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August 14, 2007

The Vision Thing
Posted by David Shorr

Last week, Michael Cohen said he felt reassured by the menu of distinct Iraq War positions on offer from the Democratic presidential candidates. At a recent conference, I heard Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) give a much more downbeat view -- taking the presidential candidates and the public to task for not talking about threats, national security, and strategy. Everyone's entitled to their own frustration about what the candidates are saying (i.e. the content), but it's quite a stretch to argue that no debate on national security and foreign policy is taking place at all.

As one crude measure of the health of the debate, I count eight major foreign policy addresses, or MFPA-equivalents, from presidential candidates on both sides. Most DA readers are wonks by vocation or avocation, so we can comb through these statements for detailed policy prescriptions, four-point plans, six-point plans, etc. But as each of these contenders makes his/her case to the voting public, the candidate's overall approach is also important. The "vision thing" has been an achilles heel for candidates ranging from George H.W. Bush to John Kerry.

In the context of a speech (or a policy journal article), this is a very practical matter: how to lay out the challenge as the speaker sees it. What is the demand of this moment in history? What must the next president do to put US relations with the world on the best possible footing?

With thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations' Campaign 2008 web site and Foreign Affairs for helping me find all this material, I thought I'd try to characterize the candidates' answers to these questions.

Beyond their prescriptions on different issues, the candidates also vary in which topics they stress. All the candidates talk about interdependence in a globalized world as well as the threat of terrorism -- as you'd expect -- but with ranging degrees of emphasis. While no candidate claims that the terror threat is the nation's sole international challenge, some leave you wondering whether the problems other than counterterror might be treated by their administration as peripheral. A few more issues receive more or less focus depending on the candidate: energy, rising powers, poverty, trade, international treaties.

The similarities in the candidates' statements are also striking, though. There is a broad agreement on the need to strengthen the military (particularly by increasing the size of the ground force), but also an acknowledgment that our soft power instruments have been allowed to wither. The candidates agree that the hearts-and-minds battle is crucial and that the US badly needs partners and support for many of our objectives.

So here's how I read the candidates' depictions of the overall challenge (complete with a representative quote and a notable position or point):

Hillary Clinton. Having noted the striking consensus among candidates, let's start with the one who chose the need for foreign policy consensus as her theme in a Council on Foreign Relations speech last October. Portraying combining of values and interests as a constant challenge, she said, "we got it right, mostly, during the Cold War, when realists and idealists together built the institutions and policies serving our interests and values. We got it drastically wrong when a small group of ideologues decided we didn't need those." She also highlighted the need for the US government to increase its pool of expertise on the Islamic world.

Mitt Romney, in the last issue of Foreign Affairs, also begins with a call for bipartisanship, but his main concern is to mobilize the nation to meet today's challenges. Or, to put it another way, to keep from demobilizing: "Twice in the last several decades, following the end of US military involvement in Vietnam and the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the United States became dangerously unprepared ... We need an honest debate about what policies and what sacrifices will ensure a strong America and a safe world." Romney's article gives a fairly specific proposal to promote regional integration and economic development in the Middle East.

Rudolph Giuliani's brand new Foreign Affairs article ratchets the concern about our national spine up a few notches. He is the peace through strength candidate: "Above all, we must understand that our enemies are emboldened by signs of weakness." Even his call for stronger diplomacy takes a jab at our diplomats, claiming that critics of the US denounce us because they won't hear "any serious refutation from our representatives." I like his call to strengthen the international system.

International institutions were the focus of Chris Dodd's April speech to the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Des Moines: "International institutions and alliances are not perfect, nor are they panaceas. But they are critical for creating a framework for international dialogue -- for an international system that will uphold American values." As he called for a strategy of "bold engagement," Dodd was also effective at addressing the values-interests tension, saying that in dealing with dictators, there are choices beyond coddle or invade.

Barack Obama emphasized the importance of earning and gaining international support in his April speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs: "The disappointment that so many around the world feel toward America right now is only a testament to the high expectations they hold for us. We must meet those expectations again, not because being respected is an end in itself, but because the security of America and the wider world demands it." In the same vein, his was the only call for UN reform that put an onus on us to persuade others.

John McCain's May Hoover Institution speech also highlighted America's role as a source of inspiration. Making liberal use of historical examples and quotations, McCain talked about the American mission as a legacy from prior generations who "believed they had a duty to serve a cause greater than their self-interest. They kept faith with the eternal principles of our Declaration of Independence against the evils of despotism, fascism, an totalitarianism. And they changed the world." The speech is also notable in how it balances mission and pride with humility and benevolence, including adherence to international law.

Speaking in Manchester, NH last March, John Edwards said the complexity of global challenges requires a transformational change of approach: "Not change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of getting to where we know the country and the world can be, shoud be, and needs to be. Not incremental, baby-step changes, but invigorating, uplifting, challenging, daring, boundary-pushing changes that address the root causes and understand the complexity of our challenges." The speech closely intertwines the international and domestic. Edwards' CFR speech was also notable for a direct challenge to the idea of a war on terror.

In his recent Harvard International Review article, Bill Richardson stresses the need for a foreign policy that adapts to a changing world: "dangers that once came only from states now come also from societies -- not from hostile governments, but from hostile individuals or from impersonal social trends, such as the consumption of fossil fuels." It's also worth noting that Gov. Richardson also gave a major address on Iran at the Center for National Policy in June.

Joe Biden presented the reality-based approach to foreign policy at the LBJ Library early last year, framing the problem with a Huxley quote about the collision of 'beautiful hypotheses' and ugly facts' and emphasizing effectiveness. He said, "instead of military preemption, we need a comprehensive prevention plan -- that includes but is not limited to military force -- to defuse threats to our security long before they are on the verge of exploding."

A few quick final points. Obviously we don't know how these approaches and proposals would actually be implemented, but meanwhile they're being put out their as the basis for a mandate. Second, I saw a reference to a Brownback speech July 31 in Des Moines, but couldn't find a link on the web. Third, I promise never to post such a long post again.


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Isn't Joe Biden the only one that has called and is still calling for an ALL Iraq-All Foreign policy debate? This is the number one issue today. Why don't we focus on why the other candidates are unwilling to debate him on foreign policy issues?
Is it because he is the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee? Is it becuase he has seen more and knows more than all the candidates combined? Is it because they don't want to be schooled on the most important issue facing Americans today? We need, we must change the discourse. Ugh

As a former academic, I like to imagine candidates addressing foreign policy issues in the form of something like final exam essay questions, although with more room for personal opinions and commitments. The media always seem reluctant to pose the really big foreign policy questions to candidates, apparently sensing that the issues are just too controversial, and honest and direct answers too compromising and embarrassing, to be brought up in a public forum. Here, nevertheless, are some of the questions I would put on my exam:

1. Do you believe that the global demand for resources, particularly energy resources, poses risks to global security? If so, please describe those risks. Be specific. What can be done about lessening those risks?

2. Many argue that the United Nations system is in need of significant reform. If you agree, what specific UN reforms do you believe are needed?

3. The United States maintains a very large overseas network of military bases, a network that in many cases dates back to the post-WWII and Cold War eras. What are your views about the fundamental purposes and requirements of the US military presence overseas? Are there any specific steps you would take to modify the US global footprint?

4. Do you believe the financial and human burdens of global security provision are being shared fairly? If not, do you believe they should be more fairly shared? Do you believe the United States should seek to preserve, or even expand, its current role in guaranteeing security to various countries around the world, or should the current levels of commitment be scaled back? What will you do to address this issue?

5. Americans conduct business abroad in just about every country in the world, and this activity creates a complex global system of US financial and commercial interests. What do you believe is the proper role of the US government in defending the interests of US nationals conducting business abroad? Are the interests of US nationals and the "national interest" one and the same thing? Do you believe that it is ever appropriate to use force to defend economic interests, absent a direct threat to lives? Do you believe it is appropriate for the US government to attempt to influence the domestic laws and politics of other countries, in order to create an environment that is more favorable to US businesses operating in those countries?

6. Are Americans bound by international law? Yes or no? Be brief!

7. Apart from potential reforms to the primary instruments of global governance that already exist - the UN, the Bretton Woods system, etc. - do you believe there is a need for entirely new institutions for global governance? What specific innovations would you consider promoting? What do you believe the long-term US policy should be in the area of global governance, extending even beyond the eight years of your administration?

8. Recent years have seen a leftward drift in Latin American politics, and a succession of new left-leaning Latin American governments in Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. Compare and contrast the developments in different Latin American countries. Do you believe this new wave is a good thing or a bad thing? Do you believe these governments pose a threat to the United States? Do you believe the United States has a legitimate role to play in influencing domestic politics in Latin America?

9. Most Americans above a certain age recall what it was like to grow up during, and live through, the Cold War. We can assume that most of those Americans would prefer not to have another Cold War. Yet some recent trends are disturbing, with growing diplomatic sniping between Russia and the West, including a recent expulsion of Russian diplomats by the UK. Do you believe the British handled this case properly? What specific steps will you take to prevent tensions among major powers from evolving into a new Cold War-like situation of permanent suspicion and omnipresent military tension among nuclear-armed powers?

10. Does the United States have a "sphere of influence"? Do you accept the legitimacy of such a concept? Do other countries have a sphere of influence? If there are spheres of influence, should it be US policy to respect or challenge the spheres of influence of other countries?

11. Do you believe the United States is an empire? Why or why not? Be specific.

12. There are many cases in which one could argue that some of the religious practices, traditions and systems of religious morality of people in other countries are inconsistent with traditional American conceptions of liberty and human rights. Yet one American tradition is respect for, and noninterference with, the free exercise of one's religion. How would you approach this issue? Do you believe it is ever appropriate for the United States to pursue policies that are in effect designed to change the religious beliefs of people in other countries?

13. Issues about global environmental protection and economic development and resource needs often appear to be connected with population factors. Do you believe that population growth and population management are still significant issues of global concern? What role should the US play in global population policy?

14. Consider this passage from Mike Davis’s 2006 book Planet of Slums:

Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed, given the imprecisions of Third World censuses, this epochal transition may already have occurred.

Now comment on the significance of the growing urbanization of the globe, and the proliferation of urban slums. What can be done to lift the world’s impoverished millions out of the destitution of the “informal economy”, and significantly raise their living standards?

15. Is the US military:

a. too big
b. too small
c. just right

Circle only one answer!

Excellent questions.
We could have a better debate, to be sure. By my calculation, though, this is the most meaty and open we've had in the last couple decades. Traditionally, domestic issues take all the focus -- not sure we can (or should) hope for the reverse, so I have to rate this as an improvement.

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