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Tuesday Morning Debate Reaction

October 23, 2012

The final 2012 Presidential debate was a decisive “victory” for President Obama on both style and substance. Romney’s tack to the center left him with no other arguments than to invoke the resolve fairy and to call for a large increase in defense spending.

The dominant narrative among the pundit class seems to be that Obama won and that Romney did well enough for the debate not to matter. I’ve decided against making judgments about the political impact of debates, so I won’t comment on that.

The dominant narrative among international-affairs commentators is different. We found aspects of it downright painful.

The debate proceeded from the premise that the US must “do something” about any and all problems in the world. To make matters worse, most of the world barely made it into the discussion. The European crisis, which is having a bigger short-term impact on the economy than either of the candidates’ plans will, received no attention. Africa only matters, it seems, if there’s an Islamist insurgency gaining traction somewhere on the continent. Latin America barely registered. Asia and China are apparently synonymous. Despite the fact that key Asian hands in Romney’s team advocate a harder line with China, we heard little about how to calibrate US policy toward the PRC.

The worst statement, in my view, wasn’t about 1917, the suggestion that Iran is landlocked, or any of that stuff. It was Mitt Romney’s retort to Obama’s so-called “apology tour”:

Mr. President, America doesn’t dictate to other nations; we have freed other nations from dictators.

I am a proud American. I think that the US has, overall, been a force for good in the world. But this kind of crap makes us all dumber.

The US has “dictated” to other nations throughout its history. It has seized customs houses. Sponsored coups. Conquered territory. Forced agreements upon friends and foes. Drawn lines in the sand. That’s what Romney claims that he wants to do more of: tell countries like Iran, Russia, and China what to do. 

I am too much of a realist to think that there’s anything inherently wrong with this. Indeed, sometimes the world is a much better place because the US dictated to other countries. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out so well. But that’s what great powers do. We render a tremendous disservice upon the American people when we lie about our history and called it patriotism.

… And, of course, they’ve doubled down on it.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.