Foreign policy is one of the weirdest parts of a presidential election: most international issues are obscure, complicated, and don’t affect the day-to-day lives of voters. At the same time, foreign policy is one of the few areas where the Executive Branch has unimpeded agency over policy; just about everything else — taxes, the economy, and more — need Congressional approval. Granted, Congressional approval is needed to go to war, but the gray area right up to that line is almost exclusively within the purview of the President. So foreign policy debates aren’t so much about the minutiae of Iranian redlines or the complexities of Chinese monetary policy as they are an opportunity to display leadership and competency.
For candidates, this is good and bad. Good because its sets the policy bar ridiculously low, so candidates can threaten to label China a currency manipulator or standing up to Middle East dictatorships without having to worry about the international blow-back or bureaucratic infighting, because there isn’t any until the candidate actually tries to follow through once in office. For now, it’s just talk. But it’s bad also — having the bar set so low means that the only way that one candidate can distinguish himself from the other is by making a horrible mistake; in other words, they can’t hope to win the debate so much as they have to hope that the other guy loses. This means that we won’t hear anything radical — no new revelations, no walk-backs, no starling shifts in ideas, just point/counterpoint.
Even that will be fairly narrow. Two-thirds of the debate will be related to the Middle East with other parts devoted to America’s place in the world (whatever that means) and to dealing with China. Climate change, Russia, the eurozone financial crisis, Africa, nuclear proliferation, and more might get mentioned tangentially, but otherwise they didn’t make the cut. Considering that some of those are fairly major issues, especially to the sitting administration, it’s a disservice to leave these out.
At the same time, the Middle East is where the U.S. has been involved in three military engagements in the past ten years, where recently a consulate was attacked and an ambassador killed, where there are some major geopolitical hotspots, and a few more (that doesn’t even include the Arab Spring, Israel, or energy policy). Not only are these all big issues, but they’re issues that are most important to the electorate.
Politically, Obama has the most to lose, and a loss would hurt him far more than it would hurt Romney. If the first debate was a 10-yard sack, then the second debate only got him back to around the line of scrimmage; it’s a good gain, but it wasn’t enough. Romney just needs to keep the President from getting a first down, which is a much easier task.
Prediction: Both candidates do well enough to keep it close.
Paul Nadeau is a Diplomatic Courier Contributor focusing on foreign policy formation and the effects of bureaucratic institutions. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, the flagship publication of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Be sure to check out his posts on tonight’s debate on PolicyMic!