Foreign policy seems foreign to 2020 presidential campaign

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

By Marty Rochester

Did you notice that even before the coronavirus preoccupied us 24/7, foreign policy seemed virtually absent from any discussion among the 2020 presidential candidates? Although the coronavirus is a reminder of just how interdependent the planet is and how important international concerns are to our body politic, little attention seems to be paid to world affairs.

Two Democratic candidates bothered to write articles in Foreign Affairs: Elizabeth Warren’s “A Foreign Policy for All” (January/February 2019) and Joseph Biden’s “Why America Must Lead Again” (March/April 2020). That aside, one is hard pressed to find any other pronouncements on foreign policy. Foreign policy issues rarely have been mentioned in the debates, in campaign speeches, in ads or in any other venue. 

Even President Donald Trump, to the extent he discusses foreign policy, tends to adopt a unilateralist posture that borders on isolationism except for the occasional attempt to act on Afghanistan or Iran or some other hot spot.

The American public and its leaders lately have show little appetite, at best ambivalence, toward engagement in international affairs, reflected in the theme of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Come Home, America?” It is true that presidential elections have almost always revolved more around domestic policy issues than foreign policy issues (except when there is a major war or international crisis), but the degree of silence on foreign policy in 2020 is especially unusual.

Part of the explanation is that the threats we face today are no longer so much from “great powers” – we are highly unlikely to experience hostilities with Russia or China no matter how much tensions escalate – but rather from smaller, rogue states and nonstate actors, such as North Korea and al-Qaida. 

These problems seem lesser in scale and thus less worthy of our attention, yet more complex and difficult to resolve, thus adding to our frustration. 

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And some problems seem so existential – climate change – that they, too, elude easy answers.

On almost every contemporary foreign policy issue, we encounter a dilemma rather than a clear path to follow – on trade policy toward China, when to engage in humanitarian intervention, how to extricate ourselves from endless wars, what to do about stopping nuclear proliferation, and so many others. All of this invites people to tune out.

Moreover, the main general, conceptual framework that we used in the past to think through foreign policy concerns no longer seems to work.

In the March/April 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs, Thomas Wright wrote that over several decades after World War II,  liberal internationalism constituted a grand strategy supported by “a bipartisan consensus on the United States’ global role. Although successive administrations had major disagreements over the details, Democrats and Republicans alike backed a system of alliances, the forward positioning of forces, a relatively open international economy and, albeit imperfectly, the principles of freedom, human rights and democracy. Today,  that consensus has broken down.”

One manifestation of the growing apathy toward internationalism among Americans is the decreased concern American Jews have for the security of Israel. Steven Cohen (in Shofar, Spring 1998) once noted, “While most American Jews may claim an extraordinarily deep and powerful commitment to Israel, the attachment of many is superficial and fragile.” 

It is becoming all the more so of late, as an American Jewish Committee 2019 Survey of American Jewish Opinion found only about one-third “agreeing strongly” that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.”

If American Jews are plainly tired of all the handwringing over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Americans generally are equally tired of seemingly intractable foreign policy challenges the United States has been struggling with ever since 9/11.

Witness the recent peace agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban, aiming to end the longest war in American history that has cost almost 4,000 U.S. military deaths and $2 trillion dollars over two decades. You would think this would be considered a big deal, attracting lots of discussion. Granted, there is reason to be skeptical about the ultimate success of this project, given the corrupt nature of both the Taliban as well as the Afghan government and the ongoing political turmoil in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it is striking how little national debate has followed over the contents of the deal and whether it offers a way out.

The average American’s disinterest in international affairs may be exceeded only by his or her lack of knowledge about such things. For example, few know that the U.S. Department of Defense budget for the current fiscal year is roughly $730 billion and, as high as this is, is a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product and federal discretionary spending than at any time since 1962. How can one have an intelligent conversation about whether we should increase or decrease the defense budget when most citizens exhibit the attitude of the student who was asked, “What’s worse, ignorance or apathy?” and responded, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

It is possible I am misreading the American public. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported in September:

“Contrary to Washington rhetoric, most Americans across political parties are united in support of U.S. global engagement, according to findings of the 2019 Chicago Council Survey of American public opinion. … Seven in 10 Americans say it would be best for the future of the country that the U.S. should take an active part in world affairs.” 

It would be reassuring if we could see more specifics and if our leaders would evidence similar support for internationalism. It will be interesting to see whether, as the 2020 presidential season evolves and as the COVID-19 crisis eventually ends and makes room for other issues to compete for attention, we hear anything more than occasional soundbites about foreign policy. 

Stay tuned.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.