What US presidential hopefuls will be talking about … and what they won’t
Campaigning for the next US presidential election in November 2024,has started. Already, several declared candidates seeking their party’s nomination are crisscrossing the country to seek support. Townhall meetings and rallies are becoming a regular feature in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that play an important role in the early stages of the election process.
The toxic political environment in recent years has left the US divided. High inflation, concerns over healthcare, the increasing cost of higher education, and the incessant culture wars, focus the electorate’s mind on domestic issues. When American voters go to the polls, they’re voting on the “bread-and-butter” issues: jobs, the economy, education, and healthcare. They are not voting on foreign policy issues.
This view is backed up by regular polling that shows the top election issues Americans care about rarely include international affairs, unless America is at war. Also, when Americans show interest in foreign policy related matters, it is usually on issues such as climate change and immigration that have a major domestic policy component to them.
However, when foreign policy is debated in the coming months, expect three top issues to dominate the agenda. The first is Ukraine. Under normal circumstances, the idea of the US supporting Ukraine’s self-defense against a Russian invasion would not be divisive. But in the current climate, some on America’s political far rightwing have made support for Ukraine a needlessly contentious issue.
Those candidates who are against more US military assistance to Ukraine should tread carefully with their opposition. Polling shows that the mood of the American public, including Republicans, tells a different story. More than two-thirds of Americans support arming Ukraine, including most Republicans. Also, there remains very strong bipartisan and bicameral support for Ukraine in the US Congress.
Regular polling shows the top election issues Americans care about rarely include international affairs, unless America is at war.
Another issue that will gain a lot of attention in the presidential campaign is Iran. This is because there is such a contrast between Biden and his Republican challengers when it comes to how to best deal with Tehran. With US support for Ukraine remaining a divisive issue among the top Republican contenders, the issue of Iran is one where there is near unity. While Biden has pursued a policy of rapprochement with Iran, still hoping to someday finalize a new nuclear deal, the main Republican candidates want to return to the Trump era “maximum pressure” campaign. Since this is a policy area of such contrast, expect Iran to feature in any foreign policy debate in the coming months.
Finally, there will be a big focus on China. Although there is a diverse set of opinions among the different candidates regarding Beijing, there is general agreement that China remains a top strategic competitor, if not adversary, to the US. Republicans will criticize Biden for being too weak on China. Among Republican candidates, each is trying to look tougher than the others when it comes to dealing with China. For example, some top Republicans have called for the US to recognize Taiwan’s independence. Others have suggested that all military support for Ukraine should end and instead focus should shift 100 percent on to the defense of Taiwan. The issue of China will also be the one foreign policy issue that resonates the best with your average American. After years of declining US manufacturing (often, rightly or wrongly, blamed on China), and after the turmoil that the COVID-19 pandemic had on everyday life, Americans take more of an interest in US-China relations than most other foreign policy issues.
There are two more issues that warrant more attention in the American political debate, but probably won’treceive it. The first issue is Afghanistan. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan the summer of 2021 was a geopolitical disaster. It was a catastrophe for the Afghans and emboldened transnational terrorist organizations now roaming freely across Afghanistan. Furthermore, tens of thousands of Afghans who the US promised to bring out remain stranded in the country. Even though it was Biden who decided to execute the withdrawal from the country, it was Trump who laid the groundwork for the process with his dubious deal with the Taliban in early 2021. Neither political side wanted to remain in Afghanistan and neither wants to raise the issue today. It was truly a bipartisan disaster and both sides would like to forget this sad episode in US foreign policy.
With US support for Ukraine remaining a divisive issue among the top Republican contenders, the issue of Iran is one where there is near unity.
The second issue that should be discussed more during the presidential campaign but will not is free trade. Starting with Trump, and continuing with Biden, there has been a lack of any meaningful free trade policy coming from the White House. Both sides have pursued populist and protectionist trade agendas thatultimately harm the American economy and impact America’s partners. The steel and aluminum tariffs applied to some Gulf states, started by Trump and continued by his successor, are a good example. It would be beneficial to have a genuine debate in the US about the importance of free trade to America’s prosperity and economy, but this is unlikely to happen during the upcoming presidential campaign.
As with most US elections, whether the midterm elections for Congress or the presidential election, don’t expect too much time devoted on foreign policy issues. America is a large country. Most people have difficulty keeping up with what is happening in Los Angeles and New York City much less London or Riyadh. Americans living in the heartland, in states such as Kansas or Missouri, are more than 1,000km away from their nearest international border. This does not excuse the lack of foreign affairs interest by most Americans, but it might help others understand why this is the case.
It is simply a fact that most Americans do not vote for their preferred candidate purely based on their foreign policy position. Do not expect this to change.
• Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey