Both Candidates Are Economic Isolationists

October 9, 2008 Region: Americas

Both Candidates Are Economic Isolationists

In Tuesday's debate, both candidates recognized the need for sound internationalist ideas in foreign policy. But this reasoned approach didn't extend to economic affairs.

In Tuesday's town hall debate, two candidates representing two different ideologies were supposed to explain their different approaches to the American people. On foreign-policy issues, however, two things were striking about this debate. First, the candidates agreed on a surprising number of foreign-policy questions. Second, both candidates had the same internal contradiction between their foreign policy and international economic policy.

When they faced foreign-policy questions not related to Iraq, their direct answers were quite similar. Both candidates labeled Russia's recent behavior as nationalist and aggressive without labeling Russia as inherently evil. John McCain said, "America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world." Barack Obama, in his response, said, "Senator McCain and I do agree, this is the greatest nation on earth. We are a force of good in the world." Both candidates want to bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On peacekeeping, McCain stressed his opposition to sending troops to Somalia and Lebanon as much as his support for intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo. Obama also gave a realist response as well, pointing out that, "there's a lot of cruelty around the world. We're not going to be able to be everywhere all the time." Both candidates stressed the need to work in concert with allies to deal with Iran while rejecting the notion that the United Nations Security Council holds veto power over American action. For all the back and forth on Pakistan, the primary difference between the two of them was that Barack Obama articulated a strategy that John McCain supports but doesn't want to say out loud.

In the end, both candidates put forward mainstream internationalist positions on most issues related to national security, stressing the prudent use of military force, working in concert with allies and insisting that America could still be an active force for good in the world.

What was odd was that this hopeful vision of America's role in the world clashed badly with their rhetoric on the global economy. When talk turned to economics, the rest of the world was viewed as a scary, scary place.

Both candidates lamented the fact that the United States was borrowing so much from China (Obama added Saudi Arabia for good measure). Obama stressed that he wanted to offer incentives, "so that you can buy a fuel efficient car that's made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan or South Korea." McCain warned against returning to the protectionist policies of the Great Depression, but he also warned that some of the $700 billion trade deficit, "ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations." The candidates fell over each other stressing the need to develop energy independence-which most energy specialists believe is little more than a pipe dream.

Some of these economic security concerns are valid, but the tone of the responses suggested a mismatch between the candidates' vision of world politics and the world economy. They see the United States playing a positive role in security issues. On the global economy, however, the language was much more zero-sum.

Foreign economic policy is related to foreign policy-it's hard to get cooperation on matters of high politics while claiming that other actors in the world are economic threats. Both candidates recognized the relationship between a strong military and a strong economy. It was surprising, then, that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama realize that economic isolationism will cost them goodwill in dealing with the trouble spots of the world.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.