The October 22 debate between Romney and Obama offered a perceptive glimpse of the most urgent short-term international worries of the electorate

The defining image from the October 22 debate between President Obama and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is of the two candidates passionately disputing their prescriptions for the U.S. domestic economy. The moderator, veteran TV journalist Bob Schieffer, caught the spirit of the evening with his final words before inviting the debaters to make their closing comments — “I think we all love teachers.” A visitor from Mars might be forgiven for not realising that this was a debate on foreign policy.

Schieffer’s choice of subjects for the debate is revealing, and sheds light on the most immediate voter concerns. Three of the themes had to do with the Middle East: Libya; Syria; and Israel and Iran. Despite America’s political polarisation and Romney’s months-long drumbeat for a more muscular approach to Iran’s nuclear programme, there was striking similarity in the views of the two candidates.

A fourth theme, Afghanistan and Pakistan, extended the discussion of America’s difficult relationships in the Muslim world. Both candidates stressed that the United States was leaving Afghanistan; gone were Romney’s earlier hints that he would slow down the departure and “consult the military commanders.” Despite a provocative question from the moderator, neither wanted to “divorce” Pakistan. Again, little discernible difference.

‘Very important’ goal

The two final themes were broader: a wide open question about the U.S. role in the world, and a final theme combining China and security challenges for the United States. Both themes in practice shifted the discussion back to domestic policy. Indeed, fully 13 pages out of the 36-page transcript were about the domestic economy. This is more “air time” than the candidates gave to any international topic. In fact, however, this reflects one of the important insights the debate provided about how American voters look on foreign policy: it matters, but the U.S. economy is a more immediate concern. Both men made the case — either implicitly or explicitly — that the greatest boost to an effective U.S. foreign policy would come from an economic turnaround.

These observations track closely with a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on U.S. public attitudes toward international affairs. This organisation has covered this subject matter in highly respected surveys every two to four years over several decades. Every year, the top foreign policy goal is the same: “protecting the jobs of American workers.” This year, 83 per cent of those surveyed cited this as a “very important” goal. Respondents still list as top threats international terrorism and Iran’s nuclear programme, though the majorities are now 67 and 64 per cent respectively, down from 90 per cent plus in 2002. Only 14 per cent still believe that promoting democracy abroad is “very important.”

Tellingly, the Chicago Council report found Americans weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only 17 per cent thought the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Two-thirds majorities believed that neither war had been worth the cost in blood and treasure.

Some respondents were still willing to see the United States engage in military action overseas — but fewer than in past years, and on a highly selective basis. Majorities favoured the use of U.S. troops to prevent genocide, to avert humanitarian disaster, or to secure the oil supply. Less than half favoured using U.S. troops to respond to invasions of Israel, Korea, or Taiwan. There was strong support for diplomacy, including talking with leaders of hostile countries such as North Korea, Cuba and Iran, and surprising support for multilateral efforts.

The percentage of Americans who consider Asia the most important region for the United States is steadily growing. In this report, for the first time, a majority of Americans — 52 per cent — agreed with this view. Consistent with this was the widely shared judgment that the United States needed to engage with China, and that U.S.-China economic relations were of critical importance. A majority continues to back the U.S. having “the world’s strongest military,” but solid majorities oppose “military bases” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Turkey.

With a handful of exceptions, views on top foreign policy goals and on threats were widely shared across the U.S. population. Republicans, for example, scored 20 points higher on the importance of maintaining U.S. military strength and in their concern about illegal immigration; by a similar margin, Democrats felt more strongly about ending world hunger. More surprisingly, Independents were less committed to international engagement than those who identified themselves as either Republicans or Democrats. Americans under 30 were the least “internationalist” of any age group.

Three points

The debate and the Chicago Council report, taken together, suggest a few broad conclusions about prospects for American foreign policy.

First: The U.S. electorate is more moved by short-term issues than by long-term ones. This helps explain the astonishing omissions in that night’s debate. No India, no Japan, no Europe, only a cursory mention of Russia, no Korea, China mentioned only as an economic rival, Latin America only as an economic opportunity. Surveys suggest that none of these places is considered unimportant. However, none is now in crisis, and the candidates and debate organisers gave their primary attention to crisis countries.

Second: Among the long-term “structural” issues in U.S. foreign policy, the broader view of Asia that this administration has developed — President Obama referred to the “pivot to Asia” — is likely to continue. Both the Americans surveyed in the report and the two candidates clearly believe Asia matters — meaning both East and South Asia. The electorate and officeholders alike are influenced both by the region’s security importance and by its economic prominence.

Third: Despite the profound polarisation of the U.S. political scene, much of the substance of current U.S. foreign policy will carry over even if there is a change of president. However, the tone of the debate and the way the candidates handled broad questions like America’s role in the world suggest that a Romney administration would project a more unilateral and assertive style, and the Chicago survey confirms that this would play well with his base.

(Teresita and Howard Schaffer are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia. They are co-founders of southasiahand.com. Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University; Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.)

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