By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
As the Labor Day holiday in the US on Monday marks the traditional start of the presidential election campaign, it is striking how much international interest there is in the race.
As polls tighten between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the next two months of political drama will be eagerly watched from Asia-Pacific to the Americas. Indeed, given the major differences between the two platforms and the large stakes in play, including foreign policy, international audiences perhaps feel perhaps just as vested in the result as US voters.
Part of the reason is concern about the prospect of the maverick Trump winning a second term. To be sure, he is popular in a handful of countries, such as Israel, but generally gets low marks from people around the world who favor Biden, as they did Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many believe Trump has yet to paint a credible, coherent vision for the future of the world’s most powerful state.
However, perhaps a deeper factor driving global interest is the relatively high salience of international issues, contradicting the view that this election will swing on the two Vs — the virus (where many Democrats want to focus) and violence (which many Republicans see as their strong card).
While these two issues are certainly important, they are by no means the only ones. A Pew survey suggeststhat the economy ranks highest on the minds of voters, with 79 percent saying it will be a very important factor in their voting decision. The coronavirus pandemic and violent crime were mentioned by 62 percent and 59percent respectively.
A surprising insight from the same poll was that foreign policy also places highly in this hierarchy of issues, mentioned by 57 percent of those surveyed as a very important factor in their decision. While international issues are always a factor in US presidential elections, they rarely have such high salience.
A high-water mark for foreign policy as an issue was during the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when it was the single biggest concern of US voters. But in the past few decades since the mid-1970s, economic issues have tended to predominate. In the 2012 election cycle, Pew polling suggested that 55percent of US citizens thought economic worries were the most important facing the country, compared with 6percent for foreign issues.
While the economy is the top issue again this year, the relative importance of foreign and security policy issues in 2020 reflects, in part, US concerns about the international environment, including the rise of China. In the eyes of a significant slice of voters, Washington may be on the cusp of a new Cold War with Beijing, making the 2020s comparable in their view to the period from 1948 onwards when the stand-off with the Soviet Union was beginning. And as in 2016, Trump is seeking to make anti-Beijing sentiment a core part of his re-election narrative, arguing that the Democrats will be weak on this issue.
But although foreign and security policy is again relatively salient, there are significant differences between now and during those first two decades of the Cold War. That period was characterized by a relative policy consensus in Washington and widespread bipartisan cooperation on foreign and security matters.
Today, however, foreign policy is significantly more divisive, and Trump has moved away from not just previous Democratic presidents, but Republican ones too. To be sure, the early Cold War consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did exist until it broke apart in the late 1960s under the strain of Vietnam and the demise of the notion of monolithic communism in light of the Sino-Soviet split.
No clear foreign policy consensus has emerged in recent years. For instance, Trump and an increasing number of populist Republicans differ significantly from Biden and many Democrats on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; and on what the priorities of foreign policy should be.
At a time when divisions in the country are already intense, partisan splits on these issues will reinforce high rates of polarization in the US electorate. Indeed, the gaps between the parties on these issues may only widen during the remainder of election year, further denting the possibility of establishing a new US foreign policy consensus.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics