Sunday, September 21, 2014
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The US Candidates’ Non-Debate

DENVER – For the uninitiated, especially foreign observers, the United States’ presidential election campaign can seem like an epic narrative in which the protagonists pass through various trials en route to salvation, with the US media’s nonstop coverage resounding like a Greek chorus. Now that the made-for-television Republican and Democratic conventions are over, the odyssey of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, continues with three face-to-face encounters in October.

The first debate is scheduled to take place here at the University of Denver on October 3. Both candidates received some (well-deserved) criticism during the conventions for appealing to peoples’ emotions instead of addressing facts and policies. In the debates, that should change as they confront each other directly while making their case to voters.

But October 3 is only the beginning. The vice-presidential candidates will square off on October 11, while Obama and Romney will meet again on October 16 and then for the last debate, on October 22.

Foreign policy has made few appearances in the campaign, but the final debate is supposed to be devoted to the subject, thereby giving voters a sustained view of how the candidates view the world. Obama has spoken periodically over the course of his presidency about foreign policy (albeit before the current campaign), whereas Romney has said far less. Anxious to distance himself from the legacy of the previous Republican administration, he never mentions former President George W. Bush and avoids mention of the two wars of the last decade.

Indeed, when Romney formally accepted the Republican nomination at the party’s convention, he went so far as not to mention US troops in the field, an omission that the Democrats pounced upon when their convention met a week later. Ironically, it is the Republicans who have prided themselves in recent years as the party that took up President John F. Kennedy’s call to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” in defense of liberty. But both Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, display little or no interest in foreign affairs, apart from assuring voters that Israel’s interests will be safeguarded, Iran’s will not be, and whatever the US does must be tough and strident.

Though the third debate will address foreign-policy issues, viewers will probably remain starved for signs of what might follow in terms of statecraft. Foreign policy in US politics is often an exercise in demonstrating strength rather than wisdom. On Iran, the debate will, at best, address how to “solve” (no one will dare say manage) the nuclear threat by using sanctions and military action. A serious discussion of how to sustain fledgling multinational negotiations between Iran and the world’s six most powerful countries (the so-called P5 + 1) – a process denounced by many American pundits as a waste of time – is unlikely.

Indeed, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, one of the most pressing issues of our time, may well be reduced to whether the US should support Israel in the event that its government takes military action. One is hard pressed to find any analyst who believes that Israeli air strikes could do more than set back Iran’s program for a few months while unifying fractured Iranian opinion around support for nuclear weapons.

Another fundamental question, China’s standing in the world order, is unlikely to be discussed in any meaningful way. Indeed, one can expect the debate to center on how to confront China in the short term, rather than on how to nurture long-term cooperative ties. Most Americans have not yet embraced the idea that the US-China relationship is too big to fail. Today’s China seems to recall Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – a new, great power rival that is difficult for US policymakers to understand.

Likewise, Obama and Romney may have tacitly agreed not to discuss the policy choices surrounding the tragedy in Syria, because neither has any interest in addressing its internal complexities, mastery of which will be essential to galvanize international support for an eventual political solution. In the meantime, Syria and its daily carnage have become the dreariest and most numbing foreign-policy issue in American public opinion, despite the danger that the violence could spread across the Middle East (particularly to neighboring Iraq and Lebanon). The export of Syria’s civil war is likely to consume far more time in the coming months than either candidate wants to admit.

Other foreign-policy issues cry out for serious discussion and debate: addressing absolute poverty and pandemics in the global South; strengthening global governance, including undermanned and outmoded United Nations structures; international cooperation on the rising number of natural disasters; and rethinking Afghanistan/Pakistan with the understanding that Pakistan is far larger and one angry mob away from a loose nuke – and therefore should not be reduced to the role of a supporting actor in Afghanistan’s travails.

Finally, North Korea’s nuclear aspirations are a hearty perennial for any US president. Joint US-Chinese effort on this issue could potentially provide the elusive key to an improved relationship. Yet this issue, too, is unlikely to receive the attention from the candidates that it deserves.

Whether Americans like it or not, with Europe, China, and India largely consumed by domestic politics, international leadership and stewardship of the world’s problems will remain firmly in US hands. And yet the US election campaign, even the upcoming October debates, will leave most observers wondering whether any country is in charge.

Read more from our "America Votes" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    After the Cold War, America reduced its troop headcount by 30 percent. After the election, America will probably begin another 30 percent reduction. The country does not require all the ground troops that it maintains since it is unlikely to intervene on the Asian landmass in the future in a significant way.

    Rather, in a globalizing world, the principal foreign policy goal of America should be to protect the global commons so that peaceful trade can grow and brigand nations cannot exact "tolls" on global commerce.

    The Republican party, stupid and bellicose, would like to find another Soviet Union to fit its Manichaean world view that it could sell to its base. More likely, America is going to find itself as a mediator in an ever-increasingly interconnected world that it influences but does not control.

    Meanwhile the Republicans will wire themselves in behind the neoconservative ramparts of Kibbutz Israel in its confrontation against change that looks different from themselves.

    The corporate Republicans and country club Republicans will be left as two tribes to wander in the political wilderness, if they even care. They will be left harmlessly to make money in the globalizing world economy.

  2. CommentedPartha Sarkar

    As Mr. Hill points out, Foreign policy will take a back seat in the presidential debate. But this also has to do a lot with the general aversion of American populace to foreign policy. A significant portion of the average American electorate feels betrayed on the how two wars were sold to them under the thinly veiled pretext of “Threat to national security”. As a result the average electorate is divided into two major groups – “Zealots” who will buy any use of excessive force when put under the name of maintaining US hegemony or “the disenchanted” who are completely disinterested and have non interventionist mindset.

    Post cold war, rising BRIC country influence and Economic decline of USA and NATO have changed the world affairs significantly. Now more than ever, to be effective, foreign policy debates and arguments need a much more refined understanding of contextual regional forces at play. These forces for example are Governance structure, Ethnic, demographical, historical context, stage of economic development etc. In the past, even the best US foreign policy experts have completely ignored these factors in making critical decisions. Thus US is now faced with rising Islamic fundamentalist influence in middle east post Arab spring. The average public is far too removed from realities of these different regions to be able to make a conscious choice between good and bad policy decisions. The politicians thus keep making the same rhetoric to win support from an uninformed public, either peddling old school notions for military or economic hegemony in a changed world. An example at point is both Obama and Romney campaigns issue statements calling China a currency manipulator and promise to take actions against what is called unfair trade practices by China. But in real world scenario, it would be extremely foolish to start a full-fledged trade war with China.

    Recent history and changing Geo Political manifestations have proven beyond reasonable doubt that Kissinger style foreign policies will fail to deliver on either US Regional interests or towards a stable geo political system. However I do not believe that a lot could be expected from the third presidential debate on the future policies. Romney will stand firm on his support for Israel on any actions it takes against Iran and Obama will defend his non interventionist policy of garnering international support for the democratic movements against dictatorial Middle East hegemonies.

  3. CommentedS.Mahmud Ali

    Secretary Hill reminds us that although the US electorate, and the candidates, appear to be consumed with interest in domestic affairs - which is not surprising at a time of major difficulties - America's position as the system-manager requires its political elites to pay greater attention to the world beyond.

    This, of course, raises other questions: how exactly does America wish to manage the system it has fashioned and led, especially at a time of possible retrenchment and partisan logjam within the Washington Beltway? would US leadership be founded primarily on its hegemonic primacy in the application of lethal force, or would a more collegial management style be developed with influence outside some narrow academic circles? how wide and deep is the recognition that the mainstay of primacy, lethal coercion, is no longer a viable management tool for a deeply and widely intertwined, globalised, world? Do US leaders appreciate the need for mobilising collective action in a diverse planet, and, are they willing and able to mobilise domestic constituencies for shifting foreign-policy gear towards collaborative leadership and collective management of issues not amenable to kinetic force?

    As Secretary Hill points out, campaign rhetoric emanating from both camps does not offer reasons for optimism.

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