Bringing the foreign policy debate home

The foreign policy debate between Romney and Obama contained little debate and little foreign policy.

Presidential contender Mitt Romney spent much of the debate agreeing with President Barack Obama [EPA]
Presidential contender Mitt Romney spent much of the debate agreeing with President Barack Obama [EPA]

A good deal can and will be said about Monday night’s foreign policy debate, but the bottom line may be that it was not so much about foreign policy and not so much a debate.

Both candidates had a lot to say about “domestic” concerns: Education, deficits, infrastructure, energy, and economic competitiveness. To many watching the debate, it might have seemed to have gone off course. But the emphasis on these stateside concerns served to underscore an important point: The United States can only be as strong abroad as it is at home. American influence in the world depends on the ability to act with real capacity and set an example that others will want to follow. This all takes resources.

There was also a surprising degree of agreement between the two candidates: The wisdom of pushing Hosni Mubarak out of the president’s office as the protestors gathered in Tahrir Square; the need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons; concern for Pakistan’s future stability; the utility of drone strikes as a tool of counter-terrorism; the desirability of challenging China on areas of disagreement in a way that did not rule out selective cooperation; and the importance of helping the Syrian opposition by doing all that was possible to see that any weapons supplied did not end up in the “wrong”, ie radical, hands.

There were as well some obvious omissions: The lack of debate over Libya and the neglect of Mexico, the eurozone, Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and climate change. The only thing sure is that whoever wins the election in two weeks will not have the luxury of avoiding these issues or the hard choices associated with the others, domestic and foreign alike.

Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home:  The Case for America Putting its House in Order, will be published next spring by Basic books.

A version of this article was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations website.

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