Obama gets the world's conservative vote

As the US Republican Party strays from the centre-right mainstream of western politics, world leaders are lining up to support Barack Obama.

FT.com

The world does not get a vote in the US presidential election. Never mind, politicians across the globe are lining up regardless behind Barack Obama. It is not just the usual suspects – soggy Europeans who abhor the culture wars waged by US conservatives. The Republicans are trailing in places where they have traditionally had a strong edge on the Democrats.

The tone was set during David Cameron’s visit to Washington. Feted at the White House, Britain’s Conservative prime minister all but endorsed Obama’s claim to a second term. Thumbing his nose at the Tory party’s American cousins he declined to meet Republican leaders. Cameron’s government is legislating in favour of gay marriage. A conversation with Rick Santorum might have been a little strained.

Centre-right parties hold office just about everywhere in Europe. Yet it is a struggle to find leaders who would admit, even privately, to be crossing their fingers for Mitt Romney. Mention Santorum or Newt Gingrich and they wince.

Politicians in the eastern half of the continent often approve of the Republican front-runner’s tough stance towards Russia. Obama’s 'reset' with Moscow was not universally popular in former vassal states of the Soviet empire. On almost every other big foreign policy issue – Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the handling of China – Europeans are closer to Obama.

This is not to say that he has lived up to their exalted hopes. In 2008 Obama was running against George W. Bush’s foreign policy record. He was young, black and a multilateralist to boot. He talked about diplomacy as an alternative to war. Europeans fondly imagined he would set about remaking the world in Europe’s image. Unsurprisingly, they have been disappointed.

That has been less true of voters. The 2011 Global Attitudes Survey from the Pew Research centre showed that 88 per cent of Angela Merkel’s German voters still expressed confidence in Obama. The figure for France was 84 per cent, for Britain 75 per cent and for Spain 67 per cent.

The gulf between conservatives on either side of the Atlantic is as much about cultural dissonance as policy disagreements. Arguments about Russia or Middle East peace talks can be managed. Much harder is finding any remaining common political ground between Christian Democrats and Tea Party conservatives. There have always been differences about the size and role of the state and about social policy. But now the gap looks unbridgeable. Whatever happened, Europeans lament, to the party of the east coast establishment? The Atlantic alliance, after all, was built by Republicans.

The present Republican leadership is not shedding many tears. Plaudits from Europeans do not fire up the party’s base. To the contrary. As Romney limps a little faster towards the Republican nomination, he accuses Obama of turning the US into a "European-style entitlement society”. Little wonder that a recent survey by the polling company YouGov showed that nearly three-quarters of voters in welfare-friendly Sweden backed Obama.

On the other side of the world, Romney might have expected cheers from America’s Asian allies. Japan, South Korea and Singapore have traditionally favoured Republicans. So too has India. Republicans have been identified as pro-business and pro-trade and, in a dangerous, neighbourhood, ready to maintain a powerful US presence. Obama was marked down for an early attempt to frame a conciliatory approach to China.

Like Europeans, however, these allies worry about the rightward shift of today’s Republicans. They struggle to make the connection between the party of Eisenhower, Reagan and George H.W. Bush and the evangelical conservatism of the Tea Party. They have grown used to Obama, and appreciate a toughening of his stance against China. The present US administration, you hear Asian diplomats say, is "predictable”.

Oddly enough, China would also be expected to start with a bias in favour of the Republicans. Richard Nixon, after all, gave the Communist regime its opening to the world. Beijing prefers right-wing realpolitik over liberal hand-wringing about human rights. The Republicans are judged to be on the side of open markets; the Democrats as reflex protectionists.

Romney is doing his best to turn such calculations on their head. He says the Chinese have "walked all over Obama”. Its human rights abuses mean that it cannot be a trusted partner. As for trade, one of his first acts as president would be to indict Beijing for 'currency manipulation' and slap duties on Chinese imports.

The story is much the same on the other side of the Pacific. The last President Bush built good relations with leaders in Brazil, Mexico and Columbia. Romney has seemed intent on alienating them by joining the Republican bidding race for much tougher immigration controls.

The Republicans do have at least one stalwart ally. Romney has won the support of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu by stepping up the military threat to Iran and promising to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Both moves are opposed by other US allies.

As far as the outcome in November goes, of course, none of this much matters. Americans, rightly, will make their own choice. What is striking, though, is just how far the Republicans have strayed from the centre-right mainstream of western politics. Something odd is happening when the world’s conservatives vote Democrat.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.