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What to Look for in Tonight’s Foreign Policy Debate

Don't expect much of the 'vision thing.'

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Vision, character, judgment. That’s what people should be looking out for in tonight’s foreign-policy debate. It’s not going to be easy to discern any of these things during what is likely to be another slanging match between the candidates over the Benghazi affair or Chinese currency manipulation.

Americans by now know that foreign policy matters because it can have a profound impact on their daily lives and their economic circumstances. But it has received short shrift during a highly politicized campaign that has naturally focused on economic issues. Do you have any idea where Mitt Romney or Barack Obama intend to lead America over the next four years? Neither candidate is an ideologue; both evince a pragmatism that suggests a common willingness to take the world as it comes, rather than to try to shape it according to a preconceived vision. That probably explains why, when you clear away the heated rhetoric, there isn’t a great deal of difference in the policies they espouse for treating the world’s major problems. They both want to end the war in Afghanistan, prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, stand up to China’s assertiveness, and support a united Europe.

Obama is a progressive by instinct and therefore prefers a greener, more peaceful, and more humane planet with fewer nuclear weapons. It’s not clear whether any of these things matter to Romney. If his last foreign-policy speech is anything to go by, he will double down in the Middle East. Obama at least has developed a strategy for "pivoting" to Asia, which makes sense given the rise of China and India and the declining importance of Middle Eastern oil for America’s future. Neither has yet defined the kind of emerging global order they envisage helping to create. Don’t expect much of the "vision thing" in tonight’s debate, but look for an indication of which candidate has a surer sense of where he wants to take America and the world in the next four years — and, of course, whether you want to go there.

In the world we live in, the president rarely gets a chance to deal the hand he has to play in international affairs. Every day brings a new, unexpected crisis that can easily overwhelm his inbox, and the 24/7 news cycle demands an immediate reaction even when the information is incomplete (e.g. Benghazi). It’s in those moments that character counts. Obama has demonstrated a cool, deliberative style that has served this nation well in crisis. But that same coolness has been off-putting to world leaders who want to develop a relationship with the president of the United States because their nations’ fates depend on it. Romney is a businessman, likely also to make cold calculations about where the national interest lies. He has talked about leadership in this campaign but one senses it’s defined by a nostalgia for the days when the United States was the sole superpower and could dictate to the world.

If you’ve been paying attention over this last decade to America’s role in the world, you also know by now that foreign policy does not consist of simple choices between good and bad options — there are usually only bad options. That’s why judgment matters. Judgment isn’t just about making the right choice in difficult circumstances, it’s also about seeing beyond the immediate need to act and calculating the unintended consequences of a particular course of action. It won’t be easy to measure judgment in tonight’s debate, but we may get glimpses of it in the way each candidate chooses to conduct himself. Foreign policy is serious business requiring politicians to rise above petty point-scoring to demonstrate statesmanship. Whoever appears more statesman-like tonight should be the one to win the debate.

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