Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus Leader Alexander Lukashenko Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The presidential debate Tuesday devolved into a political food fight, where assaulting speech became a verbal pie in the public’s face. Lost in the noise was any calm substance or serious questions about foreign policy.

The 21st-century debate now produces more heat than light. These exercises allow candidates to target a sliver of Americans in a handful of states who somehow remain undecided. More important, they aim to excite and motivate the majority of already decided voters to go mark their ballots.

Debates are not ideological jousts about America’s role in the world. They are mostly focused on domestic challenges. The new twist in 2020? An incumbent president unbecomingly used the platform to launch wild attacks on his opponent instead of telling, for example, Russia’s Vladimir Putin to stuff it.

Foreign policy is increasingly important to everyday life in the United States. Most Americans understandably are more concerned right now with fighting an invisible virus, getting their kids to school and holding on to jobs. But what happens in Wuhan does not stay in Wuhan. Foreign policy matters.

Americans should, however, take a breath — through their masks — and look through their fogged-up glasses at the various hot spots around the globe. They may end up feeling safer locked up at home, socially distant from troubles near and far.

Latin America provides plenty of fodder, and the usual suspects are hard at work making things tough for their neighbors and their own populations. Cuba and Nicaragua struggle to balance their own shortages and others’ sanctions to deliver a modicum of services and security. The Castro successors in Havana and the endless Ortega family business in Nicaragua govern with an iron fist. Political change threatens their power, and they avoid it at all costs.

Scoot down the map a bit to Venezuela to see an ongoing disaster — a Caracas run further into the ground by Nicolás Maduro and his ruling clique. Nothing that has been done during the past four years has moved the leadership in Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela closer to the exit door. In fact, the policies of the recent past have further entrenched these dictatorial regimes.

In fact, American actions and rhetoric have made it easier for Havana, Managua and Caracas to jail opposition leaders and drive its victimized citizens into neighboring countries. To add insult to injury, Donald Trump was secretly establishing Havana business ties while courting Cuban Americans with tough anti-Cuba talk, el Nuevo Herald just revealed.

The problems go beyond Latin America. People are on the move from Syria and Libya, desperate humans trying their hardest to escape civil wars. In both countries, civilians are Russian and Turkish pawns caught in punishing proxy wars.

And now, Armenia and Azerbaijan are waging a hot war. High-tech drones drop out of the sky to smoke dug-in tanks and artillery. Previously unthinkable battles have become phantasmagorical viral videos. This battle, too, is growing into an indirect Russia-Turkey conflict. Ankara sides with the Azeris while Moscow joins its former Soviet sister state, Armenia. France might jump in, too.

The mother of all potential foreign conflicts, however, continues to brew in one of the most volatile regions on Earth — between India and Pakistan. These neighbors always seem on the threshold of open conflict. India and Pakistan have opposing claims of historic autonomy in Kashmir and Jammu. There is also a social, cultural and geopolitical reality that animates these tensions.

Hindu nationalism increasingly drives India’s domestic politics, while Pakistan flexes its Muslim muscle and tightens its China ties. With Beijing in the mix, China is both girding and goading Pakistan to rev up its revulsion toward India, especially following China’s recent Himalayan border skirmish with the Indian military. It didn’t turn out well for either of the two most populous nations on Earth. There was no satisfactory resolution to the military deaths or the dispute along the two nations’ Line of Actual Control. Tensions could flare again between nuclear-armed China, India and Pakistan. The good news? Some political theorists believe possessing nukes prevents nations from using them on each other.

Elsewhere, Russia is dallying with Belarus’ embattled President Alexander Lukashenko, with Moscow worrying a nearby domino could fall. Turkey continues to troll Greece by testing Athens’s resolve and America’s support in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Around the world, any cross-border agitation could blow up. U.S. presidential elections are always an opportune moment for foreign trouble-making and inflamed tensions. Elections are exciting, but they are also distracting.

That there was no foreign-policy discussion in the first presidential debate is one sign that America is no longer watching the shop.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).