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Presidential debate: Romney and Obama bring it back home (+video)

The final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama underscored that their most important foreign policy differences have less to do with events on distant shores than priorities at home.

COMMENTARY: Harvard Kennedy School Professor Linda Bilmes discusses the US national debt and deficits.
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The third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama was supposed to offer a vibrant exchange of views on America’s role and posture in the world. Instead it was notable both for agreement on key foreign conflicts and a constant drift back to domestic policy disputes.

There are obvious political reasons for this. Undecided voters – if there still are any – are more likely to be influenced by plans to create jobs than strategies to stabilize Pakistan. The debate offered the candidates one last appeal to a national audience with the ballot just two weeks away.

But at a deeper level the debate underscored that the most important foreign policy differences between the two candidates have less to do with events on distant shores than priorities at home. How each would manage the economy would influence the priorities they project abroad.

The cold war, as President Obama reminded former Governor Mitt Romney last night, is over. In its place is a tangle of more complex conflict issues: transnational terrorism, rogue states, failed states, emerging democracies, and nonstate insurgencies.

Managing these challenges was the primary security focus during the first decade after 9/11. At the same time, however, the rise of China, India, and other densely populated emerging powers poses new challenges to US economic competitiveness.

Mr. Romney struggled to articulate a significantly different policy approach to the hard and soft security questions posed by Afghanistan, Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, Syria’s civil war, and the Arab Spring.

Take Iran, for example. Obama said that the administration’s efforts to impose stiff sanctions to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program involved “painstaking” and “meticulous” efforts to ensure that “all the countries participated, even countries like Russia and China....It’s because we got everybody to agree that Iran is seeing so much pressure.”

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