Magazine article Newsweek

Psst. Let's Talk (Foreign) Affairs; Americans Have Not Had a Serious Presidential Debate over Foreign Policy since Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan. That Was a Generation Ago

Magazine article Newsweek

Psst. Let's Talk (Foreign) Affairs; Americans Have Not Had a Serious Presidential Debate over Foreign Policy since Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan. That Was a Generation Ago

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria, Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.

Once we've worked through the various scandals, rumors and gossip surrounding the American presidential election, could we please have a substantive discussion? In nine months the United States will elect the most powerful individual in the world. Conventional wisdom is that all elections are mainly about economics, and that might well be true. But for the first time in decades we have a chance at having a serious national conversation about foreign policy. In the last two-and-a-half years the United States has been attacked by terrorists, has waged a global war on terror in response, has overthrown two governments and is still fighting guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan, while trying to rebuild these societies at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. If this doesn't get us talking about foreign affairs, nothing will.

Americans have not had a serious presidential debate over foreign policy since at least 1980, when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan offered two distinctly different views of the Soviet threat. That was a generation ago. With the end of the cold war, foreign affairs simply disappeared from the political landscape, becoming a niche issue for the Council on Foreign Relations set.

Of course the world didn't go away, as we learned brutally on September 11, 2001. In fact, the years after the end of the cold war have begun to erase the distinction between home and abroad. When Russia had a banking crisis, it turned into a global panic. When China had public-health problems, SARS spread across the region. When Arab regimes have failed to modernize, we've all had to deal with terrorism. And during these years, America has become the world's sole superpower. So at a time when the globe was becoming smaller, when America came to occupy a historic position, when its actions were having a massive effect across the world, its leaders stopped talking to the public about foreign affairs. As a result, the American people have never had the conversation they deserve about America's role in this new world.

Foreign policy has made the occasional cameo appearance during campaigns. But without a sustained discussion, all that anyone remembers is sound bites and attitudes. In the last campaign the little tidbits we heard--Bush said he was against nation-building and in favor of humility--turned out to be deeply misleading. In retrospect, it would have been worth having had those thoughts fleshed out some. This time we could do better, and not simply through stump speeches. …

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