The third and final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign is to be devoted solely to matters of foreign policy. This is an anachronism, one that reflects neither the world we live in nor what constitutes the Achilles' heel of American security.
At first glance, the topics announced by Bob Schieffer, the debate's moderator, appear reasonable: America's role in the world — what should we be trying to accomplish and how — is a big and important matter. So, too, is what to do about Afghanistan, where there are still 68,000 U.S. troops, some of which are slated to stay until the end of 2014 and possibly longer, and Pakistan, a fragile state at best that happens to be home to the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal. Israel and Iran could trigger a conflict early in the term of whoever wins the election. And asking about the Middle East, terrorism and the rise of China all makes a good deal of sense, although one could question the absence of Mexico, Europe, Russia and Africa.
What makes far less sense is the entire premise of Monday evening. Categorizing some issues as "foreign" and others as "domestic" bears little relationship to a world in which what happens out there affects conditions here and vice versa. This is the inescapable reality of globalization, the defining characteristic of the 21st century world.
In fact, some issues are by their very nature both foreign and domestic. Immigration is one, as is energy policy, climate change, drugs, trade and finance. They risk falling between the agendas of debates limited to dealing with matters either internal or external. Do the candidates agree we should allow for more highly educated persons to come and live in this country? What should be done to increase production of oil, decrease consumption of fossil fuels and slow climate change? What are their suggestions for reducing the demand for drugs? What would they do to expand American exports or increase foreign investment in the United States?
Most important, the list of topics made public leaves out the most serious threat facing the United States today and for the foreseeable future: the state of the United States.
This is not meant to suggest that the topics put forward do not matter. What matters more, though, is the ability of the United States to contend with them, and this depends on whether we will have the resources to prevent crises from materializing, to defend against them if they do and to recover if efforts at prevention come up short.
We can discuss America's role in the world all we want, but it will count little unless we have the resources needed to lead by deed and example. But this requires that we figure out a way to restore higher economic growth rates and do something substantial about our persistent deficits and mounting debt. If we do not, we will not be able to field a first-class military or maintain necessary levels of assistance to those deserving help.
We also leave ourselves hostage to the decisions of those holding large pools of dollars or to the vagaries of markets. The last thing we need is to have to raise interest rates not for the traditional purpose of cooling an over-heated economy but rather to attract the financing we need because we continue to spend far more as a government than we take in. But we might have to do just that.
Similarly, we can debate our responses to terrorism, but one important way to combat its potential impact is to reduce our vulnerability and increase our ability to bounce back from inevitable attacks, be they from bombs, viruses, computer or otherwise. But doing this will require modernizing our deteriorating infrastructure, from tunnels and bridges to ports, water plants and the electricity grid.
And we can ponder how best to meet the challenge posed by China and other emerging countries, but at the end of the day, we will succeed only if America generates the human talent needed to compete in the world marketplace. The problem is that our education system is failing. One quarter of Americans do not graduate high school, and 40 percent of those who do need remedial help in order to have a chance at graduating college. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of jobs are going unfilled owing to a lack of qualified workers.
So by all means, Mr. Schieffer should ask the candidates how they will deal with traditional foreign policy challenges. But at the same time, he should ask them what they would do to make sure we are positioned to meet them. The previous debates raised more questions than they answered about what either candidate would do about the economy; most of the other issues that determine this country's strength and capacity to act and compete in the world barely came up. This final debate will be the last chance to confront the next president of the United States with questions that ought to be addressed. Nothing less than this country's security depends on it.
Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His next book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order," will be published in the spring by Basic Books.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.