Consider the inbox of the 44th president of the United States. He will face ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; a Pakistani government that is unable or unwilling to take on the terrorists who have set up shop in the country's western reaches; and an Iran apparently intent on developing nuclear weapons. Beyond the greater Middle East, there are the challenges of a more assertive Russia, a rising China, a warming planet and a cooling world economy.
Making matters worse is that the new president will have to deal with these and other threats with his hands partially tied. The U.S. military is stretched. The American economy faces a financial-market meltdown. The country is politically divided at home and unpopular abroad. Only Washington, Lincoln and FDR faced comparable international challenges and domestic constraints upon taking office.
What makes the outcome of this election even more significant is that the occupant of the Oval Office enjoys tremendous latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. Congress is far more of a factor in domestic affairs. Anyone doubting this need only remind himself of the past eight years. It is thus fitting and fortunate that the first of the three presidential debates focuses on foreign policy and national security. It is appalling that we have thus far paid more attention to lipstick and pigs than to loose nukes in Pakistan (although the Wall Street crisis has at least refocused minds a bit).
The Sept. 26 debate in Oxford, Miss., offers an important chance to gain insight into the candidates' views. But it is just that: a chance. Asking the candidates what they are likely to do about a specific situation all but ensures the chance will be lost. For one thing, the careful candidate is wary of committing himself to a course of action in hypothetical situations.
History also teaches us that often the most important foreign-policy decisions a president makes are those in response to crises that cannot be predicted. For good reason, few thought it necessary to ask John F. Kennedy about Soviet missiles in Cuba, Jimmy Carter about a revolution in Iran or George H.W. Bush about how he'd react to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—any more than someone could have known to ask his son about Russian tanks rolling into Georgia.
As a result, what we should really be interested in is the candidates' respective philosophies of foreign policy—their thinking about this country's objectives in the world and how the United States should go about translating them into reality. Harry Truman is an instructive example. He learned much from his time in the Army. According to his secretary of state Dean Acheson, "Military power he had experienced in use. He knew its nature, its importance and its limitations." Truman's world view was shaped even more by a lifetime of voracious reading about history. His careful reading of how Lincoln handled a disobedient but reluctant general (McClellan) foreshadowed how a century later he would deal with a disobedient but aggressive one (MacArthur). Anyone who bothered to probe Truman's view of great men would know that he would never change course because of public criticism.
The current president, previously a governor with little international background, is more an example of what can happen absent a developed world view. September 11 arrived eight months after he took office. His instinct was to fall back on the absolutes of religion. Bush branded countries as evil and warned governments that they were either with us or against us, approaches that made little sense in a world in which most countries are neither pure adversaries nor allies and where limited cooperation is preferable to none at all, or to outright opposition. Such intellectual absolutism led to a preoccupation with terrorism and an overreliance on going it alone and on military force.
Understanding how a candidate thinks about the world gives a better sense of how he is likely to react to both opportunity and crisis. As a result, exploring the past during the debate may be a better guide to how either candidate would govern than pressing him about a possible future. It would be useful, for instance, to know what McCain and Obama judge to be the reasons we won the cold war, lost Vietnam and nearly lost in Iraq.
We could also gain insight into their views of diplomacy by asking them whether Bill Clinton was correct to press for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Or whether George W. Bush was wiser to stay aloof. The United States has engaged diplomatically to good effect with the U.S.S.R. and China and even North Korea. What might be the lessons for Iran and Cuba?
In the end, what matters when it comes to foreign affairs is not so much knowledge—leaders can be expected to learn who is the prime minister of some country—as judgment. More important than what candidates don't know about the world is what they do. One can only hope the first debate sheds light on this.
Haass, a NEWSWEEK contributor, is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.