Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Four Foreign Policy Flashpoints

| September 27, 2012

Voters need to know how Romney or Obama will lead on world stage

Foreign policy has suddenly leaped right into the heart of the presidential campaign, and it may just stay there until Nov. 6. Much to the Romney camp's dismay, the election will not be solely a referendum on the economy. While that is still the primary concern of nearly every American, voters are now being asked which candidate can best defend us across a turbulent global landscape.

One reason for the new focus on international issues was the savage assault against our embassies in the Middle East two weeks ago. Searing images of the United States under attack shocked and infuriated Americans. Along with the increasingly tense standoff between Israel and Iran and the emergence of China as the favorite scapegoat of both candidates, the spotlight is back on our global agenda.

Foreign policy will come into even sharper focus as the presidential debates unfold over the next few weeks. President Obama has the advantage of an impressive record on national security. He made good on his 2008 pledge to lead us out of Iraq, weakened Al Qaeda, and restored respect for the United States in most parts of the world. Mitt Romney has been unconvincing in painting Obama as a weak advocate for American interests. He would be better advised to explain in greater detail how he proposes to lead more decisively on China, Russia, and Afghanistan. He might then manage to score some points as Americans tune into the debates.

But, there is no doubt about it, foreign policy is back. To prove the point, here are four key foreign policy challenges where we need to know how Romney or Obama will lead us after election day.

China. Our most challenging relationship for the next half century will be with Beijing. What to do about a country that is alternately friend and foe? Romney vows to sanction China as a currency manipulator. But how would he then secure Beijing's help in rescuing the international economy or deterring Iran and North Korea? How can Obama build up US military forces in pivoting American strategic attention to East Asia without provoking the Chinese to believe we are out to contain them, thereby poisoning our relationship for the future?

Afghanistan. Obama promised in 2008 to prosecute the "Good War" and defeat the Taliban. Four years later, there is no victory in sight. Instead, Afghanistan will end where most wars do -- at the negotiating table. Which of the two candidates has the skill and toughness to face down the Taliban and negotiate a final peace so that our troops can come home?

Iran. Obama and Romney need to answer two important questions. First, how can the United States defend Israel but convince the hard- line Benjamin Netyanahu not to launch a preemptive strike on Iran this autumn or force the United States to set its own redlines for military action? Both would endanger American interests. Second, before we think about using force ourselves, is Romney or Obama best prepared to revive negotiations and to pressure, threaten, and cajole the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons plan? Obama has strong bipartisan backing for seeking to exhaust diplomacy before we choose to fight. Romney criticizes Obama for not showing more public support for Israel. But Romney has erred in appearing to give Israel a green light to attack preemptively -- not smart and certainly not in America's interest.

Leadership or decline? Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made the strongest case at either convention for Americans to resist isolationism and continue to lead as we need and the world expects. Can Obama or Romney best channel their inner FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush to provide the skillful leadership necessary to sustain American power?

The most important campaign issue is whether Romney's return to a more martial foreign policy or Obama's cerebral internationalism is our more effective future path. Who can best guide us past the decade of war since 9/11? We can't fight everybody to get our way. This argues for a return to diplomacy as our most successful presidents integrated three crucial elements of power -- military strength, effective diplomacy, and the power of American ideals. Voters have a very big and clear choice in this election. And the victor will need to act imaginatively and boldly to confront the most daunting international agenda in memory.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“Four Foreign Policy Flashpoints.” The Boston Globe, September 27, 2012.