By Jamie Crawford
Editor’s Note: Over the next week, CNN's national security reporters and producers will be looking at some of the most poignant differences between the two candidates on the most pressing foreign policy issues. Watch for the stories all week on CNN. More from Election Center
The protests and violence at American diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa last week steered the 2012 presidential race into somewhat unchartered territory - a debate over U.S. foreign policy.
While the topic certainly has not been absent in the rhetorical sparring between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, most of the campaign's focus thus far has been a battle over who has the best prescription to jolt a seemingly sluggish economic recovery.
But that changed last week. Romney's charge the United States was too quick to condemn a film that insulted Muslims before condemning the violence directed at American diplomatic missions abroad spurred Obama's claim that Romney had a tendency to "shoot first and aim later." And all this talk has opened a window on an area that is sure to consume a great deal of attention for whomever sits in the Oval Office next January.
The list of foreign policy challenges facing the United States is daunting - including an awakening in the Arab world with a direction still unknown, a looming nuclear crisis with Iran and an uncertain future in Afghanistan (and neighboring Pakistan) once U.S. troops withdraw in 2014.
And let's not forget a bloody civil war in Syria, where the fate of thousands of biological and chemical weapons also hang in the balance. Then there are fiscal issues, from debt crises plaguing Europe to economic and geo-political challenges posed by a rising China.
Here is a look at some of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the United States, and how the candidates who seek to lead the country approach them.
As the tension over Iran's disputed nuclear program ratchets up in the face of Israeli discord over the pace of current sanctions designed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, both Obama and Romney agree that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.
"We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Obama said in a press conference earlier this year alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Obama administration and European Union have launched parallel sanctions designed to squeeze Iran's petroleum sector and bring the economy to its knees as an incentive to get Iran to give up any military dimensions to its nuclear program.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Romney said he would draw the same line as Obama when it comes to Tehran's nuclear capacity.
"My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world."
What ultimately constitutes that red line, though, is seemingly different for both men. For Obama, the Iranian government would have to take direct steps to actually acquire a weapon (which U.S. intelligence does not believe has happened yet), while Romney has said merely having a "nuclear capability" without actually moving ahead to produce a weapon would be a tipping point.
In Syria, where the carnage of the last year and a half has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the fate of the country's large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and whether to arm the opposition forces battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has drawn out differences between the two candidates.
What would trigger either overt or covert military involvement from the United States inside Syria?
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to the other players on the ground, that a red line for us is (when) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said in a White House press conference last month. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
As to supporting al-Assad's opposition, the administration has provide funds and non-lethal equipment like communications gear. In addition, the CIA is aiding in vetting rebel members for other countries who may be providing arms on their own.
For Romney, the Obama administration's policy of not providing arms to the Syrian opposition - whose character and composition is still uncertain, according to administration officials - is a mistake. The former Massachusetts governor supports greater American involvement in Syria.
"Instead of watching what's happening in Syria from a dispassionate distance, I would be leading in Syria by encouraging our friends there like the Turks and the Saudis to provide weapons to the insurgents in Syria," he said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual briefing this summer.
MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
No single foreign policy issue has bedeviled more U.S. presidents than the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Unlike previous presidents, for whom Mideast peace was mainly a focus in their second term, Obama entered office determined to work with all parties involved in the process to find a workable plan. But the effort did not go far, as the Israeli government continued to construct settlements in Palestinian areas and a unilateral quest for statehood by the Palestinians at the United Nations brought talks to a halt.
The relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cool, and while they have put on a public face of U.S./Israeli solidarity when they meet, it is understood the two don't have much of a personal rapport. Romney and Netanyahu, on the other hand, have a relationship that goes back decades from the time they were colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group.
While the style and rhetoric of Obama and Romney's approach to the Middle East may differ, there are rather modest differences in the substance of their positions on the conflict's root issues. Both men say their personal view is that Jersualem is the capital of Israel, but that issue must be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians - a policy shared by previous presidential administrations, from both parties.
In a May 2011 speech at the State Department, Obama called for a two-state solution based on borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day war. He also proposed "mutually agreed swaps" of land as a basis of negotiations. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer during a visit to Jersualem this past July, Romney would not comment on what borders he'd propose, but said, "I will leave that to the negotiating parties themselves."
Throughout the campaign, Romney has accused Obama of "throwing allies like Israel under the bus" and not giving due credence to Israeli concerns over Iran. He has also pledged Israel would be the first country he would visit as president.
But while the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is well documented, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN in July that the bond between Israel and the United States are "stronger and deeper than ever" under Obama.
Both presidential contenders have said they respect Israel's sovereign right to defend itself against perceived threats - an apparent reference to Israeli apprehensions over Iran's nuclear program.
With the war in Afghanistan set to enter its twelth year in October, U.S. forces are on schedule to end their combat role by the end of 2014. The current plan calls for only a small number of American troops to remain to train Afghan forces.
After years of military focus on Iraq, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009. At its peak, there were about 100,000 U.S. forces in the embattled country, intent on wrestling back control of areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan that had been taken over by the Taliban. That boost of troops was temporary and, by the end of September, all 30,000 extra troops will have been removed.
While Romney has called Obama's policy in Afghanistan a politically timed retreat, there is little evident daylight between them as to how they'd approach the U.S. military effort.
"Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," Romney said this month in a speech before a National Guard Association meeting in Reno, Nevada. "I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders," he said.
That's not much different than what Obama said last month, during a visit to the Army base of Fort Bliss in Texas.
"Next year, Afghans will take the lead for their own security. In 2014, the transition will be complete," he said then.
It's what happens once military operations cease where differences between the two candidates come into view.
"We are pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban," Obama earlier this year, explaining his administration's policy of supporting reconciliation by all elements of Afghan society so long as minority and women's rights are respected, and violence is renounced.
Negotiating with the Taliban is a dangerous prospect, according to Romney.
"We don't negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban. That's something for the Afghans to decide how they're going to ... pursue their course in the future," he said last year during a Republican primary debate.
FUTURE OF THE MILITARY
As commander in chief of the U.S. military, President Obama differs from Romney on what they see as the types of weapons and numbers of troops needed to defend the country.
In his remarks and position papers released by his campaign, Romney champions a large conventional force supplemented by 100,000 extra troops, which would bolster the entire military force to over 1.5 million.
"We must have a commitment," he said last week at an event in Virginia, "not just to more ships and more aircraft, but also, in my view, to more members of our armed forces."
In addition to extra troops, Romney has pledged to increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 new vessels a year, modernize existing weapons systems and establish a multilayered ballistic missile defense system. Romney has not said how he would pay for any of these measures.
With the war in Iraq over and military operations in Afghanistan winding down, Obama has said he wants to cut $500 billion in defense spending over the next decade. He does not support a second round of $500 billion in cuts that may take effect in January if Congress cannot reach an agreement on the federal budget.
The cuts in Obama's budget would get rid of older ships while delaying the construction of newer ones. His military would place more emphasis on small special forces teams that can deploy to hotspots worldwide, as well as the continued use of unmanned drones.
While drones and special forces would also play a role in Romney's defense strategy, the former governor says a strong and robust military is necessary to preserve America's leadership position in the world.
From the early days of his campaign up to the present, Romney has maintained that China - through its monetary policy and trade practices - is cheating Americans out of good jobs and opportunities, as well as stealing its intellectual property and know-how.
"If I'm president of the United States, I will finally take China to the carpet and say, 'Look you guys, I'm gonna label you a currency manipulator and apply tariffs unless you stop those practices," he said at a campaign event earlier this year.
Like previous administrations, Obama has not taken the step of designating China a "currency manipulator" out of concern such a move could start a trade war with a nation that enjoys a $200 billion trade surplus with the United States and holds even larger sums of U.S. debt. But Obama has brought lawsuits against Beijing at the World Trade Organization.
"We're going to continue to be firm in insisting that they operate by the same rules that everybody else operates under," he said last year at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.
On the sensitive issue of Taiwan, Obama has signed off on arms sales to the island - which China considers a renegade province - but he has refused to sell them advanced F-16 fighter jets. Romney has said he would sell additional arms to Taiwan and confront China more forcefully on its human rights record.
With Russia, Obama came to office looking to "reset" a relationship that become strained when George W. Bush was president. He negotiated a new arms control agreement, and Russian assent to opening crucial supply lines for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
As to Romney, earlier this year, he told CNN that Russia was, "without question, our number one geopolitical foe." He has said he will re-evaluate the arms control treaty, and will confront the Kremlin on its human rights record.
"Under my presidency, our friends will see more loyalty and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone," Romney said at the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Romney has taken issue with the Obama administration's cancellation of plans, under Bush, to put missile defense components in Poland. But it should be noted that the United States is involved with, and supports, a NATO-sponsored missile defense shield that would host interceptors, ships and radars in Poland, Romania, Spain and Turkey. Russia has repeatedly voiced its disagreement with the NATO plan.
For an issue that was front and center for the past decade, and took the country to war, terrorism has not gotten the attention it once did on the campaign trail.
The Obama administration has emphasized the use of unmanned drones to take out terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. They have been used more frequently than during the Bush administration, and are seen as an effective tool of counter-terrorism that does not put U.S. troops in harms way.
But while the use of drones has expanded, Obama said deciding to deploy them presents significant challenges.
"That's something that you have to struggle with," Obama told CNN's Jessica Yellin in a recent interview. "If you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country."
And while he moved to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of his administration, those efforts were blocked by Congress. He supports military tribunals for accused terrorists, but says he would like to see justice in federal courts.
For Romney, terrorists should be treated as enemy combatants, jailed at Guantanamo and tried by the military. He has said he would also allow more aggressive interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.
Obama eliminated the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration such as waterboarding, labeling such practices as torture. Romney has not specified what type of techniques his administration would employ.