On Monday, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will square off on a topic that, according to most polls, just about 4% of the electorate votes on: foreign policy. If you’re wondering why the candidates would spend their final presidential debate — and, probably the last time they’ll share a stage together before the election — on this topic, you’re not alone. But, there are (at least) five reasons that foreign policy is important to consider in this election:
1) First, foreign policy has a significant impact on the number-one election issue: the economy.
Every time Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz (a slim waterway through which one-fifth of the world’s oil is transported) the price of oil shoots up. In other words, you pay more at the pump in places like Florida and Nevada because of tough talk from Tehran.
Meanwhile, as the European Union teeters on the brink of collapse, U.S. companies are gritting their teeth. If Europe abandoned its common currency, the Euro, it would send our stock markets tumbling. President Obama has been working closely with Europe’s leaders to avert financial disaster there. He’s not doing it just because European bankruptcy would affect one of our biggest allies; it’s also because Europe's fiscal fall would crush job numbers in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. As CNN’s David Frum wrote recently, “You could say there is only one swing state that really matters in 2012: Germany.”
2) Second, smart foreign policy equals strong national security.
How America manages to make friends—or face enemies—in the post-Arab Spring world will impact the safety of voters here at home. If the next President does not craft a cohesive—yet flexible—plan for earning friends in the revamped Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, radicalism could rise. In today’s globalized society, the idea that American should isolate itself from the world is as out-of-date as a cassette tape. American values, like free speech, will only be advanced in these new democracies if America is actively engaged abroad.
3) Third, foreign policy helps keep the lights on.
As of today, America produces just 40% of the oil it consumes. Most Americans would be surprised to learn just how far we are from the candidates’ oft-repeated promise of “North American energy independence.” Smart foreign policy moves—like President Obama’s sanctions against Iran, which have cut the value of their currency by 50%—also impact our ability to charge our iPods. The next President will have to keep relations smooth with countries that provide the U.S. with energy. And, more importantly, he’ll have to find more of it to quench America’s increasing appetite for energy.
4) Fourth, foreign policy is serious business to our nation’s veterans.
Today, one of the hottest debates in this country is over how America will shape its military to face the threats of the future. For the “Greatest Generation” that fought in World War II, the idea of diplomacy—using not just guns, but roads, schools and hospitals to influence the world—is endangered. If America abandons diplomacy, the sacrifices that our Veterans have made to create a more stable and democratic world will be at risk. The next President will have to enhance American security through diplomatic solutions, not just military force. Smart foreign policy is the way to do that.
5) Fifth, the only way to tackle our national debt is through forward-thinking foreign policy.
As of today, according to the U.S. Treasury, each American would have to pay more than $46,000 to pay off the debt. That’s way higher than any point since 1918. President Obama’s gotten the memo: by drawing down troops in Afghanistan and taking all U.S. forces out of Iraq, he’s reduced military spending--a major driver of debt--significantly. Come January, the next President (be it Obama or Romney) will have to make similarly tough choices, particularly on hot-button topics like Veterans’ medical care.
This week, a group of 57 young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa are coming to America for the “Active Citizen Summit.” Sponsored by the State Department and the American Council of Young Political Leaders, the leaders will learn how to operate in a democracy. From visiting Twitter’s headquarters to learning how to write op-eds, these leaders will return home to build 21st-century, democratic and open societies.
It’s solutions like these—where education, not force, is used to build democracies—that will make up the foreign policy of the future. Let’s hope America’s next President outlines his vision for that type of plan in tonight’s debate.