When it comes to voting in elections, Americans weigh domestic and foreign affairs differently. On domestic issues, they side with candidates who share their views. On foreign policy, they pick candidates they trust and then expect those candidates to keep Americans safe and secure.
So whoever the final presidential candidates are in the general election, they’d better be prepared to show they know what problems the voters want them to solve and demonstrate they’re ready to take action.
If the next occupant of the White House wants to reassure voters, here are five steps he or she should take:
- Get the terrorists. We need to secure the border. Any candidate who doesn’t show he is determined to turn a corner in the war on terror and doesn’t outline specific steps to do so won’t get to measure curtains for the Oval Office. Terrorism and the vulnerabilities of our nation’s southern border are the top threats most voters single out.
President Barack Obama has claimed his strategy will break the Islamic State’s control of Iraq before he leaves office. Americans are skeptical. They’ll expect the next president to finish the job. Then there is the problem of dealing with the resurgence of al-Qaida, which is arguably more powerful now than it was on Sept. 11, 2001.
- Put Vladimir Putin in his place. Another Cold War is not in the offing, but the Russian president’s meddling in Western Europe is dangerous and destabilizing. The next U.S. president can’t force the Kremlin to back down without doing so from a position of strength.
Taming Russia and steadying Europe will require exercising real leadership in the transatlantic community. That means convincing our European allies and our Russian “friends” that the White House is a force to be reckoned with. Strong words and deeds are necessary. We need, for example, to demonstrate a real capability and determination to defend our NATO allies, particularly the Nordic, Baltic and Central European members.
- Stiff-arm China. Beijing’s leaders envision an Asia without America. Over the course of the next president’s term, they must become convinced that this dream is an illusion. China isn’t looking for World War III. Its goal is to win without fighting, to convince the U.S. to stand idly by while Beijing carves out an expansive sphere of influence.
To frustrate Beijing’s plan without escalating the competition to open conflict, the U.S. must show it has the economic, diplomatic and military influence to flex its muscles from across the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. will also have to demonstrate it isn’t acting alone. We need a concert of Asian powers, including South Korea, Japan, Australia and India, letting China know that Beijing must conform to international norms, not rewrite the rules for the Middle Kingdom’s benefit.
- Watch the rogues. Americans don’t believe the Iran deal solved anything. They would like to believe that North Korea is run by a crazy uncle they can just ignore, but they know that isn’t true either. The greatest danger both countries pose is their capacity to disrupt peace and stability in their corners of the world.
There are no easy answers for dealing with either power, but the next president will have to show persistent, dedicated effort to restrain these dangerous regimes. It’s a task we won’t be able to outsource to other states.
- Get serious about peace through strength. The capacity and capabilities of the American military have declined dramatically on Obama’s watch. Americans aren’t interested in more wars, but they do want a military capable of defending their vital interests, and they know Obama’s military isn’t it.
Rebuilding the armed forces while reigning in the federal debt and jumpstarting the economy is completely doable. But it will take a serious-minded president to make it happen.
James Jay Carafano is the vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.