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.
Much of what we hear from the candidates fits this framework. A transactional mode of thinking, in which discrete problems must be solved quickly (and most often with the massive application of military force) crowds out the difficult diplomatic spadework of long-term foreign-policy success. For example, there is little more to Senator Ted Cruz’s calls for “carpet bombing” Iraqi and Syrian territory held by the Islamic State than a vague understanding that there is a pest out there that needs to be exterminated.
ISIS is indeed a pest – a threat to everyone’s wellbeing. But American voters (and the rest of the world) need some sign that the presidential candidates can explain how that pest got there in the first place and what must be done to ensure that it doesn’t reemerge elsewhere. A display of knowledge and wisdom might assure voters that a candidate brings to bear an approach and a way of thinking that involves more than simply treating symptoms.
For example, does a candidate believe that alliances are important to America’s wellbeing? They certainly have been since the end of World War II; but in their face-to-face televised debates and on the campaign trail, the candidates seem to evince little appreciation of the role of institutionalized security arrangements (much less international law) over the past 70 years.
Americans increasingly understand that confronting domestic problems and challenges often involves painful tradeoffs. When it comes to foreign problems and challenges, however, any admission that the US cannot always get what it wants is portrayed as a sign of weakness in the defense of Americans’ freedom or security. Donald Trump has taken this approach to a new extreme – and has come out on top of the Republican field.
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Trump’s promise to “make America great again” assumes what isn’t true. In fact, America already is great and has been for the past century. The challenge, which Trump’s ham-handed slogan shunts to the side, is to keep it great and to navigate a complex international landscape in such a way that its friends do not doubt that greatness and its adversaries do not challenge it.
A sustainable foreign policy cannot be all things to all people, and the presidential candidates need to be clearer with voters about that. Successful statecraft requires making good choices and ensuring that policies bring about the intended consequences.
For all of the criticism of President Barack Obama (particularly the suggestion that he continues ruminating when the US should be intervening), on many issues he has consistently demonstrated the importance of understanding the tradeoffs – the risks and opportunities – implied by a particular policy or course of action. To be sure, there is no substitute for on-the-job learning; nonetheless, voters need to hear more than tired slogans and political invective to make an informed choice in November 2016.
The election campaign will heat up at a time when the US is facing a daunting set of problems. How should it approach China’s creation of not only facts on the ground, but the ground itself, in the South China Sea? Will Russia’s annexation of Crimea stand forever? Indeed, how can America respond firmly to Russian aggression without forsaking the long-term project of bringing it closer to the West? Is there an alternative to sending ground troops back to the Middle East?
There’s no shortage of such questions for the American public to consider in deciding upon a candidate. For better or worse, whether they have the opportunity to do so with the seriousness that such matters deserve will depend largely on the candidates themselves.