The China election

The China election

It is conventional wisdom that U.S. elections seldom turn on foreign-policy issues. Armies travel on their stomachs and so do American voters. It’s all about the pocketbook. But every so often the pocketbook has a foreign-policy component, which is the case this year — and it has led to a rather extraordinary shift.

This is the first election in U.S. history in which the most important foreign-policy issue is China. It won’t be the last.

Two years ago we had one of those rare elections in which foreign policy mattered. But back then, even in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the foreign-policy focus was on the Iraq War, which served as a referendum on the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror. In 2004 and 2006, the war on terror was the dominant foreign-policy issue. In 2000 foreign policy was not central, but to the extent it played a role, it was it was all about the vision for U.S. leadership in the post-Cold War era. The 1996 vote had a similar theme, plus some focus on the ongoing small wars, notably the upsets in the former Yugoslavia. The 1992 election was influenced by the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War. During the Reagan Era Cold War issues drove the agenda. Jimmy Carter was bounced from office largely due to his impotence in the face of the Iranian hostage crisis. Prior to that Vietnam and the Cold War were central from 1964-1972.

But during this election cycle the subject of the United States’ two wars hardly came up. It is in fact, a tribute to the Obama administration’s handling of those wars that, despite their potential to create the formation of political fault lines, they have not. On the contrary, they are one of the few areas in which there is a seeming confluence of views between the parties.

But if you look at campaign ads and listen to campaign rhetoric, China repeatedly arose. China was cited as our top economic rival and as an unfair competitor because of its currency policy, its potential to overtake the U.S. as a global economic leader, and especially its impact on U.S. workers. The giant sucking sound is coming from across the Pacific these days. But unlike that sound in the days of wacky Ross Perot, this time the giant sucking sound is accompanied by the ominous rumblings of a rising superpower — that many politicians running this year had no problem framing as the United States’ natural enemy in the 21st Century.

Much of it was demagoguery. But there was no other foreign policy issue that competed with it for prominence … with the exception of immigration in the border states; a coincidence that reflects a broader theme of turning inward, protectionism and isolationism that threatens to alter the fundamental nature of U.S. international engagement in the long run.

Call it what you will, but this election won’t be the last in which China plays such a central role. This administration is also the first, as has been noted here in the past, for which the relationship with China was paramount among all those the United States has worldwide. It was also the first during which China played a central role in an issue outside its region — as in the case of its important role in the Iranian nuclear issue. It was also the first during which Chinese views began to play a central role driving important international discussions — from climate, to currency, to coordinating the global economic recovery.

It looks like President Obama’s first major visitor of the new year will be Chinese President Hu Jintao. That is no coincidence either.

There are big shifts afoot this election day. And despite what you may read in tomorrow’s papers, they have precious little to do with how many House seats the Republicans pick up in these midterm elections.