Everything You Want To Know About Foreign Policy—and Then Some

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
May 3 2000 3:30 AM

Everything You Want To Know About Foreign Policy—and Then Some

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.  

For most voters, listening to a presidential candidate talk about foreign policy is like taking a distasteful but required course in college. We know it's important, but we'd like it to be over as quickly and painlessly as possible. Perhaps for this reason, candidates in the last several presidential elections have not made foreign policy a major component of their campaigns. Al Gore injected a dose of it Sunday, when he delivered a speech blistering George W. Bush's foreign policy credentials and views. By Monday, however, Gore was back on more familiar turf, blasting Bush for his position on Social Security.

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Concerned about the failure of presidential candidates to articulate a "coherent post-Cold War foreign policy," the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank, has established a Web site to encourage the candidates to do just that. The site, www.foreignpolicy2000.org, professes to be "the first public website dealing exclusively with foreign policy and the U.S. presidential election." It's designed to educate the public about international issues, to clarify the candidates' positions, and to spur a foreign policy debate between the campaigns.

By far the strongest element of the site is its "Briefing Room,"  which contains issue briefs on nearly 30 topics, from "Central Foreign Policy Principles" to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to terrorism. For the most part, the summaries are clear, accessible, and free of jargon. Each briefing contains recommendations for (and often links to) further readings, many of which come from Foreign Affairs, which is published by the council. There are links from other publications, although an unfortunate number of these resulted in error messages. Nonetheless, the briefings are an excellent introduction to the central foreign policy topics facing the candidates and the nation.

The "Candidate Positions" area collects every public statement made by Bush or Gore relating to the site's 28 chosen issues. The entire speech, interview, or statement is included, with the relevant foreign policy section highlighted in blue. This provides an incredibly complete and contextual picture of the candidates' viewpoints—though as a resource it may find most of its users among journalists and opposition researchers rather than members of the general public.

Still, a public statements search provides revealing information about the candidates. Gore, for example, has never made a public statement on North Korea, and Bush, shockingly, has yet to articulate a position on global warming. Granted, most voters won't want to sift through speech after speech to comprehend a candidate's position on each issue. But those voters are free to read the highlights or the summary provided, for example, on the Bush campaign site itself. In the future, Foreignpolicy2000.org promises its own candidate scorecards that will serve a similar purpose without the partisanship.

The site also plans to conduct a series of online debates, in bulletin-board format and in streaming video. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns have committed to having their foreign policy advisers debate issues online. CNN and the Council for Foreign Relations invited the candidates to debate foreign policy issues themselves, but while Gore accepted, Bush declined.

The Foreignpolicy2000 site is a commendable effort to focus attention on what ought to be significant, substantive issues in the campaign. It could serve as a model for sites devoted to other complex policy issues, such as taxes or health care. Ultimately, Foreignpolicy2000.org's biggest problem is that, well, it's about policy, something that most Americans aren't all that interested in. But if the site encourages the candidates to develop more than an ad hoc approach to international affairs, it will be performing a genuine political service.

Chris Suellentrop is a video game critic and a contributor to the New York Times