With the 2000 presidential election just over a year away, the United States may be heading into its most intense national discourse on defense and foreign-policy issues since the end of the cold war almost a decade ago.
To be sure, the campaign is in its early days yet. Few candidates have expounded at length on their views of the US role in the world and how the nation should wield its unrivaled military, economic, and political might in the new century. Most voters cite education, moral issues, and family matters as their top priorities.
But foreign affairs comes right behind on that list, according to recent polls. Given widespread satisfaction with the economy, issues like terrorism and weapons proliferation, defense spending, overseas military commitments, and relations with Russia and China are almost certain to receive increasing attention as the campaign heats up.
Says an adviser to Vice President Al Gore's campaign: "My sense is that they [defense and foreign policy] will be more important. The economy is doing well, so there can be a focus on other issues."
"The public does think that foreign affairs is important," adds Steve Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, a polling program run by the University of Maryland, College Park. "There is a tendency among people who are assessing candidates to ask if this is a person who can be a capable international leader who can deal with international affairs and defense matters."
All this does not mean that defense and foreign policy issues will influence the outcome of the elections. To the contrary, many experts say that absent a major crisis like a showdown with China over Taiwan, perceptions of candidates' character will have greater impact on how people vote than positions on key issues, domestic or foreign.
"Defense will not be a major issue in next year's election because there will not be a major threat to drive public interest," predicts Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va.
Yet the absence of a foreign "peer competitor" has not stopped several candidates from striking out early to establish their credentials as being tough on national security and eager to maintain American global dominance in the coming decades.
Citing his family's martial background and his own service and captivity in North Vietnam, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is basing much of his appeal for the GOP nomination on defense and policy issues.
In recent speeches, Senator McCain has accused President Clinton of short-changing the defense budget while wearing down the armed forces with too many peacekeeping missions of marginal importance to US security. He pledges to take a tough line with China on Taiwan and support groups seeking to overthrow "rogue" regimes like that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, GOP front-runner, has been faced with criticism over his lack of international experience, apparent in several gaffes, such as confusing Slovakia and Slovenia. He has now laid out his broad priorities for defense in the first of what advisers say will be a series of speeches in coming weeks.
In the Sept. 23 address at a South Carolina military academy, he pledged a major military budget hike - he left unsaid where he would find the money - to fund more defense research, improve military housing, and raise pay.
He also said he would review major arms programs, curtail or cancel those found redundant or wasteful, and develop a new generation of weapons systems.
Like McCain, Mr. Bush promises to curtail peace-keeping operations of marginal importance to US security and build a national defense against missile attack, a decision Mr. Clinton has yet to take. Both speak of reestablishing trust between the military and its commander in chief, a swipe at Clinton's poor regard among the armed services.
An adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Bush will in coming weeks discuss diplomacy, foreign policy, and intelligence. He concedes that these are not the most important issues with the voters. But he says Bush himself decided he must address them early because "this area is one of the foremost responsibilities of the president."
It is apparent that Bush and McCain see Mr. Gore as being vulnerable on Clinton's stewardship of foreign and defense policies. Although Gore frequently comments on national security issues, the prospect of further GOP criticism will almost certainly compel him to lay out his own vision of the US role in the world in a comprehensive way.
The campaign adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, says Gore can draw strength from the Clinton administration's record on foreign and defense policies. "We've actually had some pretty good victories," he says. He cites the US-led peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, major international trade accords, and NATO expansion, among other things. He notes that Gore has been dealing with important national security issues since his tenure in the Senate.
Patrick Buchanan, who may seek the Reform Party nomination, sees America curtailing many of its foreign commitments and erecting protectionist barriers for it markets.
A campaign featuring a wide-ranging discourse on foreign and defense policies would be very different from other elections held since the collapse of communism
The 1992 battle between Clinton and former President Bush was dominated by the economy, while the 1994 congressional election was fought over issues - abortion, tax cuts, and school prayer - raised by the Republican Contract With America. The 1996 campaign was about maintaining the status quo: Clinton gave one major foreign-policy speech; his GOP challenger Bob Dole ran on a tax-cut platform after failing to make national security an issue.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society