The Commission on Presidential Debates selected six subjects for the foreign policy debate: America’s role in the world; Afghanistan and Pakistan; Israel and Iran; Changing Middle East (two segments, “I and II”), and China. These are topical, all right, but they do not begin to exhaust the vital issues that face the U.S. presidency. Instead, they remind us again how even a campaign of unparalleled length can focus too much on the transient (e.g., who screwed up on Libya security?) and avoid large structural issues.
Here are some questions I’d like to ask. Maybe some of them might leak into the campaigns in the next two weeks. If they do, whoever wins certainly would have a stronger governing mandate on these matters, at least.
- Are American businesses and workers competitive enough today to thrive in an inevitably globalized economy? Progress toward free trade with the European Union and Asia has been burdened by bureaucratic and nationalistic red tape. If you are not satisfied with American competitiveness, what would you do about it?
- Whatever happened to the national alarm about climate change, formerly known as global warming? Neither of you talk about it much on the campaign trail. In 2008, Mr. President, you announced that this was going to be the time “when the rise of the oceans began to slow.” Is climate change no longer such a problem and no longer such a priority, and, if not, why?
- Religious persecution worldwide is on the rise. Seldom does a day go by without some story of a church that was bombed or a religious sect set upon by another. Most of the attacks are against Christians. Two-thirds of the Christians of Iraq have felt it necessary to flee that country, for example. Among Muslims in the Middle East, Shias persecute Sunnis and vice versa. Blasphemy laws seem to encourage violence rather than thwart it. What have you done or will you do to advance religious freedom in the world?
- Latin America, in our own hemisphere, has not been the locus of foreign policy, let alone national debate, for decades. The rise of anti-American dictatorships and authoritarian governments in places like Venezuela and Argentina, plus the issue of war — like narco-trafficking in Mexico and Central America — are seen to damage the standing of the United States in the region. In 1994 Congress adopted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton championed. The results have been helpful to all countries involved, especially Mexico. But since then economic development as a key to Western Hemisphere progress has gained little attention (oddly) from political candidates. What will you do to improve relations with Latin America?
- Public diplomacy, or the campaign to advance American ideals of freedom, constituted a sizable federal government commitment in the Cold War, especially under Ronald Reagan. But in the Clinton Administration, U.S.-financed broadcast media and the semi-independent U.S. Information Agency that ran libraries and cultural programs abroad, were largely integrated into the State Department, where some critics say they have languished. Anti-American propaganda is coming now from sources in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China. Do you believe that the United States and the West are losing the war of ideas in the world and that public diplomacy should be given more stature and attention in the U.S. federal government?
- Do you believe that America’s foreign aid program is a success or failure? Is it too large or too small? Is it too independent of the philanthropic sector’s efforts? Is it too tied to military or political aims? Is it too supine in the face of foreign national governments and politics? What would you do improve or change American foreign aid to the rest of the world?
- Most important, perhaps, is the issue of defense. The percentage of the federal budget going to defense has been cut in recent years and is slated to be cut again. President Eisenhower, a former four star-general, said going into the White House that he didn’t want to spend one dollar less than necessary for defense or one dollar more than necessary. What do you consider the right size and scope of the American military in the next four years if American values and interests in the world are to be properly defended? What will you do to achieve that right size?
Well, that ought to keep them busy for another 90 minutes, just as soon as another foreign policy debate can be scheduled. However, I’m afraid that the real discussions will wait until after the election.