U.S. President Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Romney answers a question during the second presidential debate in Hempstead
© Lucas Jackson / Reuters  /  REUTERS
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) answers a question during the second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
By
NBC News
updated 10/22/2012 12:35:29 PM ET 2012-10-22T16:35:29

In a campaign season dominated by discussions over domestic spending, social programs, and the national debt, foreign policy can tend to take a backseat. But in the wake of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uncertain turmoil of the Arab spring, increased global economic competition from China, and Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, the handling of foreign affairs could prove more vital to the nation than any tax cut.

Whether it’s Republican nominee Mitt Romney or President Barack Obama, the next Commander in Chief’s most fateful decisions in the next four years may have to do with foreign challenges.

When the two rivals have their final chance to confront each other Monday night before tens of millions of voters, foreign policy will be the topic and steadiness of leadership will likely be the dominant theme.

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On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Obama strategist David Axelrod laid down a marker on one of the most contentious foreign policy issues, claiming that economic sanctions against Iran are working to pressure the Tehran regime to renounce its nuclear weapons ambitions.

“Today the world is unified against Iran, with us -- all because of the leadership of this president,” Axelrod said. What Axelrod didn't tell viewers is that Iran is still selling oil to India, China, South Korea, Japan and other countries.

In an overall statement on foreign policy, Axelrod added that “people want to know that they have a strong, steady hand in the Oval Office and they don’t want someone who is reckless and who has been consistently wrong on foreign policy issues as Gov. Romney has (been). We all remember his ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ tour of international destinations over the summer” – a reference to Romney’s trip in which among other things he criticized British leaders for their handling of the Olympics.

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Iran is likely to come up Monday partly because Obama’s national security spokesman Saturday denied a New York Times report that the Obama administration and Iran had "agreed in principle" to bilateral negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite Obama’s success in ordering the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Romney has assailed the president for his explanations of the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and other American personnel in Benghazi, for allegedly distancing himself from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for going on what Romney calls an “apology tour” of France, Egypt, and other nations in 2009.

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But even as Romney calls for assertive use of American influence abroad, he has acknowledged that Americans have grown weary of carrying the burden of their country being an interventionist power. In his speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Oct. 8 Romney said, “I know many Americans are asking whether our country today—with our ailing economy, and our massive debt, and after 11 years at war—is still capable of leading.”

Romney argued America has little choice in the matter: “I believe that if America does not lead, others will—others who do not share our interests and our values—and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. …”

When John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address made the ringing statement that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to ensure the survival of freedom in the world, 54 percent of all federal outlays went to the military and to international programs. This year only 20 percent of the budget will go to the military and to international programs.

Overseas spending is being squeezed by the inexorable increase in the number of Baby Boomer retirees collecting ever-more expensive Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, captured the predicament in the title of his book, The Frugal Superpower.

Mandelbaum predicts broad tax increases and curbs in entitlement benefits, no matter what the candidates say. So if Americans will be “paying more to the government and getting less from it, they are unlikely to be particularly generous in funding foreign policy, which means the next presidential term will involve the conduct of foreign policy under unaccustomed fiscal constraints,” Mandelbaum said.

Obama supporters see NATO’s removal of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi with the United States “leading from behind” as one of the president’s successes. Mandelbaum sees cost and American risk aversion as factors in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s removal: “In order to get the full benefits of tyrant removal, it may be necessary to put American troops on the ground and that we’re not going to do.”

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Fiscal constraint is also a factor in nuclear arms control, an issue the candidates have scarcely discussed outside the context of Iran.

Former State Department official Steven Pifer who is now director of the Arms Control Initiative at Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank, argued that cost is one reason the next president ought to support a treaty with the Russians to further shrink both countries’ nuclear arsenals.

“In the next several years the U.S. has to make some very expensive decisions about how to modernize the legs of the U.S. strategic triad (bombers, submarine and land-based missiles),” Pifer said. For example, replacing the Trident submarine will cost, according to the Navy, $6 to $7 billion a piece.” An arms reduction treaty with the Russians would mean “you could save a big chunk of money,” said Pifer.

For a Romney administration, he said, “There will be the same budget realities that he’ll face that Obama will face if re-elected. The question becomes: do you spend a lot more money on strategic (nuclear) forces as opposed to those sorts of weapons systems that the military is much more likely to need?”  (Disclosure: Pifer contributed $2,000 to Obama’s campaign in 2008.)

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Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research for foreign policy at Brookings, said that as he looks at the Obama and Romney foreign policy agendas, “I’m struck by how much they are not that different on most major issues, or (the differences) are smaller than the candidates themselves seem to want to imply. Take, for example, defense spending. President Obama said twice in previous debates there’s a $2 trillion difference in the ten-year spending proposals of Obama and Romney. I don’t read it that way, but Romney has let him get away with that contention. They want to exaggerate their differences.”

But on relations with Russia and on nuclear arms control, O’Hanlon said, Romney has “been fairly striking and stark” in his differences with Obama.

David Gordon, the former State Department director of policy planning who is now the head of research at Eurasia Group in Washington, said the biggest difference between Obama and Romney on foreign policy “is that Romney sees in rising unconventional U.S. energy sources not just an implication for the U.S. economy, but I think he would more aggressively use this to regain some of the leverage that is lost by fiscal constraints on the United States. For example, I think Romney would be much more assertive in promoting LNG (liquefied natural gas) exports to Japan” and in return expect the Japanese to join the Transpacific Partnership, the trade agreement Obama and Pacific Rim leaders have been working on.

Despite what viewers might hear from the candidates Monday night in their attempts to contrast their views, Mandelbaum noted that continuity is the rule once elections are over.

Changes in foreign policy when a new president moves into the White House “are always less than indicated by campaigns because campaigns exaggerate for effect. So the Obama foreign policy is much closer to the George W. Bush foreign policy than Obama gave the electorate reason to believe in 2008. And I suspect that would be true of a Romney foreign policy.”

He added “American foreign policy depends more on what happens in the world than on what candidates say in order to get elected.”

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