America is no longer the boss of the world.
This much is true about anything Mitt Romney or President Obama said during Monday night’s foreign policy face-off, the final of three presidential debates, held tonight at Florida’s Lynn University.
Also true is the fact few voters, 5 percent, will factor foreign policy into their candidate choice. That said, voters still believe the United States has a major role to play in world affairs, according to a September survey by The Foreign Policy Initiative. The survey found:
· 92.2 percent say the United States should continue taking “a leadership world in world affairs”
· 62 percent favor preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons even if it involves military force
· 70 percent strongly support Israel
· 63.1 percent believe U.S. spending on defense is “about right”
· 75.3 believe military spending has a direct impact on jobs and the economy
· 69.7 percent of respondents believe entitlement spending drives the federal debt and spending
Voters need a clear vision of America’s role in world affairs, Dr. Brent Sasley, a Middle East expert at the University of Texas at Arlington. The president has been passive and reactive for much his tenure, though Romney is vague, pushing the aggressive military policies of the Bush years.
To illustrate the complicated nature of modern foreign affairs, consider: the Middle East and North Africa security via Arab Spring that resulted in rulers forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and uprisings and protests through the region. Terrorism in Libya. Iran’s nuclear defiance. The Afghanistan war. America’s frenemy relationship with an ever-critical Pakistan. The potentially destabilizing effect of a diminished Eurozone. Syria. China …
That vision can only emerge if the presidential candidates avoid getting bogged down in narrow debates and think “broader and bigger,” Sasley says.
Narrow, Sasley says, is when Romney and Obama can’t agree on when the president actually called the September Libya attack that resulted in the murder of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens as “terrorist” in nature. Instead of arguing over what to call an event, Sasley says both candidates need to focus on “how to keep such a tragedy from happening again.”
“What is clear is that the United States is no longer the sole manager of the world economy,” Sasley says.
Where Romney and Obama stand, pre-debate
Romney: The candidate’s position statements suggest taking a more proactive approach that requires a significant investment in military capacity and reversing defense cuts made during the Obama years. The Republican candidate says he will maintain a strong military presence in the Pacific and force China to be “a responsible partner in the international system.” Romney has also positioned himself as an authentic, passionate ally of Israel. He points to tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration.
Obama: The president proudly takes credit for eliminating Osama Bin Laden, the author of the 9/11 attacks, and following through on making the Afghan people take over their own security so American troops can start coming home. Obama says he has mended frayed relationships with allies around the world, such as NATO, Asia and Latin America.
“The biggest question is what ties all of these together?” Sasley says. “America has engaged in two wars over the past decade, driven out plenty of bad guys, but we have not stabilized these countries at all. We can’t keep paying for the same level of involvement, and there is growing dissatisfaction with the ability to get things done.”
Sasley and Dr. Audra K. Grant, a Middle East/North Africa expert at the Rand Corp., point to the following geographic zones as areas ripe for discussion tonight:
The Middle East and North Africa
It’s a new world in the Middle East and North Africa: Arab Spring has made the Middle East more unstable, something U.S. policy makers had not anticipated, Grant says.
American policy should be crafted within the context of Arab Spring, while embracing the fact that several countries now have Islamist governments who must face a public very critical of the United States, Grant says. For example, while the leaders of Yemen and Libya as considered fairly moderate, they must answer to their own people.
“If those governments are unfriendly, if we allow these regimes to transition into governments that are unfriendly to U.S. interests, we don’t have any partners in the fight against terrorism,” says Grant, noting that access to resources, such as oil is also clearly a reason to maintain influence in the region.
The United States must keep up the pressure to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Sasley says. And by using sanctions and diplomatic pressure, Sasley says the Obama administration has “been doing what should be done” to avoid military conflict while applying this pressure.
“This is going to continue to be a significant challenge to the United States,” Sasley says. “How do we provide incentives so Iran does not produce nuclear weapons? Short of universal brain surgery,” he said, quoting economist Thomas Schelling, “you can’t get rid of the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons.”
The crisis in the Eurozone is “almost” never talked about in this presidential campaign, Sasley says, but this crisis can have an enormous effect on the world economy. On one hand, Eurozone partners, such as Germany, cannot keep lending money to countries like Spain and Greece without promises to privatize state resources and cut social welfare programs. However, governments face the wrath of their own citizens when the cuts go too deep or high unemployment rates result.
Pakistan and Afghanistan
The war on terror continues as Taliban elements wield power in these countries, Sasley says. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and it borders other important states, such as India. Radical elements are also suspect when they are engaged in specific ideas about how to treat their own citizens, he says, such as education for women, women’s roles (as being able to dress how they want or even move around).
Access to Asian markets will drive policy, which is why the United States needs to establish a better rapport with the People’s Republic of China, Grant says. America cannot avoid urging China to improve its human rights record and liberalize its political sphere as it attempts to gain access to one of the world’s larger markets.
However, “China does not like being told what to do; it’s a counterweight power in the world,” Grant says. This will force the United States to continually weigh its economic interests with its political ones.
In its search for resources, Grant says, China also has a bigger role in Africa, along with Brazil, which offers technical assistance. Africa now has more options and doesn’t have to rely on former colonial masters or the United States. China also is an important player in investing green technology, Sasley says, apropos considering China is a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
Transnational terrorism in Africa
The expansion of illicit smuggling networks (oil, timber, humans, diamonds, etc.) across Africa is of economic import and has implications for America’s security interests, Grant says: “Africa is going to be very important.”
Piracy on the west and east coasts present challenges, as well as fragile regimes and governments, such as Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia.
“Instability harms U.S. interests, and it does affect our partners and countries we care about in terms of having friendly relations with stable governments,” Grant says. As is the case in Libya, “It’s about American lives.”