Everything you ever wanted to know about American foreign policy campaign promises

As the economy has been weakening, the odds of the GOP producing the president of the United States in 2013 has been increasing, which means I’ve been watching the debates, including last night’s CNN Tea Party debate. Last night’s debate followed the same pattern as the other ones I’ve seen — the ratio of domestic ...

As the economy has been weakening, the odds of the GOP producing the president of the United States in 2013 has been increasing, which means I've been watching the debates, including last night's CNN Tea Party debate.

Last night's debate followed the same pattern as the other ones I've seen -- the ratio of domestic policy to foreign policy questions was about 80:20 -- maybe 70:30 if one considers immigration to be a foreign-policy question. International political economy is barely addressed at all, except in glancing references to China's ownership of U.S. debt. My Twitter feed has been overflowing with laments like this one during all of the debates.

Now, as a Foreign Policy Wonk in Good Standing, you might imagine that I'm pretty upset about this. International relations is half the job of being POTUS, after all, so one would expect half the debate time to be devoted to it. Goodness knows, the performance of some of the GOP candidates has given me serious pause about their ability to execute even a semi-competent foreign policy.

As the economy has been weakening, the odds of the GOP producing the president of the United States in 2013 has been increasing, which means I’ve been watching the debates, including last night’s CNN Tea Party debate.

Last night’s debate followed the same pattern as the other ones I’ve seen — the ratio of domestic policy to foreign policy questions was about 80:20 — maybe 70:30 if one considers immigration to be a foreign-policy question. International political economy is barely addressed at all, except in glancing references to China’s ownership of U.S. debt. My Twitter feed has been overflowing with laments like this one during all of the debates.

Now, as a Foreign Policy Wonk in Good Standing, you might imagine that I’m pretty upset about this. International relations is half the job of being POTUS, after all, so one would expect half the debate time to be devoted to it. Goodness knows, the performance of some of the GOP candidates has given me serious pause about their ability to execute even a semi-competent foreign policy.

In truth, however, I can’t get all that worked up about it, for two reasons. The first is that these debates are an attempt to influence voters — and, to repeat a theme, the overwhelming majority of voters do not care about foreign affairs. This has been true as a general rule, even during wartime, and is even truer during a down economy. It should be noted that social policy questions have also been on the margins during these debates because this election is about the economy, the economy, and the economy. Foreign-policy wonks will begrudge the lack of globotalk — that’s what we do. I’m not going to begrudge the American people getting more time to hear candidates talk about issues that they think are the most important, however.

The second reason — and this is more informed speculation than a statement of fact — is that foreign-policy promises made during campaigns don’t matter as much for governing as domestic policy promises. As Ron Paul reminded people last night, George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 on a platform of "no authority in the Constitution to be the policeman of the world, and no nation-building." I think it’s safe to say that’s not how he ran his foreign policy.

Similarly, think back to Barack Obama’s foreign-policy pledges during the 2008 primary season. He had two highlights. The first was a statement that he’d be happy to sit down without conditions and meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That hasn’t happened despite Ahmadinejad’s repeated entreaties for an open debate. Obama’s other highlight came when he and Hillary Clinton sparred over who would renegotiate NAFTA first. Again … that hasn’t happened (and thank goodness for that).

I could go on — Bill Clinton reversed his campaign pledge to let in Haitian refugees before he even took office. You get the point, however. Stepping back, it’s hard to think of any significant foreign-policy campaign promises made in the modern era that actually mattered. I hereby challenge the commenters — and BA and MA students desperately in search of a thesis — to provide counterexamples.

To be clear, I’m not saying that foreign-policy issues are completely irrelevant. The contrast between Obama and Hillary Clinton on Iraq clearly affected the 2008 primary, for example. I’m hypothesizing that pronouncements about future foreign policy don’t seem to matter. I suspect that this is for two reasons. First, as previously noted, voters don’t care about these pledges all that much. Second, the world keeps changing, and so any new president needs to adapt to new circumstances.

In contrast, domestic policy promises made during campaigns do matter. Signal statements — Obama on health care, Bush 43 on tax cuts — mattered in the execution of policy. The most famous counterexample — Bush 41 going back on his no-new-tax pledge — proves the rule, as it cost him dearly. So what candidates say during these portions of the debates matters more.

Just to be clear, these are hypotheses and not conclusions. A cursory scan of the literature didn’t turn up anything, but I’m betting someone has studied this question. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I’d welcome pushback or confirmation in the comments.

What do you think?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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