America’s Presidential Candidates Against the World

DENVER – In the political marathon otherwise known as a US presidential campaign, foreign policy is often used as a proxy for a candidate’s “toughness.” By contrast, candidates often address domestic issues in ways intended to demonstrate mastery of detail (sometimes even rolling out a draft program that is almost certain to be forgotten in the event of victory).

The focus on such “pocketbook” issues by US presidential candidates may provide some insight into their worldly wisdom. But the point is to communicate candidates’ responsiveness to the concerns of average Americans, which means that foreign policy usually takes a backseat in presidential campaigns.

This year, however, foreign policy is front and center. The issues facing the United States – the turmoil in Syria and the Middle East, Russia’s military assertiveness, and China’s emergence as both economic (and environmental) partner and strategic challenger – are simply too important to be ignored. And yet, while this suggests that the candidates need to display policy mastery and even, now and again, genuine statesmanship, they are instead merely assuring voters that they will “keep us safe,” as if that said anything useful about how to survive and prosper in today’s world.

American foreign policy has traditionally oscillated between intervention and isolation. Today, it is much more complicated than that. As the threat to the US becomes clearer with every terrorist attack, isolationists become ardent interventionists. But their interventionism tends to be unilateral. Put another way, unilateralism is the internationalism of the isolationists.