London gets a crash course in the 2012 election.
LONDON — The U.S. presidential contest usually attracts a great deal of interest around the world, especially in Britain. But until this week, that interest had yet to ignite. To be fair, the 2008 race was hard to top as a spectacle value, featuring two potential historic candidates on the Democratic side and the advent of Tea Party dynamo Sarah Palin. But it has still been striking how little interest the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney contest has sparked here in Old Europe. This has changed in a hurry with Romney's arrival in London this week.
The day before Romney's visit, Fleet Street started to take interest. The left-leaning Guardian said Romney is under pressure to define his foreign policy, while the right-of-center Daily Telegraph quoted an anonymous advisor promising Romney would abandon Obama's "coolness" towards London. The unnamed aide also caused a bit of a dust-up by promising to restore the "Anglo-Saxon" relations between the two countries -- a phrase loaded when discussing a president whose Kenyan family lived under British colonialism. Romney may also have offended his hosts by suggesting that Britain may not be quite up to the task of hosting the Olympics, telling reporters before a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron that reports of strikes and trouble with private security firms were "not something which is encouraging." London's voluble mayor Boris Johnson even took to the streets, telling a London crowd, 'There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. Are we ready? Yes we are!'
Romney remains something of an unknown quantity in Britain. Like many U.S. presidential challengers, the former Massachusetts governor is a neophyte on foreign affairs. And his visits to what his advisors are calling three key allies -- Britain, Israel and Poland -- are an attempt to burnish his international credentials with hosts who are guaranteed not to embarrass him and give him a polite, warm reception. The timing of the London stop has the added benefit of invoking Romney's successful management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. So, as the British public finally begins to tune in to the great race across the pond, what do they see?
With the possible exception of George W. Bush in 2004, presidential incumbents have had a built-in advantage with Britons, as the old maxim "better the devil you know" tends to apply to foreign governments and media. This goes double for Obama: When he came into office three and a half years ago, he had an extraordinarily high approval rating abroad. Most British papers -- even the conservative ones -- greeted his 2008 win as historic. The Guardian fulsomely praised the result, writing at the time, "[T]he American people yesterday stood in the eye of history and made an emphatic choice for change for themselves and the world."
But Obama's primary advantage back then -- not being Bush -- has lost some of its effectiveness this time around. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, published last month, shows that approval of the president's policies is declining in most of the world. The fall has been most pronounced in China and in Muslim countries, but there have also been significant drops in Europe and Japan, where confidence in him as an individual remains relatively robust. In Britain, opposition to drone strikes against terrorist suspects outweighs support, and approval of the United States generally, though still higher than under Bush, is down from Obama's early days.
For much of the British press, Obama got off to a bumpy start because of his decision to give back -- or not renew the loan of -- the Winston Churchill bust lent to the White House after 9/11. Many commentators chose to interpret this as a sign of anti-British sentiment from the half-Kenyan president, and the Daily Telegraph took to publishing an annual list of Obama's top 10 insults against Britain (if you're wondering, No. 1 so far for 2012 is "Siding with Argentina over the Falklands"). Still, Cameron has been keen to cultivate good relations. When the Obamas came on a state visit last year, for instance, it was all smiles, and they even joined together in hosting a barbecue for British servicemen in the garden of No. 10 Downing St. And on Cameron's return visit to the United States this year, the two men were shown sharing jokes and enjoying each other's company at a basketball game in Ohio.
Obama's personal ratings remain high with the British, but there is a general sense that he is a conventional politician who finds governing a lot more difficult than campaigning. Given the sky-high expectations that accompanied him into office, a return to Earth was probably inevitable.
But what of Romney? When it comes to the Republican candidate, there is no record on which to assess the popularity of his foreign policies, but there has been some coverage of his statements and ideas as well as his team of advisors in the British media.
When Romney unveiled his lineup of national security and foreign policy advisors, it included a number of retreads from the Bush administration, provoking comment that Romney had been captured by unilateralist hawks and neoconservatives. This impression was only reinforced at the beginning of the year when former U.N. ambassador John Bolton joined the Romney campaign.
Many abroad saw this as a sign that the candidate was trying to shore up his support with the Republican right at home. But it also scared the pigeons, especially in more multilateralist Europe. Given Bolton's well-known criticisms of a diplomatic approach to resolving the Iran nuclear dispute, and given that Romney has criticized Obama for failing to support Israel more strongly, there are concerns -- so far expressed informally -- that a Romney presidency could increase the risk of another major conflict in the Middle East.
There have been reports that the British military is making contingency plans supporting a U.S. military operation against Iran, but there is no great enthusiasm in London for such action. Following the NATO intervention in Libya, where Britain and France seemed keener on action than the United States, British officials have been working closely with their U.S. counterparts on Syria and have responded well to Obama's reluctance to go it alone. So if Romney means what he says about reasserting American primacy, he may find that does not go down so well in London.
Romney's identification of Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe" also raised eyebrows abroad. At a recent high-level seminar on Russian foreign policy in London, there was some bafflement expressed as to what he was on about. Although Russia is a BRIC, as former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd put it on the BBC, Moscow "is in the lift going down," while the so-called emerging economies are going up. The almost universal consensus in Europe is that China, not Russia, poses the greatest geopolitical challenge to the United States.
The three stops on Romney's foreign tour also suggest a backward-looking vision. London may be a key ally, but is not a rising power. Poland is good place to go to ensure a friendly reception to his message that his opponent has been weak on Russia, but Moscow is not a global challenger to Washington anymore. Israel is both an obvious choice to ensure support from the right in his own party and a safe one, given the strained relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what of the new powers that have emerged on the global stage since the turn of the century: India, China, Brazil, or even Turkey?
Perhaps a trip to one of these would have been too risky. But many outside the United States are expecting Romney to acknowledge at some point in the campaign that he gets that the world is changing and that America has to work with others to get things done. And while it is true that informed British observers of U.S. presidential campaigns discount much of the foreign-policy rhetoric they hear, they do expect candidates for one of the most powerful posts in global politics to demonstrate that they have answers to the challenges the world faces.
Romney could score points with Europeans, including the British, by reassuring them that the inevitable future U.S. focus on Asia does not mean turning away from Europe. The candidate's London stop may not be off to the smoothest start. But if Romney really regards the relationship with London as "special," as one of his advisors told a British journalist, that will go down well with a people who still attach huge importance to being close to Washington and to being seen by other countries to be so.