Four Debate Questions for Obama and Romney

By Ian Bremmer
October 22, 2012

There will always be a wide gap between what candidates promise and what they deliver once elected, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. After all, this is an area where U.S. presidents have less control than either candidate will ever admit near a microphone. But this year, there are contradictions that cut straight to the heart of debates over American power and how it should be used. With that in mind, here are the questions I would like to see each candidate answer.

THE CHINA CONUNDRUM

  • President Obama, given how much money the United States borrows from China each day, how can your administration expect to persuade the Chinese government to do anything it wouldn’t otherwise do?
  • Governor Romney, you have pledged that, if elected, you will formally label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of your presidency. This decision would surely provoke a sharp response from China. Are you risking a trade war, and how could the United States win a trade war with China?

China-bashing has figured into many a U.S. presidential campaign. As China’s economy and geopolitical importance has grown — and as U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved from U.S. swing states to China and other foreign countries — both sides have tried to score points by promising to “get tough” with Beijing. Given the economic interdependence of the two countries and continued Chinese willingness to loan money to the United States, voters are right to wonder how seriously they should take all this anti-Chinese rhetoric.

SYRIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST

  • President Obama, does the United States have a moral responsibility to protect Syrians from their government?
  • Governor Romney, if we were to see large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, similar to those we saw last year in Cairo, would your administration side with the Saudi citizens demanding democracy? Or would you side with their government, a key U.S. ally?

President Obama cited moral concerns for the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya. Syria is a much more politically and logistically complicated problem for outsiders contemplating involvement, but the moral imperative — protecting citizens who are being killed by their government — appears the same. Where is the line in U.S. foreign policy between pragmatism and moral concerns?

Governor Romney has two principle criticisms of the Obama Middle East policy: The White House has refused to stand with U.S. allies in the region and has refused to stand with those who demand freedom. There are many ways to highlight the contradiction in these critiques, but the most efficient is to ask about Romney’s attitude toward the potential for pro-democracy demonstrations inside an authoritarian state that is also a crucial U.S. ally and the world’s leading producer of crude oil.

THE GLOBALIZED ECONOMY

  • President Obama, how can the U.S. government work with American corporations to ensure that they can effectively compete against state-owned corporations, like those in China, that benefit from the financial and political backing of their home governments?
  • Governor Romney, is an economically-sound Europe good for America’s national security? If so, what, if anything, would your administration do to strengthen Europe in this moment of crisis?

Beyond the basic question of what role government should play in promoting U.S. business abroad, the next president will have to consider how U.S. companies can succeed on a global competitive playing field distorted by governments like China’s that use state-owned companies to achieve goals that are ultimately political.

Europe’s economic struggles continue to weigh on U.S. growth. But at a time when there is a focus on reducing U.S. government spending, what credible steps can and should the U.S. government take to bolster the eurozone?

WHAT’S WORTH FIGHTING FOR?

  • President Obama, are democracy and free market capitalism values that America should actively export to other countries? If so, what will you do in a second term to accomplish this goal?
  • Governor Romney, what lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would you use as president to decide how, where and under what circumstances to send American men and women into harm’s way?

At times, Governor Romney has hinted at a willingness to use U.S. military assets in Syria and Iran. President Obama has taken a relatively pragmatic and risk-averse approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Election season in general — and foreign policy debates in particular — invite a lot of high-minded rhetoric about support for freedom around the world and American exceptionalism. But what is actually possible for U.S. foreign policy at a moment when more Americans than ever tell pollsters that they want the United States to “mind its own business” internationally?

PHOTO: Students playing the parts of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama rehearse on the set of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida October 21, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Above all, the US should be fighting for a president who represents all of us, not just a few 1% rich folks. Romney would be moving backwards to an era worse than George W Bush, filled with crony capitalism and corrupt military spending. With Obama we are all represented in a capitalist country where everyone should have a shot at making it to the top; opportunities are not just for the 1%!

Posted by Caspary | Report as abusive

…securing our borders… other wise… we need to learn
we should not be the “policemen” for the world… let some one else carry that load for a change…anything short of a nuke war… not our business….

Posted by raptor666 | Report as abusive

I am tired of the lies, I’m tired of war, I don’t believe a word out of either candidates mouth concerning the economy, or what we may do as a country concerning Europe’s economic woes, China, the Middle east, or on anything else substantive. We are the divided states these days. People’s religion, their deeply held passions are continuously exploited, used against them and consequently we are so polarized that I think we are very close to having our own revolt. We have ways of dealing with organized or semi-organized groups in our society that don’t involve violence though, at least not so far!. Consider how our country dealt with two recent groups that wished to push for change here; the Tea Party was absorbed by the Republican Party and the Occupy movement was largely ignored by the media and many communities passed laws restricting the right to assemble. What passes for freedom in America today would have been seen as so lacking by our founders that they would likely have taken to sea in search of a new continent to settle. Too bad we haven’t found another planet to colonize.

Posted by sighber | Report as abusive

The whole idea of a foreign affairs debate is totally absurd. Questions of national importance require explicit reasoning. How can anyone answer questions of national importance in two minutes? Even schoolchildren get more time in a debate.

Romney can utter any nonsense because his answers are without any consequence. But the answers of a President are binding for national policy.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

If I could ask a question on foreign debate to both candidates, I would ask:

1. Would you risk a major war in the Middle East to protect Israel, if yes why?

2. Would you risk a major war with China by protecting Taiwan from chinese agression, if yes why?

Posted by joco69 | Report as abusive

What should the U.S. be fighting for?

Well, certainly not another bloody ME proxy war on behalf of Israel.

Posted by boreal | Report as abusive

Today is the debate on foreign policy, candidates will score points, blame assigned, emotions roused, and each party will claim their victories. The truth is, in a world mess, righteous sound bites are hollow, my passion is in the arc of long term vision, not immediate four-year term promises. For sure, the 47% already know, that reality, in the end is kinder than any illusion we create to protect ourselves. And so, let the Reps prey on them, (unfortunately they need their vote) and swoon in with a mantra of naive illusionary optimism promising 12 million new jobs in four years. The current entrepreneurial spirit is already at work creating jobs at a good rate and will increase in spite of a Depression manufactured by the malignant greed of Wall Street in 2008 – no illusion, reality of our era. How fortunate, if Romney gets elected, he inherits an economy on the mends, would Obama have preferred that luxury when he took office – instead he spent his first two years halting the Reps inertia of their economic train wreck. The economic recovery will do fine and get better without the promises. Now, we have Mitt, a very good business man. However, the business, of business, is business, not the nurturing of the soul of America, where the greatness of a nation resides. Mitt, his unrealized deficit, is sandwiched between, on his left, Karl Rove, chief campaign architect that jettisons decency (Mitt’s rhetoric of the Benghazi tragedy, obsessed with accuracy of fault has Rove written all over it and now talk ad nauseam goes on) and on his right, the Military Corporation Complex (MCC – the single most influential donors and ideological supporters that bankrolls Mitt’s campaign). I’ve seen enough of Mitt, and I have no doubt he can function well in the presidency – however I don’t trust he will have the nimbleness to address the looming emerging world economy that is now re-calibrating consequences that will impact American jobs and manufacturing and harness MCC whose motto is “Foreign Policy – We Own the Place, Might Makes Right, Give US a War, God Wills It.” Viewing the world through a successful business lens is not comprehensive enough. I want a states man, a warrior for the human spirit who knows what is at stake.

Posted by cdnsage | Report as abusive

A better question for Romney is,”In what circumstance would you send your own sons to war?’

Posted by dbristol | Report as abusive

Generally speaking when our government says it will “protect our interests” it means companies that have screwed their employees and left our country.

Posted by sjfella | Report as abusive

People seem to forget we (united states) have the same enemys in this world as we did 20 years ago some are just using different ways to destroy us now. look at the way china is using its new power and the way russia is being ran by its new dictator and than look at what our president has done in the last four years. Obama is not the right president for this time. if he is, that why is Romney so close to him in the polls. We need new leadership in the white house.

Posted by ckj3 | Report as abusive

To start, America should only fight for America (not Israel). We should only fight as a defense to a great risk not just to increase our power base or to defend the interest of American based multi-national corporations. We should also participate as a part of a UN coalition for humanitarian reasons. Iraq shouldn’t have happened. Vietnam shouldn’t have happened. Many of the covert adventures of the last 30+ years shouldn’t have happened. None of these crusades have had any benefit to the majority of us who do not own General Dynamic stock and it has had a disasterous impact on our deficit. Someone should ask what is wrong with Romney’s brain to think we need to spend even more on military.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

What do you mean by “our” and “we”??

In general, the American People have not had a Government acting in their interests for decades. Instead, we are saddled with a political system that disdains our interests, concerns and values and that treats us as a colony of New York, Washington and Tel Aviv. We do as we are told or we are “aiding terrorism” or are even “terrorists” ourselves. We are certainly “illegal” in some fashion and deserve to be “corrected”.

We the People are entitled to representation in Government and we are systematically and intentionally denied it because we do not matter, and if we did we would probably want something back from Government instead of paying and paying and paying and grovelling.

We need fundamental reform of representation and the outlawing of bribery. We need to close every single one of our foreign military bases and to cut military spending by 75%. We need to be presented with a meaningful choice in our elections. We need an end to “winner take all” elections.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

“how can the U.S. government work with American corporations to ensure that they can effectively compete against state-owned corporations, like those in China”

Such a question should come with a precise definition of “American corporations”. Is a US incorporated subsidiary of a Chinese corporation an “American corporation”? If not, what is?

Posted by Gaute | Report as abusive

Let us take a simple example, make all apple products in America instead of China. The price of an Iphone will skyrocket to U$8000 and sales drop to an estimated 50 million units (assuming that americans buy the phone).

Apple will be bankrupt and the stock market will tank by at least 30%.

Start a trade war and watch and interest rates rise to 15% as other nations join China in dumping Treasuries. The American economy will take at least a decade (if ever) to recover from the shock. Prices of everyday consumer goods will double in price as the dollar drops and import prices rise – Recession 101.

China – a temporary drop of 10% in their exports and a much bigger economy as the domestic economy takes up the slack.

Posted by WJL | Report as abusive

Many of these questions do not think they have a definitive answer for either candidate. I think the situation in the East is a bit complicated to draw accurate conclusions about it.

Posted by debatepopular | Report as abusive