The Presidential Debates: Unanswered Questions

The presidential debate on October 19 was the final one between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump before election day. Historically, the third debate is heavily focused on foreign policy, while the first two are dominated by domestic issues. Other than a few mentions of China, the military campaign to take Mosul back from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), NATO member states’ defense commitments, and Russia’s meddling in the election, foreign policy did not come up very often.

For the Strategy Consortium, led by the Atlantic Council, this was disappointing. The Consortium promotes an “ecosystem” of strategic thinkers from the think tank, corporate, government, and academic worlds who collaborate on strategic foresight, strategy development, and strategic implementation.

In an inbox-driven age in which everyone seems enslaved by their email and new challenges emerge nearly every day, the Consortium aims to keep our institutions and organizations focused on the most pressing strategic challenges and opportunities.

The Strategy Consortium believes that the debate on October 19 should have better illuminated the candidates’ long-term strategies for guiding the United States forward and advancing American leadership in the world. Below are some of the kinds of questions we wish were asked:

How will you go about rebuilding consensus in our deeply divided country and a deeply divided world to renew American leadership across the globe?

This election season has exposed deep dissatisfaction with the US government as well as frustration with a perceived decline in America’s global status. Both the far-left progressive movements supporting Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and the far-right backing Trump believe that the United States is unable to perform at its optimal level in terms of security assurance, economic growth, etc., having been constrained by obligations to underperforming allies and partners for far too long.

Those feeling such frustrations have targeted globalization, trade policy, as well as the social beneficiaries of globalization and international trade as their enemies. They have identified isolationist and protectionist policies as the solution to all of the United States’ ills.

In order to govern effectively, the next president would have to, at the very least, rebuild relationships and a sense of trust with Congress and our allies at a time when both are increasingly skeptical of the White House’s ability to lead. How then would the next president govern and unite the country when the fabric of our society and our relationships with our allies and partners are so fragmented?

What is your specific criteria, or threshold, for the use of force by US troops around the world?


In her most recent posting as secretary of state, Clinton’s role in the cabinet was marked by her hawkish tendencies, as demonstrated by her support for the military intervention in Libya. Trump has proposed taking a hard line against terrorism, but he refuses to outline any notional plans to defeat radical, extremist movements. Now—with Libya in turmoil, Syria destroyed, and Russia encroaching on Europe’s eastern flank—when would the next president use force?

Since the end of the Cold War, conflicts have become increasingly intrastate and wars are no longer waged only on the battlefield. Social media movements, information wars, cyberattacks, and more have destabilized security of states and their people. Understanding at what point the United States would, reliably and credibly, intervene to protect a government and/or the people is crucial to deterring future outbreaks of violence.

What is your strategy to combat climate change?

In a series of interviews with passersby at Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, on what life would look like in 2035 the Atlantic Council’s Strategy Initiative was surprised to learn that the threat posed by global warming, as opposed to the election, the conflict in the Middle East, or other security concerns, was a top concern among participants.

While the 2015 Paris agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions was a significant step forward, security crises across the globe could potentially distract the next administration from focusing on a far more strategic threat: global warming. The public wants to know how the government will protect the environment from continued destruction. The next president needs to stand up and deliver.


In your view, what is America’s role in the world? What actions would you take to see that role come true?

Trump and Clinton have advocated different roles for the United States. Trump claims to pursue an “America first” strategy which would keep the US focus on solving domestic problems and less on dealing with global issues.

Clinton has called the United States the “indispensable nation” in the international arena. She has argued that the United States must act around the globe, along with its allies and partners, to address many of the world’s ills. In principle, these are interesting concepts, but neither candidate has provided a coherent strategy.

Instead of a foreign policy discussion that has typically focused on a few regions or problems, it would have been useful for the public to hear the candidates’ grand strategies. After all, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been in desperate need of a grand strategy.

What American values and interests will you try to protect in the world?

Similarly, the candidates have talked more about what they would do if they were commander-in-chief, but less about what they stand for. The United States acts with its national interests in mind. That said, as a global superpower, it also stands up for values such as liberal economics and human rights.

Which values do the candidates believe are unassailable? How would they protect them? What tools of American power would they use to ensure those values are upheld around the world? Or, should the United States simply consider tangible national interests and leave values by the wayside? With less than three weeks left to the election, it would have been useful for voters to know what values the candidates hold dear. On this the debates did not deliver.

Alex Ward is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. You can follow him on Twitter @alexwardb.


Alexandra Di Cocco is a program assistant at the Brent Scowcroft’s Center Strategy Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @A_DiCocco. 

Image: Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in Las Vegas, Nevada, US, October 19, 2016. (Reuters/Mark Ralston/Pool)