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Presidential candidates are saying very dumb stuff about China. There’s a reason for that.

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Presidential candidates are really struggling to figure out how to talk about China's stock market crash.

Scott Walker demanded that President Obama cancel the Chinese president's upcoming state visit, I guess to punish China for its own economic problems. Chris Christie blamed Obama and the US debt for China's stock market problems (which is pretty silly). Bernie Sanders free-associated on Twitter about "Wall Street and the billionaire class." Donald Trump, a longtime China basher, argued that the US was too "tied in with China and Asia," which apparently means the US should somehow cut itself off from some of the world's largest markets.

"The scariest thing about Black Monday wasn’t the stock market fluctuations," Dan Drezner writes at the Washington Post. "No, the scariest thing was how one day of financial volatility was enough to make four presidential candidates ... say really stupid things about the Chinese economy and the Sino-American relationship."

But this barrage of word salad isn't really about China. Rather, it goes to show an odd problem in how American politics, particularly during presidential elections, deals with foreign policy: Presidential candidates are just not really allowed to acknowledge the limits of American power. They are expected to act as if they could fix every problem, everywhere. So that is why they feel compelled to act as if China's internal economic issues are something America could fix or even prevent, if only the right person sat in the White House.

This sounds especially ridiculous on China, but goes well beyond that

Chinese stock investors gather at a terminal in Fuyang (STR/AFP/Getty)

Chinese stock investors gather at a terminal in Fuyang. (STR/AFP/Getty)

This problem can be especially acute when it comes to China. China is the world's second-most-powerful country; while the United States can affect Chinese policy to a certain degree, the idea that the US can outright dictate to China (especially on its domestic economic policy) is laughable. And that's assuming there's an obvious policy solution to China's stock market, which is also not the case.

These candidates' comments on China is a pretty clear example of how empty campaign rhetoric can be when it comes to foreign policy. Here is a problem — China's stock market collapse — which is in no way solvable via American policy. Even Chinese policymakers don't have a good solution.

Yet the Chinese free fall scared American markets (at least on Monday), and so some candidates felt a need to propose some kind of American solution. There's no way to do that without looking ridiculous: The Chinese economy is just too much outside of America's control for any candidate to have a credible theory for how he'd make it better. Which is why each of the candidates' China statements ended up sounding pretty silly.

This overestimation of American power affects every element of the campaign foreign policy discussion, and explains why our campaign discourse often sounds so disconnected from reality. Presidents are expected to have easy-sounding solutions to just about any problem that crops up, and thus to assert that the White House can fix even things that are clearly outside of our control. The idea that a presidential candidate could come out and admit, "You know what, this is just outside of America's control," is politically unacceptable.

So the next time a candidate says something ridiculous about how he's going to make the world better in three easy steps, feel free to roll your eyes — but bear in mind that they're all doing this, at least in part, because it's what a lot of voters want to hear.

Americans want presidents to promise them everything

"Americans are fascinated by their presidents. And they like America's primacy in world politics," Harvard's Joseph Nye writes. "In the 2012 presidential campaign, both candidates vowed that American power was not in decline and they'd maintain American primacy. But how much are such promises within the power of presidents to keep?"

"Not that much" is the answer to Nye's question. Presidents aren't capable of stopping big changes like the economic rise of non-Western powers. Nor are they capable of changing fundamentally local dynamics, such as the nature of sectarianism in Iraq, that limit America's ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals. America's unparalleled political, military, and economic might can accomplish a lot of things — but it also has finite limits.

But no candidate would run on a platform of "many things are outside of our control, and we've got to accept that." That's not what their primary voters, potential donors, and campaign volunteers want to hear. And so, whenever there's a major foreign crisis, candidates will almost certainly take the opportunity to offer their plans to fix it — regardless of whether there's anything they can feasibly do.

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