US presidential elections are closely followed around the world because the person who occupies the White House will more or less set the tone for American leadership in the world. As the biggest economy in the world with the most powerful military, the US exerts a major influence on events across the globe.
This week’s Iowa caucuses shed some light on the most likely nominees from each party. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have emerged as the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination, while on the Republican side, most bets are on the New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz topped the polls in Iowa for Republicans while Clinton and Sanders were in a dead heat in the Democratic caucuses. Trump, the Republican front-runner in opinion polls beforehand, suffered a blow by securing only second place in Iowa.
Adventurers or isolationists
Washington's world leadership, and attention to Eastern Europe, after the election will depend very much on which candidate wins, and on his or her take on foreign policy. One way to judge which winner would be best for the Baltic States is by comparing each candidate's potential foreign policy to current policy: Will it be more isolationist and focused on domestic affairs, geared towards strengthening democracy and welfare inside the United States, prioritising economic cooperation and mediation? Or will it be more active, more decisive, geared towards spreading freedom and democracy abroad and taking a more active role in dealing with international conflicts and crises?
Although conventional wisdom has it that the Democrats are more inclined towards isolationism and the Republicans are more active foreign policy-makers, this is not an unqualified truth. Both parties have had presidents who fall into both camps. For instance, President Barack Obama started his first term amidst a global financial crisis and deep recession - that put his focus on stimulating the economy, i.e. domestic policy.
As a result, American foreign policy became more moderate, centred on diplomacy and cooperation. South-East Asia became increasingly the focus of US efforts as a region that contained many potential economic partners and rivals.
Leadership in the Middle East was somewhat lacking. Washington announced a reset in relations with Russia and signed a treaty on reducing strategic weapon stocks. This was not entirely in the security interests of Eastern Europe. As it turned out, that reset failed to materialised and Russia became increasingly aggressive.
However, after Russia launched military action in Ukraine, threatening European security, the US administration made repeated reassurances about collective defence obligations. The US was the first country to respond to threats felt by the Baltic States and came to their assistance - there were decisions on security and deterrence measures, sanctions on Russia.
The US is expected to announce additional deterrence measures at the NATO summit in Warsaw this July. Therefore in terms of security, the current Democratic administration, in Obama’s second term, has been more than generous to the Baltic States and other countries in the region.
Proponents of active policy
Hillary Clinton has said she will join allies to stop Russian aggression in Europe and work on strengthening the continent's energy independence. These statements are part of a consistent position: Clinton has called for tougher sanctions on Russia, military assistance for Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Syria and she has admitted that the reset strategy was a mistake. She has also criticized Obama for sometimes being too cautious and showing too little leadership in Syria.
All this suggests that should Clinton be elected the next president of the US, she will pursue a more active and decisive foreign policy than Obama, and pay more attention to Eastern Europe. As secretary of state, she has had plenty of opportunities to familiarize herself with the region. This, in turn, would make Clinton a great friend of Lithuania, as our policy-makers already have experience working with her.
In fact, Clinton visited Lithuania twice in 2011 as US Secretary of State, has continually supported the country's energy security goals, and backed Lithuania's efforts to ensure security in the Baltic region and to extend the NATO air policing mission indefinitely. Clinton has been awarded a Lithuanian state honour for advancing cooperation between the two countries and contributing to Baltic security.
Meanwhile her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders can be expected to focus more on domestic issues, economy, social welfare, while his foreign policies would favour diplomacy and cooperation. In his statements, he has hardly mentioned Eastern Europe specifically. Under him, the White House would hardly show more activity and leadership than the current administration.
Republican candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz understand the Russian threat and would likely adopt a firm stance in relations with Moscow. Rubio is probably a more consistent follower of the so-called John McCain tradition, i.e., he is more decisive. Both candidates, however, argue for expanding sanctions on Russia, giving military assistance to Ukraine, conducting intense military exercises, and favour long-term deployment of troops and equipment in Eastern Europe. They have also supported energy exports to European countries that currently depend on Russian gas and a no-fly zone in Syria.
Clearly, Rubio or Cruz in the White House would mean a more active US foreign policy than currently. For Lithuania, that is good news. Lithuanian policymakers would need more time to warm up the Republican candidates to the specificities of the region than in Clinton's case, but they do understand the issues in the region.
On the other hand real estate mogul Donald Trump raises serious doubts about the presence of a decisive and consistent foreign policy. He might be a good businessman, but politics is more than business, it must involve values and security considerations.
Therefore his claims that he would easily find a common language with Vladimir Putin, that he would focus on economic cooperation with Russia and let allies take more charge of their security are quite out of place in the current geopolitical context. Russian aggression will clearly not be appeased this way.
During his campaign, Trump mostly criticized Obama's policies and spoke about the well-being of Americans, but without quite going into details on how he would carry out these promises or what presidential powers would allow him to do. One can assume that Trump would be an isolationist and would do little to advance US leadership. For Lithuania and Eastern Europe, that is not a promising prospect.
Looking from here, the best candidate to win the US presidency would be one who is well-versed in foreign affairs, is aware of the specificities in Eastern Europe and is not hesitant to assume leadership in solving global issues. When all is said and done, however, it is the people of the United States who will decide the next president. It is therefore important that they responsibly cast their vote for the candidate who will best represent their own and their country's interests.