By Rick Wilkin, AFP

Mitt Romney reacts as President Obama makes a point during the third presidential debate on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

President Obama and Mitt Romney squared off in the third and final presidential debate Monday night, this time focused solely on foreign policy.

College students looking for markedly different foreign policy visions, however, were likely to be disappointed, as many post-debate analyses focused on the degree to which both presidential candidates actually agreed on many key issues.

At the heart of that agreement may be the rarely cited fact that, despite what viewers may feel from cable news reports, the world is more peaceful today than ever before.

“Students are entering the world in one of its most peaceful times ever, and I would stress the relative lack of traditional security threats in the world,” said Andrew Reiter, a professor at Mount Holyoke College.

In fact, annual deaths from war worldwide during the 21st century amount to just one-third the number of war deaths annually during the Cold War (1950-1989) and one-tenth the number during the years of World War II.

Reiter emphasized that the interconnectedness of globalization and information technology makes news of conflict and unrest more likely to distort viewers’ perceptions. He also noted that the emerging threats from 21st-century globalized processes such as global warming and the global economic crisis may form the basis for future conflict.

The presidential debate focused on narrow discussions of the president’s responses to recent events in Libya and Syria. It did not focus on the next president’s vision for predicting the causes of these future crises, an omission international relations experts were quick to point out.

“We live in a complex world and you can’t convey that complexity in two-minute sound bites,” Judy Krutky said, an adjunct and visiting scholar at the Rand Corporation, a non-partisan think tank.

Reiter noted that the list of debate questions released before the event focused almost entirely on the Middle East.

“U.S. foreign policy has turned almost completely into U.S.-Middle East relations,” he said.

He said six countries dominated the discussion: Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.

Commentator David Frum noticed that little attention was paid to the drug war in Mexico, tweeting: “Why are 30,000 dead in Syria worth 15 mins and 30,000 dead in Mexico not worth mentioning?”

He also noted that the euro crisis, arguably the foreign crisis with the greatest weight on the American worker, was not mentioned: “Anything interesting happen in Europe recently?”

Reiter said that much of the need to focus on the Middle East morass today was likely a result of the U.S.’s laser focus on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. He said the new focus on the Middle East might allow threats to percolate in Latin America and Africa. Climate change and its ability to affect “access to food and water in the world” was one issue that might escalate into an international disaster in the future, he said.

Krutky, who develops interdisciplinary international studies curricula for college students, emphasized that it is this complex array of economic, social, cultural, political and environmental that combine in creating 21st-century security threats.

She said she hoped to impart on her students an understanding of the myriad of ways that issues as diverse as brain science and sustainability are vital to the problem solvers of the future.

“Traditional majors are too narrow,” said Krutky, also a professor at Baldwin Wallace University. “There’s a trend in higher education toward interdisciplinary studies.”

For instance, she said that an issue like global warming might only raise gas prices in a temperate and affluent region like California.

“But in the Sahel, with the desert expanding, people don’t have a choice to forgo certain goods. They don’t have higher incomes and they can’t find a substitute. This makes these regions ripe for inflation and ripe for civil unrest.”

“We live in an era of the rapid expanse of information,” Krutky said. “You can’t learn all the facts, so you need judgment to know what’s salient.”

The U.S. military is also integrating these global approaches in how it trains soldiers to cope with today’s challenges.

Arthur Bush, a senior in ROTC at the University of Georgia, said his Army Reserves training each month emphasized cultural awareness modules in each component.

“At every training event, culture is forced into our heads,” he said.

The Army has increased pay to soldiers learning foreign languages critical to national defense. Bush said he receives extra money in his paycheck each month through the Critical Language Incentive Pay Program because he is studying Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Sub-Saharan Africa. That program began in 2008.

The Army also established a cultural immersion program for ROTC cadets in 2010, which took 1,200 cadets this summer to 40 different nations to learn about the social, cultural and historical aspects of a particular country.

Each program is designed to help soldiers gain a global mindset and awareness of cultures other than their own. Having been exposed to a foreign country early makes the adjustment to deployment easier when they become officers.

“You know you’ll be deployed at some point. You just don’t know how far away it is,” Bush said.

These training programs will not only make soldiers safer and more effective in their jobs. They will make forging a world that reflects American values more likely.

“U.S. leaders need to realize that democracy, human rights and the rule of law have universal appeal, but that they are not one-size-fits-all,” Reiter said. “They need to be tailored to different societies depending on their unique histories and cultures.”

Ryan Prior is a Fall 2012 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent. Learn more about him here.

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