The last of the US presidential debates confirmed what has been perfectly clear for a while – whether the incumbent or the challenger is in the White House next year, US policies aren’t going to change on the economy or foreign policy.

There is no fresh thinking in politics in general; when it comes to geopolitical matters this trend has simply become that much more apparent in recent months. Iran will be bombed, Pakistan ignored and Russia incensed over the next four years whoever becomes president. China has been tickled pink with all the commentaries over the past few months, secure in the knowledge that nothing will change.

As I watched in Europe the various political debates over the summer up to Monday evening, a couple of quotations ran through my mind: “Politics is the art of achieving power and prestige with the complete absence of merit”, and “The purpose of psychoanalysis is to go from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness”.

If elections in democratic countries were a form of mass psychotherapy by putting the misery of past years up for popular opinion with a perspective of setting a new course, or else accepting the same old course of the incumbent, then the question begs – does the democratic process also deliver a number of alternatives that allow people the benefit of real choice?

I looked at a number of recent elections, as well as mass protest movements with an evaluation of the underlying political dynamic with a view to gauging the answer. No prizes for guessing which way my thinking goes in this matter – the opening quote makes that fairly obvious.

Europe and Middle East fall flat

In Europe, we have seen pretty much every single incumbent government (or the major political party underpinning the government) fall by the wayside, with the public bringing in political change almost for the sake of change.

If the experience of the past four years is anything to go by though, nothing did change in Europe – arguably no government there has figured out how to handle its mounting problems. To a large extent there is a policy continuity that is regularly interrupted by calls for change whether in matters of social protests or, less frequently, a political party that dares to do something different.

Germany is often blamed for blocking or stopping all meaningful policy changes being suggested by the new governments of the day in France, Spain, and Greece and so on. While this view may play to national votebanks, it does nothing to solve the political crisis at the heart of Europe; it also stands as an explicit admission of failure by these governments in thinking fresh ways forward rather than fall back on the intellectual laziness of Keynesian arguments.

This complete absence of vision, fresh thinking and backbone are the reasons Europe will not recover from its current slump (see The men without qualities, Asia Times Online, October 29, 2011). Russia chose continuity in the form of Putin; or more realistically it can be said simply that Russians had no choice in the matter. Looking eastward from Europe, we have the Arab Spring (alright that’s more south-east) that erupted with a lot of promises of regime change; but it doesn’t seem to have affected anything materially on the ground.

Egypt is the classic case of a single large falling object under Hosni Mubarak suddenly threatening to become a large number of still large falling objects under the Muslim Brotherhood. Libyans under Muammar Gaddafi were thinking of giving up violence against Europe and the US in return for oil sales; the new mob in charge doesn’t seem to appreciate such niceties as the premeditated murder of four Americans a few weeks ago showed clearly. Elsewhere in the Middle East the sands of time ebb and flow with no change to political direction.

Choices in the US

So where does that leave the US facing an election that many pundits call the most important election of our time?

Even before jumping into any analysis of what the elections mean for the rest of the world, it strikes me as fairly opportune for the wider media – and in particular the US media – to play up the intensity and closeness of this particular election.

I say that quite cynically, from the perspective of how important political spending is to the bottom line (profits) of diverse media companies – print, online, television and radio. This perspective is further intensified by the weakness in spend by advertisers over the past few years away from print and television towards online and radio.

Thus the cynical perspective informs us that whether or not this election is close or important in reality, media companies in the US simply owe it to their survival to call it those things.

It all looked bleak on the policy front until a few weeks ago when the challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, selected as his running mate and nominee for vice president Paul Ryan. This was a well-informed choice (see President Ryan, Asia Times Online, August 18, 2012), albeit one that is for now focused almost entirely on domestic issues of the US, in particular the spending on social welfare that underpins the structural deficit of the US as well as Europe.

That is good news, but for now Ryan will not be directly in charge of anything particularly important. To look at the issues at heart, namely the handling of the economy and foreign affairs, one can conclude that the differences between the two presidential candidates is reminiscent of the big-endians vs. small-endians in Lilliput; endless debates and conflicts over matters that are essentially irrelevant.

I hold the “Bush tax cuts” along with the unnecessary war in Iraq as the primary driving forces of the US deficit; it is unlikely that the idea of tax cuts through increased debt would be countered any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong on the subject though – I favor low taxes and small governments as all regular readers are aware; however these should be aims to arrive at by cutting government waste and reducing welfare structurally, rather than start with tax cuts with no specific plans for achieving smaller government in place. In that event, we would be in the middle of a distribution debate, ie the social utility of taxes, not an economic discussion on what course provides the most optimal growth scenario for the economy.

US obsession with foreign policy matters is well-known, which is always interesting for folks in the rest of the world, not the least of which are worries about whether bombs will start raining on their heads due to regime change in Washington.

On that count, Governor Romney may as well have sent a pale white facsimile of President Obama into the debate yesterday. There was nothing new in his responses; and indeed his vision of the world seemed to hark back to the type of analysis done by Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger rather than rely on any more recent work.

Obama also failed to explain in any great length how his sanctions against Iran – a policy inherited from previous governments – achieved the end of riots on the streets of Tehran and a possible internal stop to progress on nuclear weapons with little or no cost to the American taxpayers.

With a number of what look like slightly unhinged people baying for blood in the general media, my read on the Iranian situation is unchanged – whoever wins, expect the carpets to fly around in Tehran soon after. It is a different matter that such a war will be foolish, counter-productive and most importantly play straight into the hands of the real enemies of America. None of that will matter when the decision has already been made.

Meanwhile, neither candidate gave any credible answers on what is actually the most serious threat facing Asia, namely the already nuclear state of Pakistan, which has gone through more governments than most people have hot meals. It is not apparent who if anyone is actually in charge of the nuclear weapons and how much captive manufacturing for friendly countries – step forward, Saudi Arabia – has been achieved in the past few years.

The level of American angst against Pakistan has been manifest in remotely controlled drone attacks targeting low-level Taliban functionaries operating out of Pakistan, but it has no semblance of a strategy around controlling the country’s nuclear weapons.

Obama famously failed to identify and act on the risks from Pakistan (much as his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton failed to identify and act on the risks from al-Qaeda) – that is troubling enough; but the fact that Romney had neither the willingness to identify it as a key risk nor criticize Obama on that front clearly showed the lack of vision that I found so troubling among European politicians.

Then there is Russia, the geopolitical foe of Romney that Obama seems to have a more benign view of. Romney appears to have an antiquated understanding of geopolitical risks, but that’s not the trouble. Neither candidate has any public statements on the gentle matter of the imploding Russian economy, which is more than likely to make Russia under Putin more aggressive and less easy to negotiate with.

In the matter of China, there is no substantive difference in policies between the two candidates other than the gentle nomenclature change suggested by Romney; that of calling China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency. Since he failed alongside to provide the telephone number of the Treasury official who would be charged with buying back the US$1.8 trillion or so of US government and agency bonds that China may want to sell on Day 2 of his presidency, I am not so sure about how real or effectual his threats will be in practice.

Obama has probably already heard that threat from China so didn’t bother to take up the gauntlet on the matter instead mouthing platitudes.

Those watching out of Beijing will be tickled pink by all the attention the country received over the past few months, with all the noise very likely to result in no action by either candidate. The all-noise-and-no-heat show will be seen as yet another piece of evidence that the US will decline to irrelevance even as China assumes its mantle.

So if one were to tally up the foreign policy and economic issues, I cannot realistically see anything that alters the course of the US. For allies and foes alike, this will be another four years of precisely the same stuff as the previous four, with the choice of either turning the brightness controls on the television up or down as the case may be.

As the French like to say, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Practice saying that with a Gallic shrug whenever someone mentions the US elections in the next couple of weeks.

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