It has become conventional wisdom these days that Republicans want the 2016 presidential contest to focus on foreign policy. While they seem to have a knack for critiquing what President Obama is doing in that arena, they are offering precious little by way of alternatives.

President Obama summarized his approach pretty well early on in his presidency when he gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Recently he added an interesting dynamic to that statement.

Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries [Burma, Cuba and Iran] far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities…

What has emerged is a pattern of working with our allies via partnership to take the risk of engagement with countries from whom we have been isolated as opponents.

In contrast, Senator Rubio and Governor Walker have now both gone on record saying that if they are elected president, they would opt out of any deal the U.S. and P5+1 countries might negotiate with Iran and reimpose sanctions. Additionally, Rubio said he would roll back the diplomatic ties President Obama is working on developing with Cuba. I suspect that before long, most 2016 Republican candidates will join them in making these promises.

What is clear is that they are rejecting the idea of working in partnership with our allies – which calls into question the line we’ve heard from some of them recently about how it is the President who is has lost the trust of our allies. Opting out of a potential deal with Iran would be a slap in the face to our European friends and returning to our Cold War posture with Cuba reignites resentment from our Central/South American neighbors.

While most of these 2016 candidates are comfortable publicly rejecting President Obama’s strategy of working in partnership with our allies, they stop short of discussing an alternative to his work on engaging our opponents. Once we’ve lost the support of our allies around the globe, what is their alternative to stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons? They fail to articulate one.

For example, listen to this hodgepodge on the subject from Senator Rubio as he acknowledges that his proposal to opt out of any deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions unilaterally will not be very effective.

But from the United States’ perspective, while we want our allies to join us in this endeavor, and certainly sanctions against Iran would be more effective were they in conjunction with our allies around the world, we have to look out for our own national security concerns. And in my mind, if the president wanted this to be a permanent deal that survived his presidency, he would have brought it to Congress.

Just as you expect him to finish his thought about how we “look out for our own national security concerns” with ineffective unilateral sanctions against Iran, he completely switches gears and says President Obama should bring the deal before Congress for approval. Kinda leaves you with a “WTF?” Doesn’t it?

At this point, we know that Hillary Clinton has expressed support for the outcomes of President Obama’s latest foreign policy initiatives. But it is not clear yet whether she would embrace his strategies of partnership and engagement.

These are the questions we should be paying attention to in a presidential contest focused on foreign policy.

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