debate world

US Presidential debate worl

That Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump in the first debate between the party presidential nominees on September 26, 2016 is obvious. She was clear while he was confusing. She was self-possessed while he was easily baited. The differences were so obvious that they tended to obscure what their responses revealed about their respective geopolitics. A bare bones content analysis of the number of references to locations reveals much about their perspectives on global politics.

Unsurprisingly, both nominees mention the United States more than they do anywhere else. Within the United States, their references were almost entirely to general election battleground states and, with the exception of Tulsa, to major cities east of the Mississippi. The rest of the country was ignored.

Although Clinton bragged about visiting more countries, Trump referred to more foreign countries and referred to foreign countries more often. Neither used the names of foreign capitals as alternatives to their country references, a likely recognition that much of the viewing audience in the United States has a poor grasp of world geography.

The Middle East figures heavily in the geopolitical perspectives of the nominees. Trump referred to the Middle East as a region and to specific countries in the Middle East 25 times. Clinton referred to them 18 times. Trump and Clinton both referred to Iran more than to any other country they named. Trump mentioned Iran 10 times while Clinton mentioned Iran 8 times. Although both nominees met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu before the debate, neither referred to Israel directly. Trump did however comment on the unhappiness of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Much of the discussion of Iran involved its potential acquisition of nuclear weapons. Trump and Clinton obeyed the taboo against making any mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

Clinton and Trump both mentioned Russia and China repeatedly. Only Trump referred to Mexico and then only because of immigration and outsourcing. After the Middle East, the region receiving the most references was East Asia. Trump mentioned countries in the region 19 times while Clinton mentioned the region or countries in it 8 times. The many territorial disputes like that in the South China Sea that threaten peace in East Asia were ignored in the squabbling.

The Global South was largely ignored in the debate. Kenya was named once, the only reference to any country in Sub-Saharan Africa. There were no regional or single country references to the Caribbean, South America, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. So the regions and countries home to 70% of the planet’s population went missing in the geopolitics of the nominees.

That much of the planet was ignored in the debate was consistent with the narrow foreign policy focus. International trade and nuclear proliferation dominated the discussion. Climate change was the subject of a brief exchange but there was no discussion of global economic inequality or human rights. As such it is fair to conclude that this debate about international relations was intellectually impoverished.




Editor's Note: This is the first installment of the world as we know it from the 2016 presidential debates. Click here to read John's report from the second debate.

Illustration: the US Presidential debate world was created by – the base image was adapted from Brianski's File:BlankMap-World3.svg by Canuckguy and originally based on CIA's political world map via (public domain).

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.