This year’s presidential debates will be different. While national security has had its own debate in the past, “Securing America” has been announced as one of the topics in the first and widely anticipated debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and will also be part of the other debates. In the wake of domestic terror attacks and global conversation about “uncertainty and unease and strife” at the UN General Assembly, what should we expect to hear on America’s role in the world?
Having had the distinct pleasure of watching every one of the primary debates this cycle, I expect the focus will be on a few crises and personalities in the headlines – how will you fight ISIS? What will your relationship be with Vladimir Putin? What about China and Kim Jung Un in North Korea?
I don’t expect the candidates to delve into nitty gritty policy, yet I hope to hear a sense of their vision for America’s global leadership. The next president will confront a daunting global inbox that will inevitably make it hard to do more than react to the daily crisis. How he or she thinks about this challenge will be critical when one of them steps into the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.
If I were the moderator, here are a few questions I’d ask:
How will you strengthen America’s civilian tools of national security to make us safer?
Military leaders are among the clearest voices that many of today’s threats can’t be solved by force alone, so how will you use the tools of diplomacy and development? Candidates have usually focused on using America’s tremendous military power to destroy ISIS on the battlefield. But even if the United States were to destroy all ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq, what would you do to ensure that what follows does not lead to more violence and instability?
The threat from violent extremism is also about preventing and mitigating radicalization that can lead to violence at home as we’ve seen in San Bernardino, Orlando, and most recently in New York. There is much that diplomacy and development can do – from educating young people and women in weak and fragile states to promoting economic opportunity and good governance. How would your administration strengthen the ability of our civilian and military tools of national security to work together effectively to tackle these complex challenges?
What is your vision for America’s global economic engagement?
Trade deals have been under the microscope this cycle, with both candidates saying they are pro-trade but want better deals. Beyond the trade deals with Asia and Europe currently on the table, how will you advance America’s economic interests around the world?
This will almost certainly mean strengthening America’s diplomats at our embassies, where they play a critical role in helping to build and open new markets for American investment and helping American businesses take advantage of opportunities in new markets. The State Department has taken steps in this direction in recent years with the “Economic Statecraft” initiative to build capacity among the Foreign Service on economic issues, but what more would your administration do?
How will your Administration leverage resources and expertise on global challenges?
Many of today’s global challenges also won’t be solved by governments alone – the resources needed to do so are simply too great – so how would your administration engage businesses and NGOs outside of government that bring invaluable resources and expertise? They are often already on the ground in strategic countries and have been developing innovative new partnerships with agencies like USAID to tackle global problems.
This administration’s Power Africa and Feed the Future initiatives – both codified in bipartisan legislation in Congress – represent a new way of thinking about U.S. global leadership that seeks to catalyze private investment to promote economic growth and fight global poverty. Would your administration strengthen these initiatives and seek to do more in this spirit?
What about Africa and the developing world?
While I expect the candidates to talk about the Middle East, Russia, and China, I’d love to hear about Africa, which holds both tremendous challenge and opportunity. The terrible humanitarian crisis in South Sudan and simmering violence in Ethiopia and Congo are almost certain to demand attention, but there is also much – often unheralded – good news on the continent for the next administration to build on.
Polls show that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans think global poverty has gotten worse or stayed the same in the last 20 years, when in fact the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half, as has the number of children under five dying from preventable disease. America’s bipartisan commitment in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa has saved the lives of nearly nine million people and helped transform a continent where AIDS had been the leading cause of death fifteen years ago.
I’d love to know how this shapes the candidates’ views of what’s possible in Africa and the developing world. Twelve of America’s fifteen top trading partners today have received foreign assistance, and many think African countries are poised to take make this transformation – especially when many of the fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. What would your administration do to support Africa’s path toward becoming an economic partner of the United States?
The answers to these questions will matter beyond the election. For better or for worse, the next president will govern a country where a significant minority appears to have responded to calls to pull back from the world. When the candidates take the stage, I’ll be hoping to hear them make the case to the American people that being engaged around the world makes us safer and more prosperous, as well as expresses the values at the heart of our country.
These are just a few questions I have for the candidates on America’s global leadership – what are yours?
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