PONTES: America’s role in the world

On the evening of Oct. 22, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got together at Lynn University in Florida for their third debate, which focused on foreign policy and other related issues. Bob Schieffer, the debate’s moderator, asked the president and governor: “What is America’s role in the world?” The debate that followed was surprising and slightly disconcerting.

Gov. Romney went first, explaining that America has the responsibility and privilege to promote principles of peace, touching on human rights, democratic elections and free enterprise. Yet in less than 30 seconds, he took a step away from the question, claiming that “in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong.”

He then went on to explain how to lower unemployment levels, enhance our military powers and get the US economy churning towards a more steady recovery. Gov. Romney finalized his argument with a plea for America to “stand for our principles”; in straying from the question, the governor’s paradoxically domestic foreign policy was revealed.

Paralleling this approach, President Obama began his two-minute argument by claiming “America remains the one indispensable nation.” He quickly described the military shift from Iraq to Afghanistan, explaining that it allowed us to position “ourselves so we can start rebuilding America.” He explained that to do so will require bringing manufacturing back onshore, strengthening the auto industry, enhancing the education system and both controlling and investing in our own energy sources. The debate that followed for this section focused on how to strengthen our education system and the American economy, specifically by reducing our budget deficit.

On two different occasions, Schieffer asked the candidates to “get back to foreign policy” and tried to steer the debate away from domestic issues, which had been covered extensively in the first two debates. But the candidates repeatedly drove the discussion closer to home.

From their discussion, it seems that America’s role in the world is to help America.

It is undeniable that the U.S. economy is far from what it was pre-2008 depression. It has begun to recover, but unemployment is still at a substantial level of 7.8 percent according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In terms of politics, it’s sensible why both candidates would make foreign issues seem more domestic: to appeal to those holding onto a voter ballot who are struggling with decreasing take-home pays or cyclical unemployment. And of course, the national government should have as their foremost concern the well-being and safety of its citizens. Yet when presidential candidates depict global responsibility only through American terms, our political tunnel vision becomes evident.

This domestic-only mentality establishes America as a country that is concerned with others only as a function of itself. As such, foreign aid and assistance might as well be referred to as self-serving philanthropy. Mathematically, it is so: research by Rep. Jim McDermott, as explained in a 2001 Washington Post article by Michael Dobbs, showed that 53 cents out of every buck spent by the U.S. on anti-AIDS efforts in Africa had never left the D.C. area. And this might even make us wonder: How much of it actually left the United States?

Although debates are mostly politics, in the 21st century, as we see the impacts of Syrian, Libyan and Afghani turmoil, voters must understand there is more at stake than the American automobile industry. Our success in keeping Iran nuclear arms-free is not solely dependent on American military power, but also on technological, humanitarian and political aid that is geared towards Iranian citizens. We must stop thinking of foreign affairs so unilaterally, and understand that global progress must be approached holistically. Not through building America, but through development assistance that concerns the welfare of the recipient, not the gregarious donor.

The leaders of America, “the one indispensable country” with the responsibility to fight for the freedoms of the oppressed, seem to not deem this function to be a privilege unless it can be used to the American advantage. It is understandable that candidates must frame issues to target the concerns of American voters. Yet ideally, our national stance on foreign aid shouldn’t be America-centered, but rather stem from our responsibility to foster democratic principles.

Alda Pontes is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at alda.pontes@yale.edu .

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