Foreign policy issues have predictably been neglected in this presidential election year, which leaves voters with very limited information to use in judging the candidates' worldviews. Of course, both major parties have explained their priorities and commitments at some length in their respective platforms, which gives some indication of what the two candidates want to emphasize and consider important. There is no guarantee that future administrations will follow these platforms, and some planks may be ignored entirely, but they can fill in gaps to provide a more complete picture of the parties' foreign policy differences.
While foreign policy issues figured more prominently in speeches by President Obama and Sen. John Kerry on Thursday night, Republicans in Tampa had almost nothing to say on the subject, apart from a few throwaway lines at the end of Romney's acceptance speech. As a result, most foreign policy issues have been reduced to candidate blunders and slogans, leaving most Americans with only the haziest ideas of how the candidates would govern. So rather than guessing what Romney means by his opposition to "flexibility" in dealing with Russia, for example, it is more useful to compare the two platforms to learn what Obama and Romney believe to be the most important issues related to Russia.
Candidates keep certain positions deliberately vague to avoid political pitfalls.
Given President Obama's interest in non-proliferation and arms control, the Democratic platform naturally emphasizes a desire for continued arms reduction in concert with Russia as part of a broader agenda of reducing the global nuclear weapons stockpile. Reflecting Romney's vehement opposition to the most recent arms reduction treaty and his enthusiasm for missile defense, the Republican platform makes no mention of arms control or non-proliferation except as it concerns Iran and North Korea.
The Republican platform pays lip service to cooperation with Russia in "combating nuclear proliferation," but it's clearly an afterthought and not something that holds great interest for Romney and his supporters. Since Romney wrongly asserts that the new strategic arms reduction treaty ("New START") compromises U.S. missile defense, it is significant that the party platform rules out any arms control agreement that "limits" U.S. defenses. Arms control represents one of the most meaningful differences between the two candidates.
At the same time, there are surprising points of agreement that neither candidate wanted to bring up in his convention speech. Despite Romney's calls for more free trade agreements, he neglected to mention his party's support for repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment and establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia (contingent on passage of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act) , which Obama also favors without the condition of passing any other legislation.
Romney has made a point of antagonizing Russia during the campaign and likely would be far more aggressive toward Moscow. Nonetheless, he recognizes the benefit to U.S. businesses that would come from normal trade relations with Russia now that our former foe is a member of the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, in spite of significant bipartisan support for normal trade relations with Russia, the U.S. cannot yet take advantage of Russian WTO membership because some members of Congress insist on first passing a bill (Magnitsky) that will likely have no constructive effect on Russian behavior.
If these sections tell us something important about policy priorities, the controversy over a reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital in the Democratic national platform exemplified how symbolically important planks can be, despite having no direct influence on policy. For both sides of the dispute, the inclusion of a reference to Jerusalem as Israel's capital says very little about the Obama administration's policy toward Israel and Palestine, which is simply the continuation of a longstanding U.S. position. However, it does signal that the U.S. will clearly favor one side in the conflict. If the delegates weren't objecting loudly to the heavy-handed way in which the amendment was imposed on the convention, their dissent was likely due to the one-sided nature of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Foreign policy rhetoric is often dismissed as campaign posturing during election years, and sometimes with good reason. Some candidates keep certain positions deliberately vague to avoid political pitfalls. It is therefore all the more important to distinguish between real policy disagreements and trivial differences invented for effect.