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Geopolitical Diary: The 'World Electoral Map'

Strategic Forecasting, November 4, 2008

'Geopolitical Diary' logo from Stratfor. (Image: Strategic Forecasting)

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, all other events are on the back burner and the world is hushed, waiting in deafening silence for the next U.S. president to come to power. Many around the globe have already identified their favorite candidate in whispers at diplomatic events, embassy cocktails and unofficial meetings but held their opinions close to the chest officially (except in Iran or Venezuela). Here’s how the “world electoral map” breaks down.

The bulk of East Asia generally favors Sen. John McCain. Historically, Republicans have exhibited a stronger commitment to East Asian affairs — from the post-war reconstructions of Japan and South Korea to Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and U.S. President George W. Bush’s pursuit of deeper trade ties. China is wary of a Democratic executive and legislature, particularly during an economic recession. Beijing perceives the Democrats as more prone to protectionist measures and China-bashing, which could impinge upon the United States’ otherwise open trade policies. Ironically, Taiwan too hopes for a McCain presidency for reasons that put it at odds with China, as the Republicans have long had a watchful eye on Taiwan’s security needs. Other Asian countries stand to benefit from freer trade, and South Korea is apprehensive about the status of its already-signed free trade agreement with the United States if ratification is left to a Democrat-controlled Senate without any presidential support.

“Old Europe” has the “change” fever. France and Germany are hopeful that should Sen. Barack Obama reach the White House, they will be consulted at every turn of U.S. foreign policy (unlike the current administration — or even the Clinton administration). Spain is led by a left-wing government that owes its electoral success to a break with the U.S. Republican administration and the sentiment is likely to continue. Even stoic British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a pre-election gaffe by inadvertently — or so Downing Street professed — endorsing Obama in an early September op-ed. Western Europeans overall feel that Obama — judging from his platform thus far — will represent the first true Europeanist administration since the Cold War, and will not “go it alone” in foreign policy. Even Obama’s supposed lack of foreign policy experience plays on their hopes as it suggests that their opinions will be appreciated, even sought.

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In contrast, “New Europe” — particularly Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltics — would prefer a McCain presidency, especially because of the perception, whether right or wrong, that Obama would renege on American security commitments to the region in light of Russia’s resurgence after the Russia-Georgia war in August. The Poles and Czechs are also concerned that Obama would pull out of agreements to base missile defense in their countries. This Europe sees McCain as their protector against Russia, while they balk at Obama’s talk of “diplomacy” with Moscow, especially in light of the Georgian-Russian war. More nuanced positions are held by Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, but they also enjoy having been treated as partners in the global war against militant Islamists by the Bush administration.

Latin America has a relatively ambiguous stance toward Obama. Although increasingly influential Latin American leftist leaders revile Republicans across the board, there is no question that McCain has shown more interest in Latin American issues. The chief challenge an Obama presidency will present for Latin America will be opposition to potential and pending free trade agreement renewals or revisions. Many in the region fear that a Democratic presidency and Congress would block other critical trade issues such as lifting tariffs on ethanol from Brazil. In addition, security is a resoundingly important issues for many states — with Mexico chief among them — and it is unclear how either candidate would approach such contentious issues as border security while effectively handling the immigration issue and standing up for human rights.

In the Middle East the sentiment is mostly in favor of McCain — particularly in the United States’ strongest allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia wants the United States involved in Iraq as a bulwark against Shiite influence in the region. Neither wants to see the United States conclude negotiations with Iran that would result in U.S. troops simply leaving, and most are worried that Obama is leaning toward a compromise with Tehran at all costs.

Finally, the most active opponents to U.S. foreign policy today — Iran, Venezuela and Russia — are hoping for an Obama presidency, operating under the belief that it would grant them some breathing room. Venezuela and Iran have publicly called for an Obama victory, since it would allow them to — as they claim — transform their relationship with the United States. Russia is taking its bearing from “Old Europe,” hoping that an Obama administration will take its directives on Russia from Berlin and Paris — capitals the Kremlin knows would prefer to avoid a confrontation. Russia’s thinking is that with an Obama win, Moscow will have more time to push its master plan of returning to its place in the upper echelon of world powers. A McCain win would mean Russia’s timeframe to strengthen itself would be severely shortened as McCain — from the Russian perspective — would be likely to confront the Kremlin directly.

At the end of the day, the president does not choose U.S. foreign policy — though it certainly is the area of policy he has the most control over — and the challenges before the man who steps into the largest shoes in the world come January 2009 will be particularly nonmalleable. Nonetheless, the rest of the world is focusing on the election. The importance that foreign observers place on the person who holds the presidency simply reflects the fact that the U.S. still lies at the pivot of world events.

As the U.S. election approaches, countries around the world are watching. However, most will ultimately be disappointed with whoever wins, since the world’s perceptions are based on the assumption that the U.S. president can somehow ameliorate or deteriorate the relationship between the United States and another country of his own accord.

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