J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama stands on stage after addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 6. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'Future US influence abroad will depend on how the next president begins to find a balance between debt and deficit reduction and the costs of modernizing infrastructure and educating the next generation of American engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.'

Obama speech: Despite foreign policy successes, a need for the big view

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama pointed to foreign policy successes, such as killing Osama bin Laden. But he and GOP nominee Mitt Romney still need to lay out a vision for a changing world. US influence depends on its competitiveness.

In making his case for a second term last night at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama delivered some of the most rousing lines of his acceptance speech during a short survey of national security threats and international trends meant to show that Republican nominee Mitt Romney is not yet ready for prime-time diplomacy.

That was smart politics, particularly on the eve of a report showing the economy added a paltry 96,000 jobs in August and more people quit looking for work. Amid a sputtering recovery, foreign policy is the president’s strongest card. But he missed a larger opportunity – one that Mr. Romney also failed to grasp a week earlier – to unite the disparate elements of foreign policy into a coherent overarching framework for American leadership. That’s needed at a time of both deepening crises and new openings in a rapidly changing world.

For the third time in two decades, American diplomacy is confronted with a need for adaptation. The end of the cold war 20 years ago unleashed waves of both democratization and sectarian strife across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa and thrust Washington, as the lone superpower, to the fore in a new and experimental era of international peacekeeping. A decade later, 9/11 prompted a second radical shift in US diplomatic strategy in the context of state failure and transnational terrorism.

This election coincides with a need to redefine foreign policy yet again in response to five key international trends: the Arab Spring, the potential collapse of the European common currency, the emergence of Africa as a robust trade partner, the shift in both influence and affluence from the Atlantic to the Pacific Rim, and climate change.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington ushered in a perplexing set of new security challenges – largely strategic – that have by no means been put to rest. But these more recent trends affect both immediate and long-term US economic prosperity and raise fundamental questions about domestic priorities.

Anticipating foreign policy under a second Obama administration is relatively straight-forward even without a broader stated doctrine. The main planks are very likely to include containing Iran and North Korea through a combination of stricter international penalties as well as incentives for abandoning their nuclear programs; encouraging ongoing democratic reforms and economic development in Africa, Myanmar (Burma), and the transitional states of the Middle East through trade and assistance; strengthening strategic and economic partnerships in Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim; completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014; and continuing to eradicate Al Qaeda and allied elements along both sides of the Pakistan border.

The riddles include how to end the civil war and nurture democratic transition in Syria (which shockingly got no mention at either convention), help stabilize the euro zone, and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Romney’s course is harder to anticipate. On the one hand, an abiding feature of American foreign policy is continuity from one president to the next. President Clinton’s emphasis on peacekeeping grew out of the first humanitarian military mission launched by his predecessor, George H. W. Bush, in Somalia. Mr. Obama’s escalation of drone strikes is an extension of counterterrorism strategies adopted under his predecessor, George W. Bush. For all of Romney’s strong show of support for Israel, he has refrained  from pledging to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It is equally unlikely that he would tack hard on Iran or alter the disengagement process in Afghanistan. His stated concerns over Russia, while sounding like a throwback to the cold war, actually reflect Western frustration at Moscow’s and Beijing’s defiance of international sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

It may be that Romney is either holding his cards closely or, more likely, still developing his approach in an area of policy in which he has little experience. The problem is that if he wins the election without having defined a clear foreign policy philosophy, he will have sown confusion and skepticism abroad. And  he will have possibly limited his ability to carry out strategic ideas for which he either had not built a case or that conflict with goals more important to his party base.

For as little as has been said about foreign policy during the campaign season so far, one point of consensus has emerged. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it this way at the Republican National Convention last week: “There is no country, no not even a rising China, that can do more harm to us than we can do to ourselves if we fail to accomplish the tasks before us here at home.”

Obama made a similar point last night: “After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.”

Domestic and foreign policy intersect at the imperative of economic competitiveness. Put differently, future US influence abroad will depend on how the next president begins to find a balance between debt and deficit reduction and the costs of modernizing infrastructure and educating the next generation of American engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.

The presidential debates in October provide the last big opportunity for the candidates to address these issues. They should not pass it up.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe. 

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