Candidates rarely scratch foreign affairs surface

If a debate on foreign policy should be a significant part of the current political campaigns, what should be its focus?

A meaningful discussion of America's relations with the world may not be possible in the heat of presidential or congressional campaigns. Political rhetoric may raise expectations or imply commitments difficult to sustain in office. But at the same time, campaigns represent opportunities to raise public consciousness on issues.

To the extent foreign relations are discussed in this electoral season, the emphasis is on issues of force and national security, with special attention to China, Russia, and the "rogue states": Should the US proceed with a missile defense? Can we effect a regime change in Iraq? What should be our policy toward Taiwan?

Perhaps candidates and their advisers are correct in assuming only such issues will capture the attention of an electorate not particularly attuned to foreign affairs. A costly missile-shield program has implications for taxpayers. And, however debatable the threat of missiles from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya and the practicality of a missile shield, politicians can't ignore the fear generated by such visions. Members of Congress - conscious of such fears, desirous of demonstrating concern for the nation's safety, and encouraged by avid defense contractors - have pushed these issues. But are these the only ones that demand attention? In the heat of nuclear-threats rhetoric, candidates rarely suggest the chance to diminish threats through a campaign of nonproliferation has been set back by the Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In the arguments over how best to employ the budget surpluses, no voices are heard suggesting the decline in the amount of US resources supporting diplomacy and foreign policy harm national security. Candidates want a strong US role abroad, yet rarely suggest an impoverished foreign affairs establishment is less able to gain the confidence and access to other nations essential to promote the US interest in such issues as energy, trade, human rights, terrorism, narcotics, defense cooperation, and peacemaking.

Debates of the nation's responsibility for humanitarian disasters and ethnic conflicts turn into inconclusive arguments about the past and references - not always accurate - to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Immigration is on many agendas, yet few address the possible US responsibility for the growing rich-poor gap that forces peoples outside of Europe and North America to seek better lives. Meanwhile, candidates who have the courage to support the UN and endorse an active role for the US in that body are hard to find.

In today's political climate, national security and foreign policy issues seem to be defined almost entirely in extreme and scary terms. No one can deny that attacks by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons would wreak great damage on the US and many of its allies. But do these represent the actual national security threats to America today? Cannot other issues be similarly presented - based on perceptible threats?

The day may come when voters will be aroused because they suddenly notice their surroundings are getting hotter and their coastal real estate inundated by the ocean, and that disease and the pressure of population are coming from areas of the world long neglected. And they may notice also that their own government, suffering from an arrogance of power, has lost the capacity to influence a world that increasingly impinges on America's comfortable isolation.

That time clearly has not come, but may not voters in some future election cycle say to their candidates, "Why were you so focused on expensive and debatable weaponry that you ignored the real and immediate threats to our health and well-being. Don't those also relate to 'national security?' "

*David D. Newsom is a former undersecretary of State for political affairs. He is at work on a book - 'The Imperial Mantle: the United States, Decolonization, and the Third World' - due from Indiana University Press this year.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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