Markos Kounalakis

Get ready for the 2016 election

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is one of the the first Republican presidential candidates out the gate with his foray into foreign policy. He has not declared his candidacy but has delivered a four-point set of foreign policy principles.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is one of the the first Republican presidential candidates out the gate with his foray into foreign policy. He has not declared his candidacy but has delivered a four-point set of foreign policy principles. The Associated Press

Propositions and congressional races are sucking up all the political oxygen in the run-up to Tuesday’s statewide election. They should. Informing ourselves and getting out the vote is critical for the healthy functioning of our democracy.

But for an electorate hoping for post-midterm relief from campaign ads and candidate messaging, that reprieve will be short-lived. Soon after the November ballots are tallied, the 2016 presidential campaign will kick in. Hold on for the ride.

This early presidential cycle will contrast potential candidates’ differences on government’s role, health care and taxes, but nothing will say “I’m running” more than a foray into the world of foreign policy.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is the first out of the gate, not waiting for Wednesday to make it clear he is running for president. He did not declare his candidacy; instead, he declared a reasoned, four-point set of foreign policy principles in a mid-October speech at the Center for the National Interest.

Paul’s “conservative realism” is not far from President Barack Obama’s current policy, and they agree on how to deal with ISIS. Paul is, however, distanced from his political allies: his father and his party. His dad, Ron Paul, a former presidential candidate, believes in a mind-our-own-business (“libertarian isolationist”) approach. Rand Paul also puts arms-length distance between himself and the Republican foreign policy establishment’s worldwide Freedom Agenda (“neoconservative interventionist”) philosophy.

In his speech, Paul the younger recognizes America’s limits, but also says “war is necessary when America is attacked or threatened.” A decision to go to war, he says, must establish that “a precondition to the use of force must be a clear end goal.” This and his other three points sound a lot like Colin Powell’s eponymous “Powell Doctrine” and former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s six tests for going to war.

The recent speech takes a decent shot – two years out – at a coherent foreign policy approach that gives Paul a way to support Obama’s current bombing campaign, but also attack some of his other actions.

Specifically, Paul attacks the president’s Libya policies and the NATO military action that has turned Tripoli into a failed capital.

This line of Paul’s argument is a direct assault on Obama, but is intended more as an attack on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (Disclosure: My wife worked directly for Secretary Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary and is one of her former 2008 presidential campaign national co-chairs). By criticizing American actions in Libya while she was secretary of state, he wants to undermine Clinton’s potential 2016 presidential candidacy.

It is a time-honored campaign political tactic to attack opponents’ strengths and to redefine their personal narratives. In this instance, Paul recognizes that Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden dominate and outshine the potential 2016 presidential field with their foreign policy experience and expertise.

In our contemporary globalized reality, all presidential candidates are expected to be fluent in foreign policy. In 2016, the United States will still have soldiers in Afghanistan; America’s NATO leadership will check a Russia that ups her game; and this country will need to manage relations with a more muscular China bent on asserting greater economic power.

Presidential candidates rarely win elections based on their foreign policy expertise (George H.W. Bush vs. Bill Clinton in 1992), but they often lose them by flunking at foreign policy. The examples are many, with exceptional standouts being Gerald Ford’s flubbing some fundamentals about Poland’s relationship to the Soviet Union and Sarah Palin’s simplistic response to Katie Couric’s questions regarding Russia and helping to sink John McCain’s candidacy.

Presidential candidates need to get some stamps in their passports, bone up on their geography and feel comfortable not only with foreign leaders, but with the complexities of America’s global power and perception.

That is a tall order for congressmen, senators and governors with national political ambitions. There are few contemporaries who will enter the Oval Office who can bring the type of foreign policy experience that Bush had as a former ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and vice president. Time spent on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helps – Obama leveraged his stint on that committee as a credential. Time on the Intelligence or Armed Services committees help, too.

A governor needs to take advantage of overseas trade delegations, bilateral state-to-nation agreements and fact-finding missions with ethnic or religious minority groups who make up a state’s diverse populations. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a Cuban-American with an informed understanding and nuanced approach to Cuba. If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is thinking about a presidential run, he will have to update his Latin America policy thoughts and credentials.

On Tuesday, go out and vote. Then scrape off the 2014 bumper stickers for 2016 presidential candidates who act locally, but can think and talk globally.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.