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The Next President’s Foreign Policy

In the run-up to their third and final debate on October 22nd, the theme of which is foreign policy, President Obama and Governor Romney will likely attempt to portray themselves as strong leaders who’re deeply committed to American exceptionalism and preeminence.  November 6th, however, shouldn’t be a referendum on which candidate is better suited to reversing the decline that America’s alleged to have suffered in recent years; instead, it should be seen as an opportunity to ask which one has a better grasp of how the global strategic balance is shifting.

Come January 20, 2013, the next president—whether a second-term Obama or a first-term Romney—will face a complex set of realities abroad, three of which merit special attention: (1) while the costs of and threats to sustaining U.S. leadership in the world are growing rapidly, there isn’t a credible alternative; (2) the impact of U.S. military power on geopolitics, while important, will continue to diminish; and, (3) largely because of social media, seemingly small, isolated incidents such as the self-immolation of a young fruit vendor or the posting of an amateurish YouTube video will be capable of rapidly, if not immediately, reshaping America’s relationships and priorities.

The next president must accordingly demonstrate creativity—to strengthen America’s ability to lead amidst an anemic economy at home and power shifts abroad—realism—about the limits to U.S. influence—and judiciousness—to ensure that America can respond to disturbances that go “viral” without losing sight of its vital national interests.  A foreign policy that embodies those virtues is more likely to cement an enduring leadership role for America in international affairs than a vague commitment to keeping it “number one” at all costs.

As for grading the next president’s foreign policy, Daniel Byman offers this important food for thought:

Americans like to think that all problems can be solved and that, if they aren’t, incompetence or malfeasance is to blame.  Often, however, the challenge is overwhelming and U.S. influence is limited.  The problem is not that Democrats are wimps, that Republicans are warmongers or that Washington’s halls of power are filled with the greedy and the hapless, but rather that few foreign policy problems can truly be solved.  Most can at best be managed, and just getting by is often the best we can do.  This should be the standard by which the foreign policy of the next administration is measured.

What standard(s) would you propose?

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