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The Monitor's View

Please, a discerning presidential debate on foreign policy

When Mitt Romney and President Obama debate foreign policy Monday evening, they need to admit the US faces wholly new challenges that require a national consensus on the core values that can drive US responses.

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Mr. Obama, for example, has adopted many of the policies of his predecessor, such as the use of military tribunals and the active promotion of democratic reform, after criticizing them as a candidate. He has even had to change his own approach, such as his hope early on of negotiating with Islamic fanatics.

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Mr. Romney, meanwhile, claims the president has failed to “shape history” in the Middle East, perhaps with the utmost confidence that he, as president, could do what most recent presidents have not been able to do.

All of these policy uncertainties in foreign affairs require that Americans – not just presidential candidates – develop a consensus about the moral standards that are the basis for any nation’s foreign activities.

Does a faith in freedom demand open trade? Does empathy for victims of violence demand military intervention when whole populations might be slaughtered abroad? Is democracy such a necessary condition for mankind that the US must sacrifice to ensure it?

Recent polls indicate quite a split on such questions. In the pivotal state of Florida, a majority wants the US to pay less attention to problems overseas. In Ohio, a majority wants an active US abroad, citing the reason that “situations in other countries can draw the United States into wars.”

Yet there is a consensus on the most important foreign-policy goal, according to a 2011 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. More than 8 in 10 Americans say protecting jobs should be a president’s main aim in conducting foreign affairs. With a priority like that, economic policies jump to the front of the line in a debate on foreign policy.

But first Americans must define a moral core for their nation's foreign policy. Otherwise presidents will continue to be simply reactive to trends and events. The presidential debates should use current challenges, such as the Benghazi, Libya, attack, not to beat each other up to score points but to elicit what values they will emphasize as the occupant of the White House.

The new world order doesn’t start with simply different international rules between countries, as was assumed 20 years go. It starts with big democracies like America coming to grips with the “blizzard” of moral challenges to their role in the world.

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