Commentary: At Core, Obama and Romney Close on Foreign Policy

BY James M. Lindsay  October 22, 2012 at 11:30 AM EDT

President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney meet Monday night in Boca Raton, Fla., to debate foreign policy. Both campaigns see the third and final debate as their best opportunity to reach the public before Election Day. The two candidates will be speaking to voters who expect to hear affirmations of U.S. leadership but who are also skeptical of foreign entanglements in the midst of tough economic times and after more than a decade of war.

James M. Lindsay

Although the harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail sometimes suggests otherwise, Monday’s debate won’t pit fundamentally different visions of American foreign policy against each other. Obama’s and Romney’s views are broadly similar. Both men are internationalists with a strong pragmatic streak; they largely agree on the chief threats the United States faces overseas. The imperatives of the debate, however, will push the two candidates to stress their differences far more than their similarities.

The six topics that moderator Bob Scheiffer has selected for discussion — one for each of the debate’s six 15-minute sections — focus primarily on the greater Middle East. Obama and Romney largely agree on U.S. objectives in the region: stopping Iran from going nuclear, supporting Israel, turning security responsibilities over to the Afghans by 2014, encouraging the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and dismantling al Qaida and its affiliates.

Their differences are primarily over details, tactics and tone. One potentially significant difference is whether the United States should seek to deny Iran a nuclear weapon, as Obama has argued, or even a nuclear capability, as Romney has contended.

The one country outside the greater Middle East that the candidates will discuss is China. Romney has accused Obama of failing to vigorously challenge predatory Chinese trade practices and has pledged to label China a “currency manipulator” one in office. A scrap over currency practices might not leave time to discuss an equally important issue, China’s growing military power in Asia.

Several critical foreign policy issues didn’t make the cut for the debate. Mexico isn’t on the agenda, even though growing drug-related violence there could have a substantial consequences for the United States. Neither is defense spending or U.S.-Russian relations, despite the fact that Romney pledges to increase the defense budget substantially and argues that Russia constitutes America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Other topics not slated for discussion include climate change, the eurozone crisis, foreign aid, Africa, Venezuela and global health.

Will Monday’s debate determine the election? Probably not. Presidential debates seldom move public opinion much or for very long. This tendency is especially likely to hold now because voters are far more worried about jobs and the economy than about foreign policy.

Finally, a historical irony: Monday night’s debate comes on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s televised address to the nation that the Soviets had begun installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. That crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war. Its anniversary is a solemn reminder of the stakes in foreign policy.

James M. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chairman at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a leading authority on the American foreign policy-making process and the domestic politics of American foreign policy.