Pundits and campaign staff who claim that this election is not about foreign policy are doing the American people a disservice. The hubris that the external behavior of the United States has no impact on the domestic condition of the country—widespread in the years following the end of the Cold War—can no longer be indulged. In addition, the de facto bargain of the last several decades—that voters elect presidents and members of Congress based on what they can deliver domestically but otherwise give them a relatively free hand to pursue foreign policy—is not sustainable.
None of the goals that either President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney have laid out for America's domestic condition can be achieved in isolation from the foreign policies that they would pursue. The famed "overseas contingency operations" that the United States has engaged in since 2001—notably the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan—have run up a bill of $1.3 trillion dollars in additional funding beyond a base defense budget which itself has doubled in the last ten years. The creative accounting of supplemental funding has in the past disguised the true costs of American military and reconstruction activities around the world, but the president will increasingly be in a position where the desire to engage in a "war of choice" will require him to consider what parts of his domestic agenda he is willing to sacrifice, as America's access to easy credit overseas begins to tighten.
An armed attack on the U.S. homeland or an existential threat to vital U.S. interests would likely rally the populace to support sacrifices. But will the electorate be as willing in the future to give the chief executive a blank check to engage in humanitarian interventions around the world if it means taking further cuts in entitlements or raising taxes? Perhaps it might be time to recall George Washington's advice in his farewell address, read every year in Congress (but apparently given no heed) when, in calling on Americans to cherish public credit, he recommends using "it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace."
With sluggish domestic demand likely to be a reality for the next several years, the motor for economic growth will be, as it was in past times for the United States, in foreign trade. America remains not only a major supplier of natural resources for the world but a producer of high-end goods and services. But a commercial republic focuses its foreign policy on opening access to international markets. It does not seek, as a point of departure, to divide the world into friends and foes, nor to take sides in the quarrels of other states that do not directly impact its own interests.
Once again, Washington advised his fellow Americans that "the great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations." President Obama has already begun to take steps to make foreign economic relations the priority in his interactions with the leaders of other states, but it is still quite easy for that agenda to be derailed. The long road to graduating Russia from the requirements of the Jackson-Vanik legislation to permit permanent normal trading relations between the two countries—something President George W. Bush promised Vladimir Putin he would move quickly to secure eleven years ago—and the delays in getting free trade pacts approved with close allies and partners speaks to the continued difficulties of making trade the central organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy.
The example of our northern neighbor at the recent APEC summit in Vladivostok may provide a guide with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper making trade deals with Pacific Rim countries, including a major foreign investment promotion and protection act concluded with Chinese president Hu Jintao.
The United States has identified the Asia-Pacific region as the future locus of American security and prosperity. So how should the pivot to Asia be handled? Here Washington again has apropos advice. The United States already has an existing network of security alliances in the region and has made a number of defense commitments. The first president would counsel, "So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled, with perfect good faith." But just as Washington urged restraint in having the United States attempt to navigate the shoals of late eighteenth century European geopolitics, his advice may be apropos for dealing with the Asia of the early twenty-first century: "She must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”
This is not a call for isolationism. But it is a reminder of the importance of discretion and prudence. There are a number of explosive disputes in the region, particularly over territory and oceanic zones. America must be careful not to be maneuvered into a situation where it automatically backs the claims of other states over those of China. Moreover, some of the disputes are between U.S. allies and partners—an unenviable position. Here, a future president might want to follow the example of Theodore Roosevelt, an apostle of arbitration, and work not to commit the United States to have to take the lead in providing the tools for regional defense—which may come at too high a price—but instead to focus efforts on setting up and putting into place mechanisms for dispute resolution and building on Roosevelt's proposals at his Nobel Peace Prize lecture to forming a league with other states to enforce the results of those arbitrations.
Finally, both candidates have called for greater energy independence for the United States, but this is a reality that cannot occur without the active support of key regional partners. The hydroelectric power of Quebec and the oil sands of Alberta could help to lower energy costs for U.S. consumers, which in turn would make our businesses more competitive, but this requires a more focused strategy for improving ties with Canada and convincing parochial U.S. interests that block such projects that it is a net benefit for both sides. And Harper's meeting with Hu in Vladivostok is a reminder that Canada, if rebuffed by its southern neighbor, may very well be prepared to reorient its energy trade westward across the Pacific to China. Similarly, an energy partnership with Brazil—both in terms of the offshore prduction of oil and gas as well as ethanol—would serve U.S. interests. But it too requires sustained attention to be paid to the relationship with Brasilia and presidential-level action to move aside some of the barriers which prevent this partnership from being consummated.
So how a president plans to deal with China, Brazil or Canada is not a sideshow to the real issues of the election—jobs and the economy—but front and center as to how he would plan to restart the engines of growth and prosperity.
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.
Image: Cain and Todd Benson