Foreign policy is shaping US politics in this presidential election year and here’s why

Foreign policy is shaping US politics in this presidential election year and here’s why

Foreign policy is shaping US politics in this presidential election year and here’s why
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wait to enter the venue of his rally in Greensboro. (Reuters)
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The 2024 US presidential election increasingly looks likely to be a repeat of the 2020 contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. However, there is one striking difference between these two big US election years: the significantly higher salience of international issues this time around.
About 40 percent of respondents in a recent poll, carried out by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, named foreign policy as a key issue in ballots this year. That is about twice as many as those who highlighted international issues in an AP-NORC poll a year ago.
The troubles in the Middle East since the attacks by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7, and the subsequent Israeli military offensive in Gaza, have fueled US voter concerns about the geopolitical landscape, alongside ongoing concerns about the war in Ukraine and the possibility of wider challenges too, including China’s posture toward Taiwan.
Immigration is another issue increasingly on the minds of US voters. The latest poll found that 35 percent of people were concerned about it, especially as it relates to the border between the US and Mexico, compared with 27 percent a year earlier.
If international issues continue to be so salient for the rest of the US presidential campaign, it will not be the first time this has happened in the past decade. In 2016, for instance, the 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 at that time. In contrast, only 23 percent emphasized economic problems.
However, such data showing the higher salience of foreign policy in the minds of the American public compared with economic issues is unusual in recent decades. Indeed, it more closely resembles the situation during the first 25 years of the Cold War, between 1948 and 1972, when issues of international security dominated the concerns of US voters during presidential campaigns.
Since the early 1970s, however, economic matters have tended to be the highest priority for the US electorate. This was the case during the 2020 Biden-Trump race when, in the first year of the pandemic, the US economy spun into recession with unusually high, rapid increases in levels of unemployment. By October 2020, more than 10 million unemployment cases had been filed.
While foreign policy is still not nearly as important to voters this year as it was during the early years of the Cold War, there are nonetheless a significant number of reasons why international affairs will remain prominent this year.
For one thing, Russia appears to be making a steady series of gains in Ukraine and if this continues it could reach a crisis point for the West in the months to come.
Secondly, the risk of conflict escalation in the Middle East remains very high. Since the attacks by Hamas five months ago, in which about 1,200 people were murdered, an estimated 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in the subsequent Israeli attack on Gaza. This has inflamed public opinion across the region, which is at its most febrile point in years. 

About 40 percent of respondents in a recent poll named foreign policy as a key issue in ballots this year.

Andrew Hammond

Meanwhile, a significant proportion of US voters are concerned about the potential for a crisis in the Asia-Pacific as well, possibly over Taiwan. This would create a third major source of international conflict for the US and its Western allies at a time when resources are increasingly stretched.
Yet even if such foreign policy concerns continue to grow in salience to the American public this year, possibly through heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific, there will still be significant differences between the situation now and during the first few decades of the Cold War.
That earlier period was characterized by a relative consensus on policy and widespread bipartisan cooperation on foreign affairs.
Now, however, this policy domain is significantly more divisive, politically. Certainly, the early Cold War consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did exist in the years immediately following the Second World War, at least 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 foreign policy consensus has emerged in the US in recent years; if anything, the gaps are widening. Even before Trump became president, many Republicans and Democrats differed significantly on how they viewed the power and standing of the US internationally, on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist, in their attitudes toward the fight against terrorism and the methods it should employ; and on the very priorities of foreign policy.
These divisions have only grown since Trump’s election victory in 2016, and this year we have seen significantly divergent US grand strategies: Trump’s familiar “America First” view versus Biden’s internationalist vision, which is much more similar in nature to the foreign policies of both his Republican and Democratic predecessors in the post-war era.
The increasing polarization of foreign policy also reduces the scope for the longstanding tradition of Americans “rallying around the flag” in times of geopolitical tensions. This has been illustrated by some Republicans blaming current tensions of this nature on Biden’s presidency.
For example, US Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, a Republican member of Congress from Florida, condemned what he described as “the results of a feckless (Biden) US foreign policy of appeasement.” He suggested the world was “a much more dangerous place today than before Biden took office … After Afghanistan, Ukraine and negotiations toward an Iran deal, I shudder at the thought of more incompetence, weakness, and appeasement from the current administration.”
It is, therefore, increasingly plausible, especially if the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East continue into the second half of the year, that the salience of international issues in the minds of American voters could remain high on election day in November.
Moreover, partisan splits on foreign policy will reinforce the high degree of political polarization in the US, potentially elevating the global interest in the race.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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