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June 21, 2012

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Obama, Romney need to talk global strategy
By Nicholas Burns

November's presidential election will be dominated by the economy, of course, but there is a big foreign policy agenda that President Obama and Governor Romney need to address. The stakes are high as we face the most complex international landscape in memory. The victor in November will face challenges as diverse as North Korea, the European economic crisis, humanitarian suffering in Syria and Sudan, and climate change.

Both Obama and Romney have the intellect, sophistication, and temperament to be successful foreign policy presidents. Obama has built an impressive record of accomplishment by restoring America's global credibility and pursuing a relentless campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen. His decision to leave Iraq was remarkably uncontroversial given our tortuous eight-year occupation. Romney will have difficulty running to Obama's right on national security given the latter's record in bringing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki to justice.

Still, Romney's background makes him more promising on foreign policy than most realize. He managed a first-rate Salt Lake Olympics, has traveled widely and assembled an impressive group of foreign policy advisers. But like many presidents, he would take office without deep international experience. How would he respond to the unrelenting crises that occupy every president's Oval Office in-box? In particular, what does Romney's statement that Russia is our number one adversary (not Iran or Al Qaeda) tell us about his core foreign policy instincts and worldview? Is his international template too fixed in the past and not sufficiently grounded in our very different 21st century? At this point, Obama has the foreign policy edge and is better prepared to lead internationally.

But the debates and thousands of hours on the campaign trail will provide a more complete verdict and give Romney a chance to share with voters his ideas for America's international mission. He wants to restore an "American century" and maintain unrivaled American power. Obama has acted as chairman of the board of a broad network of traditional friends such as France and the United Kingdom along with new partners Brazil and India in a rapidly changing global power network. Which candidate will keep the United States powerful and influential at a time when we cannot always get our way and must lead as first among equals?

Romney and Obama have already begun sparring. They disagree on Afghanistan. Obama will withdraw most combat troops by 2014 and hopes to negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban to permit our final exit. Romney is critical of Obama's troop reductions but thin on specifics. Should we cut our losses and exit Afghanistan in a year or two, as Obama advocates, or redouble our efforts against the Taliban as Romney seems to prefer?

Romney has been critical of Obama's Iran strategy, but the administration has made a strong case for trying negotiations backed by tough sanctions before considering force. After this week's disappointing talks with Iran, don't be surprised if Obama's critics argue diplomacy isn't working and we should turn instead to the military. Will Romney make the mistake of jumping on that bandwagon? He needs to be more specific on what the United States should do next in this high-stakes global poker game.

Romney and Obama should also debate what we should do if Egypt's military rulers complete their coup and deny the Muslim Brotherhood real power. And how long can we stand by as Syrian civilians are brutalized by their own government? Finally, Obama has followed past presidents in seeking to engage and not contain China. But he has hedged by starting a long-term military build-up to maintain America as Asia's power broker. Romney's threat to impose sanctions on China on his first day in office made some question how effectively he would deal with this complex country.

Our next president will need Nixon's guile, George H.W. Bush's experience and skill, and FDR's courage to lead us through the thickets of the foreign policy challenges ahead. Obama has demonstrated he is more than capable of leading the United States internationally. Romney has not yet done so. That will be part of the campaign's drama as we decide which of the two can best provide the vision, judgment, and wisdom we so desperately need to remain the world leader at a complicated and dangerous time.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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