Barack Obama’s election on Nov. 4 signaled a change on a large number of policy fronts. But, in the arena of foreign policy, change in America is simply not enough to foment progress or inspire constructive international dialogue. One election, in any country, is not enough to break the boundaries that have been built over decades of violence in the Middle East. One election is not enough to disassemble the growing anti-American sentiment in South America. One election brings just one more voice into the fray. However, we don’t need another voice to join the cacophony — we need a chorus of new leaders and new voices.
That’s why the American public should be fully aware of the outcomes of the numerous elections that have occurred or will be occurring later this year if they want to have a true understanding of what the Obama Administration will be capable of. Concern over President Obama’s lack of foreign policy expertise has begun to be mitigated by his appointment of several capable individuals; whether or not you agree with Richard Holbrooke’s diplomatic actions in the Clinton Administration or George Mitchell’s views on the Middle East crisis, it’s clear that they possess the talent necessary to fulfill President Obama’s agenda on the foreign policy front.
Yet the words of skilled diplomats abroad can only be effective if foreign leaders believe their proposals reflect the will of the people they represent. Thus, fair and free elections serve as an effective barometer not only to determine the will of the people, but also to determine what the American government can hope to achieve abroad.
That’s why, for example, the Israeli elections this February were of particular importance to those who have been wishing for peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that’s been broiling for decades. Because of the inefficient manner in which power is appropriated in Israel’s parliamentary, we still don’t know exactly who will be Israel’s Prime Minister after the disgraced Ehud Olmert. If it turns out party talks result in Avigdor Lieberman supporting Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidacy more than George Mitchell’s support for a two-state solution, or an end to Israeli settlements along Gaza might become more complicated. On the other hand, no matter what the final result of the Israeli elections is there will be only a limited chance that it will better relations with the Palestinian people, at least initially (both Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu supported the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza), though it will most certainly influence American policy in the region.
Iran’s elections, however, could effectively open the door to better foreign relations with a slew of nations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s devotion to acquiring a nuclear weapon and his inflammatory statements have been, as President Obama’s characterizes them, “unhelpful” to progress in the Middle East.
America’s current state of relations with Iran is a clear example of how little President Obama’s election alone will be enough to create a new paradigm in foreign relations. A few weeks into the Obama Presidency, after an initial conciliatory phase, the President of Iran regressed to his usual divisive banter, calling for President Obama to remove troops from the Middle East and reasserting his ability to be an obstacle to stability the Middle East. For someone who isn’t even truly in charge of the country, President Ahmadinejad has been quite successful in making Iran a pariah with his incendiary rhetoric.
The good news is that there’s a very realistic chance that President Ahmadinejad might lose his post in the next election. Iran is a country with a great deal of troubles; unemployment and inflation have risen during the last few years, and President Ahmadinejad’s government has been susceptible to certain scandals.
The truth is, it’s possible that even with a new President at the helm in Iran, there might not be a substantive change in policy (since the president doesn’t really drive policy forward in Iran anyway), though the presence of a new leader could at least give the impression of a new, fresh start – it certainly couldn’t be any worse than the current situation. I’d say it would be the difference between Pervez Musharraff and President Asif Zardari in Pakistan; there came a point at which Musharraff’s credibility was shot beyond repair in Pakistan and America’s influence through him was also ruined by proxy. The presence of a new leader certainly hasn’t made the situation dramatically better — but at least it signaled some form of change and recognition of the mistakes that Musharraff made.
Venezuela’s referendum regarding presidential term limits has the ability to provide the same kind of dramatic signal. It has occurred at a time during which President Hugo Chavez’s vulnerabilities have become readily apparent. We no longer hear him deriding America with the same fervor as before (perhaps that’s due to the low cost of gas at the moment.) President Chavez is unable to spend his way into popularity. Venezuela’s markets have thus been suffering the same kind of shock in oil markets as Russia is, and perhaps this will shock the Venezuelan populace into limiting how much longer he can be in office.
No matter what the results of these elections are, they all will shape America’s foreign policy and approach. America does not dictate the amount of progress in foreign relations — the elections abroad are what dictate how successful our ambitions in the foreign policy arena are. But every now and then we have an election that exceeds our expectations — just look at Iraq.n