What's Missing From the U.S. Campaign Debate? The Rest of the Planet

President Barack Obama at a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after the convention Photograph by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Foreign policy got short shrift in this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions. In their acceptance speeches, both candidates made brief obeisance to the moth-eaten chimera of energy independence, promised trade deals that would create jobs at home, and pledged to counter threats in the Middle East. Romney did vow global military dominance. Obama at least mentioned Afghanistan and Iraq and cited his administration’s efforts to get tough with China. But did either candidate attempt to explain how America’s national interests are connected to the fortunes of the rest of the planet? Not even close.

Of course the presidential candidates know what they’re not doing when it comes to discussing foreign affairs. After all, Ipsos polls suggest that the proportion of Americans who cite war, immigration, terrorism, or “other foreign affairs issues” as the most important problem facing the U.S. today added up to 4 percent in August 2012. That’s down from 14 percent in January 2010.  On the list of voters’ concerns, foreign affairs is on an equal footing with “morality.” But this is a case where America’s leaders might actually want to lead. Because what’s going on in the rest of the world has never been so important to Americans than it is today—especially when it comes to the issue that regularly tops polls as the most important problem facing the U.S.: the economy.

For example, neither candidate focused on the 9.7 million U.S. workers employed by export industries. According to World Bank data, U.S. exports (in constant dollars) climbed from $161 billion to $1,531 billion from 1970 to 2010—nearly a 10-fold increase. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that every $1 billion of exports supports more than 5,000 U.S. jobs, and export industries employ 2 million more Americans today than they did in 2002. By comparison, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus bill) will sustain just 0.2 million to 1.2 million jobs this year.

All those export industry jobs rely on a strong global economy, of course—in fact, over the past decade, U.S. exports to the world’s 19 fastest-growing countries increased about fivefold, to $119 billion.  So it would have been nice to hear what the candidates think about international cooperation to avoid tariff wars or a slide back into global recession.

Romney and Obama have been equally silent about the financial sector. According to economist Arvind Subramanian, global financial integration measured as the stock of world financial liabilities to world GDP was between 20 percent and 30 percent in 1913; today it is closer to 200 percent. It’s hard to rouse any crowd with a discussion about global regulatory agreements about, say, capital requirements for financial institutions. Yet the Bank for International Settlements (where such agreements are made) matters more than ever to the health of the U.S. financial system.

In fact, international institutions of all sorts matter to the quality of life in the U.S. more than they used to, from agreements on climate change to global regulation of medicines to cooperation on fish stocks and shared intelligence on international crime. Not even the U.N. got a look-in during the convention speeches. (Just because the U.N., without a single black helicopter to call its own, would surely lose in a battle against a Texas militia doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to U.S. national security.)

Indeed, to the extent foreign affairs did get a mention in the convention speeches, it involved threats for the U.S. to address, not opportunities to seize and partnerships to forge. The candidates presented a decidedly 20th century view of the world, in which America could handle its global concerns alone. The rest of the planet owns about a third of U.S. federal debt and creates demand for close to 10 million U.S. jobs; it accounts for about two-thirds of international patent filings and produces 82 percent of planetary carbon emissions. Meanwhile, despite military expenditures that do still account for 41 percent of the global total, the U.S. is bogged down in Afghanistan, trying to defeat an adversary occupying a corner of a country of only 35 million.  Given all that, partnership appears the more plausible—and profitable—approach than attempts at unilateral action.

The end of the Cold War may have created the illusion of a country that could stand alone and secure. But receding military threats were more than matched by growing (and largely beneficial) global economic entanglements. It’s good news that America needs the world more than ever. And it’s about time the two U.S. presidential candidates presented voters with their vision of how America can gain from that.

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