WASHINGTON—From the rise of China to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the revolutions of the Arab Spring to foreign aid for Pakistan, the Republican Party's presidential hopefuls are framing their foreign policy positions against the backdrop of America's crippling debt and high unemployment.
The question is no longer necessarily, What should we do? Instead, they're asking, What can we afford? Or, sometimes, What's in it for us?
With the exception of Israel's security, the blank check of Republican support once afforded U.S. military operations, freer international trade and the spread of global democracy are facing the constraints of limited spending power and an overwhelming pressure among voters to refocus America's energy at home.
From the "internationalist" camp, Rick Perry is calling for a reassessment of how Washington winds down its war in Afghanistan and whether money is "best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back."
Jon Huntsman, President Barack Obama's former ambassador to China, is urging the end of nation-building abroad "at a time when this nation needs to be built."
Among candidates deemed more "isolationist," Ron Paul is remaining competitive in the polls while calling for radical retrenchment. "We have 900 bases around the world," he said last month before lamenting, "We're going broke."
The message reflects two realities. The race to see who will be Obama's re-election opponent next year is being driven almost entirely by concerns over taxes, joblessness, the deficit and other domestic debates. And despite a litany of international challenges that will certainly occupy much of the next commander in chief's time, economics must be part of how the United States acts in a changing world.
Yet the tone of the Republican discussions is also emblematic of how America has in many ways moved on from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a decade of foreign policy defined by the Bush administration's war on terror. The killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May and Obama's efforts to close out America's lengthy -- and fiscally draining -- missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have underscored the transition.
For better or worse, these policies now seem largely set in stone no matter who wins next year's election. The focus for many voters, and increasingly for the candidates, has turned to how foreign policy can augment U.S. economic recovery.
Take Mitt Romney's 59-point plan to rebuild America, which contains a set of foreign policy principles that few of his rival Republicans, or even Obama and leading Democrats, would find novel or objectionable. They include the need for a stronger military, enhanced "soft power" to bolster American influence around the world and steadfast alliances in Europe and the Middle East.
But within his economic plan is a contentious declaration that he'd proclaim China a currency manipulator and direct the Commerce Department to punish Chinese companies with higher import taxes. This is an issue that could gain traction in the election because it touches on lost U.S. manufacturing jobs and the rising anxieties of Americans as China closes in on overtaking the United States as the world's biggest economy.
The value of the yuan against the dollar has irked Republican and Democratic lawmakers for the last decade. Economists say the Chinese currency may be as much as 20 percent undervalued, and U.S. critics of China say this has cost the U.S. hundreds of thousands of jobs. But politicians have found it much easier to campaign on China's currency than to actually force the communist government to float its currency.
The Senate moved forward Monday with a bipartisan bill to punish China over its currency, but the legislation faces considerable hurdles before it becomes law. The Obama White House, while agreeing that the yuan is undervalued, has been wary of unilateral sanctions against Beijing. Major U.S. business groups share that concern and House GOP leaders have shown no interest in bringing the bill to a vote.
Three years ago, candidate Obama said the U.S. should "never hesitate" to confront China on issues such as copyright infringement and currency manipulation, yet his administration has largely limited itself to narrowly defined trade cases against Beijing and a series of threats aimed at pressuring China to revalue its money. Like President George W. Bush before him, Obama can cite small successes if not an overall solution to the problem.
Yet Romney's -- and the Senate's -- alternative path could risk a trade war between the U.S., the world's top importer, and China, the largest exporter and a holder of more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt. Its ability to retaliate against the United States could hamper U.S. exports, and mean even more lost American jobs.
With money tight, Americans also are increasingly bothered by foreign aid. Although U.S. assistance abroad amounts to only about 1 percent of the federal budget, a YouTube questioner at last week's debate summed up the perception of many voters when he asked: "When are we going to get someone in the White House that can stand up to these other countries and say you are not getting any more of our money? This is stupid."
That prompted Newt Gingrich to promote a "review of the whole program" and a plan to replace U.S. aid to foreign governments with an investment strategy that would encourage American companies to help other countries while creating American jobs. Washington is already involved in various such private-public strategies around the world, but that would hardly work as a one-fit approach to help governments fight terrorism, end civil wars, feed their people or eliminate deadly diseases.
Still, these ideas are likely to be among the most concrete policy proposals, and most popular with an American public that is primarily concerned with how to create new jobs and get the economy growing. Vague allegations that Obama has failed as a leader or weakened America's prestige may appeal to a smaller base of more militantly anti-Obama voters but are less likely to resonate much further.
Gingrich has toned down his criticism of Obama for supporting NATO's intervention in Libya, but Michele Bachmann still blames Obama's "weakness" for the Arab Spring revolts. The unrest swept out a few autocrats who were U.S. allies and opened what Bachmann says is a vacuum for Islamists.
Perry says the U.S. shouldn't be in the "business of adventurism" overseas, an argument few Democrats or Republicans would nitpick. GOP candidates have largely avoided the topic of al-Qaida or grudgingly commended Obama for the operation against bin Laden in Pakistan and the one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last week.
Few critiques of Obama's international leadership have really stuck, and the president's foreign policy performance has well outpaced his domestic achievements in polling. That has meant some of the biggest splashes of this still young campaign, on the international side, have come in the form of gaffes and oddball claims.
Perry stumbled over a question about what he would do if the Taliban seized Pakistan's nuclear weapons, and Bachmann has claimed the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah could be setting up shop in Cuba -- a suggestion that has yet to be substantiated in any way.
For all its eccentricity, Herman Cain's most memorable foreign policy suggestion was remarkable because it took an issue that was seemingly isolated from America's domestic economy and tried to bring it closer to home. Asked how to deal with a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, he offered U.S. energy independence as a solution.