America's political polarization does not extend far into the international realm. For all the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that Democrats and Republicans have largely similar views on most foreign-policy issues. Republicans are marginally more worried about external threats than Democrats, but a strong majority of Americans now agrees that the Iraq and Afghan wars were not worthwhile, and there is a consensus in favor of a more cautious and selective brand of American global leadership.
The Oct. 21 debate between Mitt Romney and Barak Obama confirmed this consensus. Romney moved toward the center on foreign policy even more definitively than he had in the earlier domestic debates, clearly distancing himself from the neoconservative wing of his party. Assuming Romney would govern from the stance upon which he is now running, one would expect a lot more continuity than change in American foreign policy, no matter who wins the election.
Certainly there could be differences in tone. Romney would presumably be a more unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. But then Romney wouldn't have much to apologize for, since Obama would have left him a pretty strong legacy in the international realm.
Relations with both China and Russia, already deteriorating, could get worse if President Romney were to carry through on his threat to declare the former a currency manipulator and to treat the latter as America's No. 1 adversary. Obama has also been taking a tougher line on China of late, however. In contrast, Obama might well seek after the election to overcome differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin on missile defenses in Europe, an issue on which Romney would likely be less forthcoming.
Both Romney and Obama have threatened to use military force against Iran if it continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and both have discounted the prospect of intervening militarily to help defend the Syrian people from the Assad regime. Both positions are likely to be severely tested in the coming months, no matter who is president.
Without broad international support, an American attack on Iran would probably weaken, rather than intensify, the external and internal pressures upon that regime. Iran is likely to deny Washington any widely appealing justification for such an attack, making this an unattractive option.