How Obama, Romney foreign policies are alike

While they differ on issues like Iran and China, Obama and Romney are alike in not having a foreign policy that would inspire Americans to build a strong economy.

Libyans watch a Sept. 21 protest against Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya. The recent attack that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans sparked a backlash among Libyans frustrated with armed Islamic extremists who run rampant in their cities.

The 2012 presidential campaign turned toward foreign policy this week, marked by speeches in which President Obama and Mitt Romney pointed out their differences, such as on Iran and China.

But their views are really quite similar in one significant way: Neither candidate put forth a national-security agenda that would inspire Americans to support a strong economy to fulfill that agenda. In fact, their foreign goals seem subordinate to simply fixing the US economy.

At the centerpiece of his approach, Mr. Romney proposes “prosperity pacts” to boost markets in other countries and thus create jobs at home. And Mr. Obama, who once said that “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own,” takes a similar theme. He wants the United States to better partner with countries in such areas as trade and technology to “spark economic growth for all of our people” in hopes of stabilizing democratic change abroad.

The two candidates are certainly in tune with today’s voters. In a survey of public opinion released this month by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the most popular foreign-policy goal is protecting the jobs of Americans workers. Support for that goal – 83 percent – is the highest in a decade. Second to it, at 77 percent, is reducing US dependence on foreign oil.

Other trends point to an inward-looking America, especially for the future. Voters under 30 see far fewer threats to the US (such as terrorism) and are far less supportive of an activist approach to foreign affairs than older Americans do. “They are less likely to consider strong US leadership,” the poll found. One reason is that fewer than 60 percent of these Millennials say the US is the greatest country.

In general, Americans have become more selective than they were just two years ago in where or how the US should be engaged abroad. A decade ago, only a quarter of Americans preferred that the US “stay out” of world affairs. Now nearly 40 percent say that.

For people who live in a nation founded on ideals, and one that has defended those ideals for other people in much of the 20th century and even in the 2011 attack on Libya, Americans aren’t very idealistic right now. They are more pessimistic about their future and less willing to help other nations.

Under many presidents, such as FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan, foreign-policy goals were often used to inspire Americans to support economic goals and work harder. The cold war, for example, was used to drive science education, the Interstate Highway System, the Internet, and the space industry. America’s economy needed to be strong to win over and keep noncommunist allies.

During World War II, many economic reforms were justified at home to help “make the world safe for democracy.” It was a two-way argument: a more prosperous America, a safer world; a safer world, a more prosperous homeland.

To be sure, Obama has cited the threat of China’s economy as a reason to boost science education and graduation rates in colleges. Romney, too, sees active promotion of democracy as a reason for Americans to work harder.

“Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America’s own economy – and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways build a strong and prosperous nation,” he said.

But both candidates can do more to tie their ideas on economic revival more closely to foreign-policy aims that inspire Americans. The US thrives best when it is looking outward. Its identity has long relied on sharing its ideals with others – and ensuring them.

The presidential candidate who adopts that noble tradition may be defying the polls. But he won’t be defying history.

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