In recent weeks, President Obama and Governor Romney have, directly and through surrogates, sparred over Iran, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Each has, in different ways, told us how he would deal with terrorism. Both have talked about China when discussing jobs. On Monday, Mitt Romney gave his first major campaign address on foreign policy.
Yet there is one thing that both the incumbent and challenger have largely ignored. Neither of them has given the American public context, an explanation of why there are so many crises at this moment. Winston Churchill in 1946 supplied context with his Iron Curtain speech, and we need a speech of this kind for our times.
What is the context for the second decade of the 21st century? What makes the world so challenging these days is that two authoritarian giants, China and Russia, are empowering rogues and other dangerous elements. So in a sense, we do not have a Syria problem. We have a Russian one. Similarly, we don’t really face intractable challenges from Iran’s “atomic ayatollahs” or North Korea’s Kim dictators because, more fundamentally, we have an all-encompassing disagreement with China’s rulers, who back these rogues. To put this another way, we could solve many global problems in short order if we could take Russia and China out of the picture.
But of course that is not possible. So Obama and Romney need to address the challenges that these two powers pose to the American-led international system. Since the end of the Cold War, we have sought to engage China and Russia and integrate them into the international system.
Therefore, American policymakers have subordinated important goals in order to maintain positive relations with Beijing and Moscow. For instance, we have tried to recruit both of them in what has to be our most important national objective: stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. In this decade and last, Washington has accepted, in the Security Council and the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, compromises and half-measures to win the support of the Chinese and Russians with regard to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs.
Yet America’s optimistic vision of great-power unity has not produced positive results. After so many failed efforts to enlist Beijing and Moscow, we have to recognize that China and Russia are not our partners in solving the world’s problems. They are, in many respects, the problem.
In the past two decades, Washington almost always sought to handle the crisis of the moment without dealing with what was really behind it. We need solutions, but ignoring the larger issues in the pursuit of quick fixes proves costly in the long run. Ultimately we will have to recognize that the great power authoritarian states contribute to—and sometimes cause—instability. America needs not just new policies but a new foreign policy framework.
Perhaps it is too much to expect thoughtful discussions of foreign policy in the middle of a tight political race, yet America’s adversaries will not halt their troubling behavior until we finish voting.
We need another Iron Curtain speech. The great democracies are now being challenged.