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Elections and the “Stability” of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post–WWII Period

Por: | 07 de noviembre de 2013


By Łukasz Wordliczek, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

A boy once went to a circus with his father and saw an elephant tied to a small pole with a rope. The boy wondered why the elephant was not breaking away from the pole despite its enormous strength and mass. When the elephant handler approached them, the boy was told the truth: when the elephant was young, it had been tied to a pole. Obviously, it had not liked that and it had tried to escape, but try as it might, the rope and pole had been too strong for the elephant. Eventually, the elephant gave up. As the elephant grew older, it still believed it was not capable of freeing itself from the pole so it remained stationary even though it could have easily broken free.

As the old saying goes, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. The story related above, about the constraining power of our subconscious, tells surprisingly much about the nature of politics. We like to believe that our opinion matters. But is it really the case? Is it really the case that popular will transformed in elections by the appointment of new leaders leads to new policies? Do we change our leaders and accordingly, our policies? Or do we instead change only the leaders themselves? One may easily state that “change is the only permanent characteristic of any social and natural phenomenon.” A strong argument in support of such deterministic thinking comes from the theory of democracy. But empirical evidence raises many questions on the issue of elections’ alleged causative potential. To come to terms with this conundrum, the connection between selected U.S. presidential elections after WWII and the course of the country’s foreign policy can be investigated.

Now, “selected elections”? Why is that? This is because we should acknowledge that when incumbents are given a chance to remain in office for another term, one can hardly claim that constituents were seeking substantial modifications to governance. To a large extent, the same seems to be true in cases in which the President changes but the White House remains in the same party’s hands. Interestingly, even a struggle to stay in office raises considerable doubts over continuity of a country’s policy. Recalling the elections of 2008, one may wonder how George W. Bush’s endorsement of John McCain could have been positioned in terms of changing Republican administration’s priorities. Was it not like having a cake and eating it too? In other words, it seems that only cases of a party switch can have some potential for a change in policy. Thus, of the 16 post–WWII presidential elections, only the elections of 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2008 remain.

Further, when sieving disjunctive elections, it is reasonable to claim that only elections in which there were substantial differences between candidates over foreign policy and in which the differences had an impact on voting should be considered. After all, if any two candidates (two parties) are not perceived as real contenders or competitors regarding a particular issue, one can hardly speak of a real choice. We may thus assume that if the candidates do not differ in terms of foreign policy, electoral choice does not hold true.

Once elections are eliminated on the basis of these criteria, we are left with as little as two elections: those of 1980 and 2008. But did these elections really matter? Did we witness any substantial change in the course of foreign policy? The answer is far from obvious. First, one needs to ask where we need to look for changes. Foreign policy budget? For many decades, this budget has remained at roughly the same level, notwithstanding the (post)Cold War pendulum swings of American activism and passiveness. Should we look at the defense budget? Again, this has shown a downward trend since the Korean War, which has no association with the elections of 1980 or 2008 or the association is more vague than one would be eager to see. Second, one should ask how much is enough. How much change do we need to observe to acknowledge it? Leaving budget spending aside, does it constitute a change whereby over, let us say, two years of conflict, the number of casualties decreased by 5%? Yes, one may correctly say that some lives are saved and that, of course, matters greatly. But at the same time, one may justifiable ask whether this 5% reduction is enough. Is that large enough to change anything?

One possible scenario of resolving continuity/change dilemma could be to distinguish elections as an act of casting votes separate from the electoral cycle. This is to say that some of us do vote, but we do it only from time to time, according to prescribed legal rules. On the other hand, history teaches us that changes in policy are one of those phenomena that take a while to be noticed. For this singular reason, a four- or eight-year interval seems appropriate for noticing changes in policy. And if we consider the elections selected herein, some change may indeed be apparent. Still, another question remains: Do the changes satisfy the constituents’ wishes?

If we believe that our decisions at the election booth are to mean anything—or to change anything—we are like the elephant in the story: we believe we know how the real world works. But do we?

Łukasz Wordliczek
University in Krakow

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