Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreign Policy Counts

It isn't true that foreign policy rarely counts in presidential campaigns. Even when no wars or crises take center stage, as in the present U.S. election run-up, a candidate's ability to earn the world's respect provides an important subtext to every presidential debate. What is striking this year isn't a lack of important issues, but a challenger who really doesn't know what to say.

The Republican quandary was evident at the Republican convention. Much of the party opposes free trade, international organizations and, more generally, any U.S. involvement in the world. Another wing wants a strong military and a strong U.S. role. In San Diego, former UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and former secretary of state James Baker took it upon themselves to mock U.S. President Bill Clinton's foreign policy without committing to either view. In fact, they, and their candidate as well, spoke in such a way as to give both sides reason to believe the speaker was on their side.

Thus, Baker offered the courageous view that a president "should never, never, never threaten the use of force unless he is damned well prepared to back it up with action." Fine; but when should a president use or threaten force? Given the Bush administration's inaction as Yugoslavia fell apart, it's a fair question. But Baker, secretary of state under George Bush, wasn't saying. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole attacked Clinton for asking the military "to do more with less," and a case can be made for that criticism. But would Dole do less, or would he spend more?

These are not idle debating points for a political season. They are central to how the United States will shape its post-Cold War role, and they should be central to this campaign. Nor is there much confusion over the fault lines. Patrick Buchanan articulated one viewpoint, approvingly citing George Washington's desire "to keep the United States free from all political connections with every other country." William Kristol and Robert Kagan eloquently framed the other, advocating in Foreign Affairs a "neo-Reaganite foreign policy" that would keep American No. 1 by "strengthening America's security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests and standing up for its principles around the world."

But the authors estimated that sustaining such a role would cost an additional $60 billion to $80 billion each year in military spending, a notion that Dole -- already depleting the Treasury with tax cuts and promises to veterans, the elderly and others -- seems reluctant to embrace. So he tried to have it both ways, issuing a series of robust but not terribly meaningful slogans on the one hand ("I will put terrorists on notice ... ") and a succession of Buchananite cheap shots on the other.

Dole promised, for example, to keep the World Trade Organization from infringing "our national sovereignty," though Dole finally voted for the World Trade Organization and must know that the United States, more than anyone, stands to benefit from its free-trade rules. He attacked Clinton for relying on the United Nations "to punish Libyan terrorists who murdered American citizens," although he must recall that it was the Bush administration that sought UN sanctions in March of 1992 to punish Libya for the airplane bombing over Lockerbie. He vowed that he, and not UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, would be commander in chief, though again it was Bush who set the modern-day precedent of seeking UN Security Council blessing before launching the Gulf War. Bush recognized, as has Clinton, that the United Nations can be a useful instrument of U.S. diplomacy and a force multiplier, and one that can never, because of U.S. veto rights, be turned against the United States.

Dole must know this, too, and one could argue that his campaign rhetoric to the contrary doesn't much matter; he's an internationalist who if elected will do the right things. But his anti-UN applause lines set the tenor of debate, pander to and strengthen isolationism in Congress and the country and, most dangerous, potentially restrict his ability to provide leadership even after his election, just as Clinton at first bumbled in the foreign arena in part because of his own foolish dismissal of the importance of foreign policy during the 1992 campaign.

Clinton's foreign policy since has been no model of consistency. He moved from containment to engagement in China, while traveling precisely the reverse path in Cuba. Early on, he slipped badly in Somalia -- a U.S.-led failure, not a UN one -- and dithered unconscionably on Bosnia. On many issues -- China's role in nuclear proliferation, NATO troops in Bosnia -- he has smoothed problems over or pushed them forward, to at least one day beyond Election Day. He has failed to make the case for a broad U.S. role as vigorously as he might have.

But the Clinton administration eventually tackled, with imperfect success, some of the toughest issues that in many cases the Bush administration ignored -- Bosnia, Haiti, North Korea. In so doing, it moved beyond the Caspar Weinberger-Colin Powell doctrine of using force only when success is assured and the terms of victory clear. Clinton shaped, and was pushed by events toward, a more nuanced policy for post-Cold War realities -- a case-by-case balancing of U.S. interests, chances of success and popular support that recognizes that force and diplomacy must sometimes go together to produce outcomes that are merely better than what might otherwise have been. Admittedly, that isn't yet much of a doctrine. But it calls for more, in response, than just making fun of UN secretaries general.

Fred Hiatt is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff. He contributed this comment to .