By Dr Mara Oliva
Now that the conventions are over, it is time to look at the issues! In the next two thought provoking posts, Dr Mara Oliva looks at the role foreign policy has historically played in presidential elections and what it can tell us about the current race.
In December 2015, a Pew Research Center’s survey found that for the first time in years, national security rather than domestic economy was the leading concern of the American electorate. The poll had been taken a few weeks after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, and specifically, terrorism was the issue that people were most concerned about. But just a month later, a new Gallup survey revealed that the economy was back up as a number one problem. 86% of Americans said the economy will be extremely or very important to their vote, a significantly higher percentage than any other issue. Concern about terrorism ranked high at 74% with foreign affairs further down the list at 61%.
The truth is Americans rarely vote on foreign policy issues. And this election seems to be no exception, unless something dramatic happens leading up to November. As we heard from both Conventions in July, income equality, middle-class and upward mobility stagnation are America’s priorities. Yet, foreign policy could still play an important role and deliver some (upsetting) surprises.
Historically, foreign policy has often proved to be a winning card for the Republican party. In a threatening environment, Americans tend to elect the person that looks stronger and holds hawkish positions. They also tend to even more severely punish candidates perceived to be dovish. The GOP has been very successful in producing nominees who skilfully use a bold and sometimes aggressive rhetoric and project an image of competent leader. Democrats are often perceived as more inclined to support diplomacy, something not all Americans consider effective.
In 1952, (similarly to today), a public weary of the burdens of shaping the international order, frustrated by a Democratic President (Truman) who did not seem to have a strategy for winning the Korean war (the death toll had reached 25,000 Americans), and anxious about the spread of a foreign ideology threatening the American way life, elected in a landslide GOP candidate and World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Combining his personal charm with his military experience, Ike presented himself as the perfect antidote to the corrupt and soft on Communist Truman Administration. Voters saw him as a strong leader who could get the US out of Korea and finally stand up to the Soviet Union.
The 1968 Presidential election was one of the most chaotic in American history. Though economy and civil rights played a key role for both parties, the renewed opposition to the Vietnam war, in light of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive, prompted Democratic President Johnson to announce that he was not running for re-election and left Democratic nominee Vice-President Hubert Humphrey with a problematic foreign policy legacy to defend, thus clearing the way for GOP candidate Richard M. Nixon. By promising a “honourable end to the war in Vietnam”, Nixon told the American people just what they wanted to hear.
Foreign policy proved to be the defeating issue for President Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in 1980. Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were high in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By preaching for a more humble approach to foreign policy, Carter looked weak and hesitant. The Iran hostage crisis debacle made the American people question whether he was competent and strong enough. Republican candidate Ronald Reagan instead was bellicose and showed he was ready to be the next Commander-in-Chief.
Unlike Carter. President George W. Bush won his re-election in 2004 thanks to his successful foreign policy record. Americans saw him as a leader, someone who had led them in a war against terrorism and who had the respect of the military. The capture of Saddam Hussein reinforced this image and reassured people’s concerns over the situation in Iraq.
Can Donald Trump exploit the current international situation to his advantage like previous GOP candidates? This election might not be about foreign policy, but it is a referendum of Obama’s foreign affairs decisions. And Trump has been very good at capitalising on this so far. His proposals for foreign policy are, to say the least, controversial. From the nukes for Tokyo and Seoul to withdrawing support for NATO in favour of Putin’s Russia, he has even managed to alienate his own party moderate wing. In March 2016, 121 self-described members of the Republican National Security Community signed a public letter pledging to work against Trump’s election and blasting him as utterly unfit for the White House. As one of them put it, “He swings from isolationism to military adventurism in the space of one sentence.”
Yet, he has managed to grab the attention of a considerable number of Americans. Perhaps not so much because of what he says, but how he says it. His acceptance speech at the GOP National Convention in July took the rhetoric of fear to a whole new level. The speech (like his campaign strategy) revolves around three staples: 1) Fear, 2) Anger & 3) Hatred. Accuracy of facts is irrelevant. What counts is to make the electorate scared enough so that it sees no other choice but to vote for the more bellicose candidate. The breakdown is easy. FEAR: appeal to the American people’s emotions by telling them that the American way of life is in danger. ANGER: offer the public a culprit to blame, in this case President Obama and his corrupted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. HATRED: put America first by hating everything and everyone that does not embrace it and present yourself as the only candidate who will be strong enough, who will not indulge in academic-level diplomacy but would be ready to do whatever it takes to protect American lives. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton is stuck with Obama’s legacy and her four years as Secretary of State to defend.
Will history repeat itself? Will fear prevail and push Americans to vote for the candidate that “seems” to be stronger? Hopefully not!