Presidential debates are not intended to cover every aspect of every issue facing the nation or the world. They are not meant to be think-tank discussions or lectures. By nature and necessity, presidential debates encompass a wide variety of issues in a relatively short period of time. Yet as I watched the final debate on Monday night, I grimaced in horror as both candidates ignored many of the world’s most pressing challenges and unsophisticatedly lumbered through the rest. Neither candidate mentioned the Euro crisis, the Latin American drug cartels or the growing European secessionist movements. Very rarely, in passing, did either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney mention the situation in Mali, while Somalia was only referenced once. Rather, according to “The New York Times,” the phrase “Middle East” was mentioned 45 times, and Israel and China about 30 times. Undoubtedly, the crises in the Middle East and East Asia present potent challenges to the United States, but this by no means necessitates that other just as important issues should be ignored. Both candidates’ neglect of other global issues reflects the dire state of American discussions on foreign policy.
By focusing almost solely on five topics—Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Syrian conflict, the Afghan War, U.S.-Israel relations and the economic belligerence of China—the candidates and moderator indicated to the American people that these five are the only issues that matter. “If neither candidate mentions it, it probably won’t affect me,” goes the logic of the uninformed voter. That assumption is grossly incorrect. Take, for example, the Mexican drug cartels. Drug lords smuggle marijuana and cocaine from South America and Central America where it is processed and distributed for sale. To whom, you might ask, are they selling? The answer: Americans, specifically drug dealers in urban areas. The American demand for these drugs fuels the Latin American supply. These rival drug lords fight for greater access to the burgeoning American market, as the militaries of Mexico and Honduras try to combat these rogue gangs. In summation, this war being fought on (and occasionally in) our southern backyard has brought almost 100,000 casualties. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear each candidate’s strategy on how to tackle this problem?
Or take the Euro crisis. Neither candidate in any of the four debates discussed his plan for a potential euro breakup, a threat that grows more real every day. What would a Greek exit from the common currency mean for the U.S. economy? How would each candidate deal with that economic shock? The Europeans’ fiscal crisis is one that will and must be managed within Europe. But its effects are not contained within Europe. Sadly, neither candidate bothered to discuss it. In Mali, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have taken control of the northern two-thirds of the country. At the UN, America has been considering and is likely to pursue some form of military action against these rogue jihadist groups. These military tactics could involve drone strikes. Drone strikes are paid for by the American people. So why wouldn’t our American leaders even want to bring it up?
The answer extends beyond the candidates and debates. It is not the candidates’ jobs to educate voters. Rather, certain issues do not make their way into the national policy debate partially because voters have no interest in discussing them either. American voters tend to avoid discussing foreign policy issues that appear not to affect them directly. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a perfect example. American voters did not prioritize the Rwandan crisis because many viewed it as an internal conflict between two rival ethnic groups. A conflict in which Hutus killed Tutsis seemed like nothing the United States had any business getting involved in. After all, what strategic interests would such a small central African nation have for the US? Well aside from the grave humanitarian crisis which resulted from that genocide, the United States and its Western allies lost much respect for not intervening over the course of the massacre. Yet had the American people clamored to their lawmakers for intervention, it is likely that this intervention would have occurred.
I use this anecdote not necessarily to advocate an interventionist and domineering U.S. foreign policy. What I do advocate, however, is that American voters come to terms with the fact that the world is bigger than the Middle East and China. Candidates, frankly, only tell us what we want to hear, and there are no better punch-lines than criticizing China for being an adversarial “currency manipulator” or claiming that we need to reduce our dependence on Arab oil. Interestingly enough, we also import oil from Nigeria and Venezuela, two countries whose respective political stabilities lie in jeopardy. Thus, by ignoring problems such as the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria or the high rate of drug-related violence in Venezuela, voters and foreign policy makers alike are making an unwise decision. If voters are able to look beyond the immediate, if they are to connect the dots between their paychecks and the politics of nations around the world, if they can finally recognize the interconnected nature of this 21st century, then we will witness a completely different kind of foreign policy discussion.
Junius Williams is a three-year Upper from Newark, NJ.