Senator Obama is on a vist to the Middle East and Europe. Senator McCain went to visit Colombia earlier in July. These trips suggest a seriousness of purpose that American presidential candidates often lack. They offer us hope that the candidates want to learn how to do the job well. Furthermore, they offer a hyper-attentive world grounds for hope that the next president will have a higher level of interest in other countries than did his predecessosr.So far as I know, it is unprecedented for the two party candidates to do foreign policy trips before the election. I can think of three reasons why we are seeing this now. First, because the primary elections started early this year, there is a hiatus between the end of the primaries and the party conventions. Thus the candidates can spare the time to go abroad. Second, foreign policy has risen much higher on the agenda of concerns of typical American voters, since September 11, 2001, and since the invasion of Iraq. (And of course Obama wants to put to rest McCain’s past jibes about not having visited Afghanistan and Iraq.) Third, Barack Obama and John McCain are not the usual inward-looking, domestically-oriented parochial governors that we all too often get as presidential candidates. Both are US Senators, and both in their youths had very formative adventures in foreign countries (both in Southeast Asia, as it happens). Thus both, if nothing else, have the cosmopolitan outlook that a world leader needs.
Traditionally new presidential candidates do not think much about foreign policy during their campaigns. This is especially true of governors who have only domestic experience. But, regardless of the candidates, in most election years the American public cares little for international affairs, and is far more concerned about domestic issues.
Once new presidents take office they ften have to go through a period of “breaking in” in the area of foreign policy. International events often take them by surprise and disrupt all their fine platforms and plans. This period can be very costly to the country. Think of John Kennedy’s first-year failures in his initial summit meeting with Premier Khrushchev and in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Think of George W. Bush’s first-year failures in ignoring warnings that Al Qaeda would strike in the US or that an invasion of Iraq would be fraught with danger. A little international exposure before they took office would have served them well. So perhaps the excessive length of this election cycle has a silver lining after all !
Originally published at Jeffrey Frankel’s Weblog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.