The third presidential debate made it clear: from Israeli-Palestinian affairs to the eurozone crisis, foreign politics will have precious little part to play in this US election
Israel and the Palestinians
For decades a focal point of US foreign policy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a notable absence in Monday’s presidential debate.
The only mention came when Mitt Romney was listing Barack Obama’s supposed lack of progress in his first term: “Are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement?” the Republican candidate asked. “No. They haven’t had talks in two years.”
The lack of discussion reflects an agenda that is changing, partly as a result of upheaval elsewhere in the region and partly as a result of conscious efforts by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to talk down the local conflict and talk up the threat from the Iranian nuclear programme. But it will deepen the disillusionment of many Palestinians with the commitment of the US to resolve the conflict, and perhaps increase their resolve to pursue alternative strategies, such as the bid for enhanced status at the United Nations.
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
The candidates restated long-held positions. Asked by the moderator, Bob Schieffer, whether an attack by Iran on Israel would be considered an attack on the US, both said they would stand by Israel. (The more pertinent question – what would be your response if Israel unilaterally launched an attack? – came later, and got no answer.)
Obama highlighted the difference between his position and Romney’s: “The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that during the course of this campaign he has often talked as if we should take premature military action. I think that would be a mistake.”
Romney spoke of the need to tighten sanctions and take further steps to isolate the Iranian regime diplomatically. “Of course, military action is a last resort,” he said. “It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”
In a cutting riposte, Obama said: “There have been times, governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you would do the some things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that that would make a difference.”
Volume, tone and perception count, of course. But on substance there may be little to choose between the two candidates.
Romney renewed his pledge to label China a currency manipulator “on day one”, arguing that the US was losing a silent trade war with the world’s second-largest economy.
Overall, the Republican candidate took a milder stance towards Beijing, telling viewers on Tuesday night: “We can be a partner with China; we don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form.”
But asked if he was formally accusing China of manipulating the yuan, and sparking a trade war, he replied: “There’s one going on right now, which we don’t know about it. It’s a silent one, and they’re winning.”
“We have to say to our friend in China … you can’t keep on holding down the value of your currency, stealing our intellectual property, [and] counterfeiting our products [and] selling them around the world, even to the United States.”
The US has not labelled China a currency manipulator since 1994, though successive administrations have considered doing so. Some observers doubt whether Romney would actually follow through on his claims.
Tania Branigan in Beijing
As expected, the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa hardly registered in the final US presidential debate.
“Africa” came up only once, when Barack Obama said: “Our alliances have never been stronger: in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel.”
The sole reference to South Africa was to the era of white-minority rule, two decades ago. It came when Mitt Romney said, of Iran: “I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah[s] they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.”
There was also a brief mention of Somalia, when Obama remarked: “We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan.” The US has carried out drone strikes, and provided equipment and training to the African Union peacekeeping force that drove al-Qaida-linked militants out of their strongholds in Somalia.
At one point Romney noted: “Mali has been taken over – the northern part of Mali – by al-Qaida-type individuals.”
But after four years in which a president whose father was Kenyan raised hopes but failed to set Africa alight, the slim pickings came as little surprise on a continent accustomed to being far down the global agenda.
Daniel Silke, a political analyst based in Cape Town, South Africa, tweeted: “#Africa barely exists in final #Obama #Romney Presidential debate last night.”
Another tweeter, named Bevan, posted: “Africa only mentioned twice in whole debate (Obama/Romney),hope fellow Africans took note. Only Africans can n will develop Africa for all.”
Jacques Sibomana, an entrepreneur, tweeted: “And Africa yet became a forgotten Continent during the debate #Romney and #Obama.”
Last week, two analysts, Witney Schneidman and Andrew Westbury, issued a plea for Schieffer to ask the candidates about Africa. They wrote: “We urge you to use your privilege as moderator to direct the country’s attention to a part of the world that has never been more important, but seemingly never so neglected as it concerns American foreign policy priorities: sub-Saharan Africa.” It appears Schieffer failed to heed them.
David Smith in Johannesburg
As with many other parts of the foreign policy debate, there was no daylight between the two candidates on Pakistan, with Mitt Romney using his time to try to demonstrate that he has some understanding of the country.
He listed all the well-worn problems that, in the eyes of many US foreign policy experts, make Pakistan a troublesome country, albeit one the US can never afford to ignore.
“It is not time to divorce a nation on Earth that has 100 nuclear weapons and is on the road to double that at some point,” Romney said.
Repeated reference was made to Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, including to the prospect of the country, of 180 million people, one day having more nuclear weapons than Britain.
He also noted the presence in Pakistan of the Haqqani network, an Afghan insurgent faction allied to the Taliban that has recently been designated a terrorist group by the US, and the threat that Taliban-sympathising ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan may pose to Afghanistan after the end of the US combat mission, in 2014.
He said: “This is a nation which, if it becomes a failed state … there are nuclear weapons there, and you have terrorists that can grab those nuclear weapons.”
With the stakes so high, Romney was never going to forgo any tools for dealing with Pakistan, including the supposedly secret drone programme run by the CIA. Although the unmanned aircraft are a major source of friction between Pakistan and the US, Romney said the US must use “any and all means necessary” to target terrorists. “I support that entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that policy,” he said.
For his part, Obama simply let his record stand, using his time during the Afghanistan and Pakistan section to turn swiftly back to domestic policy, saying his strategy of building up the Afghan security forces would allow the US to divert resources to “nation-building” in the US.
Jon Boone in Islamabad
Obama attempted to paint Romney as out of touch by recalling his Republican challenger’s statement that Russia was the United States’s “number one political foe”. He upped the ante a bit by saying Romney had called Russia the country’s number one political “threat”. Romney corrected him on that later in the debate: the main threat, he insisted, was Iran.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said, recalling Romney’s words. “Because the cold war has been over for 20 years.”
That’s what some Russians have been saying all along. Shortly after Romney made the statement, earlier this year, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, advised the candidates to “check their clocks from time to time. It’s 2012, not the mid-1970s.”
The hardliners inside Russia, including Vladimir Putin, instead welcomed the statement as “blunt” and “straightforward”. They are likely to do the same with the thoughts Romney aired during the debate.
“I’m not going to wear rose-coloured glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr Putin,” Romney said, noting that “Russia does continue to battle us in the UN, time and time again”. He also noted Moscow’s recent withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar agreement on arms clean-up as a sign of receding US influence in the world.
With US-Russian relations spiralling to new post-cold war lows, it will be hard for Russia’s leaders to disagree with any of that. Many will probably be happy simply to know that someone in Washington DC has noticed.
Miriam Elder in Moscow
“Our alliances,” said Obama, “have never been stronger: in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel.”
And for Europeans, that was it. The sole reference to Europe in the debate was a perfunctory passing remark from the president; the word Europe did not cross the lips of Romney at all.
There was no eurocrisis, despite the Obama administration’s worries about how the sovereign debt troubles might affect his re-election prospects, and despite the transatlantic pressure, on the Germans especially, to get to grips with the crisis.
Germany was not mentioned once, and France just once, along with Britain, in another throwaway remark, contrasting high US defence spending with the thriftiness of others.
The special relationship? The UK warranted one further single mention, Romney simply noting that Pakistan will soon have more nuclear warheads than Britain.
But failure to mention Europe may be just the way the Europeans want it. After talking to French and European diplomats, Libération’s Washington blog sensed they were OK with the fact that Europe had “disappeared from America’s radar”, happy that Obama was not blaming the eurozone crisis as a source of US economic woe, and that Romney had stopped riffing on the dangers of “European socialism” (in other words, the French president, François Hollande).
In a taster of its front-page editorial, Le Monde said: “Point taken: foreign politics plays no role in the American election. On 6 November, voters will decide on one issue alone: the economy.”
Despite the irrelevance of Europe to the campaign, European elites are, of course, keenly watching the US election. Support for Obama is overwhelming, even if disappointment with the last four years is palpable; wariness of Romney is widespread.
A BBC opinion poll released on Monday showed sweeping support in Europe for Obama, with France, perhaps surprisingly, returning stronger backing for the incumbent than anywhere else in the world, 72% to 2% for Romney. Two-thirds of British and Germans supported Obama, while Romney enjoyed 7% and 8% levels. The poll was conducted last month.
Romney’s highest European support came from Poland. But even that was a niggardly 16%, probably because of the Republican contender’s relatively hard line on Russia.
Ian Traynor in Brussels and Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
It may be next door to the US with a population of 590 million people and some of the world’s fastest growing economies, but Latin America barely received a mention during Monday night’s debate.
Obama failed to refer to anything on the continent south of the Rio Grande. Romney briefly accused the president of showing weakness towards Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez and failing to take better advantage of the trade opportunities in the region, but the total time devoted to Latin America in the 90-minute-long debate was about 20 seconds.
The sense of rejection was evident in the regional and Hispanic media.
“Obama and Romney Don’t Care About Latin America,” said ABC-Univision, a major Spanish-language media group. Online commentators noted there was no mention of the drug war raging just across the Rio Grande in Mexico, insecurity in Central America, or free trade with Colombia.
“Nobody loves our Latin America very much,” wrote Caio Binder, a correspondent for Brazil’s Veja magazine. Binder said Romney also got his numbers wrong in his brief mention of the region.
In a positive description of the trade opportunity that the US had so far failed to take advantage of, Romney said: “As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China. We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us – time zone, language opportunities.”
Binder commented acidly: “Wrong, governor: According to the IMF, the GDP of Latin America (and the Caribbean) in 2011 was $ 5.6tn, while that of China was $7.3tn.” Nonetheless, he said Romney had scored a point among Latin American voters for at least mentioning the region.
The lack of attention to the region may disappoint the 21 million eligible Hispanic voters in the US, who are seen as potential deciders in three swing states – Florida, Nevada and Colorado. In Florida, they are particularly strongly represented with 16% of eligible voters.
Nationwide, polls suggest Obama has the support of about 65% support of this group, compared with 35% for Romney. In Florida they are almost level.
But Romney’s mentions of Chávez, Castro and trade prompted his supporters to claim he had made the case to Hispanic voters.
“I was very gratified that it was Mitt Romney who brought up Latin America, who talked of doing more trade with the region, and was the one who said we have issues in Venezuela, we have issues in Cuba,” Hector Barreto, who chairs a Romney support group, told NBC.
Obama’s team claimed the president’s actions spoke louder than his words. “Two passing references to Latin America in a debate does not change the fundamentals of the president’s record on Latin America: No president has visited the region more times, in his first four years in office, exports are up more than 50%, we have new free trade agreements with Colombia, and Panama, and all of that is a function of his leadership,” said Dan Restrepo, who was the administration’s top Latin America adviser.
The oversight of Latin America was largely due to the moderator Bob Schieffer who choose not to raise related issues, such as regional diplomacy, trade, drug control and immigration. But language may also be a partial explanation. Although Romney talked of Latin America’s “language opportunities” for the US and although most Hispanics in the US speak English, the two candidates were less enthused to raise Latin American issues in this debate in English compared to interviews they have given to the Spanish language media.
Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
Neither Obama nor Romney mentioned anywhere in Asia but China during the debate, despite the fact that America’s presence in the region has involved a considerable number of south-east Asian nations in recent months, and that only looks set to increase.
The US secretary of defence, Leon Panetta, visited Vietnam in June to promote greater ties between the former foes and stabilise a move whereby 60% of America’s naval ships will be based in Asia Pacific by 2020. Then, last month in Jakarta, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, encouraged a regionally unified code of conduct for the 10 members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) in dealing with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea (Clinton later went on to visit both Timor-Leste and Brunei).
And in the US, Obama met Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, who was allowed for the first time in two decades to visit the US, and was awarded Congress’s highest medal. That meeting was followed by the easing of many of the travel restrictions and sanctions against the former pariah nation, and, just last week, the US military’s invitation to Burma to participate in a joint Thai-American military drill involving south-east and east Asian nations. That invitation was the US’s first such engagement with Burma since 1988.
With some analysts expecting the region to be at the centre of any US-Chinese disagreements over shared geopolitical interests, such as the South China Sea, one may very well expect to hear more about south-east Asia in the near future.
Kate Hodal in Bangkok