Shadow Government

The World Was Watching Monday’s Debate, but the Candidates Had Little to Say About the Rest of the World

Neither candidate committed a major new foreign policy gaffe — just, alas, a bunch of old familiar ones — but the debate did not offer much insight.

URBANDALE, IA - SEPTEMBER 26: Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump listen to the first of three presidential debates, on September 26, 2016 at the Trump headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. People across the country tuned in as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton participated in their first debate. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)
URBANDALE, IA - SEPTEMBER 26: Supporters of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump listen to the first of three presidential debates, on September 26, 2016 at the Trump headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa. People across the country tuned in as Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton participated in their first debate. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)

The rest of the world may be fascinated by the U.S. presidential campaign and by Monday’s debate, but there was precious little about the rest of the world in the debate itself.

In the first hour of the debate, the only foreign policy issue that got much air time was international trade. The war on the Islamic State got a brief mention, but mainly as a comment on Hillary Clinton’s website.

In the last half hour, the candidates finally got to foreign policy. In fact, it was Donald Trump who pleaded with Lester Holt, the moderator, to get on to the issue of foreign policy rather than continue to talk about the birther controversy (a line of discussion that was not helping Trump at all).

The foreign policy discussion was brief but revealing in spots. Clinton gave a competent discussion of cyber, yet one that was an implicit critique of President Barack Obama’s approach. Clinton tellingly promised that she wouldn’t sit “idly by” but would instead would “defend the citizens of this country” — but she did not give any detail as to how she would handle the obvious problems of blowback and escalation. Trump’s response on cyber was harder to follow, but seemed to involve his 10-year-old son, who is apparently a computer whiz.

Clinton was less sure-footed when she trotted out long-discredited claims that Obama can’t be blamed for the chaos in Iraq because President George W. Bush had negotiated the original time-limited status of forces agreement and because of the inadequacy of the immunity agreements the Iraqis were offering. Holt failed to fact check Clinton on these points, choosing neither to press her on the mishandled negotiations to extend the U.S. deployment, nor to remind her that Obama ordered the troops back into Iraq with the very same immunity agreements she claimed were inadequate.

Clinton made a satisfactory if superficial defense of the nuclear aspects of the Iran deal, but avoided discussing the problems with the rest of the deal. She likewise had a good discussion on nuclear proliferation matters.

The most interesting foreign policy question was the last one, on no first use of nuclear weapons. Obama is flirting with a very risky policy to undermine U.S. deterrence by pledging no first use. Trump was asked about this and gave an ambiguous answer that seemed both to promise no first use and to insist that he would not take any capability off the table. Clinton avoided the question, preferring to make a different (but important and worthwhile) point that the United States could be trusted to honor its treaty obligations. Holt did not press her to answer on no first use.

Neither candidate committed a major new foreign policy gaffe (just, alas, a bunch of old familiar ones), but the debate did not offer much insight into how either candidate would handle the dangerous legacy of international instability, which one of them will inherit on January 20, 2017.

Photo credit: STEVE POPE/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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