The China election

It is conventional wisdom that U.S. elections seldom turn on foreign-policy issues. Armies travel on their stomachs and so do American voters. It's all about the pocketbook. But every so often the pocketbook has a foreign-policy component, which is the case this year -- and it has led to a rather extraordinary shift.

This is the first election in U.S. history in which the most important foreign-policy issue is China. It won't be the last.

Two years ago we had one of those rare elections in which foreign policy mattered. But back then, even in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the foreign-policy focus was on the Iraq War, which served as a referendum on the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror. In 2004 and 2006, the war on terror was the dominant foreign-policy issue. In 2000 foreign policy was not central, but to the extent it played a role, it was it was all about the vision for U.S. leadership in the post-Cold War era. The 1996 vote had a similar theme, plus some focus on the ongoing small wars, notably the upsets in the former Yugoslavia. The 1992 election was influenced by the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. During the Reagan Era Cold War issues drove the agenda. Jimmy Carter was bounced from office largely due to his impotence in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. Prior to that Vietnam and the Cold War were central from 1964-1972.

But during this election cycle the subject of the United States' two wars hardly came up. It is in fact, a tribute to the Obama administration's handling of those wars that, despite their potential to create the formation of political fault lines, they have not. On the contrary, they are one of the few areas in which there is a seeming confluence of views between the parties.

But if you look at campaign ads and listen to campaign rhetoric, China repeatedly arose. China was cited as our top economic rival and as an unfair competitor because of its currency policy, its potential to overtake the U.S. as a global economic leader, and especially its impact on U.S. workers. The giant sucking sound is coming from across the Pacific these days. But unlike that sound in the days of wacky Ross Perot, this time the giant sucking sound is accompanied by the ominous rumblings of a rising superpower -- that many politicians running this year had no problem framing as the United States' natural enemy in the 21st Century.

Much of it was demagoguery. But there was no other foreign policy issue that competed with it for prominence … with the exception of immigration in the border states; a coincidence that reflects a broader theme of turning inward, protectionism and isolationism that threatens to alter the fundamental nature of U.S. international engagement in the long run.

Call it what you will, but this election won't be the last in which China plays such a central role. This administration is also the first, as has been noted here in the past, for which the relationship with China was paramount among all those the United States has worldwide. It was also the first during which China played a central role in an issue outside its region -- as in the case of its important role in the Iranian nuclear issue. It was also the first during which Chinese views began to play a central role driving important international discussions -- from climate, to currency, to coordinating the global economic recovery.

It looks like President Obama's first major visitor of the new year will be Chinese President Hu Jintao. That is no coincidence either.

There are big shifts afoot this election day. And despite what you may read in tomorrow's papers, they have precious little to do with how many House seats the Republicans pick up in these midterm elections.


David Rothkopf

Remembering Ted Sorensen

When I first joined the Council on Foreign Relations, I was in my mid-30s and knew nothing and no one. The reason I was fortunate enough to get into the organization was the sponsorship of some very kind folks who had more faith in me than was warranted. Notable among these was the late Bill Colby, the former CIA director, who was the guy who encouraged me to try to join in the first place, offered great counsel and support and to whom I will always be grateful.

He was the first but not the last of an exceptional group of very well established foreign policy community leaders who made it a practice to reach out to and be supportive of younger people who they thought showed some promise. Another of those gracious and encouraging individuals died yesterday. That, of course, was Ted Sorensen. I will never forget the several times that he took the time to sit down and talk with me, to give advice, to share stories.

Of course, as someone who was seven years old when Kennedy was assassinated, the tales of his administration were as remote and legendary to me as the Camelot that gave them their name. But Sorensen was accessible, kind, and wise. He joked easily and was always encouraging. The fact that once upon a time, he offered vital counsel to a president at a fateful moment in our country's history or that many of the words best associated with that president originated in Sorensen's brain seemed a bit dizzying to a young wannabe like me and, yet, listening to him, completely plausible.

Later in life, I would learn that many men and women who are especially accomplished achieve a certain kind of calm -- almost preternatural in nature -- that comes from something gained in the course of their experiences. It's not so much self-confidence or self-satisfaction as it is simply having risen to great challenges and knowing it -- not intellectually but viscerally. It expresses itself as grace.

Sorensen will be missed for these reasons by many as much as he will be by the public at large for his service and the memories he helped create. It is a particular irony that the loss of this man, who put the promise of an entire generation into words, comes at a time when the latest in a long line of presidents to be inspired by his efforts seems to have lost his voice. But perhaps in contemplating the loss of Ted Sorensen in conjunction with the losses he will suffer at the polls on Tuesday, President Obama might be reminded that inspiration is not only possible amidst dark moments, it is especially essential. To my mind John F. Kennedy was a bit of a mixed bag as president. But he made an extraordinary contribution, capturing -- in collaboration with Sorensen -- the American spirit and reframing it in terms that would motivate a new generation. It is an example Obama must emulate or he will be passed over by yet another rising generation in dire need of getting back in touch with America's promise.  As Sorensen would have advised and as his work underscored, that message of inspiration cannot pander but rather must force listeners to look inward -- as suggested by the single most indelible phrase that Sorensen via Kennedy left to history: Ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country.