America’s Problem With World Leaderishness

If voters don’t care about foreign policy, why are the nation’s leading presidential contenders wasting their time talking about it?

It’s that time again. With the 2016 presidential campaign season in full swing, those of us in the foreign-policy community are doing what we always do: parsing the foreign-policy views of the candidates and predicting confidently that this time around, foreign-policy issues are going to play a decisive role at the polls. No, really! The American people are absolutely riveted by the details of the ongoing conflict in northern Yemen, not to mention the nuclear agreement with Iran.

In response, election analysts and pollsters are doing what they always do: rolling their eyes and informing us that American voters care about foreign policy exactly as much as they care about the life cycle of the Argentine stem weevil or the chemical composition of dirt.

“But, but, but — what about the Islamic State?” we splutter. “What about Russia? And China, and the Taliban, and … and … the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement?”

The election analysts and pollsters just snicker and roll their eyes. Foreign-policy issues don’t decide elections, they explain. In poll after poll, voters say they care most about classic domestic issues: jobs, economic growth, health care, and the like. They apparently worry a bit about terrorism, too, but they worry a lot more about the economy. During the 2014 midterm elections, for instance — in the midst of the crisis in Iraq and Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine — exit polls found that only 13 percent of voters considered foreign policy to have been a top issue in influencing their vote, compared to 45 percent who said the same about the economy, and 25 percent who considered health care a top issue. In other words, the experts tell us, people vote with their pocketbooks. It’s the economy, stupid.

Well, OK, OK, election experts! You win. I admit it: All the evidence seems to be on your side.

But it’s funny how no one seems to have explained this to the 2016 candidates. For an issue that supposedly doesn’t matter, foreign policy has been getting a whole lot of airtime in this campaign. Last month’s Republican debate featured Donald Trump asserting, “I will get along, I think, with Putin,” Carly Fiorina declaring that she wouldn’t even talk to Putin, Ted Cruz pledging to rip the Iran deal “to shreds,” and Jeb Bush promising “offensive tactics” against China.

Tuesday’s Democratic debate was no different: Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee kicked the evening off by reminding viewers that “Americans … will be electing a world leader,” not just a new president. Hillary Clinton declared her willingness to “make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos” and reminded viewers that as a former secretary of state, she has actual foreign-policy experience — unlike many of her rivals for the presidency. The candidates relitigated the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, discussed their views on military interventions, climate change, the Islamic State, and Chinese cyberwarfare, and generally worked hard to convince viewers of their foreign-policy wisdom and general world leaderishness.

If voters don’t care about foreign policy, why are the nation’s leading presidential contenders wasting their time talking about it?

I recently spent a day at a Fletcher School conference called “Foreign Policy Ideas on the Campaign Hustings,” and while I wouldn’t recognize a husting if I tripped over one on my way to the voting booth, I did come away from the conference with a few new theories about the role of foreign policy in elections, courtesy of the very smart people on the conference panels. In the end, I was convinced that foreign policy does matter in election campaigns — just not in the ways most easily captured by polls.

Here are several ways in which foreign policy may matter. First, as my FP colleague Kori Schake has suggested, maybe it’s a “gateway issue”: Voters need to be convinced that a candidate has enough knowledge, strength, and wisdom to handle foreign-policy matters, but once a candidate establishes minimal foreign-policy credibility, voters are content to leave the details to the experts. Establishing foreign-policy credentials isn’t sufficient to get anyone into the White House, but maybe it’s a necessary precondition.

Or perhaps voters use foreign policy as a proxy for evaluating character. Voters may not have any interest in foreign affairs, but they may still view it as a realm in which wisdom and leadership both matter; a candidate who seems persuasive on foreign-policy issues may come to be seen, in a more general way, as someone with strength and sound judgment — just the kind of person we need to fix the economy!

Foreign-policy issues may also play a role in establishing — or reinforcing — voter perceptions about how well the nation is doing, how well an incumbent is doing, and how well a political party is doing. A decade ago, the public perception that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was bellicose and reckless spilled over into voter perceptions of Republican domestic competence, helping Democrats paint a picture of Republicans as foolhardy, non-“reality-based” thinkers, who preferred simple fantasies to complex realities, lacked the ability to plan ahead, and had little compassion for ordinary people. Today, the perception that Barack Obama is “weak” in his response to foreign crises gives Republicans an opening to suggest that Democrats lack the strength to be true leaders, even on domestic issues.

Alternatively, here’s a cynical take: Foreign policy may not matter much to voters, but at this point in the campaign, voters don’t matter much to presidential candidates. Right now, the candidates are interested in big donors — and foreign policy does matter to most people in that group. So far, according to the New York Times, “just 158 families have provided nearly half of the early money” raised by the 2016 presidential candidates — and more than half of those 158 families draw their wealth from the finance or energy sectors, both of which are directly affected by global events.

There’s also a much less cynical explanation, though. Maybe the presidential candidates spend time talking about foreign policy because they understand that if elected, they won’t have the luxury of deciding that the whole subject’s not very interesting. Maybe, just maybe, they understand that the foreign-policy decisions of American presidents can strengthen or shatter foreign economies, prop up or topple governments, and save or destroy the lives of countless human beings. Maybe they even understand that the “foreign” is no longer very foreign, and the decisions American presidents make about war, peace, trade, and diplomacy will have direct repercussions for the American people.

I’d like to believe that the 2016 presidential contenders and their advisors understand this. If not, maybe those of us in the foreign-policy community need to remind them: U.S. foreign policy may not matter to electoral outcomes, but it most definitely matters to the world.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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