Everything you need to know about foreign policy you learned in kindergarten
Presidential candidates are rarely judged on their knowledge of foreign policy. They’re often governors or from states where engagement in world affairs is limited to the trade promotion of state products or produce. They’re both salespeople and promoters of their states’ workers, goods and environment, pitching their local and regional corporate interests in global markets.
Given these candidates’ limited global exposure and experience, we instead rely on future presidents to be of strong character — leaders whose judgment we trust, with nimble minds and the ability to learn quickly and think critically. If the past is prologue, then we can expect future elected leaders — whether Democrats, Republicans or Independents — to lack real experience with national security, strategic foreign affairs, and global diplomacy.
In this presidential cycle alone, there are only two candidates with real world executive foreign policy experience, both having received intensive on-the-job training. One is the current incumbent. The other is Vice President Joe Biden.
Candidates can get some experience and exposure to foreign affairs by serving on congressional or Senate committees, like Armed Services (Warren and Gabbard) or Foreign Relations (Booker). However, executive experience in foreign affairs is available in only one place: The White House.
Given this reality, we need to focus on electing leaders who have two vitally important qualities: good instincts and good intentions. As an electorate, we need to judge these two things well. They are mutually important for successful American foreign policy.
Good instincts alone are not enough. Neither are good intentions. America deserves and should always demand a person who has a selfless abundance of both.
Successful gubernatorial candidates who advance to the presidency are accomplished and decisive individuals who need to deal with a whole set of new global challenges that they rarely come across in their statehouses in Tallahassee or Salem, Juneau or Austin. Senators and congresspeople who eventually get the Electoral College nod have had an even more narrowly obsessive focus on their district needs or state interests. They are rarely ready to be the world’s most powerful person and will be tested by adversaries on Day One.
Paradoxically, the authority that presidents have is near total when it comes to the singular area where they also have the least experience and insight: foreign policy. Courting votes at county fairs while wolfing down corn dogs or stumping at Fish Frys is not the best training for trading views with Russian leaders who are former KGB officers or deciding to invade a nation based on dodgy intelligence.
Up until the Trump presidency, advisors played a crucial role in bridging the gap for the Commander-in-Chief, providing institutional memory and structural support to foreign policy decision-making. That went out the window immediately after the last inaugural speech focused on “American Carnage” and a POTUS who distrusts and denigrates the CIA and FBI.
Whether the next president follows precedent and brings with him or her a trustworthy team of foreign policy advisors is unclear. The following primer is for future leaders who will undoubtedly rely on their instincts and intentions. It’s meant to help hone those instincts before being confronted with the modern equivalent to the Cuban missile crisis, where they’re eyeball-to-eyeball with another powerful nation’s leader and trying not to blink.
In fact, the lessons are simple. They’re things that can be carried from the kiddy classroom to the Oval Office. Everything you need to know about foreign policy you should have learned in Kindergarten or Sunday school:
- Love thy neighbor: Look at a map and find Canada and Mexico. These two nations are our neighbors.
- Honor thy family: We’re always stronger as a cohesive unit and need to respect each other, our beliefs, and strive to understand our differences at home. Like Honest Abe said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
- Protect the vulnerable: Stand up for your friends and those who can’t defend themselves. Stick up for what’s right.
- Play well with others: You can disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable. Friends and allies aren’t blood-sucking leeches. They sometimes take advantage of America’s largesse, but can help achieve our mutual objectives. Be nice, but never cower. When threatened remember Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
- Share: There are secrets, of course, but not everything needs to go to a personal attorney or a classified server. Sometimes it’s better to share.
- Remember to nap: Put down the cell phone, put away the social media, and remember to rest and reflect. Big decisions require clear thinking.
Of course, all this holds as true for foreign leaders who come up from the ranks of parliamentarians, military officers, party hacks, academics, comedians, street protesters, or revolutionaries. Foreign affairs is an executive’s unique domain and there’s no sure way to plan for it. So, dear candidates, be safe and practice playground etiquette and schoolhouse smarts.
Markos Kounalakis is a Hoover Institution visiting fellow. He has two kids at home who forget to nap.
Originally published at https://www.miamiherald.com.