On the campaign trail, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have clashed on foreign policy issues from North Korea to Iran. But despite all the talk of change, the next president will likely provide more continuity on foreign policy than there was the last time the White House changed hands.
When President Bush first got to the White House, the mantra in foreign policy was "anything but Clinton." The Bush administration turned away from President Clinton's peace efforts in the Middle East and accused North Korea of cheating on a disarmament deal brokered by the Clinton administration. Now, eight years later, the Bush administration is trying to keep a new disarmament deal with North Korea from unraveling. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — a Democrat who supports Obama — says whoever wins in November will probably need to pick up from there.
"I think that there will be certain elements of continuity where the Bush administration finally figured out that diplomacy was a good idea and went back to the kinds of things that the Clinton administration actually had been doing," Albright says. "It is unfortunate that, as far as North Korea is concerned, that that lapse of six years meant that the North Koreans actually had a nuclear explosion and now, we think, are able to make six or seven nuclear weapons."
A former top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offers a more favorable view of the secretary's role in this move to a more traditional foreign policy approach. Nicholas Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University, says if Rice doesn't have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by January, she will at least hand off a process to the next administration.
Not everyone is upbeat about the return to "realist" diplomacy. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, complained earlier this year that the State Department was already acting as if Obama were president.
"They are on their knees waiting for the Obama administration," he said. "The State Department is culturally and politically well to the left of any Republican administration."
But Burns, the former No. 3 at the State Department, says one thing he's learned is that diplomatic breakthroughs don't come unless you talk.
"It seems to me that we've made a certain amount of progress on the North Korea issue because we approached the North Koreans. We should now do the same with Iran as with some of the other recalcitrant states around the world," Burns says.
Burns is expecting some continuity on Iran and thinks the next U.S. president should continue to work with the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, who have laid out a package of incentives and disincentives to rein in Iran's nuclear program.
Flynt Leverett, who was on President Bush's national security staff, hopes for an entirely new approach toward Iran — what he calls a "grand bargain."
"The next president of the United States, whoever he is, needs to reorient American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran as fundamentally as President Nixon reoriented American policy toward the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s," Leverett says.
Speaking at the New America Foundation this week, Leverett said he thinks U.S. diplomats are trying to keep options open for the next president.
"I think that the chances of this administration doing really, really serious damage beyond what's already been done is pretty small, and so I think if a new president comes in and really wants to take this different kind of strategic agenda with Iran, it will be possible to do so," he said.
He's annoyed that the presidential debates so far have focused on low-order tactical issues when it comes to Iran — such as whether Obama would really meet Iran's president. Five former secretaries of state — Republican and Democrat — have called for engaging Iran. Leverett argues the question should be talks to what end — rather than at what level.