What has happened to real substance in foreign policy?

This election cycle has put a major outlier on the fun/scary political matrix. With 31 days to go, we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve wished it were over and we’ve made some great jokes in the interim. There is, however, one aspect of the election with no humorous side to it whatsoever: the lack of cogent foreign policy platforms.

Our two main candidates do not inspire confidence, but the picture gets worse when you include the two third-party candidates and the chief primary challengers, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. To quickly recap the options: the architect of our current Middle Eastern strategy—a debacle that the majority of Americans think is worsening, a man who has kept his (nonexistent) plan a secret so that ISIS can’t predict what we’ll do, an isolationist who is ignorant to basic facts and dynamics, last and least: Jill Stein, whose platform I’m afraid to research. With Ted “make the sand glow” Cruz and Bernie’s isolationist tendencies added to the equation, there only appears to be one candidate who understands anything about international relations. But you can argue that she has been wrong on every major policy decision of her political career. Where has the foreign policy sanity gone?

The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that ISIS poses a substantial, if not imminent threat to national security. The Middle East is not any less precarious now than it was in 2008, or 2003 for that matter. North Korea is still a loose cannon. Russia is angling for an increase to its geopolitical influence, and its national interests have been (perplexingly) embraced by the GOP nominee. Yet it appears that the United States is content to address these numerous multifaceted issues with a commander-in-chief whose grasp of the potential responses ranges from dangerously ignorant to woefully inept.

Clearly, there is no panacea for the awful situation in the Middle East, but what is more concerning is that Americans seem to have lost the patience required to develop a nuanced strategy. From a policymaker’s perspective, the problem lies within the muddled public opinion surrounding putting boots on the ground; 62 percent of Americans believe the U.S. conflict with ISIS is going badly, and 63 percent believe ground troops will be necessary. Yet only 50 percent are actually willing to send those ground troops in, as 83 percent are concerned that doing so will lead to a long and costly occupation period. This dichotomy will undoubtedly hamstring the next President if they intend to put boots on the ground to intervene in the fight against the Islamic State. Similarly, this sentiment explains the top Republican primary vote-getters amassing support behind the drastic, morally bankrupt and illegal platform of indiscriminate bombings.
Hillary drew substantial criticism from Bernie Sanders during her primary campaign for her poor track record in foreign affairs. Making informed decisions that turn out to be wrong is more assuring than making decisions based on faulty principles, though. Still, despite her impressive résumé, I have little faith in Clinton’s ability to improve upon the status quo in any of the challenges the United States faces. Her policies have been counterproductive in nearly every theater they have touched, and I would like to see her try to answer for these mistakes against someone who offers a viable alternative. Trump will propose no plans of his own, however, and his incessant finger pointing is all we’ll get. To know that the exchange of ideas could have included John Kasich—who served on the Defense Committee for 18 years—or Marco Rubio—who currently serves on the Committee on Foreign Relations—is truly disheartening. Instead, Hillary, whose experience dwarfs her actual achievements, is effectively unrivaled. In the land of the blind, the woman with one eye is the queen.

With an intimate understanding of foreign policy as important to the welfare of the republic as it has ever been, we have presidential candidates that are spectacularly underwhelming. Americans seem more receptive to the “easy” solutions and less willing to commit resources to fighting a potentially decades-long war. In foreign policy perhaps more so than any other field, the right solution is not the easiest one. I am certain that Donald Trump will make the wrong decisions. I do not have much confidence that Hillary will stand up for the right decision in the face of public opinion and political pressure, if she is even able to discern what the proper course of action is. Our current policies are struggling to keep pace with the rapidly evolving nature of the threats facing the country, and prospects for the next four years look bleak. I sincerely hope Americans decide they can stomach a more serious foreign policy conversation in 2020.