behind the news

A Presidential Debate Abroad?

An argument for holding a foreign policy debate in a foreign country
December 20, 2011

Every fourth fall, more Americans watch presidential debates than just about any other live event in the US but the Super Bowl. The contests are by far the most-watched political events in this country. More than 50 million Americans watched the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in September 2008, while 63 million paused for the second live sparring, according to Nielsen—to say nothing of the millions who later watched all or portions of the contest online.

Traditionally, one of the debates focuses on matters of foreign policy, giving each candidate an opportunity to demonstrate how he or she would deal with the wider world. Why hold such a debate in Dallas or Richmond? The 2012 foreign policy debate between Barack Obama and his eventual Republican opponent should be held in a foreign country.

High-profile televised debates in the US are routinely held at presidential libraries or universities, which can be nice, but holding one of the jousts outside the country would send a message that the United States is considering steps toward reducing insularity, real or perceived. Actually, Americans aren’t as insular as they’re often thought to be. Americans take over 60 million trips a year to other countries. About 6.3 million Americans live outside the US, not counting those in military service, according to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas. Arranging a presidential tussle outside the US would show these citizens, who may vote for president by absentee ballot, that they’re a greater part of the presidential conversation.

The gesture of holding a presidential debate abroad would also signal to other countries that the US takes foreign policy seriously, as well as remind any ethnocentric Americans that other countries are worthy of our time and respect.

The NFL and Major League Baseball routinely host games outside the United States to generate interest in their content overseas and, likewise, there’s nothing written in the American electoral playbook that insists presidential debates must be held in the US. Few things are more valuable to the US than promoting the value of democratic contests, and nothing draws the eyes of the world toward the United States like our presidential election seasons.

The location of a presidential debate abroad could have great symbolic meaning. To acknowledge a nation’s political progress, for example, the contest could be held in Ghana, Myanmar, or Liberia. To put pressure on ne’er-do-wells, on the other hand, the debate could be held in South Korea, India, or Taiwan, to highlight the less savory regimes, respectively, in North Korea, Pakistan, and China. Less-charged locations could be countries that have recently been through hell, like Haiti or Japan, to revisit their plight and even raise resources for relief (debate viewers could be encouraged during the broadcast to text a pledge to donate $10 to Red Cross programs aiding natural disaster victims in these countries).

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Wherever the location, the event would showcase one of the signature features of American elections: the idea that incumbents and challengers are expected to stand together and answer questions about their positions and their records in a live, unscripted public setting. The evening would also lend greater sincerity and context to a debate devoted to the United States’s relationship with other countries. Citizens in the host country or elsewhere could even submit questions to the candidates about US foreign policy.

The obvious opponents of holding a debate outside the country are time and political self-interest. Presidential debates are typically televised in the few weeks or even days before the election, when exhausted campaign staffers won’t relish a junket abroad. And candidates would prefer to publicly praise themselves in Columbus or Fort Lauderdale in those precious final campaign days, not burn time in another country. Still, the first debate between McCain and Obama in 2008 was toward the end of September, well over a month before the election. Also, stump stops from Miami to Denver to Minneapolis to Philadelphia to Raleigh to Cleveland in a matter of days don’t seem to be a problem for the campaigns in quadrennial Octobers, so I have a hard time believing a jump down to Port au Prince or Rio would pose too unique a burden.

Presidential debates in the United States are often decried as scripted, meaningless theater. The contests do, though, feature spontaneity and tension, which is why tens of millions of Americans watch, and also why campaigns spend weeks preparing for the showdowns. The debate during which the candidates customarily grapple with America’s place in the world would be slightly more meaningful if it were held in a worldlier place.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin