|Will Foreign Policy Still Matter in the Presidential Race?|
By Troy Senik
Wednesday, August 15 2012
Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate has electrified conservatives in the run-up to November’s presidential election, and with good reason. As the most intelligent, articulate, charismatic and (this factor is often overlooked) creative advocate for conservative reforms to the entitlement state, Ryan’s selection ensures that this election will be fought over two fundamentally different – and incompatible – visions of America’s future.
In a time when economic concerns are front and center, the pick is both understandable and laudable. But lost in the justified celebration of Ryan’s selection is the fact that this year’s Republican ticket will feature less of a background in foreign policy matters than any in living memory.
That’s not to criticize Romney and Ryan. They’ve chosen the right battle. Fail to get America’s fiscal house in order and American preeminence becomes collateral damage regardless. There’s no such thing as an impoverished superpower. Right now, the biggest crisis in American government is the one happening within our shores, and it’s only reasonable for that to be the centerpiece of the fall contest.
Just because it’s reasonable, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t also a bit short-sighted. If recent years have taught us anything, it’s that the issues on which a presidential election are fought can be poor predictors of the ones that dominate the subsequent presidency.
The 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore was famously “an election about nothing,” in which the perceived differences between the candidates were slight and the eventual victor focused his message primarily on domestic issues and a call for “a more humble foreign policy.” When 9/11 occurred less than a year into Bush’s first term, the entire agenda was reset.
2008 was practically the mirror image. John McCain and Barack Obama both anticipated an election that would largely hinge upon the war in Iraq. Only in the last few months of the race did it become focused on how to mend a collapsing economy.
The conversation we’re about to have about America’s debt and the need for entitlement reform is a necessary one. Indeed, it’s a precondition for restoring the nation’s vitality. But we shouldn’t allow it to completely crowd out foreign affairs, for two reasons: (1) In no other area does the president have as free a hand as in international relations. Unlike in domestic policy, the Constitution invests the Commander-in-Chief with a remarkable amount of latitude in defending the nation. (2) There’s no shortage of potential crises on the plate of whoever takes the oath of office in January.
Whoever wins this election will likely have to deal with the final chapter of the fiscal unspooling of Europe; the implications of the continuing “Arab Spring,” the net effect of which thus far has been to strengthen the Middle East’s Islamists; a revanchist Russia; an expansionist (and seemingly amoral) China; a consistently combustible Pakistan, and a North Korea which continues to be in flux thanks to its recent change in leadership. More immediately, they’ll have to deal with a dissolving Syria and a radical Iran that has most of the civilized world walking around on cat’s paws.
Those are far from immaterial considerations as we look to choose the new President of the United States. And whether or not they are pressed about them on the campaign trial, it behooves both Romney and Ryan to think through these issues at length and in depth. Both men have thus far displayed respectable foreign policy instincts, to the extent that such things can be divined through speeches and position papers. Developing them more fully before arriving in the White House, however, is paramount. Crises don’t lend themselves to reflection, and a strategic outlook developed on the fly is often only marginally superior to no strategy at all.
Finally, the positions that Romney and Ryan take have a huge significance for the future of the Republican Party. In the aftermath of the Bush years, many conservatives have grown skeptical of the efficacy of American interventions abroad. At its best, this trend encourages a thoughtful reassessment of how broadly we define our national interests and whether nation-building is (a) worth the candle and (b) practicable. At its worst, it turns into something approaching outright isolationism, a position of weakness which necessarily encourages America’s enemies to believe that the wages of aggression have been lowered. That way lies despair.
Finding a synthesis between an America that is both strong enough to be an effective global deterrent and prudent enough to know when discretion is the better part of valor is a task incumbent upon the next Republican administration. If Romney and Ryan can pull that off while overhauling a moribund economy, theirs will be a historical legacy that few modern administrations can rival.
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