Home > News > Will foreign policy actually matter in the 2024 U.S. election?
1,564 views 22 min 0 Comment

Will foreign policy actually matter in the 2024 U.S. election?

It may not matter much to voters, but foreign policy is definitely on the ballot.

- September 21, 2023

As Republican presidential candidates kicked off the 2024 election debates on Aug. 23, one of the loudest moments (and most-repeated clips) was when former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley attacked Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy. After a litany of policy criticisms, Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration, drew loud applause for telling Ramaswamy, “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”

Will foreign policy be a major issue in the 2024 election? One of my first articles for TMC asked this question months before the 2016 election. The prediction then, based on what we knew about voters, issues, and elections? Not likely – but the election would have major consequences for U.S. foreign policy simply because the president is so dominant in this arena. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky certainly understands the importance of elections to foreign policy: news reports suggest he’s visiting Washington in person today ahead of a key congressional vote on more aid to Ukraine. In recent public comments, Zelensky observed how the U.S. presidential election looms over the war. 

But that’s not the same as voters basing their choice on candidates’ foreign policy positions. 

Of course, a lot [cough] has changed since 2016. So will 2024 be different?

Political scientists love to throw cold water on questions like this – and this post is no exception. Still, there are ways foreign policy could affect the 2024 election that depart from what we’ve come to expect over the last few decades.

Why we (still) don’t expect foreign policy to be an election issue

As I wrote in 2016, when we say “foreign policy issues,” we mean things like foreign economic policy (such as trade, currency, or foreign aid policies) or national security issues (including national defense policy, diplomacy, nuclear policy, or terrorism). Many issues touch on both economic and security policy, and some issues have a foreign policy dimension even though they are more often lumped in with domestic policy (such as immigration and border policy).

It’s still the case that voters don’t pay much attention to the specific details of foreign policy, except when there is major news coverage of an event.

In my forthcoming book, I present data on foreign policy knowledge from questions I asked on the Cooperative Election Study, an online survey administered by the firm YouGov and designed to be representative of the U.S. adult population, in various years from 2008 to 2022. 

Consider two examples related to U.S.-China competition, a dominant topic in discussions of American foreign policy today. In 2016, 28% of respondents could correctly answer that China was not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In 2022, 21% correctly answered that the United States does not have a defense agreement with Taiwan that obligates the U.S. to intervene militarily if the Chinese government were to attack the island. 

These findings are consistent with a lot of previous research showing that the public tends to take cues from elites, but that doesn’t mean the public is ignorant or that elites are better. We are all busy people, and we pay attention to some issues and problems, rather than others. 

New research on foreign policy and elections

Since 2016, new scholarship has focused on other, more indirect ways that foreign policy can affect elections. For example, research in political psychology, including work by Ryan Brutger and Joshua Kertzer, has explored how different segments of the public think very differently about concepts like a nation’s reputation – which, in turn, affects whether they approve of using military force to defend that reputation. 

And scholars Michael Tomz, Jessica Weeks, and Keren Yarhi-Milo use surveys of Israeli politicians as well as the public to study how voters’ views shape the use of military force. They examine two mechanisms: responsiveness, where politicians respond to public preferences partly because they fear that unpopular policies will harm their reelection chances; and selection, i.e., that voters are more likely to vote for candidates whose policies they like. 

Other scholars have explored more subtle connections between foreign policy and elections. In his new book War on the Ballot, Andrew Payne argues that presidents alter their wartime decisions in light of upcoming elections, for example by delaying or accelerating major decisions. The shadow of elections can even affect military strategy and tactics, as research by Carrie Lee shows.

There may also be bigger-picture connections between foreign policy and elections. In research on womens’ suffrage and conflict, Joslyn Barnhart, Allan Dafoe, Robert Trager, and I show that women have consistently lower preferences for using force in international disputes. We detail how women getting the vote was integral to the well-studied phenomenon of the “democratic peace,” – i.e., that democracies tend not to fight each other (and are more peaceful in general).

Still, these arguments are several steps removed from the scenario that candidates’ foreign policy stances, or specific foreign policy issues, play a prominent role in any particular election. To be sure, it’s certainly possible for a foreign policy issue to be central in an election – as I wrote in 2016, what’s needed is a clear difference between the candidates on an issue voters care about a lot. One example came in the 2008 Democratic primary, when Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s stances on the Iraq War provided a clear differentiator between the candidates on an issue that had become very unpopular by 2008, allowing Obama to capitalize. 

But most of the time, the match between a politician’s stance, events, and the timing of an election isn’t as clear. Politicians can do a lot of things to mitigate the damage of unpopular policies, wait until public opinion changes, or just let the issue fade in importance. Also, as research by Good Authority contributor Alexandra Guisinger has shown, citizens often do not know how their representatives voted on particular policies – even those that affect people’s pocketbooks, like trade agreements. 

Instead, despite all the anti-elite rhetoric of the last two presidential cycles, since 2016 there’s plenty of evidence that voters still not only follow elite cues, but also adjust their policy views after they’ve chosen their candidate. When Trump abruptly announced plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria in 2018, for example, Good Authority contributor Michael Tesler pointed out that polling data on Trump’s withdrawal showed that those who voted for him in 2016 supported his decision while those who voted for Clinton opposed it – a complete reversal from the preferences both groups expressed prior to the 2016 election.

While the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 did appear to harm President Biden’s approval ratings, will voters remember this issue when they enter the voting booth? It seems more likely that Afghanistan will be rolled into a larger narrative of “weakness” on foreign policy – a traditional GOP critique of Democratic presidential candidates. 

And about that viral moment at the debate: Do voters care about foreign policy experience? There’s bad news for Nikki Haley: all that applause for her attack line may have mattered more for the tone of the debate than the substance. Despite research showing that experience actually matters quite a bit for running the nation’s international affairs, voters typically don’t mind when their nominee has little foreign policy experience–as long as they project some toughness

The politics of foreign policy were changing before 2016

So, what changed in 2016?

It’s tempting to answer: The Trump presidency. But two trends that long predate Trump’s 2016 victory are now supercharged, making presidential elections more consequential than ever in terms of foreign policy.

The first trend is partisan polarization. Partisan divides in foreign policy views are not new – they go all the way back to George Washington’s administration, as anyone who’s seen or heard “Hamilton” knows (see Cabinet Battle #2, the one with the super dead King Louis’ head). Partisan debates can be good for U.S. foreign policy, providing the public with information, different perspectives, and even enhanced signals to adversaries.

But when everyday politics become so polarized that opposition party politicians reflexively oppose a president’s policies, then partisan debates become disconnected from policy choices. What’s more, as research by Rachel Myrick shows, polarization affects whether outside threats – like the rise of China – unify elites and the public. And as Myrick, Dan Drezner, and Ken Schultz have all pointed out, polarization has made it much more difficult for the United States to make treaty commitments, and leaves other countries unable to count on U.S. foreign policies lasting beyond the current administration.

The second trend is the growth of presidential power (and the corresponding decline in congressional oversight and other forms of constraint and accountability). This trend goes back to the birth of the “national security state” after World War II, but has had moments of intense acceleration, such as the years after the September 11th attacks. Partisan polarization also adds fuel to this trend, since Congress has reduced incentives to conduct policy oversight or even to invest in policy expertise.

As a result, the presidency is in some ways an even greater prize in terms of foreign policy than it was during the Cold War. But it’s also a diminished prize, because it isn’t clear how a president can make policy that lasts. It’s like a never-ending scramble to get control of the steering wheel of a car with no tire traction. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal is a case in point: with virtually no chance of passing the deal as a treaty, Barack Obama settled for avoiding formal congressional disapproval of the deal; Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal but failed to get the “better deal” he promised; and Joe Biden has struggled with the politics of getting a new deal.

No really, what changed after 2016?

Despite all the pre-2016 trends, the Trump presidency did have major effects on foreign policy that continue to affect the substance and politics of foreign policy. 

A glance back at TMC pieces from the Trump years yields a long list: the gutting of the State Department, U.S. withdrawals from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords, and the intense strain on civil-military relations that culminated first in Lafayette Square and then in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, just to name a few. (It should be noted that Trump also pursued policies that Biden has continued, such as the end of the war in Afghanistan, the trade war with China, and the Abraham Accords).

But it is Ukraine and Russia policy where we see an especially stark shift in the politics of foreign policy and national security. The GOP’s split over support for Ukraine was on full display in that viral moment between Haley, who argued for strongly supporting Ukraine, and Ramaswamy, who opposes more aid. This trend was also evident in the 2022 midterm elections: for example, Ohio Republican Senate candidate (and eventual winner) J.D. Vance called for an end to U.S. aid to Ukraine

The roots of the GOP split go back to 2016, when Republican voters’ views of Russia shifted dramatically once Trump – who was much more friendly toward Russia than most elites in his own party – became the nominee. This softened view on Russia became entrenched when Trump took office. 

As James Goldgeier wrote at TMC, it was once unthinkable that the GOP would take anything but a tough stance against Russia in the face of Moscow’s actions like interfering in U.S. elections. Likewise, it often seems surreal to watch Republican politicians debate whether or how much to be tough on Russia. Yet in last month’s primary debate, GOP candidates did just that.

Of course, there are still traditional Republican hawks, especially in the U.S. Senate, where minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is staunchly pro-Ukraine. And as Jordan Tama argues in a new book on bipartisanship and U.S. foreign policy (and previously at TMC), Republican senators joined Democrats to challenge Trump over Russia policy during his presidency.

But McConnell’s pro-Ukraine actions are revealing as much for what they say about today’s GOP as for their effects. After his May 2022 trip to Europe – including a stop in Kyiv – McConnell gave an interview to the New York Times, in which he stated clearly that his trip was aimed at countering the “America First” wing of his own party. That McConnell felt the need to give the interview showed just how weak the traditional hawkish internationalist wing of the GOP has become.

It’s hard not to conclude, as Goldgeier did, that at least on Russia, “Trump is an outlier, but everyone is following.” 

So where does that leave us for 2024?

The takeaways from all this are in some ways similar to 2016: No, it’s not likely that specific foreign policy issues will be front-and-center in the 2024 election; and whoever wins will get wide leeway to steer U.S. foreign policy for the next four years. 

But while there are long-term trends and structural forces – two of political scientists’ favorite things – that got us to this point, there is also a real sense that this time might really be different

If the GOP nominee is Trump – or perhaps DeSantis – the internal schism within the Republican party may be settled more decisively in favor of the isolationist wing. As Michael Tesler wrote here at Good Authority, GOP voters have followed Trump’s lead and become even more isolationist in recent years, while Democrats have become more internationalist and supportive of Ukraine.

Of course, isolationism is not new in the Republican party (or the Democratic party, considering Woodrow Wilson’s America First stance before he became associated with liberal internationalism in World War I). In the early Cold War years, the isolationist wing even dominated the GOP, until the later stages of the Korean War and the election of President Dwight Eisenhower. But the strand never disappeared, finding expression in the presidential candidacy of Pat Buchanan, for example. 

In the modern era, however, it wasn’t until Trump that a candidate with staunch America First views captured the (increasingly powerful) presidency. 

With all the domestic upheaval of the Trump years, it is sometimes hard to remember how much of the Trump presidency was loud rhetoric and abrupt action in the foreign policy and national security realms – including his Muslim ban; his acrimonious phone call with the prime minister of Australia right after he took office; his turbulent international trips; his withdrawal by tweet from Syria, triggering a rare cabinet resignation when defense secretary Jim Mattis quit in response; his first impeachment over his attempt to get Zelensky to investigate the Biden family for his own personal gain; his order to kill of one of Iran’s top generals, Qasim Soleimani, triggering a U.S.-Iran crisis; and the final spasm of January 6, after which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi felt compelled to call Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to ask about safeguards for preventing Trump from using nuclear weapons (spoiler alert: there are no such safeguards). 

There has been a lot of ink spilled since 2016 about the durability, utility, and fate of the liberal international order. Ahead of the 2020 election, Trump signaled that in a second term, he would withdraw the United States from NATO – and his track record suggests that if he wins that second term in 2024, he probably would at least try. Although the original commitment to NATO (and internationalism) was politically contested, there is no question that withdrawing from NATO would be a major break with modern U.S. foreign policy and national security. And though politicians are currently competing to out-hawk each other on China policy, Myrick’s research suggests that competition with China is unlikely to bring the various elite or public factions together.

Little wonder, then, that Ukrainian President Zelensky is closely watching U.S. domestic politics. In addition to his visit to Washington this week, he made another trip in December 2022, an in-person visit timed to send a strong message before Republicans took over the House in January 2023. 

So in 2024, as in 2016, foreign policy is unlikely to be a major issue in the election. But even more than in 2016, foreign policy – and America’s place in the world – will be on the ballot.

Image courtesy of © 74images via Canva.com