2011: On the U.S. Campaign Trail, a Deficit of Diplomacy

Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain made headlines for the wrong reasons with his "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" line. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

This post is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.

The U.S. presidential campaign heated up in 2011, as Americans ready themselves to vote in November 2012. While the current fiscal environment demands candidates focus on domestic economic challenges and solutions, in our interdependent world, foreign policy has to take a top spot on the list of presidential priorities. Unfortunately, election season is rife with fire and brimstone foreign policy rhetoric, attempting to engage voters at the detriment of diplomacy. While this language may rarely find its way into a candidate’s actual policies, it still sends misleading signals to other nations.

Of course, leaders worldwide engage their constituents with messages and tones they likely wouldn’t convey to the international community. This doesn’t mean it’s responsible — more importantly, it’s dangerous.

First, let’s talk about Iran. The U.S. and Iran haven’t had diplomatic relations in decades, but even with growing sanctions, there are numerous reasons that the U.S. isn’t keen for war with Iran. This being the case, I still shudder at the adaptation of the song “Barbara Ann” to “bomb Iran” during the 2008 presidential campaign. This rhetoric, aiming to fire up a voting base, can easily be (and too often is) construed as a threat. In three years, we haven’t moved away from this kind of language — we heard it again (minus a catchy tune) in the wake of the November IAEA report. The bottom line is that the U.S. and Iran should find a way to get to a place of trust. Maybe it’s in addressing challenges and identifying regional solutions for Afghanistan, maybe it’s somewhere else. But why drive more wedges into the incredibly strained U.S.-Iran relationship?

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is also poor, following accusations surrounding the aiding and abetting of Osama bin Laden, as well as a NATO operation gone awry, killing 24 Pakistanis. Pakistan boycotted the December Bonn+10 conference on Afghanistan. Now, Pakistan has closed its border to Afghanistan, meaning that all U.S. military supply transit is going through the Northern Distribution Network. (Interestingly, Uzbekistan’s role is integral in this route, so the Herman Cain gaffe/joke about not knowing or caring who the “president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” is, isn’t helpful to diplomatic relations. The U.S. should press Uzbekistan on its terrible human rights record, not mock its name.) But back to Pakistan, the tenuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship won’t benefit from the rhetoric flying around recent debates, which has been described as “nasty and provocative.” For stability and development to have a chance at taking root in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to help identify and be on board with solutions. Whether or not one trusts Pakistan’s leadership or military, purposely sending miscues for the sake of campaigning isn’t smart, responsible, or presidential. 

There are plenty of other foreign relations issues that have been discussed in an unfortunate manner, from challenges in China to Mexico. While the only examples referenced here are connected with Republican candidates, we can assume that we would hear much of the same rhetoric from any party facing primary elections.

In the next 11 months leading up to the election, it’s crucial that all candidates and parties speak to citizens without pandering, and with the responsible, effective, and long-term foreign policy solutions that our leaders should be devising.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Debra Eisenman

Debra Eisenman is the executive director of the Asia Society Policy Institute. She has previously worked in strategic philanthropy, NGO capacity building, and election monitoring.