Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thinking about the candidates foreign policy expertise.

There is an old saying: "Where you stand depends on where you sit."

Here is a new one: "What you see depends on where you stand."

And: "What you understand depends on who you are."

Source: The Daily Beast

I got to think of that on watching the Foreign Policy Debate last night. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney see the world differently. A part of the difference comes from their differences in experience.

Obama famously is the son of a Kenyan exchange student who lived in Indonesia during his childhood. He is also the son of a woman who made a career in development assistance, raised largely by a grandfather who served in World War II and a grandmother who worked in a plant building bombers during the war. Obama grew up in Hawaii, America's most ethnically diverse state, and is supposed to have associated with foreign students during his college years. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Homeland Security Committee for four years and of course has been president for four years.

Romney famously is the son of a U.S. auto executive, governor and presidential candidate who was born in Mexico of American parents. George Romney lived in a Mormon colony in Mexico from birth in 1907 to the return of his parents to the United States in 1912. Mitt Romney was a Mormon missionary in France for two and a half years and has had a number of increasingly senior positions in his church. He was a businessman managing investments abroad. He spent three years managing the planning for the Winter Olympic Games of 2002. He served one term as Governor of Massachusetts.

As U.S. Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee and as the President of the United States Obama had a superb position to learn about U.S. foreign policy. If it takes seven years to develop expertise, Obama must have done so by now.

The view of the world of a missionary and religious leader is presumably quite different than that of someone making national policy. So too is the view of a businessman looking for investment opportunities or consulting with international firms. So too is the view of a sporting event organizer. Governors have some limited responsibilities for international policy relating to the foreign interests of constituents. Thus Romney had a different and more limited exposure to international affairs.

Senators and especially presidents have unequaled opportunities to meet and get to know foreign governmental leaders. So too, they have unequaled opportunities to meet and learn from U.S. foreign policy experts.

I suspect that Barack Obama understands the world in a very different way than does Mitt Romney because they are very different people, formed by very different life experiences and very different associations over their lifetimes.

A great deal of knowledge of foreign policy is tacit rather than explicit. As such it is very difficult for voters to identify and study. While a debate will indicate something about a candidates command of facts, it will do little to convey his understanding of situations, causes and their effects. That tacit knowledge and understanding is developed over time and with experience -- it can not be picked up from books.

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