On the foreign policy front, Hillary Clinton has no equal, at least on paper.
Despite her questionable handling of the raid on our American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, her international relations chops are above and beyond those of any potential Republican candidate for president by virtue of her service as secretary of state.
But the fluid and precarious situation in Ukraine, rising tensions in the Middle East and the importance of economic development each provide opportunities for would-be Republican candidates to move towards parity with the presumed Democratic frontrunner.
A president is not only chief of state, leader of a political party and driver of domestic reform, but also chief diplomat. Therefore, with Clinton in the race or not, it’s important for candidates to brush up on their knowledge of international issues and show that they have the ability to mix it up on the worldwide stage with leaders considering no one ever knows what’s lurking around the corner.
The two most recent presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, came to office with varying degrees of exposure to international issues, but were nonetheless quickly thrust into the thick of foreign policy. Bush, who had visited a handful of European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries prior to his election, was tested in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He had to accelerate relationship building in order to form a coalition to respond.
Obama’s experience consisted of a well-publicized trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Great Britain, and other countries, during his 2008 campaign and his childhood years spent in Indonesia. His first-year tests came in the form of increased belligerence on the part of rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran.
To prove they are up to the challenge, Republicans aren’t waiting for an international calamity to weigh in on international topics.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who as the son of Cuban immigrants already has a little international flair to him, has eagerly flexed his foreign policy muscle in recent weeks. He used the turmoil in Ukraine to decry the “flawed foreign policy of the last few years” and lay out a vision for our role in the world during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
A few weeks later, the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas gave others, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a chance to wade into the rhetorical battlefield of international issues themselves. It was a rare occurrence for Walker to divert from his domestic portfolio, but he sounded an alarm regarding the vacuum created by diminished respect for America. “If people around the world, not only our adversaries, don’t believe we are strong they will take action,” he said.
Likewise, Christie acknowledged his concern about muddled American priorities telling attendees at the same meeting, “We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure if we are with them and our enemies are unsure if we’re against them.”
Other plausible candidates, like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have honed in on the economic impact of overseas dialogue. Pence recently returned from a week-long trip to Germany where he locked in three deals to bring over 100 jobs to the Hoosier State. He previously pressed the flesh in Japan, a trip that had him meeting with executives from Toyota, Subaru and other companies with an Indiana presence. Just weeks after Pence returned from that trade mission, one Japanese company announced plans to create over 200 jobs in Indiana.
While each has taken different public steps to bolster their resumes, many potential candidates are reaching out to former White House, State Department and presidential campaign advisors for tutoring. A Washington Post story listed Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice among the most sought after for their thoughts and wisdom.
Whatever path to parity they take, the success of Republicans vying for the Oval Office in 2016 will rest in how they can set themselves apart on foreign policy. If a crisis emerges, they need to be ready to answer the call.
This column originally appeared in Howey Politics Indiana on May 1, 2014.