Not so long ago, presidential debates were vital occasions for an exchange on American foreign policy and its priorities, as well as this country’s broader place in the world. Alongside the economy, education, health care, crime and all of the other issues Americans worry about in elections, foreign policy had a place on the agenda—not because it has ever been a major influence on how people vote, but because we know that what happens in the rest of the world frequently trickles back into our daily lives here.
So, in the 2012 series of debates, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, argued over the recent U.S. intervention in Libya; troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq; Iran’s nuclear ambitions; the newly begun civil war in Syria; the Arab Spring; and relations with Israel. In 2016, the rancorous debates between candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton included exchanges on Iraq, Afghanistan, the emergence of ISIS, the nuclear deal with Iran agreed under the Obama administration and the future of the U.S. commitment to NATO, as well as Russia, of course.
During this election year, all these issues have become almost invisible. There was some theoretical possibility of a foreign-policy discussion at last Thursday’s debate between the president and Democratic contender Joe Biden, but that was confined to a superficial discussion of North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong-un. Trump described Kim as a “different kind of a guy,” while Biden dismissed him as a “thug” (neither of these quite works for a man who is best understood as the commandant of a forced labor camp with its own seat at the United Nations, rather than as the leader of an independent Socialist nation.) But as regards what to do about the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, neither candidate ventured there in any detail. In the same vein, other foreign-policy issues—whether Trump administration achievements like brokering a peace accord between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain (and as of Friday, Sudan), or failures, like capitulating to the Taliban in Afghanistan—were left out in the cold.
“So what,” many American voters would probably retort; one key reason, perhaps, why discussion of American foreign policy in this election seems so exotic. For a huge number of voters, the words “foreign policy” are merely a euphemism for constant wars in the Middle East, alongside a wildly disproportionate financial burden on the U.S. treasury. In the hard-bitten, lockdown world of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the sorts of lofty phrases and concepts variously wielded by Obama and Romney in their 2012 debates—“strong, steady leadership,” “gender equality,” “this should have been a time for American leadership,” “establishing the rule of law,” “the kind of American leadership John F. Kennedy talked about 50 years ago” and so on—seem utterly out of tune.
The fact that the State of Israel is located in a region of the world where America has expended so much blood and treasure on managing intra-Arab and intra-Muslim conflicts means that for many of us, thinking about foreign policy is not an intellectual luxury, but the sort of thing that keeps one awake at night.
It is such a basic thing to say, but perhaps it needs saying: Even if you oppose all foreign aid and all foreign military commitments, the rest of the world cannot be treated as an afterthought, or as something to ignore entirely. This is something that American Jews, who form a minuscule fraction of the overall number of voters, have a sharper sense for, even if, like most other voters, their political choices are overwhelmingly informed by domestic concerns. Many U.S. Jews have close family and friends in Israel, Europe, Latin America and other spots around the world with whom they exchange information and insights on a regular basis. More importantly, the very fact that the State of Israel is located in a region of the world where the United States has expended so much blood and treasure on managing intra-Arab and intra-Muslim conflicts has meant that for many of us, thinking about foreign policy is not an intellectual luxury, but the sort of thing that keeps you awake at night.
This sense that many American Jews share of a dynamic world out there—in times like these, I hesitate to use a word like “cosmopolitan”—has been missing from this year’s election campaign, and it will be to our detriment as a country. The COVID-19 crisis reminded us that national borders are merely lines on a map where a pandemic is concerned, but at the same time, the lockdown compelled the vast majority of us to retreat into the shells of home and neighborhood—minimizing our interaction with the rest of the world at just the moment that its truly global nature was hammered into the collective consciousness. In the Oct. 22 debate, for all the fury expended between Trump and Biden over the coronavirus, neither candidate examined in detail how the rest of the world is faring and how that might affect us in the coming months. In Europe right now, cases are soaring with tens of millions of people going back into strict lockdowns. Should that same fate await us, we should all remember that neither Trump nor Biden addressed it meaningfully when they had the opportunity.
“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once quipped, and the observation remains true. Along with pandemics, refugee flows, illegal arms transfers, terrorism financing, human trafficking and a host of other ills, war will be a feature of the international system for as long as human beings are divided by identities and beliefs. As we go into this election focused on our wounded, divided homeland, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that cementing the end of American primacy in the world is a desirable outcome. Our grandchildren will thank us.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.