It’s the Foreign Policy, Stupid

Presidential elections are almost always about the economy. 2016 is shaping up to be an exception.

ADANA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 15: United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivers a speech during his visit to Incirlik  Airbase in Adana, southern Turkey on December 15, 2015. (Photo by )
ADANA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 15: United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivers a speech during his visit to Incirlik Airbase in Adana, southern Turkey on December 15, 2015. (Photo by )

Foreign policy rarely plays a major role in U.S. presidential elections — most years “it’s the economy, stupid” — but 2016 is shaping up to be an exception. As the race for the White House swings into high gear, Americans have foreign policy, especially terrorism, on their minds. And the public now sees national security concerns, not economic issues, as the most significant challenge facing the nation in this election year.

In December 2011, on the eve of the 2012 election, 55 percent of Americans cited economic worries — unemployment, poverty, inequality, and so forth — as the most important problems facing the country, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Only 6 percent named international matters, such as defense or the war in Iraq. By December 2014, just 9 percent pointed to foreign-policy concerns as the nation’s principle difficulty, while 34 percent still pointed to economic issues. But by December 2015, 32 percent named international issues as the biggest challenge, while 23 percent mentioned economic problems.

When Americans worry about the world today, their anxiety is largely about terrorism. In the wake of the San Bernardino attack, against the backdrop of the mass killings in Paris, 18 percent of Americans volunteer terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, up from 1 percent who voiced such concern in December 2014. An additional 7 percent of respondents volunteer the Islamic State, or the wars in Iraq and Syria, as the nation’s greatest challenge heading into 2016.

But terrorism and the Islamic State may be co-mingled in the public’s mind. When asked about a discrete list of potential international threats to the well-being of the United States, from growing authoritarianism in Russia to global climate change, the Islamic State is at the top of the list, with 83 percent of Americans calling it a “major threat.” And that proportion is up from 67 percent in August 2014. Concern about most other international issues is relatively unchanged over that time period, suggesting that terrorism and the Islamic State have become almost synonymous for Americans when they think about international threats.

Roughly six in 10 (62 percent) Americans see Iran’s nuclear program as a major threat to U.S. well-being. And a similar proportion (59 percent) voices the same concern about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Notably, both these anxieties dwarf fears of China’s emergence as a world power (49 percent) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (43 percent).

Not surprisingly, given the rhetoric in the presidential campaign to date, Republicans and Democrats are divided on the importance of foreign-policy issues as the nation heads into an election season. Forty-two percent of the GOP, but only 24 percent of Democrats, says that international concerns are the most important problem facing the country.

A similar partisan divide exists over specific international threats to the country’s well-being. Both Republicans and Democrats are worried about the Islamic State, but there is still a 14-percentage-point partisan gap: 93 percent of the GOP and 79 percent of Democrats are concerned. Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) Republicans, but only about five in 10 (52 percent) Democrats, see Iran’s nuclear program as a major challenge. And there is an 18-percentage-point gap in fears about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and China’s rise as a world power. In both cases, Republicans are more concerned than Democrats.

This partisan divide plays out in what Americans believe should be done about some of these threats, specifically terrorism and the Islamic State.

The country is divided over whether using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism or whether relying too much on force creates hatred that leads to more terrorist activity. But this national division masks a deep partisan divide: 72 percent of Republicans say using military force is the solution, while 66 percent of Democrats worry such an approach will sow the seeds for more terrorism.

Similarly, while 75 percent of Republicans say their biggest concern about military action in Iraq and Syria is that the United States will not go far enough to stop Islamic militants, 61 percent of Democrats are concerned the United States will get too involved in the situation.

Whether international concerns, specifically terrorism and the Islamic State, will remain Americans’ predominant preoccupation by the time they enter the voting booth in November depends on circumstances we can’t yet know. An economic downturn or a domestic political scandal could refocus voters’ attention. But in dangerous times such as these, there’s no denying the risk of a so-called “black swan” event in foreign policy, whether it’s more terrorist incidents at home, or adverse developments in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, or China. Don’t be surprised, in other words, if 2016 ends up one of the rare presidential elections that turns on foreign policy.

OZGE ELIF KIZIL/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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