Foreign Policy & National Security

January 14, 2024: Does Foreign Policy Influence Elections?

Posted on January 24, 2024 at 12:00 AM

By Catharin Dalpino, Member, PPC and Co-Leader of PPC's Intergenerational Outreach and Engagement Program

Does foreign policy influence elections? In the United States, the answer to this question has most often been no. In the 1992 presidential election George H.W. Bush discovered that vic-tory in the First Gulf War under his watch carried little weight, while Bill Clinton’s cam-paign slogan—It’s the economy, stupid”—carried the day. In most democracies, leaders are expected to deliver the goods, often literally. Voters are inclined to prioritize their economic situations, their personal values, and whether they find a candidate likable.

This is hardly surprising. Domestic issues dominate elections in most democracies. For much of US history the maxim that “politics stop at the water’s edge”—that foreign affairs had the widest area of bipartisan support of any field of public policy—provided little fodder for de-bate at election time.

However, this dynamic is changing. Bipartisan consensus has frayed—the water’s edge has all but disappeared. Except in times of national crisis, foreign policy is still unlikely to deter-mine the course of a major election. However, in the post-Cold War world, a broad range of new transnational threats, from terrorism to climate change, have emerged. Foreign and do-mestic issues are increasingly entangled; as a result, foreign policy has become more embed-ded in election campaigns, even if it is not given top billing.

Crisis Management

Historically, when the United States is at war, voters have been reluctant to change horses midstream, and the incumbent has had a strong advantage—this accounts in part for Frank-lin Roosevelt’s four terms in office. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 in the wake of the 2001 September 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How-ever, it did not become widely known that Bagdad did not in fact possess weapons of mass destruction that could threaten the United States—a claim that the Bush administration had used as a rationale for the war—until after the election.

But, a nation in crisis can turn away from an incumbent if a major foreign policy failure plays out in an election year. Jimmy Carter’s defeat in his re-election race against Ronald Reagan in 1980 was due in large part to his inability to secure the release of the US diplomats taken hostage in Iran. There is little doubt that the Iranians had taken note of this dynamic: the hostages were released on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.

The Impact of Vietnam

One of the rare occasions that foreign policy has dominated an election was in 1968, by which time public opinion was sharply divided over the Vietnam War. Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy, with the urging of some other Senate Democrats who feared that Lyndon Johnson would lose his bid for re-election, entered the race for the Democratic nomination on an anti-war platform. Although he lost the New Hampshire primary to Johnson, McCar-thy’s strong showing in second place persuaded Robert Kennedy to enter the race, also in op-position to the war. Dispirited, in March 1968 Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy and Kennedy battled through the spring primaries. However, when Kennedy was assassinated only minutes after winning the California primary, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race, with Johnson’s endorsement. The disarray within the Demo-cratic Party was on public display at the National Convention in Chicago, when police clashed with anti-war protestors outside the convention hall before television cameras.

Humphrey’s nomination was a denouement at best. Richard Nixon ran on claims that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, so secret that he could not reveal it to voters. When his administration took office in 1969, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, admitted that there had never been a plan. It would be four years, in 1973, before the Paris Peace Agreement was signed to end the US involvement in the war.

Playing the China Card

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, China has emerged as a consistent issue in US presidential elections. Although it has not reached the level of Vietnam in 1968, and is not likely to do so, running against China has become mandatory for presidential candidates. In previous decades, Democrats tended to criticize China on the campaign trail for its human rights policies—especially after the 1988 crackdown on Tiananmen Square—and to object to the impact of US–China trade on American labor. By contrast, Republicans pointed to secu-rity threats posed by China’s increased military forces, but the business wing of the party sought to protect the trade relationship with Beijing.

Although candidates were willing to take strong anti-China positions during the campaign, the centrality of China trade in the American economy usually made them move toward the center when they took office. The exception to this was Clinton, who made good on his 1992 campaign promise and attempted to link China’s Most-Favored Nation (MRN) status to im-provements in human rights. By 1994, however, strong resistance from the US business com-munity and Beijing’s refusal to comply with any of Clinton’s conditions for renewal of MFN made him drop the linkage and pursue a more moderate China policy for the remainder of his presidency.

However, times have changed, and the bipartisan consensus on China policy is stronger than at any time since US normalization with Beijing in the late 1970s. There are several reasons for this: disillusionment with China’s trade practices in the US business community; Beijing’s increasing aggression in the East China Sea and the South China Sea; the strategic expansion of the Chinese military; and China’s attempts to interfere in US elections. However, this new consensus does not mean that candidates for election will downplay China policy, but rather that they will attempt to outdo one another in challenging Beijing.

On this score, Taiwan will have a high profile in the 2024 US elections. Increasing tensions between Beijing and Taiwan, and China’s creeping incursions across the dividing line in the Taiwan Strait have produced an uptick of support for Taiwan among both Democrats and Re-publicans. The Taiwanese elections on January 13, in which the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), the island’s political party most at odds with Beijing, won re-election will give a timely boost to this issue in the US election campaigns.

However, Taiwan is one issue in which an American election campaign could have an impact on current foreign policy, instead the of the reverse. Extravagant rhetoric on the part of American politicians will exacerbate tensions in the Strait and between Washington and Bei-jing. In this regard, the Biden administration will face a unique challenge: Biden must take strong positions on China in the campaign, but his administration will need to ensure that the delicate balance in US–China relations is not capsized by the election.

Back To The Future?

Candidates in the 2024 US election for both the presidency and Congress will focus largely on domestic issues, but foreign policy stands to play a greater role than usual. It is increas-ingly difficult, if not altogether impossible, to ignore the closer connection between global issues and those that most impact Americans.

The severity of natural disasters, broadly viewed as the consequence of global warming, will give debates on energy a strong international dimension. Even the crisis on the US southern border, which may be the most prominent issue in the election, cannot be divorced from the economic and political conditions in other countries that have put greater pressure on the border. Republicans eschew the Democrats’ more comprehensive view, which includes the “root causes” that have accelerated migration around the world, and will argue that force alone can resolve these complex issues.

Underlying these issues is a more fundamental division between Democrats and Republicans in the 2024 election. The slate of candidates for the Republican nomination—and Donald Trump’s current place at the top of that list—show that the revival of American isolationism in 2016 was more deeply rooted than previously thought. To be sure, the ideology of “pulling up the drawbridge” has been present in American politics since independence; conflict be-tween internationalists and isolationists shaped decisions on whether and when the United

States would enter World War I and World War II. However, after WWII America’s ines-capable role as a superpower sidelined this issue for several decades. As a result, the United States plays a pivotal role in global security and the international economy.

The apparent inability of Americans to decide whether to remain in this role or to abandon it has set the world on edge. The course of the war in Ukraine and the trajectory of US–China relations are only two of the vital foreign policy issues that will be affected by the outcome of the election. Deeper still is the reliability of the United States as an ally and a trading part-ner. Some world leaders were willing to take a wait-and-see approach to the outcome of the 2016 election, but few are that sanguine in 2024. Nations largely refrain from commenting on other countries’ political contests when they are in play, but this year will be an excep-tion. Although it will have little influence on the campaign, international opinion will have a louder voice in the 2024 election because the outcome will reverberate around the world.

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