During a panel at the Hamilton Lugar School’s conference on America’s Role in the World®, political consultant and founder of North Star Opinion Research Whit Ayres pointed to the years 1968, 2002, 2004, and 2006 as all times when foreign policy helped determine the outcome of a Congressional or presidential election, as the United States dealt with the Vietnam War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War.
And the upcoming 2020 presidential election could be no different, with foreign policy topics like COVID-19, immigration, and election interference all occupying the minds of voters.
Ayres pointed out that when foreign policy directly affects Americans’ lives, they pay close attention. Issues like terrorism, economic security, and health security all matter greatly to voters. And Geoffrey Garin, who is president of Hart Research, added that the climate crisis, conceived of as a foreign policy issue that requires international coordination and action, matters a lot to voters as well, particularly Democrats.
A graduate of IU and now a policy strategist and executive director of the Serve America PAC, Marie Harf moderated the discussion, and she began by mentioning the “commander-in-chief test.” Are voters able to picture a candidate leading the country in the face of a major international threat? If not, they will likely vote for someone else.
The interplay between foreign policy and domestic policy has serious and long-lasting effects. Allison Stanger, the author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump, said, “We over the years have trusted our elites to do the right thing behind closed doors,” and now that it is clear they sometimes haven’t, there is a real expression of “outrage that our elites are not working for the American people.”
This right-wing populism has spilled over to other countries, said Bill Whitaker, a correspondent for 60 Minutes. What happens in the United States has a “tsunami effect” on the rest of the world; its influence is enormous. And since the United States has withdrawn steeply from its international commitments, “our allies are wondering if they can trust us,” he said
It is a distressing development because without our network of strong and prosperous allies, “What else there?” he wondered.
“Neither party has figured out how to deal with the populist movement,” Ayres added, and the rising levels of distrust of elite political and business leaders is a problem. There has been no World War III, he said, for the primary reason that “good leaders set up a world that avoided it.”
The low levels of conflict relative to the early 20th century doesn’t just benefit Europe or other nations; it benefits the United States, both in terms of security and prosperity. “We set up the world so that it works for us,” Whitaker said about the global order after World War II. And lots of Americans, including billionaires, have benefitted from this situation, which makes Americans’ desire to withdraw from global engagement self-defeating.
There has been an “absence of any clear definition of our national purpose in the world,” Garin added. What exactly is the United States’ global role in a post-Cold War world, where the stakes aren’t as clear?
Leadership can help define the nation’s role in global affairs, Stanger argued. “Foreign policy is all about long-term strategic thinking,” she said, and educating the American people is the first step in enacting that strategy. Without this kind of long-term planning, domestic issues will suffer, and “pocketbook issues will get worse.”
After the moderated discussion, students asked poignant questions about the effect of impeachment on the upcoming election, American’s war weariness, and the role of fake news in elections.
Despite the troubling issues outlined by the panelists, there are still reasons for optimism. Stanger pointed out that Congress has regularly passed legislation in the wake of corruption scandals in order to prevent similar corruption in the future. And Ayres reminded students of the crucial importance of experts in determining foreign policy goals and strategy. Knowledge of language and international issues, as well as regional expertise, can provide the foundation for an impactful role in the world of foreign policy and global engagement.