Voters who tuned in to Monday’s presidential debate presumably wanted to know how more about how the two candidates for commander in chief might handle the challenges that will inevitably arise abroad. Remarkably, the foreign-policy-themed debate managed to write off most of the world. The fate of the euro, the pace of global climate change, and the machinations of Mexican drug cartels will affect the US economy. But if something isn’t happening in the region between Libya and Afghanistan, debate moderator Bob Schieffer’s choice of questions seemed to suggest, it’s of little consequence or interest to Americans.
It’s hardly surprising that the discussion kept coming back to the issues that get the most news coverage; Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and uncertainty in Afghanistan all have serious implications for the United States. But other areas of the world are undergoing profound transitions, too, and both candidates should be probed on how they would react. Instead, there was one question at the end of the debate about China’s rise — eliciting a brief discussion about trade matters — and no follow-up questioning about about America’s growing diplomatic competition with China in capitals around the developing world. The candidates didn’t help much, either; Romney at least broadened the discussion when he noted in passing that the growth of Latin America presents opportunities for the United States, but his assertion that the region’s economy is almost as strong as China’s wasn’t quite true.
A foreign-policy debate needn’t be a gotcha session; the point isn’t to humiliate candidates by forcing them to recall, and correctly pronounce, the names of little-known foreign leaders. But simply declining to address many of the nation’s most important foreign-policy challenges does the candidates and the voters alike a disservice.