With just two weeks left before the US presidential election, the suspense is mounting. If anyone tells you with great certainty and confidence that either President Bush or Senator Kerry will win on November 2, you should be suspicious. The country is sharply divided, and the polls suggest an extremely close finish.
One of the looming questions in this critically important election is whether the traditional issues like the economy, jobs, health care, and education will be decisive or, rather, whether the concerns and anxieties associated with the war on terrorism, activated by the attacks on September 11, 2001, will mostly drive the choices voters make. If the former weighs heaviest, Kerry has a clear advantage – after all, the job record over the past four years and the astonishing fiscal deficit are hard to defend, and make Bush quite vulnerable. But if the country overwhelmingly feels it’s at war – and the fight against terrorism dominates common concerns – Bush will have an edge. It is not that, objectively, things are going well in Iraq – all evidence suggests precisely the opposite – but rather that Bush is seen as better able to deal with such challenges, and keep the United States safe, than Kerry.
For Latin America, does it really matter who wins the election? Whoever is the next US president, it is unthinkable that Latin America will occupy a high place on the foreign policy agenda. If there is one thing that clearly emerged from the series of three presidential debates – even the third one that presumably dealt with national, domestic concerns – it is that Iraq thoroughly dominates thinking on US foreign policy. Whether or not one agrees with the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, the fact is that for the United States the stakes are huge in that country. If Iraq descends into chaos and civil war -- which is entirely conceivable -- US foreign policy would be in shambles, and its international influence and authority would plummet, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Republicans and Democrats, Bush or Kerry, have little choice but to face and wrestle with such a prospect. In addition, the cost – in lives and financial resources – has already been enormous, and is likely to increase substantially before the end of US involvement is in sight.
Though Bush or Kerry is likely to devote considerable attention to Iraq over the next few years, each would probably go about the task in slightly different ways. In the debates, Kerry shrewdly invoked recent US presidents (even Bush’s father, and Ronald Reagan) who sought to create alliances and build coalitions to pursue foreign policy aims. Through a fresh start, he will probably take the necessary steps to get the United States back on such a traditional track. He will no doubt face formidable obstacles and deep suspicions, even under the best of circumstances. But in style and tone, the chances are he will be quite unlike Bush. A sharp difference in overall approach would have implications for Latin America policy, albeit indirectly. Bush’s unabashed unilateralism and questionable adherence to international law have provoked widespread resentment in Latin America – all of the polls indicate that – and whatever effort Kerry made to consult and work in concert with allies would surely be well-received by most in the hemisphere.
What would happen if Bush is reelected? On the one hand, if the past four years is a sound guide, Bush’s reelection, with a similar team in place, could mean another round of zealous unilateralism, in pursuit of the war on terrorism. In that case, the United States would continue to expect unquestioning loyalty from Latin American governments. (Kerry, too, would of course want Latin American support, but there would be less bullying.) On the other hand, however, even if Bush is reelected on November 2, it is by no means certain that the path and style he has pursued will necessarily continue. After all, Iraq is a mess, and the costs of the administration’s miscalculations and incompetence have been immense. Sectors of the Republican Party – more aligned, perhaps, with Secretary of State Powell and some leading Republican senators like John McCain, Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel – will push to return to the alliance-building practices that have worked in the past.
Other sectors of the Republican Party reflect more isolationist tendencies and resist vigorous US involvement throughout the world. Whatever happens in the election, it is a safe bet that there will be fierce battles within the Republican Party over the direction of US foreign policy. The so-called “neoconservatives”, whose position prevailed in Iraq, will have to answer to other factions.
The election is potentially significant for Latin America in another fundamental respect—not directly, but as a byproduct of national economic policy. The US economy is experiencing profound problems, including an unprecedented fiscal deficit, loss of jobs, and unmanageable strains on the social security system. How successfully either Kerry or Bush is able to address such problems has important implications not only for the United States, but for Latin America, and the rest of the world. Interest rates, after all, are not unrelated to the size of the fiscal deficit, which in turn has an effect on capital flows and foreign investment in the region. Moreover, for much of Latin America – particularly Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and even some Andean countries – remittances are a tremendous source of foreign exchange; last year, remittances from the US to family members in the region exceeded US $40 billion.
Economic anxieties are also related to the prospects for pursuing free trade throughout the hemisphere. In this regard, there is an important difference between Bush and Kerry. Progress in reaching free trade agreements with Latin America is likely to be slower and more difficult under a Kerry than a Bush administration.
Kerry would likely have more trouble securing a renewal of “fast track” legislation – in large part because he wouldn’t press for it as hard as Bush -- which is vital for giving the executive authority to negotiate agreements without being subject to amendment. President Clinton (more of a free trader than Kerry), after all, had been denied such authority for his entire term, and President Bush secured it only narrowly. The agreement with Central American governments, already negotiated, but not adopted, will have a tougher time under Kerry than Bush, as would negotiations with the Andean countries. Despite the Bush administration’s protectionism and mixed signals in recent years, in a second Bush period the Free Trade Area of the Americas would be higher on the agenda than under a Kerry government.
Though Latin America as a region was not raised in the debates -- indeed, as a measure of how much Iraq dominated, even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wasn’t mentioned -- the third debate featured an exchange between Bush and Kerry on the question of immigration reform, with Kerry proposing a slightly more flexible and generous plan for immigrants than Bush. Here again, however, the ability of either party to make progress in pushing for serious change in the immigration law depends substantially on the health of the US economy and the job outlook. The politics of immigration are complicated in both Republican and Democratic parties, but there is little doubt that economic and job growth will make it much easier to get through any serious legislation.
On an array of other issues on the inter-American agenda, the differences between a Bush and Kerry administration are likely to be modest. On October 15, the Kerry campaign issued a statement on US Colombia policy that could have been written by the current administration. Similarly on Venezuela and how to deal with the Chavez government, there are no discernible differences. On Cuba policy, what is significant is that while Kerry supports the current embargo, there has been a shift in opinion in the US Congress, even among Republicans, towards greater openness, and any initiative along those lines would not be met with a presidential veto, as it would today.
How would a Kerry or Bush administration differ in dealing with debt negotiations between the International Monetary Fund and, say, Argentina? It is hard to know, since this has not been a subject of debate in the campaign. But there is little reason to believe that a Kerry administration would be substantially more inclined to provide financial packages to governments in crisis than the Bush administration.
Yet, though the actual policy prescriptions may not be too far apart, there is a great deal of room for improvement in terms of the style and approach characteristic of the Bush administration. Positive steps would include trying to see fiscal questions not in a narrow sense but rather within a broader political context. Consulting more widely with other governments to develop common approaches would also be a major advance. One could imagine such a welcome change either under a Kerry government or, possibly, a second Bush administration that recognizes the folly of its recent policies and seeks to return to practices befitting a superpower.
Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University.