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.

The crew of a US Coast Guard cutter retrieves supplies dropped by a parachute into the fast-melting ice of the Arctic Ocean. The US faces new challenges of national security, a topic likely in Monday's presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.

In their Monday night debate focused on foreign affairs, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney probably won’t be asked the question posed 20 years ago by President George H.W. Bush after the end of the cold war:

What is the new world order?

Yet that question has dogged the three presidents since 1992 once they became America’s top diplomat and commander in chief.

That’s because the often-simple certitudes of past conflicts between nation-states have been overtaken by what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls a “blizzard” of security challenges – from mass slaughter in Europe or Africa to terrorist attacks on US soil to covert cyberattacks from abroad.

Even Katrina-like hurricanes, Mexican drug cartels, and Somalian pirates are now a prime focus of the Pentagon. So, too, is the possibility of a foreign ship loaded with weapons sinking in the unfrozen Arctic waters off Alaska or China's threat to cut off exports of a vital industrial mineral.

It has become difficult to know where the “front” is when confronting an adversary – or even to know what an adversary is. And the distinction between domestic and foreign issues has become blurred. Threats can be networked across the globe by small, nonstate actors. A few unmarked ships, for example, can drop iron dust on a patch of ocean, altering the weather pattern over the United States.

Yet when presidential candidates run today, they want to offer voters even greater certainty in their approach to foreign policy. Why? Simply because today’s world offers a “blizzard” of challenges and voters seek even more certainty for themselves and their country.

Security planners have tried for years to come up with new concepts for these challenges, such as more preventive action against potential threats. Most concepts have so far had a short shelf life. And each new president has had to improvise once in office.

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.

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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