Bush’s Threat to Workers ‘Unprecedented’"
"Spat Over N. Korea Nukes Almost Sparks Real Policy Debate"
"At Least On Health Coverage, Candidates Diverge Greatly"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jeff Shaw is a contributing journalist.

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