All talk, no substance.

Photographer: Sandy Huffaker

Republicans Talked A Lot, Said Little on Foreign Policy

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's useless to peruse European news websites in search of substantive analysis of policy recipes proposed by Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency during Wednesday's debate. There was little the 11 Republicans said that had anything to do with the current European agenda, and what they did say was so outlandish it hardly merited discussion.

It was a contest covered as a reality show or a sports event, rather than a policy debate. Most commentators agree that Donald Trump gave as good as he got, and that Carly Fiorina appeared to be the winner. In every language, her takedown of Trump, who had criticized her appearance -- "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said" -- is prominently quoted. A lot of attention is paid to the squabbles and cross-talk. As for the issues -- well, what issues?

Europe today is preoccupied with the wave of refugees sweeping over the continent. It would probably make the news this side of the Atlantic if a leading U.S. presidential candidate proposed relieving Europe's burden by participating in a common resettlement program, but nothing could be further from the Republican contenders' minds: They were instead trying to outdo each other at being anti-immigrant. Something else that would have gotten European viewers' attention could be a coherent plan to end the Syrian war, which has produced the refugee crisis, but that wasn't forthcoming, either.

Trump proposed letting the government of Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State fight each other to the bitter end and then "picking up the remnants." That was hardly helpful, and it wasn't clear what it was that Trump planned to pick up. Marco Rubio said the Syrian implosion was the result of U.S. "disengagement" and expressed concern about Russia's growing role in the conflict, but he didn't clarify how he proposed to re-engage. Rand Paul suggested that if the U.S. had destroyed Assad, Islamic State would have been in charge in Syria -- but he lacked either the time or the desire to say whether he would join forces with Assad against Islamic State or do something else.

Another area of interest to Europeans is the U.S.-Russian relationship. Given Russia's increased assertiveness, manifested as aggression against Ukraine and a series of close military encounters with North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, how the next U.S. president will deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin is not an idle question. Yet again, there was little to report. 

Trump repeated his old line that he would "get along" with Putin. Trump's vagueness on the foreign policy agenda -- he even said he'd find out more about it by the time he moved into the White House -- made that sound as though the developer planned to get into a negotiating room with Putin, improvise and see how it would go. That's a plan, but not a particularly interesting one.

Rubio, too, repeated something he'd said before -- that Putin was a "gangster." He had no suggestions on curbing Russia's involvement in Syria or elsewhere, however. All he did say was that he'd board Air Force One to fly to Russia and "not just meet with the leaders of Russia, but also meet with those who aspire to freedom and liberty in Russia." The thought is laudable, though he apparently has no idea that, in the current climate, such a plan would hurt Putin's opponents. Alexei Navalny, the most popular anti-Putin politician in Russia, has been careful to avoid meetings with U.S. officials lest he be presented as an American puppet -- a highly damaging label in increasingly anti-American Russia.

Fiorina was the most eloquent on Putin, and she had a plan of sorts: She wouldn't talk to the Russian leader at all. "We’ve talked way too much to him," she said. "What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland; I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message."

That, however, only got the attention of Kremlin propaganda outlets: The prospect of a U.S. president severing contact with the Kremlin was too ridiculous for anyone else to contemplate. Even people on the same stage with Fiorina winced: Paul pointed out that dialogue with Moscow existed even during the Cold War. 

Though Poland and the Baltic states would welcome an increase in U.S. military presence as a precaution, Germany wouldn't be too happy to see more U.S. troops. It can hardly help German interest in the Republican contest that Fiorina's sentence contained the only mention of the European Union's leading economy in the entire debate. The EU was not mentioned once, nor were the U.K. and France, though John Kasich did mention the need for the U.S. to work together with its allies, whomever he might have meant.

To a European audience, that could only convey a lack of interest in a stronger relationship with Europe and in issues such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the big trade deal now under discussion, whose details are being withheld from the European public at U.S. insistence.

Displays of ignorance by the Republican candidates didn't help. Talking about the nuclear deal with Iran -- an agreement that is far less contentious in Europe than it is in the U.S. -- Fiorina said the first thing she would do would be to call the Iranian supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and tell him to allow U.S. inspections of any and all of Iran's military facilities or face inability to move money around overseas. No one must have told her who the U.S. was actually talking to -- President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif -- or that Khamenei doesn't take calls from U.S. numbers: He's never talked to an American politician.

Trump admitted he was uncomfortable with "Arab names," and Kasich, Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee had almost nothing to say on any foreign policy matters -- though foreign policy had been expected to be a central theme of the debate -- clearly because they had few thoughts on the subject or were afraid of making a gaffe. Next to Fiorina's confident performance, that was probably wise.

Jeb Bush, who logic suggests must be more knowledgeable about foreign policy than most of his rivals, had surprisingly little to bring to the table. He spoke out against canceling the Iran deal, in favor of getting "the most sophisticated weapons" to Israel, which is already getting all the U.S. equipment it needs. He also insisted that the U.S. "needs to lead the world" -- a line that didn't play well when Bush visited Berlin, if only because he, and all the other Republican candidates, have so far failed to explain the nature, purpose and implications of such leadership.

American presidential campaigns rarely offer much evidence of considered foreign policy positions, sadly. Perhaps there will be more substance to the Republican foreign policy discourse as the presidential race develops. So far, however, the candidates might be aliens from outer space for all the sense they're making. It could be a case of American isolationism or an unusually domestically-centered Republican field, but making their ideas resonate in Europe, where most of America's allies are, appears to be low on the contenders' priority list.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net