Passport to the Vice Presidency

10/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leave it to Jon Stewart to get to the essence of this election. On The Daily Show he poked fun at vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who Stewart pointed out "has something more valuable than experience with foreign policy...she has Wikipedia!"

Funny, but telling. For foreign policy wonks watching the acceptance speech last week, Palin's description of the litany of overseas crises that a new administration would face seemed a tad -- well, rehearsed, as if it had been provided to her that day by campaign aides anxious to debunk the notion that she didn't have enough foreign policy experience to match that of Senator Biden.

Truth be told, she doesn't. Governor Palin has only traveled outside the United States in the past two years including a visit to Alaskan National Guardsmen in Kuwait, a brief jaunt to Germany, and a refueling stopover in Ireland. Not exactly a tour of global hotspots.

The question is: does it matter? Should the vice president (or, for that matter, the president) have traveled outside the continental US? Is foreign travel important to making foreign policy?

The answer is: yes.

We live in world that is inextricably linked. What happens in one corner of the world affects what happens in every corner of the United States.

Economically, what transpires at an OPEC meeting affects the price we pay at the gas pump. As does what happens in Russia, Georgia or Venezuela.

Militarily, our soldiers fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, believing that our civilian leaders have the knowledge and experience to know how to conduct a war overseas. You can't be commander-in-chief if you are not in command of ground truth.

Socially, and culturally, our relations with other countries are a measure of how much we understand about each other and the degree to which we can bridge the divide between cultures, religions, and peoples. It isn't that we expect our candidates to have been exposed to all cultures and all kinds of people. But you need some; there is no substitute for the actual experience of being overseas, and every experience prepares you for the next.

To know a country and its people is to understand its geography, its culture, its politics, and its leaders. A textbook education is not enough. We put our diplomats through extensive training in language and history before sending them overseas. Why shouldn't the vice president, who might become the president, be well schooled in the world? Senators Obama, McCain and Biden have all had an array of global experiences. But Governor Palin, who needed to get a passport to travel in 2007 to take a trip, clearly has had little to no such foreign experience.

Barack Obama grew up overseas where his background and experiences prepared him to understand the world outside America. He has relatives that span countries to the North, South, East and West of America. His world view is shaped by international experiences, by years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and by countless trips to the former Soviet Union to develop policies that secure nuclear materials so they don't fall into the hands of terrorists. He has been to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. His interests take him into the deep resides of these countries, beyond the airport. Recently in Berlin, he addressed tens of thousands of people who came to listen to him as he reached across the Transatlantic divide -- to give Europeans the confidence they need to work with us as allies and partners on issues like global warming. His involvement with other nations are the reason his popularity ratings are so high around the globe.

Joe Biden has been to nearly every country in the world. As a U.S. Senator, he has met with foreign leaders, and confronted the challenges of terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and energy dependence. Just a few weeks ago, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Biden was on-the-ground in Tbilisi, getting the facts, assessing the situation, meeting with officials and ordinary people, in order to determine the best course for American foreign policy. He wasn't going to rely on briefing books and snippets of information fed into a speech.

Knowledge is not experience. Memorizing facts or reading a teleprompter is not a substitute for reading people. No amount of debate prep will substitute for a world view based on insight and on-the-ground training. To lead is to know. To know is to be there.

Foreign travel is fair game in this election. The candidates should bring their passports to the debates.

Henri Barkey is Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University.
Tara Sonenshine is former Deputy Director of Communications of the National Security Council.