Few US presidents have had foreign policy records as chequered or as controversial as that of George W. Bush – even leaving Iraq and Guantánamo Bay aside.
Mr Bush’s time in office has seen Iran forge ahead with its nuclear programme, North Korea test an atomic device and tensions mount between Israelis and Palestinians, despite the president’s late push for a Middle East peace agreement. There is little expectation that he will score a big breakthrough on any of these areas during his final 10 months in office.
Yet on all three topics, Bush administration policies are likely to form the basis for the approach of its successor, no matter its political stripe, according to experts and analysts. “Iran, the Middle East and North Korea all represent a return to traditional American internationalism and an implicit repudiation of the belligerent unilateralism of the first administration,” says Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, Mr Bush’s predecessor. “They serve to establish a base for the next administration to build on that the next administration will welcome whether it’s Republican or Democratic.”
It may seem unlikely that the Bush administration’s faltering policies on issues as sensitive as Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could pave the way to the next president’s approach. Mr Bush cuts a diminished figure on the world stage. His diplomats keep to a holding pattern of maintaining and refining policies that have not paid off and that appear unlikely to do so in the near future. US foreign policy sometimes seems as if it amounts to little more than waiting until the remaining 10 months of the administration are up.
But many in Washington argue that this year’s “change election” obscures the fact that a big shift from many policies of Mr Bush’s first term has already occurred. “There’s a more realistic approach and more realistic goals, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired,” says Dennis Ross, a former US envoy to the Middle East who has advised the campaigns of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential hopefuls. “There has been a change, though they haven’t changed their rhetoric.”
Mr Talbott traces the shift in the Bush administration – what he calls a “course correction” – to even before the president’s re-election in 2004. “Condoleezza Rice, in her capacity as secretary of state, has played a very different role from the one she played as national security adviser,” he says. “She has to some extent reinstated diplomacy as a necessary and certain respectable component of foreign policy.”
A key moment was Mr Bush’s trip to Brussels in February 2005, almost as soon as he had sworn the oath of office for his second term. By visiting the headquarters of Nato, the European Commission and the council of European Union member states, Mr Bush signalled unequivocally that he wanted to work more with European powers, such as France and Germany, with which he had been at loggerheads.
Ms Rice, who prepared for the visit with a European tour of her own, reported back that Washington’s then tough line on Iran – one that was sceptical of all talks with the Islamic Republic – was putting the US at a strategic disadvantage. On one of the biggest issues in the world, the west was divided, as it had been over Iraq. The EU, which was seeking to persuade Tehran to rein in its nuclear programme, was at odds with the US.
So was born the current international policy on Iran – and the template for whatever is likely to succeed it. Over the subsequent few years the Bush administration made a series of concessions, backing offers made by the Europeans, as well as a proposal drafted by the Russians, and seeking to build international unity on the basis of a carrot-and-stick approach to Tehran. That approach, of the prospect of talks on the one hand and of continued international pressure through sanctions on the other, has been endorsed by the McCain, Obama and Clinton campaigns.
A key difference proposed by the Democratic candidates is to waive the current condition that Iran should halt uranium enrichment before talks begin. But the basic principle of US support for talks has already been established by the Bush administration. “Whoever gets elected is going to engage Iran,” says Mr Ross, who argues that in the straitened circumstances of the post-Iraq world, even partisans favouring military force against Iran will need first to display that they have made a genuine effort at dialogue. Indeed, Robert Kagan and Reuel Marc Gerecht, two influential US neoconservatives, the former of whom has advised John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, have already called for negotiations without preconditions. Mr Ross adds that far from discarding the sanctions part of Iran policy, a Democratic president could seek to use the carrot of talks between Washington and Iran to win Europe round to the stick of heightened sanctions on Tehran, most likely in the energy sector.
“We may judge that it’s time to take the diplomacy to another stage on Iran,” says Philip Zelikow, who served as Ms Rice’s adviser in the state department at the start of the second term. “But you then have that much greater a burden to ramp up the substance. This will be true no matter who takes office.” Mr Zelikow says that if you divide foreign policy into a series of areas, encompassing issues such as the Middle East, relations with Russia, and east Asia, “the Democrats will share a lot of the administration’s current assumptions” on a number of topics.
So dramatic has the change been on North Korea that Mr Bush has moved from describing Pyongyang as part of the “axis of evil” in 2002 to sending a letter to Kim Jong-il that began “Dear Mr Chairman”. In Mr Bush’s first term, the US broke off a Clinton-era understanding with North Korea rather than seeking to amend it, but even before the 2004 US presidential elections it had begun to participate in regional six-party talks to convince North Korea to end its nuclear programme. Those talks took on new urgency after Pyongyang exploded its nuclear device in 2006.
At present, the talks are deadlocked and may remain so for the rest of Mr Bush’s term, partly because North Korea balks at providing information over past nuclear-related proliferation. But Mr Bush’s new approach has restored a modicum of stability. The Yongbyon reactor is being disabled and as a result North Korea is no longer producing plutonium. It is therefore unlikely to add to its nuclear arsenal during the remainder of the Bush administration, just as Tehran is unlikely to develop a nuclear weapon while Mr Bush is in office.
In practical terms, the next president will have little option but to follow the current multilateral approach, although compared with the fading powers of Mr Bush, he or she may have greater leverage over Pyongyang or Tehran. The same could be true for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Mr Bush has decided to ape Mr Clinton and seek a breakthrough to the dispute during his last year in office. Mr Ross sees next to no prospect of a final agreement this year although there is the possibility of a vaguer deal on “core principles”. He praises the administration for its decision to eliminate the link between the final-status talks that are now in train and the commitments that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have managed to meet.
During most of Mr Bush’s time in office, that condition had precluded attempts to broker a final deal. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who participated in the 2000 Camp David talks, labels the Bush administration’s decision to junk it “a major, major contribution”.
Of course there are many areas of huge foreign policy difference between Mr Bush and the three main candidates jostling to succeed him – particularly the Democrats. Iraq, from where Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton have promised to withdraw troops, is only the most prominent instance, although both senators have said they would retain an indeterminate number of troops to protect US diplomats and officials and possibly also to combat al-Qaeda.
“The next administration is going to have to go a lot further,” says Mr Talbott. “It needs to undo the Bush legacy with regard to torture, it needs to reinstate habeas corpus ... It has given an opportunity to a president McCain, a president Obama, a president Clinton, to make a clear break with this president.” He and other Democrats also want to see the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified. Similarly, in a speech last week Mr McCain called for the US to lead “a global effort at nuclear disarmament consistent with our vital interests and the cause of peace”.
Even Mr Zelikow, who helped frame the Bush administration’s 2002 national security strategy, says there “are a few issues where a pretty strong swing of the pendulum is needed”. He argues that neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration put together a durable values-based strategy that could command support in both the US and abroad.
But Mr Talbott notes that there has already been a shift on one of the most polarising issues of Mr Bush’s time in office. “Kyoto and climate change are in a halfway house,” he says. “The administration has very reluctantly and grudgingly moved in the direction of what in a positive sense is becoming the international wisdom, that we have a real problem, it’s man-made, it’s urgent and it requires comprehensive international action.”
Other areas of uncertainty remain. All three candidates have used tougher rhetoric than Mr Bush about Russia, particularly Mr McCain, who wants it expelled from the Group of Eight industrialised nations. Tough talk on China in the 1980, 1992 and 2000 races was toned down after the transition from campaign to administration; whether the same will be true on Russia this time is one of the big questions.
Perhaps the main difference, however, between Mr Bush’s first and second terms – and the most likely source of continuity with the next administration – was his embrace of multilateralism after the divisions created by the Iraq war. For that more multilateral approach Russia, with its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, is sometimes indispensable.
In his speech last week Mr McCain, who brands himself as a “realistic idealist”, emphasised his enthusiasm to work with the “powerful collective voice of the European Union” and other allies, although he also indicated that he would put a new League of Democracies, not the UN, at the heart of his approach.
That issue is just one area of the many areas in which he differs markedly with the approach of Mr Bush. Indeed, whatever the election outcome, the next administration could provide one of the biggest changes in recent US history – in both style and substance. But the message from senior officials and foreign policy experts is clear – on a number of issues, in the Middle East and elsewhere, Mr Bush has already corrected course and developed policies and tools that could provide continuity with the next administration.
It is sometimes remarked that the Bush administration made a big error when taking office by adopting an approach in which policies Mr Clinton had pursued, such as seeking to broker Middle East peace, were routinely rejected. It is unlikely that the next administration will make the same mistake, to the same extent. Even in an administration headed by Mrs Clinton or Mr Obama there would still be a lasting residue of Mr Bush.