Foreign Policy Questions for the Candidates

With the presidential candidates squaring off for a final debate, four CFR fellows weigh in on questions that should arise on major on foreign policy issues facing the nation.

October 19, 2012

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

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United States

Elections and Voting

The third and final presidential debate on October 22 in Boca Raton, Florida, will focus exclusively on foreign policy and national security. Four CFR experts have weighed in on the questions and issues they believe warrant discussion during the exchange.

Regarding Afghanistan, CFR’s Stephen Biddle says the candidates need to articulate how U.S. interests in the country will be protected after 2014, "when our role in the war is smaller, our influence is lower, our Afghan ally remains highly imperfect, and our Taliban opponents persist." On China, CFR’s Elizabeth Economy says the candidates need to clarify how they propose to manage China’s rise and "ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems."

As for the Middle East, CFR’s Isobel Coleman poses a number of questions ranging from Arab transitions to democracy and addressing tensions with Iran to the war in Syria, saying such issues pose "enormous foreign policy challenges for the United States, with real implications for our security and prosperity." And on the global economy, CFR’s Robert Kahn says candidates need to better explain how "crises elsewhere can have profound effects on the U.S. economy, and, conversely, [how] our failure to deal with our challenges at home has global implications."

Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy


We know both candidates want to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. And we know they have about the same timetable for doing it. What we don’t know is how this will secure our interests there.

The war is likely to be stalemated in 2014 when the U.S. combat role ends and the Afghans take the lead. To maintain that stalemate will require multiple billions of dollars a year to keep Afghanistan’s security forces in the field. If we’re going to keep writing these checks, what’s the plan for bringing the war to a successful conclusion after 2014? Is there one?

The Afghanistan debate is usually about getting to 2014 and a successful handoff to the Afghans. But if our only goal is to leave, then we could have done that years ago and saved thousands of American lives. Presumably, we’re continuing to fight because we have something at stake beyond just coming home. Yet neither candidate has articulated [what this is] and how it will be secured after 2014 when our role in the war is smaller, our influence is lower, our Afghan ally remains highly imperfect, and our Taliban opponents persist.

U.S. subsidies can probably keep Afghan government forces fighting after 2014, but how long can a stalemated war drag on before U.S. taxpayers–-or Afghan troops-–tire of this? Are we betting that the Taliban will lose heart before our allies or our Congress do? Why? Are we betting on a negotiated peace settlement in the meantime? If so, what are we doing to forge a deal, and how can we make it stick after our troops mostly come home?

If we have interests there worth sacrificing lives for, we deserve to know how these candidates would ensure that these sacrifices produce an outcome worth the cost. If our interests aren’t worth fighting for, why would these candidates keep us fighting there until 2014?

So the most important question for the candidates on Afghanistan is: we know you want to leave, but is that all? If our interests are worth fighting for, how do you intend to secure them?

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


First the good news: Unlike the Middle East, China is not reeling from one crisis to another as the United States struggles to find effective policy tools. It does not provide safe haven for terrorists, nor did it trigger the global financial crisis. For the purposes of the presidential debate on foreign policy, that makes China seem like a second-tier issue.

Now for the not so good news: China may well pose a far more serious strategic challenge to the United States and the global system. Chinese officials have called for the world to move away from the dollar as the reserve currency, challenged U.S. notions of good governance throughout the world, and blocked U.S. initiatives to address crises in Syria and Iran. All of this makes China an issue of paramount importance for the presidential debate.

The campaigns have already targeted China as a critical issue, but not in a way that elevates the discourse. China-bashing television ads and debate over whose pension fund has Chinese companies are not going to help the American people understand who would better manage U.S.-China relations and China’s rise. Fortunately, Bob Shieffer’s debate topic, "The rise of China and tomorrow’s world," suggests that he is already thinking along these lines. What specific questions might he ask? Here are four:

  • China has a seat on the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy, and one of the world’s largest standing armies. Yet it remains reluctant to assume a leading role in addressing global challenges. How can the next U.S. president ensure that China works with the United States and does its fair share to meet the world’s most pressing global problems?
  • China’s economy is widely anticipated to become the largest in the world--surpassing that of the United States--within the next five to ten years. What difference, if any, do you expect this eventuality will make in the U.S.-China relationship and in global economic relations?
  • In the past several months, a number of conflicts have flared up in the Asia-Pacific region between China and its neighbors. Some have blamed the U.S. pivot for emboldening actors in the region to take provocative actions. Mr. President, is this growing regional tension the outcome you anticipated or did you miscalculate? What further steps would you take to help decrease tensions? Governor Romney, you have asserted that the pivot was oversold and under-resourced. Please explain what you would do differently.
  • China has achieved extraordinary economic success with a one-party authoritarian system that continues to limit many of the basic human rights that we in the United States value and have fought for throughout the world. Does China present a credible alternative development model for other countries?

Isobel Coleman

Middle East

The turmoil in the Middle East-–from the Arab uprisings to the civil war in Syria to the Iranian nuclear threat–-poses enormous foreign policy challenges for the United States, with real implications for our security and prosperity. So far, the candidates have spent more time trying to score political points over the tragic attack on our consulate in Benghazi than explaining where they stand on the serious issues at hand. With a full half-hour of the next debate slated to focus on "The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism," they should have plenty of time to articulate their positions. Here are some questions the moderator could ask:

  • The transitions underway in Tunisia and Egypt have brought Islamists into power in both countries through legitimate elections. These governments are writing new constitutions, and already deep divisions are coming to the fore over such fundamental issues as the role of Islam in the legal system, freedom of expression, human rights, and equality. The United States clearly has a long-term interest in maintaining strong relationships with countries in the Middle East. What would you do to maintain such relationships in the face of differences over values and human rights?
  • In addition, how should we deal with those authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that are deeply resistant to democracy but remain close U.S. allies?
  • In a recent op-ed, Governor Mitt Romney wrote that the United States should use the "full spectrum of our soft power to encourage liberty and opportunity for those who have for too long known only corruption and oppression." What would you do that we are not already doing to encourage liberty and opportunity in the Middle East?
  • Americans are understandably reluctant to become embroiled in another war in the Middle East, but as the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, the costs of standing on the sidelines–-in terms of human tragedy, regional instability, and rising extremism–-are growing. At what point does your cost-benefit calculation tip toward greater U.S. intervention?
  • While Iran’s threats to regional peace and stability are of paramount importance, the regime’s record of repression of its own people is also deeply disturbing. In 2006, the Bush Administration allocated $75 million to support the promotion of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Iran. However, the program struggled to find Iranian activists and organizations willing to take the funding due to fear of reprisal from the regime. Given this history, and the international community’s commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran, how will you move to support human rights and political dissidents in Iran?
  • Despite general Israeli and Palestinian support for a two-state solution, the prospects for resolving that conflict appear grim. President Obama, you’ve called the status quo unsustainable and have reiterated your commitment to a two-state solution. Mr. Romney, you’ve made comments calling into question the viability of a two-state solution. What roles do each of you envision the United States playing in revitalizing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?

Robert Kahn, Steven A. Tananbaum Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations

The Global Economy

Most Americans view the economy as a purely domestic issue, unrelated to the critical foreign policy challenges we face. Yet our economies are interconnected. Crises elsewhere can have profound effects on the US economy, and conversely our failure to deal with our challenges at home has global implications. Getting these policies right can influence our standing in the world, the resources we can bring to problems, and our capacity to act.

The global economy today is in a fragile state, with growth slowing in industrial and emerging economies alike. The IMF recently marked down global growth sharply and highlighted a wide array of risks that could lead to recession next year. There are three areas in particular where US leadership is central to brighter global prospects.

  • Europe. The Obama administration’s strategy has been to work closely with our European counterparts, press them to move faster to address the root causes of the crisis, while arguing Europe has the resources to solve the problem and must lead. Governor Romney has advocated a more arms-length strategy, opposing US-backed bailouts through the IMF. Neither supports a U.S. financial role in boosting the IMF’s resources. If we believe the Europeans aren’t moving fast enough, it would be interesting to hear from the candidates what needs to be done and how we can have influence on the debate "leading from behind."
  • Fiscal cliff. We all know that going off the fiscal cliff in December could tip the U.S. economy into recession. Longer term, our failure to put our finances on a sustainable track and provide for needed investment will lead to crisis. When this happens is uncertain, but surely the costs will be lower if we address it sooner rather than later. Even in the context of a foreign policy debate, the candidates could address their specific plans to avoid the cliff. The threat to global growth would only seem to add to the urgency for action.
  • China. Both candidates promise to be tough on trade and investment with China. Governor Romney would cite China as an exchange rate manipulator at the start of his administration. This would initiate a new round of negotiations, but leaves unanswered what happens next. The critical question for the debate is how to specifically address the broader array of market distortive policies without initiating a destabilizing trade dispute.