By Mary Kate Cary |
Travel abroad for a presidential candidate during the height of campaign season is designed to demonstrate foreign policy wherewithal and a chance to sharpen the candidate's "presidential" voice.
This strategy strikes me as a mistake in general for prospective presidential candidates. Yet, this strategy is especially problematic absent a distinct foreign policy vision. Traveling abroad gets the candidate outside of the intense focus of the domestic media, allows the campaign to control the story for a few days, and allows for fundraising opportunities. But, these visits are no substitute for definitive foreign policy convictions and a concrete plan of action on the world stage. Instead of making isolated comments in particular countries without a unifying theme, presidential campaigns should describe to international leaders and the American (and world) public how they would handle a crisis, develop trade ties, punish violations of international norms or laws, the threshold for foreign conflicts, and under what conditions they would engage in diplomacy (or not). Foreign policy is, after all, one of the few direct avenues of presidential power where they are less likely to witness resistance from Congress or the public. It is also the issue where most of the president's time is spent, whether they want it that way or not.
Even without the misinterpretations, missteps, gaffes committed by former Gov. Mitt Romney and the Romney campaign staff, the trip abroad was ill-conceived. The Romney campaign needs to focus their attention and hone a consistent foreign policy message before road testing it.
In contrast, in 2008 as a candidate, then Sen. Barack Obama visited Germany with an agenda: demonstrate that the United States would be, during an Obama administration, an active and cooperative partner in world affairs. Although isolated, the candidate had a goal that went beyond simply reaffirming relations. In a speech in Tiergarten Park, he promoted a new orientation of American international life, putatively as distinct from the Bush administration.
The old saw in politics is that there are no votes in foreign policy. But, given conflicts on two foreign soils, hundreds of thousands of troops stationed overseas, questions about moral uses of military technology, international threats from hostile neighbors, battles over copyright piracy, and the constant threat of terrorism, presidential candidates should make foreign policy an important component of their electoral strategy. Here, words need to speak louder than images.
About Brandon Rottinghaus Associate Professor at the University of Houston