When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990's bringing the Cold War to and end, there was a lot of celebrating and flag-waving. But some very sensible throats in the back gave a nervous gulp. Because the inevitable aftermath of this was that the United States was left as the only standing Superpower. And with great power comes great responsibility... and a target pinned to your back.
Since then, as a nation we've taken stances ranging from well-intentioned busybody to pillaging pirate, without a great deal of minding our own business. Of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel, over 369,000 are deployed outside of United States soil in over 40 countries. Of course, that's counting Afghanistan and Iraq, the two main countries we have a conflict in, as well as several peace-keeping actions. Also not counting little visits where we're just dropping by for tea.
With all of these muddy footprints we're leaving around the globe, American foreign policy is a more delicate matter than ever before. Our next President has no time to learn on-the-job; they will be handed at least two combat zones, and be expected to do something with them.
Of the leading Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton probably has the most international sense. Her extensive experience as First Lady and her years in the Senate have given her an upper hand in handling foreign matters as deftly as she can handle domestic ones. If America's vital national interests are threatened, she says she will not hesitate to use force. She favors a diplomacy-first stance, however. She wraps up her whole approach to diplomacy with a statement, "America must be guided by a preference for multilateralism, with unilateralism as an option when absolutely necessary.”
In other words, she's playing it safe. Playing it safe might seem boring to some, but after eight years of "shock and awe", most of us are ready to settle down with a safety-player. We can only punish the world for 9/11 for so long.
The main candidate on the Republican side is Rudy Giuliani, and he is the polar opposite. He states clearly that "We are all members of the 9/11 generation." He says that civilization itself is under attack. He has even said that America can win in Iraq, as it would have won in Vietnam had the power base not lost its collective nerve. He has stuck to being a complete hawk candidate all the way, and will essentially be the new George Bush as far as foreign policy goes.
Mitt Romney scores on a different card. Ever the efficient businessman with his eye on the bottom line, Romney has said that he would re-organize the agencies that conduct foreign policy to make them more effective and less costly. Well, yes, with the country deeply in debt and still shoveling money all over the globe, maybe we could put that foreign affairs budget on a diet. However, Romney is still hawkish on military actions, so no wimpy Iraq pull-back or stepping down in Cuba for him.
Back to the Democrats, Barack Obama is a deep thinker who has the advantage of being a racial mix as well as an international upbringing; it's hard to see him visiting a country and not blending in. Obama is all over the place when answering questions about foreign policy: yes here, no there, maybe over there. Of course, he is thinking about countries on a case by case basis, rather than mushing all countries outside the United States into a faceless "them", as many candidates - and voters for that matter - tend to do.
Turning once again to the Republicans, we have John McCain. McCain is moderately hawkish. With his impressive military background, he has a view of war and knows the realities of decision-making that few of the other candidates can fathom, let alone match. He would not pull out immediately from Iraq, but there is no doubt that if anybody can come in with an exit strategy, he can. On other matters, he is slower to answer; he has more years as a soldier than as a diplomat.
As for the rest of the candidates, we can draw a lot from the polls. Only Huckabee, Hunter, and Tancredo are in favor of Guantanamo. Hunter and Tancredo join Giuliani and Romney in being pro-torture. Only Gravel, Kucinich, and Richardson oppose building a border fence. Only Gravel and Kucinich would not consider military action against Iran, while Obama ponders with a mixed opinion. Candidates fall nearly along party lines regarding Iraq.