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.