The final Presidential debate, devoted to foreign policy, was the most reasoned and the least polluted by rehearsed talking points of the three. The format and the moderator helped: the candidates sat side by side at a table, close to Bob Schieffer, of CBS News, who conducts interviews of this kind every Sunday morning on “Face the Nation”; his confidence showed, and the roundtable feeling seemed to calm everyone down.
In ninety minutes chopped into roughly five-minute blocks, the debate covered many subjects that will flummox the next President: the future of Islamist-influenced governments in North Africa; Iran’s nuclear program; Israel’s security; Al Qaeda and counterterrorism policy; Russia’s authoritarianism and its place in the international system; the Syrian civil war; the withdrawal of American combat troops from Afghanistan; whether Pakistan is a friend or a foe; Iraq’s instability; and economic competition with China.
Yet some of the emphasis reflected the politicization of a few hot topics in the closing weeks of the campaign, particularly the lengthy discussion about Libya and North Africa. And some subjects were neglected completely, in part because they had never arisen as a basis for political argument during the campaign. The result was a lopsided map of the world’s troubles and potential crises, with some critical subjects completely unmarked, like a fifteenth-century scroll depicting the world beyond the known seas.
Here are six consequential subjects that were not discussed at all. Some could be the nexus of a major crisis; others are certain to produce major policy decisions during the next Presidency. They are areas where we know little about Mitt Romney’s plans, or where Obama’s second-term agenda is unclear, or both.
The Asia pivot: President Obama mentioned only in passing—and Romney did not remark upon—the most significant considered and affirmative (as opposed to reactive) foreign-policy decision of Obama’s first term: the decision to recommit the United States as a Pacific nation, to deploy U.S. Marines and other military assets in Australia and elsewhere around China, and to adapt Cold War-era security architecture to contain Beijing (without exactly saying that that is the plan). In broad strokes, the case for the policy is that Asia is where the world’s economy is likely to grow fastest during the next two decades. Also, military tension with China as its economy grows should be anticipated and steps taken now to manage American and allied interests. A case against the policy is that it is militarizing and making explicit a Cold War-influenced containment approach that may prove provocative, tempting Beijing to prove its prowess by entering military conflicts over disputed islands in the South China Seas or over Taiwan earlier than it might have otherwise. So what does Romney think about the Marines in Australia? Does he think the United States should use military force to prevent China from seizing disputed islands claimed by allies such as Japan and the Philippines? Does he favor closer military coöperation with Vietnam? How does Obama see the role of military force in his pivot strategy? They didn’t have to say.
The European Union: The Nobel people gave their peace prize to the European Union this year. A British comedian wrote out a mock acceptance speech: “First of all, I’d like to thank Adolph Hitler for making this whole project possible…” There was a bit of wishfulness and self-congratulation in the prize decision, as there was when it went to President Obama, in 2009. Some of the edge has come off the euro crisis this fall, as beleaguered voters in Greece and grumpy bankers in Germany have shown clear political will to hold the euro zone intact. Yet the currency’s future is hardly settled, and there are centrifugal forces—Scottish and Catalan independence drives, right-wing fringe parties gaining support—pulling at the Union’s political consensus. The euro’s failure during the next four years is the most likely, predictable event that could ravage the world economy—and not a word was spoken about it on Monday.
Mexico: This was the single most astonishing omission in the debate. Mexico was not even mentioned in passing, a discouraging signal of how both candidates see the importance of the relationship, and Latin America in general. Forty thousand Mexicans or more have died in violence related to organized crime and drug trafficking to the United States. Migration of Mexican workers to the United States has ebbed because of the recession, but the border remains an issue of great importance and great complication on both sides. A Presidential election in Mexico in July restored the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., to power, and the incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has signalled (if vaguely) that he intends to demilitarize his predecessor’s campaign against the major trafficking cartels. Here is a second-term issue that directly affects American health, gun violence, and crime, where Obama will be tested and where Presidential power can matter—even if Republicans hold Congress. We heard nothing about it.
Climate Change: As my colleague Elizabeth Kolbert has put it, climate policy became the Great Unmentionable during the 2012 campaign. President Obama did speak about it briefly during his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, but he has otherwise avoided it. Romney has a coal-friendly energy policy, and, when he talks about it, he radiates enthusiasm about burning fuels of all kinds; you half expect him to take out matches and show the audience how to light a fire. Yet arriving at a consensus is vital and urgent. The bargaining required to deal with the country’s debt overhang will create an opportunity to link the tax-rate reforms that Republicans seek to the climate policies that Democrats have advocated. The campaign might have fleshed out the possibility of such a deal; it has not.
Venezuela: If Hugo Chavez, who won a fourth term as Venezuela’s President on October 8th, has defied cancer and remains alive and in power in 2016, it will be a surprise. If he departs, the political and security transition that will follow is likely to be tumultuous. Because of technology that has made oil buried in unconventional geological formations accessible, Venezuela is now reckoned to have reserves on the order of Saudi Arabia’s, or greater. In the shorter run, if Venezuelan production is disrupted, global oil prices—and retail gasoline prices—will rise. The role of Saudi Arabia’s stability in the global economy is familiar; Venezuela’s is neglected. If either Obama or Romney had been asked a sharp question about how they would plan for a Venezuela after Hugo Chavez or how they would respond to a civil conflict there, it seems doubtful that they would have had a carefully rehearsed answer.
India: India was a popular subject during President Clinton’s first term and much of the Bush Administration. Its economy was booming. Its swelling military budget offered a hedge against China. Its raucous democracy suggested the basis for a durable alliance with the United States. President Obama visited India in the hopes of significantly advancing the alliance built by Clinton and Bush. Instead, the diplomatic and defense relationship has been slow to unfold and has been marked by mutual disappointment. India’s economy is slowing, its infrastructure remains appalling, and its corruption scandals are jaw-dropping. What can he do now? What would Romney do?
In less than two weeks, at last, we will return from the world that makes for winning campaign arguments to the world as it is. It is not an especially pretty place—slow growth, half-managed crises, and the longer-term threats of great power conflict and climate disaster. On the upside, until the next electoral round, at least, it will be a world without spin rooms.