After Oct. 22's debate -- in which Mitt Romney seemed to support President Barack Obama's policies toward Syria, Iran, and even Afghanistan -- a number of analysts seemed surprised at the amount of agreement around the table.
They should not have been. After all, both presidential candidates share the same basic assumptions about American foreign policy, believing that the United States is exceptional in its values, history, and power. When asked about "America's role in the world," the heated discussion that broke out was about domestic policies, not only because of the import of economic matters this year but also because the candidates were trying to draw real contrasts between themselves. The rest of the debate, like that in Washington, was about how the United States should lead the world, not whether it should in the first place.
If the financial crisis inspired a deep, and deeply polarized, conversation about the role of government in the economy, the past decade's struggles abroad have not stimulated a similar conversation about the U.S. role in the world. Although the American public may be wary of foreign entanglements, the idea that the United States should consider changing the way it deals with the world (let alone disengaging from it) is rarely talked about in polite Washington company.
Instead, the foreign-policy discussion within the national security establishment has been needlessly narrow and counterproductively shallow for the past decade. The heated debate that does occur is over daily headlines, crises, and tactics.
There are structural reasons for this limited debate. As opposed to domestic policy, where politicians must chose positions as vocal and dedicated advocacy organizations on both sides of an issue fight it out, the interest groups in foreign policy -- be they defense contractors, ethnic lobbies, or issue organizations -- tend to all push for greater international involvement. And the fragmented foreign-policy process breaks what debate there is into tactical or issue-specific matters. Very few in Washington focus on the country's overall approach to the world; rather, they specialize in certain functions or certain regions.
But the most significant cause may be personnel: As Obama and Romney demonstrated Monday night, there are not many members of official Washington eager to debate America's fundamental relationship with the world. The resulting foreign-policy groupthink has allowed -- at a challenging time at home and abroad -- questionable assumptions, muddied objectives, and suboptimal strategies to persist.
The voices in the Washington foreign-policy community all sound the same. Certain concepts, like isolationism, are verboten. Charges of "imperialism" get the accuser written off as a radical. And perhaps no limitation is more consequential right now than any suggestion that America is somehow unexceptional.
Republicans have built much of their critique of Obama's foreign policy on a single answer the president gave to a question at a news conference in Italy in April 2009, when he suggested that feelings of American exceptionalism are akin to those of British and Greek patriotism. Even if the related accusation that Obama went on an "apology tour" is a myth -- Romney brought it up again Monday night and in a new advertisement after the debate -- Washington took notice of the reaction to Obama's answer. In the years since, exceptionalism has become both a trending topic in public discussion and an article of faith within the establishment.
To be sure, there are Democratic approaches to America's global leadership (which are more about indispensability) and Republican approaches (which are more about unipolarity). But the parties largely agree with the prevailing post-Cold War American consensus, which calls for an American-led economic and political global order enforced by the country's unprecedented military power. What's more, they have an incentive to sweep whatever differences they have about this vision under the rug.