The Foreign Policy Debate: Key Issues and Omissions

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On October 22, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney met in the last presidential debate of 2012, this time focusing on foreign policy. Read the reactions to the debate by Brookings Foreign Policy experts: Justin Vaïsse looks at Romney’s caution regarding military interventions and what the debate reveals about the foreign policy mood of American public opinion; Feng Wang analyzes current U.S.-China relations and the candidates’ statements on trade and political dialogue with China; Steven Pifer examines the U.S.-Russia relationship and how each candidate plans to approach Russia if elected; Tanvi Madan comments on the omission of India from the debate, and the importance of addressing the U.S.-India relationship in the future. Diana Negroponte evaluates Romney’s statements on Iran and Afghanistan.

It’s Official: Come Home, America
Justin Vaïsse, Director of Research, Center on the United States and Europe and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy

The striking thing about Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s position in this third presidential debate was how much he retreated from the military assertiveness he seemed to have embraced so far. Of course, he reaffirmed his support for a strong military and for increasing the defense budget. But consider this:

Romney did not call for a no-fly zone in Syria, as many hawks like Max Boot have suggested. He did not call for Congress to pre-authorize military action in Iran, as some of his neoconservative advisers like Elliott Abrams have advocated. He didn’t criticize Obama for relying excessively on drone strikes instead of human operations, a choice that hampers the collection of intelligence by obliterating sources of information, as many critics of the president like Charles Krauthammer have rightly charged. He didn’t qualify his endorsement of the 2014 deadline in Afghanistan by saying that he would consider the situation on the ground and ask the generals, like he had before.

Instead, Romney insisted that America’s purpose “is to make sure the world is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet…  I want to see peace… We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan.” As for military action, it is “the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”

Read the full article at »

Beyond Trade with China
Feng Wang, Director, Brookings-Tsinghua Center and Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center

In their last presidential election debate on October 22nd, both President Obama and Governor Romney acknowledged that China as a partner, and put economics on the top of their agenda for their China policy. For relations between the world’s largest and the second largest economies, such a stand from both candidates is assuring.

When asked about his plan to designate China the status of currency manipulator on day one of his administration, Governor Romney stood by his promise and also explained why he believed that China might not want to enter into a trade war with the United States: the trade disparity between the U.S. and China. China exports much more to the U.S. than vice versa, and China therefore needs the U.S. market more than the U.S. does.

Whether China chooses to have a trade war with the U.S. may depend more than the economic calculations Governor Romney laid out, as economic decisions are rarely made on economic considerations alone. A designation of the currency manipulator status, after the Chinese RMB has appreciated substantially over the last few years, will not only set the new tone of the U.S.-China relations, should Governor Romney enter the White House in January 2013, it could well have ramifications that can cloud the U.S.-China relations for an extended time period, a year or more, which will not help a recovering U.S. economy.

As with the U.S., China is under a leadership transition. A new Chinese leadership will be fully in place by March 2013, with the transition beginning in public two days after the U.S. presidential election, on November 8th in Beijing, when the Chinese Communist Party begins its 18th National Congress. The emerging Chinese leadership would not want to appear “soft” when faced with a gesture from a new U.S. administration that is seen as not fully justified and overtly hostile. Domestic politics here in China, hence, will almost certainly affect any decisions that the new Chinese leadership will make. If there is any doubt about such a prospect, the recent chilling of Sino-Japanese economic relations resulting from the island territory dispute is a fresh reminder.

Governor Romney and Russia as America’s Geopolitical Foe
Steven Pifer, Director, Arms Control Initiative and Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe

In last night’s debate with President Obama, Governor Romney again reiterated that Russia is America’s major geopolitical foe. To be sure, the U.S.-Russia relationship faces tough issues; Vladimir Putin will not be easy to deal with and has taken Russia backwards on democracy. But the bilateral relationship is more complex than the governor suggests. U.S. and Russian interests converge on certain issues, and cooperation on those questions makes eminent good sense.

One explanation for the governor’s view may be a political calculation that taking a strong stance against Russia plays well with a segment of the American electorate. Both countries seem to suffer something of a lingering Cold War hangover. Indeed, during his presidential campaign late last year and early this year, Mr. Putin played the anti-U.S. card in a thinly veiled appeal to the conservative part of his Russian constituency.

But the fact remains: whoever sits in the Oval Office in 2013, he will seek Moscow’s help on key questions. Take Afghanistan. Russia the past three years has permitted the United States and NATO to move manpower and supplies—including lethal military equipment—through Russia and Russian airspace to Afghanistan. Washington will want to ensure that it continues to have that access, or is Mr. Romney prepared to depend solely on the Pakistanis, who cut the supply routes to Afghanistan last year following the killing of Osama bin Laden?

Moscow has not come as far as Washington would like in pressuring Tehran, but it has come further than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. The Russians in the UN Security Council supported stronger sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, including an embargo on all arms sales. That came at a price for them; they ended up cancelling a previously concluded sale of sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran. Planners in the U.S. and Israeli air forces, which could be called upon to carry out strikes against Iran, undoubtedly appreciate that they would not have to contend with the S-300. Would Mr. Romney be prepared to see that Russia cooperation unravel?

The Obama administration’s “reset” in Russia policy was based on a calculation that showing a readiness to take account of some Russian concerns, for example, with regards to nuclear arms control, could produce Russian support on questions such as Afghanistan and Iran. Maintaining Russian help on these questions, which will be at the top of the White House in box next year, will be important.

Managing the complex U.S.-Russia agenda has never been easy. The governor has criticized the reset and called for showing more backbone and less flexibility in dealing with Moscow. That might make for good campaign rhetoric, but as with most international relationships, Washington must take account of at least some of the other country’s interests if it seeks that country’s support. The challenge is to find a balance between cooperation where interests converge while defending U.S. positions where positions differ. Simply reiterating time and again that Russia is America’s geopolitical foe does not appear to recognize that complexity.

Just Breathe: Why Sometimes Not Being Mentioned in a Debate is a Good Thing
Tanvi Madan, Director and Fellow, The India Project

Following the foreign policy debate between President Obama and Governor Romney last night, there was much comment about the omission of a number of countries and issues. Among the Indian Twitterati – as well as others in the Twitterverse – there was some consternation about the fact that neither candidate mentioned India. Laments followed about what this said about the state of the U.S.-India relationship and about the importance of India. Viewed through a different prism, however, India should probably be glad that it was left out of the discussion last night.

Consider the countries that did get mentioned the most (leaving aside Mali): Afghanistan, China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Syria. They are either countries (a) on which the two candidates disagree, (b) considered to be in crisis or a threat to U.S. national security, and/or (c) seen as important to mention because they are perceived by the candidates as resonating in crucial swing states like Ohio (China) and Florida (Israel).

Seen in this context, Indians and advocates of India might want to breathe a sigh of relief that it was not mentioned. For one, there aren’t major disagreements between the candidates on India: if anything when India has come up in this campaign cycle, it has been mostly in the context of who has done more (or less) to maintain and further support the U.S.-India relationship. Second, it is a good sign for India that it is not seen as being in crisis. To remember what that was like, think about the time when it was most often brought up in discussion as being part of the “most dangerous place in the world.” India is also not seen as a threat. China was the large Asian country that was portrayed as threatening—either to U.S. jobs at home or to American economic and security interests around the world. Advocates of India and U.S.-India relations should probably be glad that, unlike the rise of China, India’s rise was not mentioned by the moderator just before he asked, “What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?” Finally, in previous campaigns when India has come up as a political issue, it has been in the negative (think outsourcing and the Obama campaign labeling then-Senator Clinton as the Democratic senator from Punjab in the 2008 primaries). Indian-Americans, while more and more politically active and seen by both parties as increasingly important to court, have not reached the stage where they are seen to mean the difference between a swing state being in the D column or the R column. So, positive shout-outs to India in the political context weren’t likely to be high on the priority list of either candidate. Advocates of U.S.-India relations should be thankful that India at least did not come up in the negative, with China instead taking the heat on outsourcing.

Overall, there were some other omissions that were more surprising – the Eurozone crisis and the pivot/rebalancing towards Asia among others. In a debate where a country like China was only mentioned 10-15 minutes before the debate was scheduled to end, the lack of mention of India was hardly a surprise. One can debate the overall quality and range of the foreign policy discussion yesterday, but the omission of India from the discussion should not spark another round of doubt and hand-wringing about the U.S.-India relationship. There’s a broader case to be made that India needs to think about what it needs to do to maintain its importance to the U.S. and that it can’t take this importance for granted. Even if it had been a critical or long-term ally, however, this would not have guaranteed a mention. After all, think about how much—or rather how little—countries like Australia, Britain, Japan and South Korea came up.

New Realism Emerges in the Third Presidential Debate
Diana Villiers Negroponte, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Latin America Initiative

Much of what the candidates debated last night was “old hat.” We knew ahead of time of foreign policy positions long held, as well as those which had evolved. But there were two pieces of news:

First, Governor Romney supported bilateral talks with the Iranians. Our mission in Iran “is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” He welcomed “potentially having bilateral discussions with the Iranians to end their nuclear program.” The exchange indicated that such a dialogue maybe underway, although President Obama denied newspaper reports of such talks. Romney reiterated his call for tighter sanctions, diplomatic isolation and called for the international community to indict Ahmadinejad for his genocidal rhetoric against Israel. What he did not discuss was his support for, or objection to, the International Criminal Court in which such an indictment might be presented. Romney’s support for bilateral negotiations indicates awareness of the need to counter Iran through a wider range of options.

Second, Governor Romney stated that he would leave no U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. “I will bring our troops out by the end of 2014…our troops will come home at that point.” No longer would Romney wait to hear from senior military advisors. Now, he supports President Obama’s decision to withdraw combat troops in 2014. What remains uncertain is whether a residual force of trainers and logisticians would remain under a Status of Forces agreement that is still to be negotiated.

Both news items indicate that the realism which should accompany a potential Commander in Chief has settled upon Romney’s shoulders. Both candidates are conscious of the global role that the U.S. assumes. Neither candidate shared U.S. national security interests with multilateral institutions, or allies. Neither was isolationist. Instead, we saw two robust men project U.S. power in a way that may disturb our friends because it indicated that the U.S. is ready to act unilaterally when necessary.