Our 2016 presidential campaigns have acquired a truly novel feature: Suddenly, foreign policy is a front-burner issue among American voters. This hasn’t been so for at least a couple of generations.
Is this a passing phenomenon? Or are we watching the front end of a secular shift in American politics?
One reason for the new trend is evident on page one of any given day’s newspaper. The terror attacks in Paris on November 13 put the world on notice that ISIS’s savagery knows no borders. The shootings in San Bernardino, California—the worst terror incident in the U.S. since September 11, 2001—are just three weeks behind us.
Rightly or wrongly but altogether truly, Americans have tipped into a swoon of insecurity, and they want to hear what presidential candidates plan to do about it.
Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics put the point as well as anyone the other day: “The dramatic infusion of terrorism and national security into the contest in recent weeks has transformed the race for president.”
Bevan calls it “the ISIS effect” and finds it most evident on the Republican side. Ben Carson appears to be fading mostly because he’s weak on foreign policy questions, according to the polls. Chris Christie claims to have national security expertise as a former prosecutor and in his governorship of New Jersey.
Donald Trump, meantime, wants to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” while Ted Cruz proposes to “carpet bomb until the sand glows.” Both are setting the tone as they watch their numbers rise in the polls.
But the phenomenon’s just as evident among the Democrats.
In a CNN poll taken after last week’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders posted an overall gain against Hillary Clinton: His support rose from 30 percent of Democratic voters to 34 percent, while Clinton’s dropped from 58 percent to 50 percent.
But on foreign policy questions, Clinton shellacs Sanders decisively in the CNN findings: She holds a 72 percent to 18 percent lead. Asked who can handle ISIS more capably, voters came in 63 percent to 18 percent for Clinton.
Bevan’s right about the ISIS effect. But what interests me is that Americans are finally waking up to how small the world is.
Point 1 of 2: We can no longer think about, say, Middle East policy or the Pentagon budget or trade rules as if these are separate from what we want to spend on repairing America’s shamefully decayed roads, bridges, and schools. They aren’t separate now—if they ever were.
Point 2: Americans, blessed and burdened by their huge continent and an ocean on either side, urgently need to grasp how they come across to others and how our foreign policies often echo in important ways.
As an example, a distinguished Asia hand named Philip Bowring wrote a properly irate commentary in The Globalist in response to Trump’s recent proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. “until we figure out what’s going on.”
“There is a very simple issue here,” Bowring writes. “The very suggestion that Muslims should be barred from entering the United States can only cause Muslims worldwide to ask themselves: Why should we buy goods and services from a nation which so despises us? Trump’s remarks will be extremely damaging to vital economic and strategic alliances at a time when the United States needs friends to face challenges to its influence.”
OK, Trump’s not president and his pronouncements aren’t policy. But his indifference to how others may hear his proposals is all too prevalent among those we elect and those our elected leaders assign to the policy-making process.
America has had a foreign policy for about 125 years. By tradition, our conduct abroad has been the purview of “the power elite,” to borrow C. Wright Mills’ famous phrase—silk-stocking Ivy Leaguers, usually from the East, who are more or less sequestered from public opinion.
There have been exceptional periods. By the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, the Vietnam War weighed heavily on voters’ minds and all candidates had to articulate a clear policy on it.
We don’t seem to be living through another such exception, the old mode due to return when the threat of terror recedes. If I read our moment correctly, the nation’s conduct abroad is likely to assume greater significance as a political issue from here on out.
Why? In the simplest terms, the globalizing process is doing its work. I can think of few electorates other than America’s that have customarily been as blissfully indifferent to foreign policy questions. For certain passages in history, this may have been right, but it isn’t any longer.
After “why?” comes “how?” It’s fine that presidential aspirants now talk of foreign affairs on televised debates. But foreign questions need to be thoroughly woven into the national conversation if policy is to reflect peoples’ aspirations accurately.
I see two ways forward from here.
President Obama suggested one alternative when he set the rules for negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Nobody, not even Congress, was to know what was going into the pact until it was done.
One couldn’t approve less. The Obama administration violated the spirit of the constitution if not, indeed, its letter. The late Pat Moynihan warned of this in Secrecy: The American Experience, his 1998 history of the phenomenon, and it remains regrettably relevant. Choose this path and Americans are in for a century of internecine conflict and policies that have nothing to do with democratic process.
Last March, the German Foreign Ministry published Review 2014, the brainchild of Frank-Walter Steinmeier who holds the foreign portfolio in Chancellor Merkel’s coalition cabinet. The document outlines an alternative to ever-greater secrecy in the formation of foreign policy.
Steinmeier’s solution was to develop institutions and procedures through which the policy process is exposed to democratic debate. He also insisted that the instruments of policy be vastly expanded beyond the mahogany table and military ordnance to include economists, urban planners, sociologists, educationists, and a wide range of others whom foreign ministries rarely, if ever, consult.
This may not prove the way forward, but it should. Slogans and posturing among presidential hopefuls don’t come to much, but—best outcome—they may open a new door for all of us into the foreign policy sphere.