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November 21, 2011


Foreign Policy Priorities for U.S. Presidential Candidates

by Glenn Nye and Daniel Fata

WASHINGTON—In a presidential race focused firmly on domestic issues, this week's Republican presidential debate on foreign policy and national security provides a rare and valuable opportunity for Americans and the rest of the world to hear the candidates revisit the perennial question of "What keeps you up at night?" — and its slightly more frightening follow-on, "What would wake you up at night?" We believe the following subjects should top any candidate's lists:

Afghanistan: The security situation following the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces in 2014 remains far from clear. Afghan forces are currently expected to assume responsibility for security, but questions surround the size and footprint of the remaining international forces (assuming the Afghan government permits any troops to stay). There is little doubt that, without massive international funding, Afghanistan is headed for a disastrous economic recession. What U.S. policymakers intend to do to stave off such a recession and the ensuing challenge to U.S. security remains vague. And we would like to hear presidential candidates discussing what lessons we have learned during the past decade for future counterterrorism efforts — including how to prevent the next Afghanistan.

Greater Middle East: In time, 2011 might come to be seen as the most transformational year for world politics since 1989. But the short-term challenges for the region, with its 750 million inhabitants, as well as for U.S. policy and leadership are huge — and to no small degree uncharted. Depending on with whom you speak in the region, the United States is seen as a declining power, a bully, an ally, or a partner of convenience. Stable long-term U.S. alliances appear to have frayed over issues relating to terrorism, the Israel-Palestine peace process, and the Arab Spring. Iran's continued defiance of international concern over its nuclear program, in particular, shows how difficult it has become for the United States to forge a consensus not just with its European allies, but also with its Middle Eastern partners. If any issue has the potential for becoming a waking nightmare, it is Iran.

National security spending: Whatever the outcome of ongoing Congressional efforts at reducing U.S. government expenditure by $1.2 trillion dollars, the largest cut is likely to be to defense spending. The real risk is that this will have a devastating effect on the United States' defense capabilities. Many Americans do not appreciate that only about five percent of the United States' gross domestic product is spent on defense and foreign affairs, including international development aid. This relatively small amount of money helps secure U.S. freedoms, enables the development of vital technologies, allows the U.S. to provide assistance to people beyond its borders, and permits the United States to protect the freedom of global lines of communication and transport. What the candidates have to say on the topic of defense cuts is therefore not just about saving government money — it lays the groundwork for the future of U.S. foreign and security policy.

Preventing isolationism: Frankly, at a time of overwhelming domestic preoccupations, the very fact of addressing foreign policy and national security in a debate has become an accomplishment in itself. But that is not enough. Faced with a stormy world economy and a slew of foreign policy quagmires, Americans appear to be tempted by isolationism as never before. Yet no candidate can responsibly suggest that drawing up the bridges is a realistic policy option. The United States depends on its trade and other forms of engagement with other countries — much as the world depends on the United States. A number of emerging large economies present opportunities that could translate directly into jobs and growth for the United States. But it's not all about trade and economic self-interest: The United States' tradition has been to export values and principles as well as goods. If the candidates are to convince, they must explain to their U.S. viewers why the United States must continue and expand its engagement with the world.

Leaders who cannot explain to the American people, its allies, or the international community at large why the United States must not only remain engaged in the world but play a leadership role would be — if elected —destined to make the United States weaker and more vulnerable, not stronger and safer. What keeps us up late at night is the thought of a United States that appears distracted, disengaged, and disinterested in shouldering its responsibilities as the world's leading benevolent and democratic power. Promoting U.S. interests and values around the world is not a partisan issue; it is for all Americans, elected and unelected. Therefore, this campaign and this country need to engage in a serious discussion on the United States' role in the world. Let it begin.

Glenn Nye, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (D-VA) and former Foreign Service Officer, and Daniel P. Fata, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy from 2005 to 2008, are Transatlantic Fellows at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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