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There were lots of critical foreign policy debate topics to cover during the final presidential debate—like the US auto industry—so we didn’t hear quite as much on development issues like climate change or global health as I might have liked.

Gaps aside, there were a surprising number of references to the importance of development to US soft power. Both candidates referenced the connection between developing countries’ economic growth and US national security.

                                    Image Credit: Associated Press

In discussing the US role in preventing terrorism in the Middle East, promoting economic development featured prominently in both Governor Romney and President Obama’s talking points:

Romney:  We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan. That's not the right course for us. The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the - the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these - these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world.

And how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the - the world reject these - these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this:

One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we - we push back and give them more economic development. (For ideas on how to do this, see CGD’s White House and the World).

Number two, better education (Need suggestions? See here, here, and here.)

Number three, gender equality. (here and here)

Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.

Obama:  Now, it is absolutely true that we cannot just meet these challenges militarily. And so what I've done throughout my presidency and will continue to do is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts.

Number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel's security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.

Number three, we do have to make sure that we're protecting religious minorities and women because these countries can't develop unless all the population, not just half of it, is developing.

Number four, we do have to develop their economic - their economic capabilities.

But number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can't continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we're doing nation building here at home. That will help us maintain the kind of American leadership that we need.

There was even mention of US foreign assistance to Pakistan, a topic addressed in a CGD study group led by Nancy Birdsall.

Governor Romney urged that US aid to Pakistan be conditioned on “benchmarks being met” but without details:  “we're going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.”

The potential leveraging power of US assistance is often considered to be quite high by members of both parties. This is at odds with the recommendations of the CGD study group, which noted that such conditionality usually fails and urged that (modest amounts) of US assistance focus on helping Pakistan become more stable and prosperous (for specific suggestions on how, see here and here).

But the two biggest takeaways for me from the debate last night?

1.   As has been thoroughly covered by many, the differences between President Obama and Governor Romney on foreign policy are pretty slim, and this includes issues such as foreign aid and the importance of development of poor countries to the United States.

2.  The things—and countries—that weren’t mentioned. For example, climate change and its impact on developing countries--and the US role as the world’s largest single emitter of greenhouse gasses and some of the highest per capita emissions; US leadership in the global campaign against HIV/AIDS and other global health issues; and most of the developing world (Mali got to join the developing-countries-mentioned-because-of-counterterrorism-implications list).

For a funny take on the narrow geographic focus of the debate, see Slate’s mid-debate map on the world according to the 2012 Foreign Policy Debate. The mention map expanded as the debate went on, but not by much. Perhaps Ohio should also be added?

Transcript excerpts from CNN: http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/22/transcript-third-presidential-debate/comment-page-1/