The Debate's Great Failure

Neither candidate answered the question of how America's continued global leadership benefits the average citizen.

The third and final debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy. However, since it is domestic conditions, not global affairs, that drive U.S. elections, it is not surprising that the candidates found ways to take questions on Syria or China and segue to ways to create jobs at home, health-care reform or education policy. In so doing, both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney dodged the query posed by the moderator Bob Schieffer as to what America's role ought to be in the world. Obama reiterated the formulation used during the Bill Clinton administration ("the indispensable nation") while Romney cast the United States as the defender of peace and freedom throughout the world. However, while both used the rhetoric of primacists, they often sounded as if they were channeling their inner offshore balancers—committed to nation building at home and to having "others" do more. Both wanted to insist to voters that American leadership could be maintained at a low cost—that there would be no trade-off between focusing on the regeneration of the American economy at home and preserving Washington's ability to intervene all over the world.

But there are hard choices to be made, and even though President Obama talked about leaders having to take unpopular choices that don't poll well with voters to secure the national interest, he and his opponent both declined to level with the American people as to where they might accept trade-offs. On Syria, both candidates agree on U.S. preferences: We want Bashar al-Assad out of power, we want a responsible, pro-Western, democratic replacement that will protect minorities, not threaten Israel, not give refuge to Al Qaeda and break Syria's alliance with Iran. And we don't want direct U.S. involvement, the feared "boots on the ground." We can hope that we obtain all three, but if not, what are we prepared to live with—and what are we prepared to risk? We didn't get much guidance on that question in the debate. Governor Romney talks about showing backbone, not flexibility, to Vladimir Putin. It is a great sound bite, but what does it mean in practice? When is Russian help not worth the price? Similarly, both candidates relied on bumper-sticker clichés when pressed as to whether or not an attack on Israel would be considered an attack on the United States. After all, the NATO charter or the U.S.-Korea treaty does not rely on fuzzy terminology like "we have their back" or, if attacked, "we will stand" with the aggrieved party. Both wanted to give a guarantee without being bound by one—another example of navigating around the low-cost paradigm that defines U.S. foreign policy today.

Only in his offhanded comments about the Western Hemisphere did Romney hint at a different approach: focusing on creating an energy-independent North America (certainly feasible given the resource endowments and technological base of Canada, the United States and Mexico) and developing a community of economic interests with a Latin America whose combined market equals that of China. A United States more focused on the new world becomes one less entangled in the problems of the old one, freer to play the role of the offshore balancer. But, if past presidents are any guide, a promise to focus more on America's own neighborhood during a campaign never translates into policy priorities of an administration.

In the end, what was striking was that neither candidate wanted to get into a discussion of the changed world we find ourselves in at the dawn of the twenty-first century, where the focus is no longer on deterrence—making it costly for another country to actively injure the interests or security of the United States—but on compellence—getting other countries to actively help the United States to do something. It is much easier for countries to say no to Washington, doing nothing to hinder us but not actively assisting either. Instead, a whole host of issues briefly mentioned by the candidates (when they chose to talk about foreign policy) were questions of compellence—continued Egyptian cooperation in antiterrorism programs, Iran abandoning a nuclear-enrichment program, having other countries be willing to further tighten sanctions on Iran and turn the Islamic Republic into an international pariah, getting Pakistan to be more constructive on Afghanistan. Cajoling and threatening will not produce the desired results.

In the end, neither candidate presented an answer to the question of how America's continued leadership of the community of nations benefits the average citizen, which is the tragedy because, in the end, this is really the soul of the matter.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.