The final presidential debate, on foreign policy, is scheduled for Monday, October 22. Moderator Bob Schieffer announced that the topics will be: “America’s Role in the World,” “Our Longest War—Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines—Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism,” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.” Heritage’s foreign policy experts have written a series of tipsheets for prepping on each of these issues. You can watch the live stream of the debate with us on Monday here.
The Issue: “America’s Role in the World”
The Positions: If the candidates run true to form, both of them will emphasize the importance of leadership, with President Obama highlighting the U.S.’s role in multilateral institutions and the need to work cooperatively and set a good example, while Governor Romney will stress the need for a strong national defense, close relations with U.S. allies, and support for dissidents and protesters who oppose tyrannies.
The Reality: To be real and effective, leadership needs to be backed up by priorities, policies, budgets, and the strength of the nation. If the U.S. does not have a strong and steadily growing economy, it will be too distracted and not well enough off to lead abroad. So far, the debates have moved back and forth from foreign to domestic policy. But in reality, domestic and foreign policy are closely tied. Heritage’s Saving the American Dream plan recognizes this fact by bringing together our need for economic growth, balanced and sustainable federal spending, and a strong national defense.
The purpose of U.S. defenses is to protect our vital national interests. These include the overall safety of the U.S. homeland; preventing a major power threat to Europe, East Asia, or the Pacific Gulf; maintaining open trade routes; protecting Americans at home and abroad; and maintaining access to resources. These interests have been remarkably consistent since the end of the Second World War, and U.S. forces should be structured and funded to protect them. Today, the U.S. force structure envisioned in the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request is inadequate to do this. The U.S. seeks not war but the preservation of peace, and the central purpose of its forces is not simply to win wars but to stop them from occurring by deterring adversaries.
But the U.S.’s role in the world is not limited to protecting our vital interests. We have a tremendous interest in the promotion of economic freedom in the U.S. and around the world, both because it increases our prosperity and that of our friends and because economic freedom is closely tied to political freedom, individual liberty, and many other good outcomes, such as a cleaner environment. The U.S. has stood for greater economic openness since 1945, and this is no time to retreat from that bipartisan commitment. Instead, we should be setting an example of freedom at home and working cooperatively with our allies to advance free trade abroad while working carefully to understand and address problems like Chinese subsidies to its businesses.
If we are to do that, we need to practice diplomacy. The purpose of American diplomacy is to secure the national interests of the U.S. The practice of diplomacy has often been controversial in America, but the Founders recognized diplomacy as one of the institutions of the civilized world. What is wrong and irresponsible is not U.S. participation in negotiations but diplomacy that is not subject to the consent of the governed, infringes on U.S. sovereignty, fails to respect President Reagan’s dictum of “trust, but verify,” or fails to reflect our values.
For just as there is no way to separate the U.S. role in the world from the health of our economy, there is no way to separate it from its principles and from American exceptionalism. Our role in the world is, first, to defend the safety and independence of the U.S. so that it can govern itself according to its principles. But those principles are universal: The Declaration of Independence appeals to the inalienable rights not of Americans but of all humanity. The American people are not required to risk their blood and treasure in defense of the liberty of others. But the U.S. cannot have a foreign policy that fails to reflect the political truths that define it.
America stands for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government, and its interests are defined and shaped by those principles. Foreign policy should be prudently conducted, but as George Washington put it, our policy should be “interest, guided by justice.” Either interest or justice alone is inadequate. Both are necessary to understand the American role in the world.