It is no secret that the US electorate has little interest in the outside world. According to pre-election polls, only 2 percent of US voters were swayed by a presidential candidate’s foreign and defense policies. But for the rest of humanity the president’s external policies are all that really count. The American chief executive is the most powerful person in the world, a man who can exercise huge influence for good or ill. At this writing we do not know whether Gore or Bush will become president. But the differences between them in foreign policy should be taken very seriously.
In most respects a Gore presidency would continue in the steps of Bill Clinton. The men and women who would probably exercise the strongest influence—Richard Holbrooke in foreign policy and Laura Tyson in economic affairs, for example—were already prominent under Clinton: Holbrooke as senior troubleshooter in Africa and the Balkans and then as ambassador to the UN, and Tyson as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Gore is almost certainly more disposed than President Clinton to support humanitarian intervention overseas—but then so, in 1992, was candidate Clinton. In the event, the degree of international engagement will probably remain about the same.
For these reasons, and because he is a familiar face, well-traveled and well-informed, Al Gore would be a welcome successor in most countries. His well-attested commitment to the environment—not only in his writings and speeches but also in his enthusiastic endorsement of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming—marks him out from Clinton himself, who has avoided putting his head above the political parapet on this issue. If there is a downside to Gore, as seen from abroad, it is the suspicion that he has mortgaged himself to a coalition of interests—unions, farmers, old Democrats, Greens, and critics of the World Trade Organization—who may oblige him, against his better instincts, to draw back from the bipartisan commitment to free trade.
The US is currently engaged in a muted but increasingly fraught trade war with Europe, Japan, and Canada. The EU in particular accuses the US of illicitly subsidizing exports, notably through the law on foreign sales corporations that gives tax concessions to American companies registered overseas; the US countercharges that foreign governments have tacitly condoned and even favored the dumping of underpriced products, notably steel. Senator Robert Byrd’s recently passed amendment compensating domestic steel producers for cheap imports is just the latest in a series of provocative moves from all sides, following restrictions on everything from genetically modified food to unpasteurized French cheese. There are powerful constituencies—those listed above, but also the nationalist right—in Europe and the US that would not be sorry to see a return to protectionism and tariffs; a new president will need to give this growing source of friction quite urgent attention.
On this issue George W. Bush, who has taken a conventional position in favor of open borders (for goods …