The final presidential debate last night shed some light on the two foreign policy paths that the United States might walk for the next four years. For all the sturm and drang of campaign rhetoric, on the biggest issues discussed—the U.S. role in the world, relations with China, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and how to deal with terrorism—there is not too much daylight between these men. But even so, as I’ve written before, there are sources of disagreement—including national defense budgets, democracy promotion, foreign aid, and U.S.-Russian relations that are evidence of their divergent outlooks.
First, to recap, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney emerged as an absolute winner Monday night. On points, one might award a higher score to Obama for substance, and for rebutting Governor Romney enthusiastically. On the other hand, the governor may have won on style given that his main task for the campaign was to look presidential alongside the commander in chief—and he easily cleared that bar. He was reassuring and communicated a reasonable outlook that did not recall the neoconservative stance of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy disillusioned many voters. President Obama sought to paint Romney as an inconsistent amateur, but the governor did not bite and stayed cool.
The major source of disagreement was over Romney’s characterization of a Middle East—and indeed a world—“unraveling before our eyes” in a rising tide of tumult and chaos, a trend he attributed to failed U.S. leadership. He described a Middle East ablaze—with over thirty thousand civilian casualties in Syria, with Egypt in the dangerous hands of Islamists, with Libya at the mercy of armed gangs, with Mali controlled by al-Qaeda, with Iran “four years closer to the bomb,” and with Israel alienated from the United States. President Obama repeatedly challenged this portrayal, arguing vehemently that the Middle East and the world were better off than four years ago as Iran stands more isolated than ever under crippling sanctions, as Libyan and Egyptian civilians live in new democracies, as al-Qaeda’s core leadership remains decimated, and as Israel and the United States are joined at the hip on security.
Beyond this rhetoric, neither politician addressed the question of what, in practical terms, the United States can do to steer events in the turbulent Middle East or how much leverage over internal developments in these countries the United States truly possesses. Even where the candidates concretely disagreed, it was not always clear what a new President Romney would do differently if elected. This reflects in part the particular topics chosen. (It was not exactly wide-ranging—there was virtually no mention of Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia outside of China, or the challenge of global development, much less climate change). But it also reflects the innate pragmatism of both candidates, and the fact that the differences are subtle (but sometimes important).
But on four issues, President Obama and Governor Romney offered starkly different visions:
- National Defense: Whereas Obama plans to decrease military spending to 2.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), Romney advocates increasing that proportion to 4 percent, despite winding down two wars. This difference led to one of most memorable exchanges of the evening, when Romney claimed we’d be left with fewer ships than since 1917 under Obama’s plan, which prompted the president to remind him we also have fewer bayonets and horses, since technology changes, and that the United States today relies more heavily on aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The president also pointed out that Governor Romney proposes a military budget increase that the Pentagon has not requested, and that the United States already spends more than the next ten (thirteen as a matter of fact) countries combined on total military expenditures.
- The “Freedom Agenda”: Governor Romney clearly suggested that he would more vigorously pursue neo-Reaganite democracy and human rights promotion (as evidenced by his criticism of Obama’s response to the Green Revolution in Iran, the Arab Spring, and his call for a “comprehensive approach” to fight extremism). However, differences may prove more rhetorical than real if Romney is elected and faces trade-offs between strategic interests and ideology.
- Russia: President Obama mocked Romney for calling Russia “our number one geopolitical foe” and for subscribing to Cold War nostalgia. Romney deflected the criticism insisting that the administration “reset” had been naïve about Putin—and that under a Romney administration Moscow would face not “more flexibility” but “more backbone.”
- On Foreign Aid: Romney pledged to make foreign aid more conditional—and consistent with U.S. foreign policy priorities. The governor added that he would target aid more toward the private sector and foreign entrepreneurs.
Outside of those four issues, striking similarities emerged:
- The U.S. Role in the World: Romney argued that the United States must be strong enough to lead the world, defend freedom, and secure world peace. Obama largely agreed, noting that the United States remains the “indispensable” nation. Neither candidate is straying from the talking points of American exceptionalism.
- Terrorism and violent extremism. Both candidates supported drone strikes, and agreed on the need for a more comprehensive approach to extremism. President Obama, in response to Romney’s calls for the latter, effectively said: “We’re already doing that”—and pointed to outreach efforts to help disadvantaged or oppressed women and educational assistance to give young potential extremists other breadwinning options.
- Afghanistan: Romney clarified that under his command troops will exit Afghanistan by the end of 2014—basically reflecting Joe Biden’s strategy. Like President Obama, Romney agreed that the Afghan military and government must face pressure to be self-reliant.
- Pakistan: Romney expressed the same frustrations and anxieties U.S. leaders have experienced for years—but agreed with the president that the United States cannot divorce itself from the troubled ally. His diagnosis of Pakistani fragility and the danger of loose nukes appeared indistinguishable from President Obama’s. But the governor was silent on how to cajole the Pakistani government into a more reliable alliance, or on how to assist the fragile central government consolidate security within its borders.
- Israel: When Israel surfaced in the discussion, the two men competed to express more passionate commitment to Israeli security, without offering distinct strategies.
- Syria: Governor Romney again criticized the administration for inaction and impotent deference to the United Nations, but, when pressed, the candidate shied away from the notion of a no-fly zone, much less U.S. boots on ground. His criticism ultimately boiled down to Obama’s failure to organize and arm the opposition more vigorously. Obama retorted that the United States is doing just what the governor suggests—but needs to be deliberate and cautious to avoid arming al-Qaeda, with which Romney then agreed. Still, the president had no new initiatives to offer here to stem the growing bloodshed in the Syrian civil war and its flood of refugees.
- Iran: Both candidates agreed that Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons, both described military action as last resort, and both called for “crippling sanctions.” Obama argued that the current round of sanctions is devastating Iran’s economy but Romney countered that the sanctions need to be tighter, directed at oil, and even called for the Iranian regime to be indicted under the genocide convention (but interestingly not the ICC). But no real difference emerged over the two candidates’ red lines. Obama definitively stated that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire breakout capability.
- On China: Obama and Romney agreed that China must “play by the rules” and competed to show how tough they had been on China’s unfair trade practices. Obama referred to his administration’s complaints at the World Trade Organization over Chinese steel and tire exports. Romney was more forceful and again pledged to label China a “currency manipulator” on day one, prosecute Chinese international property right theft and address counterfeiting. But Will Romney risk a trade war, given that China is holding large dollar reserves?