The Republican presidential candidates gathered in South Carolina on Saturday night to dive into a topic they had largely skirted: foreign policy. Their exchanges followed a predictable rhythm: They were long on criticism of President Barack Obama and promises to do better and short on nuance and complexity.

That balance works far better when campaigning than when governing, however. On the rare occasions that they talk to voters about international issues, the GOP candidates offer up a standard indictment of Obama's foreign policy: The president has forsaken Washington's friends, coddled its adversaries, and failed to understand America's exceptional power to do good in the world. If elected, they pledge to deliver a string of foreign policy successes. Iran would buckle to America's will and call off its nuclear program. Pakistan would end its support for terrorist groups and back U.S. policy. U.S. forces would break the Taliban in Afghanistan. Regime change would come to Syria. China would end its predatory trade practices. In short, everything would be perfect.

These promises fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that frames most of the GOP field as isolationist. True, polls show that the number of Americans who believe Washington "should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home" has grown in recent years. That has not meant, however, that GOP candidates favor disengaging from the world. (There is, of course, the notable exception of Congressman Ron Paul, who on Saturday night made his familiar argument that America's far-flung overseas operations do more to threaten its security than advance it.)

In fact, most of the GOP presidential candidates are internationalists intent on pursuing an activist foreign policy -- and in that respect, they fall well within the Republican Party's foreign policy tradition of the past half century. This is not to say that the candidates march in lockstep on specific issues; they frequently differ in approach, priority, and tone. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich say that a military strike on Iran should be an "option" to stop its nuclear program; Herman Cain, meanwhile, "would not entertain military opposition." Jon Huntsman wants fewer troops in Afghanistan, because America's "future is not in the Hindu Kush"; Rick Santorum favors continuing the current surge until the "Taliban is a neutered force." Governor Rick Perry proposes cutting off all aid to Pakistan; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann argues that that is a bad idea. Nonetheless, they all see a critical role for active U.S. leadership abroad.

Actually, each GOP candidate shares far more of Obama's worldview than he or she would care to admit. With the exception of climate change -- a topic even the White House seldom mentions these days -- the president and his critics all see the same dangers and threats: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and the rise of China. The GOP candidates disagree with the president on the tactics of how to advance America's interests in the world, not what those interests are.

Would the GOP strategies have more success in achieving Obama's goals than he has had? They have yet to make a compelling case that they would. Romney is the only candidate to produce a white paper spelling out his foreign policy vision in detail. As such documents go, it is a fine piece of work that soberly acknowledges the array of challenges facing Washington in the coming years. Romney is also the only candidate to assemble what amounts to a shadow National Security Council staff. His advisers have impressive credentials and extensive government experience, many having served previous Republican presidents.

Even so, Romney's approach leaves much to be desired. Its proposals are vague: On the revolts in the Middle East, he calls for the United States "to train all of our soft-power resources on ensuring that the Arab Spring does not fade into a long winter." On the end of the war in South Asia, he argues for a "full review of our transition to the Afghan military," a process that could lead to any outcome in Afghanistan. Rhetoric is easy to produce; workable (much less successful) policies are far more difficult.

To be sure, the Obama administration's own strategy has not solved all the problems it identified upon coming to office -- it has failed to end Iran's nuclear weapons program, whip Pakistan into shape, or force China to revalue its currency. But these outcomes cannot be reduced to ineptitude, however satisfying it may be for opposition politicians to claim. Obama's failures have had much more to do with the fact that U.S. leverage is more limited than the GOP candidates acknowledge. So-called crippling sanctions on Iran, which several of the candidates have called for, would not succeed without the cooperation of China, Russia, and numerous other countries. But such cooperation could be purchased only at a high price, if at all. Washington may not be able to live with Pakistan, but if it wants to succeed in Afghanistan, it cannot live without it, either. The United States can punish China for its trade and currency practices, but Beijing has numerous ways to retaliate. The list goes on.

Put simply, the GOP candidates have failed to acknowledge the dispersion of economic, political, and even military power resulting from the onward march of globalization. The United States is, and will remain, the single most powerful and influential global force for some time. That does not mean, however, that its friends and allies will automatically rally to its leadership, or that its adversaries will melt in the face of a confident assertion of will. Many of today's foreign policy problems cannot be solved through the unilateral application of American power, so figuring out how to generate cooperation is among the greatest strategic challenges the United States faces. And on that point, not a word was uttered on Saturday night.

That may be because Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry, Romney, and Santorum are not ready to grapple with such complexity. But it may also be because, simply put, voters these days are not asking for it. Unlike in 2004 or 2008, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were front and center and the pain of 9/11 was still fresh, next November's election will most likely turn largely on domestic issues. Voters only want to know that a candidate possesses basic foreign policy competence. They will leave the details and complexities to others. 

But the fact is that crafting a successful foreign policy should matter to the eight GOP candidates who were on stage in South Carolina on Saturday night -- especially in a world in which the United States is increasingly vulnerable to pressures from rising and rogue states. And it should matter on the stump in the coming months. One of them could be the next president of the United States, and if he or she fails to understand how to navigate an increasingly complicated world, campaign pledges, however earnestly presented, will not withstand even the first foreign crisis, something that will no doubt arrive on day one in office, to be followed inevitably by another.

(Photo: Chris Keane / Courtesy Reuters)

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  • JAMES M. LINDSAY is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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