Two Party Platforms, Two Foreign Policies

Afghan National Police (ANP) stand in formation during a graduation ceremony at a police training centre in Herat on Septembe
Afghan National Police (ANP) stand in formation during a graduation ceremony at a police training centre in Herat on September 6, 2012. The Taliban are involved in a quarter of Afghan security personnel attacks on NATO colleagues, according to a military commander. The surge of assaults, unprecedented in modern warfare, have seen Afghan troops opening fire on their NATO colleagues more than 30 times this year, killing at least 45 foreign troops -- most of them Americans. AFP PHOTO/ Aref Karimi (Photo credit should read Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages)

The haste with which Democratic leaders rushed Wednesday to reinsert mentions of God and Jerusalem in their already published platform suggests that these party manifestos may actually matter to American voters and policymakers. And while Bill Clinton's stirring speech skipped over foreign affairs, the parties' contrasting platforms provide Americans and the world a clear picture of their differences.

There are, to be sure, many areas of agreement. Both parties firmly oppose human trafficking, support a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, cheer a democratizing "Arab spring," and claim to want an "American century" underpinned by "the strongest military in the world." Both want to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons (or, in the Republican case, nuclear weapons capability), and both want a cooperative relationship with a peaceful and prosperous China. Both party platforms agree in crediting George W. Bush with just one international accomplishment, his program against AIDS in Africa.

In these respects, at least, one may expect continuity in U.S. foreign policy through 2016. But the world should also be prepared for some dramatic differences in priorities if Mitt Romney replaces Barack Obama in the White House.

The Democrats see climate change as a "real, urgent, and severe" threat requiring an "international framework" in which "all major economies," specifically including China and India, act to reduce global emissions. The Republicans' sole reference to "climate change" (they put it in quotation marks) derides Obama for treating it as a national security threat.

The Republicans castigate Obama's "budget-constrained blueprint" for defense, denounce recent and projected spending reductions, and insist that "only our capability to wield overwhelming military power can truly deter the enemies of the United States." The Democrats weave "unrivaled military capabilities" together with a prosperous economy and universal values as "core pillars" of American global leadership.

The global economy is a major emphasis of the Democratic platform, which touts the collective response Obama led through the G-20 to halt the world financial meltdown and his promotion of "free and fair trade" built on respect for "workers' rights." True to laissez-faire principles, the Republican platform nowhere mentions workers' rights, free and fair trade, a world economy, or even that a world financial crisis occurred.

Democrats support development assistance as essential to growing the world economy. Republicans emphasize private charity and disdain development aid: "Limiting foreign aid spending helps keep taxes lower, which frees more resources in the private and charitable sectors, whose giving tends to be more effective and efficient."

Both parties invoke human rights, but the Republican platform prioritizes advocacy of "religious liberty" (absent in the Democrats' platform) while Democrats promote "women's rights" (unacknowledged by the Republicans). Democrats see "gay rights as human rights" and commit to pressing international protections for gays against violence and discrimination; Republicans stoutly oppose "the cultural agenda of the current Administration, attempting to impose on foreign countries, especially the peoples of Africa, legalized abortion and the homosexual rights agenda."

Perhaps the sharpest divergence between the two platforms is to be found on the United Nations and international law and organizations--arguably the fundamental gulf between the Bush administration and the rest of the world in the last decade. The Democrats see these as "a centerpiece of international order" and pledge to "reform international bodies and strengthen national and multilateral capabilities to advance peace, security, and opportunity." Wary that the U.N. could prove "erosive of American sovereignty," Republicans would focus reform efforts on "full transparency in the financial operations of its overpaid bureaucrats." They nowhere mention U.N. peacekeeping.

Citing sovereignty, the Republican platform warns of entanglement in potentially "ominous" international treaties such as the Law of the Sea and conventions to define rights of children and the disabled and to eliminate discrimination against women (conventions the Democrats endorse). It rejects "the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court," which is unmentioned by Democrats.

The Democrats hail the nuclear nonproliferation treaty as "the bedrock of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons," now tested by Iran and North Korea. The Republicans do not mention the treaty regime at all, basing efforts against nuclear weapons on ad hoc calculations of "our interests, and the safety of our friends." Republicans cite Afghanistan with ambivalence, regretting Obama's withdrawal of troops "against the advice of the current President's top military commanders" and his lack of "determination"; they do not allow for a negotiated solution. Democrats support Obama's phase-out plan and his pursuit of "the possibility of a political resolution to parts of the conflict." (Parse that!) Their platform insists "we will not build permanent bases in Afghanistan."

For all the campaign fury about Israel and fears in some quarters of the Jewish community of Obama even-handedness toward the Palestinians, the language in both parties' platforms is remarkably similar, carefully wordsmithed by experts on the politics of this combustible region. Both affirm an "unshakable" (Democrats) or "unequivocal" (Republicans) commitment to Israel's security. Both agree that the Palestinian side must accept Israel's existence. Both avoid any prejudgment of what a final peace settlement must include, though the Republican platform opaquely hints at greater Palestinian territorial accommodation of Israeli settlements ("mutually agreed changes reflecting today's realities as well as tomorrow's hopes").

Differences are not quite as subtle regarding another country that has a concerned American constituency: Cuba. Democrats hail Obama's loosening of restrictions on Cuban Americans' visits and remittances to relatives in Cuba. Republicans declare that any relaxation of the 50-year embargo must await legalization of political parties, independent media, and internationally supervised elections. Tangentially, they define Venezuela as "an increasing threat to U.S. security."

While the Republicans' platform fumes at Democrats' abandonment of the term "global war on terror," it gives just one passing mention of Iraq, and none at all of Somalia, Sudan, and torture. Its profession of faith in "American exceptionalism" is missing from the Democrats'.

Nothing in, or absent from, these platforms is casual or inadvertent. Considerable care went into crafting every nuance and detail. They describe very different courses for voters and for the world. Caveat emptor.