In the span of a month, foreign policy has come to the forefront of the battle for the White House. Political observers had predicted an election season dominated by the continued weakness of the domestic economy, and the conventions appeared to bear this out. Democrats debuted a newfound swagger on national security, but the Republicans ignored foreign affairs almost entirely, relying on President Obama's "You didn't build that" remarks to frame him as out of touch with economic realities. The foreign policy debate, scheduled last, was beginning to seem like an afterthought.
But now, despite Obama's strong answer on the subject in the town hall debate, controversy surrounding the death of the American ambassador in Libya has the administration on the defensive. At the same time, escalating violence in Syria and heightened tensions between Israel and Iran have inspired the Romney team to regain the offensive on foreign policy. Add to this Romney's commanding performance over a listless President Obama in the first presidential debate, and Republicans have begun to smell blood in the water.
The tightening race has added a dose of drama to the debates. Paul Ryan certainly didn't shy away from diving into national security in his confrontation with Vice President Biden. Yet on foreign policy, the candidates have offered much more heat than light. While the President has touted the killing of Osama bin Laden and the US withdrawal from Iraq, the Romney camp has favored dubious one-liners about drawing "red lines" on Iran and Obama "apologizing" for America. Neither of these approaches gets us much closer to an illuminating discussion about the complex challenges facing American policy abroad.
The American people deserve to hear how the candidates plan to confront these challenges. The final debate is a chance for us to see real leadership -- and that means grappling with thorny issues that aren't reducible to talking points, but which will nevertheless define the course of the world in the coming years. Of course Iran and Syria are important, and should be addressed. But to really get at the candidate's divergent foreign policy philosophies, Moderator Bob Scheiffer should broaden the conversation.
First, both candidates should be asked to explain their approach to the US-Russia relationship -- Governor Romney should be pressed on his demonization of Russia, and Obama on his much vaunted "reset." Neither is realistic -- Russian cooperation is key for progress on Iran, Syria, arms control, and more, but at the same time Russian politics is becoming more authoritarian and anti-Western. How do we maintain a working relationship without compromising our democratic values?
This tension informs a second critical issue: the US role in democracy promotion from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The European Union has been the force behind many of the democratic changes in a swathe of post-Soviet states, as countries eager to join the West undertook ambitious reforms. But in places like Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, truly open societies are still only distant dreams. As the EU has lost its balance in the current crisis, Russia has deepened its influence in these areas. How can the US play a constructive role, supporting the EU, while not alienating Russia?
Then there is the Middle East. While Libya is a hot topic, neither candidate wants to talk about what comes next in Iraq. National reconciliation is as distant as ever, insurgent violence is once again on the rise, and Prime Minister Maliki seems bent on consolidating his own power no matter the cost to Iraq's fledgling institutions. Kurdistan -- stable, democratic, and developing -- is a bright spot, but it is increasingly sidelined from national politics and left adrift by the lack of a coherent US policy. And in our "other" war, Afghanistan, Romney has pounded Obama over the looming 2014 withdrawal, and yet his policy appears to be indistinguishable.
The "Arab Spring" is another area that does not lend itself to our polarized political debate. What were seen as inspiring, people-powered reform movements only a year ago now bring to mind nightmare scenarios of failed states governed by Al Qaeda sympathizers. The truth is somewhere in between, and the candidates should be pushed on how they plan to recalibrate US policy to grapple with the complex, fluid new political realities in the region.
Interestingly, the town hall debate saw a brief mention of a region that has otherwise almost completely fallen off the radar: Latin America. While any discussion of the region is usually confined to drug cartels or immigration, the truth is that the economic fate of the US is closely tied up in our trade and investment ties with our closest neighbors. While we have been occupied elsewhere, Latin America has matured, developing strong democratic institutions, growing middle classes, diversifying economic relationships with Asia and Africa, and increasing geopolitical heft. Unfortunately, this newfound maturity is under threat in places like Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia, where populist leaders have sought to undermine democratic institutions for their political benefit. Our potential leaders should be asked how they plan to reengage Latin America as a natural ally of the US.
Finally, we need to hear about a critical issue that gets almost no attention in our national debate -- international banking and financial regulation. A globalized financial system is playing an increasingly outsized role in the world economy, and yet remains opaque. Hidden behind the façade of legitimate transactions is the dark world of money laundering, which is the linchpin of drug and human trafficking, and terrorist financing, by the world's worst regimes. How can the US advance a framework of anti-laundering best practices that will increase transparency and bring our global financial systems back into the daylight?
As the candidates trade barbs, what we desperately need is a coherent blueprint for renewed American leadership based upon shared values. This doesn't mean hegemony or unilateralism, but rather closer partnerships with our key allies, especially in Europe. With this in mind, we need to hear about the candidate's plans to support Europe in its current crisis. Our economy is tied to the success of the Euro just as our security is bound up with the strength of the NATO alliance. Heralding the rise of China and India is now in vogue, but for the moment we are still the only ones with the capacity to lead.
This capacity ultimately rests on the strength of our shared postwar values of open democratic societies and free, prosperous economies. When we fail to lead, those who don't share these values will inevitably fill the vacuum. Even in a time of crisis at home, the final presidential debate must address how we are going to fulfill the demands of leadership in a world that needs it more than ever.
Sally A. Painter is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Blue Star Strategies, LLC. She is currently on the Board of Directors of The Truman National Security Project.