Foreign policy could be a significant factor in US politics in this election year
As US President Joe Biden prepares to give his first State of the Union Address, high geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe might increasingly bring foreign policy into the 2022 congressional election-year debates, despite the fact that such contests usually center around domestic issues.
If international issues do become more salient in the upcoming US election campaign, it will not be the first time this has happened in recent years. In 2016, for instance, the very high prominence of international issues was illustrated by a Pew survey that found 34 percent of people believed foreign policy, especially efforts to tackle international terrorism, was the biggest challenge facing the country. “Only” 23 percent mentioned economic problems.
That data, showing a higher salience of foreign policy compared with economic issues, was very unusual in the context of the past few decades. Indeed, it resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when issues of international security dominated the concerns of US voters during presidential campaigns.
Since the early 1970s, in contrast, economic matters have tended to be the electorate’s highest priority. Just before the 2012 presidential election year, for instance, about 55 percent of US citizens questioned for a Pew survey cited economic worries as the most important factor facing the country. Only 6 percent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.
While foreign policy might not prove to be quite as salient for voters in 2022 as it was in 2016, there are a significant number of reasons why international affairs nevertheless will be prominent this year. Eastern Europe is not the only region where foreign policy might impinge on the US campaigning; also of interest are China and Iran, whose actions are being monitored closely in Washington, if not the nation at large.
Add to this, too, the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. While many in the US were lukewarm about, or opposed to, the continued US commitment to that nation, key mistakes were made in the botched withdrawal last year that have led to searching questions being asked about US military power.
While claims made at the time about the end of the “American era” of leadership were off the mark, US soft power and moral credibility have taken a hit among allies, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas. This is troublesome for Biden as he seeks to rebuild the global reputation of the US after the travails of the Donald Trump era.
In this context, it is likely that Biden will put increased emphasis on foreign policy, especially given his deep interest in international affairs. He is far from alone among US presidents in doing so. For instance, Richard Nixon scored a string of international successes in the second half of his first term, including a landmark trip to China in February 1972, as his domestic agenda stalled and he looked abroad for a legacy.
However, even if foreign and security policy returns to the forefront of the US electorate’s mind this year, there are significant differences between the situations now and during the first two decades of the Cold War.
That earlier period was characterized by a relative policy consensus and widespread bi-partisan cooperation on foreign and security matters. Today, this policy area is significantly more divisive, politically.
It is likely that Biden will put increased emphasis on foreign policy, especially given his deep interest in international affairs.
To be sure, that early Cold War consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did indeed exist until it broke apart in the late 1960s under the strain of the Vietnam War debacle and the demise of the notion of monolithic communism in light of the Sino-Soviet split.
No clear consensus on foreign and security policy has emerged in recent years. For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes toward the campaign against terrorism and the methods by which it is being fought; and on what the priorities of foreign policy should be.
Take the example of US Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida, who issued a statement on Tuesday in which he described the world as “a much more dangerous place today than before Biden took office.” He added that “after Afghanistan, Ukraine and negotiations toward an Iran deal, I shudder at the thought of three more years of incompetence, weakness and appeasement from the current administration.”
Far from rallying around the flag at a time of geopolitical tensions, he even claimed that the current tensions in Eastern Europe stem from “the results of a feckless US foreign policy of appeasement.”
It is therefore increasingly possible, especially if tensions remain high in Europe, that the salience of foreign and security issues could become a key aspect of American politics for the rest of this election year.
And that the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce the high rates of political polarization among the US electorate, and also the potential global interest in the race to boot.
- Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.