By Rachel Hoff
Those hoping for a debate on foreign policy during the final presidential face-off may have been disappointed last week. Both candidates continually circled back to domestic issues, defaulting to talking points on education and the auto bailout. Detroit and Ohio were topics of conversation alongside Beijing and Iran.
Voters who watched the last debate received a clear lesson on how important a strong economy is to America’s status on the international stage. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen has reminded us, our debt is the greatest threat to our national security. But, in the lead-up to next week’s election, it is equally important to make the case for the inverse: global strength is imperative in rebuilding the American economy. Our economy and our national security are directly linked in both directions. It is projecting power abroad—not reverting to isolationism or protectionism—that brings America economic opportunities.
Aside from discussing the role of the economy in foreign affairs, the candidates did spend some time debating global policy. Governor Romney’s tone was sober, careful and calm, juxtaposed with President Obama’s more bellicose tactics. The President’s greatest asset is that he is already commander-in-chief, but his tone in the final debate was not befitting of his position. As he sarcastically defined aircraft carriers and submarines, the President failed to look presidential.
As with most debates, which seem to reduce policy to political theater, the commentary following the final show-down was predominantly about style and not substance. While foreign policy may not decide this presidential election, recent polling has shown that voters care about America’s role in the world. And despite the President’s perceived strength on global affairs—from the advantage of serving as commander-in-chief to killing Osama bin Laden—Governor Romney may have an edge when it comes to most major geopolitical issues.
A survey released last month by the Foreign Policy Initiative revealed the following results among likely voters:
- 62% favor preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, even if this option means using military force.
- 65.8% support America working with allies to “establish no-fly zones in Syria to protect civilians and help ensure a transition to a more pro-Western government instead of the current terrorist-supporting regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
- Israel ranked second only to the United Kingdom when people were asked to name “America’s best ally.”
- More people view Russia unfavorably (50%) than favorably (35%).
- Only 28.6% believe the United States spends too much on the military.
A foreign policy debate is a difficult proposition for a challenger facing an incumbent president. There is always the chance they will fumble answers, appear unready to serve as commander-in-chief and be disqualified. But last week, Governor Romney showed himself to be a thoughtful leader, knowledgeable on global affairs and in line with American public opinion on major foreign policy issues.
Of course, the presidential election all comes down to states, not debates. And so, in the immortal words of Bob Schieffer’s mother, “Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong.”
Rachel Hoff is a first-year Master of Global Policy Studies candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She helped found the Foreign Policy Initiative in 2009 and served as Director of Government Relations until 2012.