THIS year's presidential election campaign has so far given short shrift to foreign policy. In their acceptance speeches at the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton and Al Gore stuck closely to domestic themes, largely ignoring world affairs. And the Bush camp has yet to confront the Democratic challengers on international matters.
The electoral logic is hard to fault. Americans today are mostly preoccupied with what is happening at home - particularly with the prolonged economic slowdown and its effects on employment and wages - but also with spiraling medical costs, crumbling infrastructure, and rising personal insecurity. The voters are paying less attention than ever to events overseas. At this stage of the campaign, at least, President Bush seems to be getting little mileage out of his international experience.
But even leaving electoral considerations aside, the arguments are compelling for focusing on domestic matters at this point in United States history. Shaping a coherent agenda for national action is the crucial first step toward designing and carrying out an effective foreign policy that can claim the sustained support of the American people. As long as US domestic policy is adrift, its international decisionmaking will lack direction and purpose.
Foreign policy must be steered and anchored by domestic needs, values, and priorities. For example, a nation uncomfortable with birth control and family planning at home is unlikely to vigorously support population programs abroad. A government confused about how to combat the drug problems of its own cities will have difficulty in framing effective international approaches. A country insecure about its economic future will be hesitant about negotiating market-opening trade agreements. A nation stymied b y budget deficits cannot take effective leadership in shaping the macroeconomic policies of other industrial powers. A US government that pursued sound environmental policies at home and believed these contributed to sustainable economic growth would assign significant weight to international efforts to protect the environment.
But even if our first order of business must now be domestic, it would be a dangerous mistake to put all debate about international affairs on hold. First, although they are needed to guide and undergird foreign-policy decisions, domestic priorities, no matter how clearly fixed, will not automatically determine those decisions; hard choices will still have to be made about many world issues. Second, and more important, global interdependence is now a fact of life for the US, meaning that we can no longer
hope to achieve our national goals or effectively deal with our internal problems without intelligently managing international relations.
A VIBRANT world economy, for example, is crucial for restoring US prosperity. Exports and imports now amount to fully one-quarter of our entire national output of goods and services, double what it was only 20 years ago. Future US growth will almost certainly be even more dependent on our ability to penetrate foreign markets - and to attract many billions of dollars of overseas investment. US interest rates are not set exclusively at home any more; the cost of home mortgages in the US now reflect the dec isions of bankers in Tokyo and Bonn.
The US is being enriched and transformed by the movement of peoples and cultures from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. But massive migration also carries problems with it - and many of those problems can best be dealt with in the countries of origin, if the US and other industrialized nations are prepared to assist with some modest resources and technical expertise.
Given our history and traditions, the US can never be indifferent to tyranny and suffering elsewhere. Fostering democracy overseas does more than advance US values: It also promotes our interests. Because democracies rarely go to war with one another, a more democratic world will be a more peaceful world. Good in itself, it would also let the US spend less on military forces and more on domestic needs. Finally, because democracies are more politically stable than autocracies, they are more reliable comme rcial partners.
These are ample reasons to justify serious debate on international relations as the US approaches its first post-cold-war presidential election. But there is one more. An open debate would help clarify differences - and highlight many critical areas of agreement. Not since World War II has there been a better opportunity to forge a broad national consensus on the basic purposes and directions of US foreign policy. Gaining that consensus would make us a stronger nation - at home and abroad.