Presidential debate: Foreign policies of Obama, Romney miss the meaning of ‘peace on earth’

October 23, 2012

Dr. Scott Redd, Jr. is the president and assistant professor of Old Testament at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Reformed Theological Seminary and a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric on display during Monday night’s presidential debate did not reveal a clear distinction between the foreign policy platforms of the two presidential candidates.  Both former governor Romney and President Obama laid out a vision that could best be articulated as “peace on earth and good will toward men.”

I recognize that ambitious language describing such lofty goals is the lingua franca of a foreign policy tradition that goes back for centuries, if not millennia. The presidential candidate who does not set forth a plan for world peace and unencumbered freedom, might as well declare his own defeat. The problem is, of course, that no administration in the history of the United States, or any other country for that matter, has ever come close to realizing this ambitious vision for the world. 

It seems that American presidential politics is comprised of a special blend of political realism and messianic posturing that might move the undecided voter dials on CNN but don’t do much of a service to the American people. Global problems such as murderous tyrannies, gender inequality, crippling poverty, terrorist states, ethnic aggression and the oppression of the weakest members of society are not merely problems of foreign policy.  These problems are matters of ideas, yes, but they are more profoundly matters of the human heart, and the human heart resists change via either the stick of militaristic pressure or the carrot of foreign aid.

As an American I understand the use of ambitious rhetoric about “peace on earth” in Monday night’s debate, but as a Christian I find it a bit unsettling.

For the world to embrace true peace, individuals and collective groups need to embrace peace based upon a genuine belief in and love of basic human dignity. Such a belief is hard won, but not by foreign policy.  At best foreign policy can provide the impermanent peace that nurtures such a belief to grow in the hearts and minds of a people.  American foreign policy is most effective in this regard when it remains realistic about the goals it seeks to achieve.

The United States currently enjoys a rare role in a rare moment in world history, a role of unsurpassed leadership and strength in a moment of complex unrest.  The next president of the United States will need to approach the world with an optimistic engagement matched with a realistic perspective about the state of the human heart. 

During the debate, Obama invoked a line from foreign policy discourse when he declared that “America remains the one indispensable nation.”  Romney closed with the statement, “this nation is the hope of the earth.”  All nods to political rhetoric aside, I hope and trust that both candidates understand the hyperbole in those statements.

The role of the United States around the globe is crucial, but it is the role of the steward. Our country’s vast resources can be employed to preserve peace and freedom where it currently exists and to advance it where violence thrives. The hope for everyone’s future, however, ultimately is not in the hands of one country, or even a coalition of countries, but rather in the deeply personal, intimate transformation of human hearts around the world. 

That transformation depends on a force much more persuasive than American foreign policy; it depends on the grace of a living God who is willing to suffer our violence in exchange for his abiding peace.  This was the hope proclaimed at the birth of Jesus Christ, and it remains the hope for our world, in and through his death and resurrection.

After the lofty rhetoric of the debate, we’d do well to remember that ultimately world peace cannot be brought about by American foreign policy.  The sacrifices of our nation for the sake of peace around the world are significant and meaningful because every human bears the hope that one day the world will see true and lasting peace. 

The irony is that truly lasting peace cannot be won by military strength and foreign aid.  Lasting “peace on earth and good will toward men” requires the transformation of the human heart and that is the work of God not nations.

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