Here's Why Foreign Policy Matters More Than Either Candidate Is Letting On

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Last week in this space we questioned the validity of the view that the economy is all-important in presidential elections.This is an ancient notion enshrined as conventional wisdom since 1992 when Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville memorably declared, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Today we turn our attention to a corollary of the Carville Doctrine, which is that foreign policy doesn’t matter — or at least not much — in presidential elections.

Until recently, Mitt Romney had based his entire campaign on the belief that President Obama could not survive continued high unemployment and lagging U.S. growth. Romney was encouraged by polls that gave him an edge on management of the economy. The same polls gave Obama an advantage on foreign policy, the topic of the presidential candidates’ third (and mercifully last) debate on Monday.

Foreign policy has been consequential in presidential campaigns since 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams clashed over U.S. policy toward England and France. It’s mattered even more in the 20th and 21st centuries, with the advent of global war and the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” In 1917, in response to unrestricted German submarine warfare, he put the United States into what was then called the Great War on the side of Britain and France. Disillusionment with this war contributed to the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Foreign policy was dominant in the 1940 election when Americans were divided on whether to help the British hold out against the Nazis. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was helped when Wendell Willkie, like FDR an internationalist, won the Republican nomination. Even so, FDR found it necessary in his successful campaign for a third term to promise voters that he would “not send your boys to fight in foreign wars.”

FDR, frail and months from death in 1944, was re-elected to a fourth term on the slogan “Don’t change horses in midstream.”

The unpopularity of the Korean War contributed to President Harry Truman’s decision not to seek re-election in 1952, and the unpopularity of the Vietnam War was the reason President Lyndon Johnson declined to run again in 1968. Richard Nixon was elected that year partly on a promise to end the war with what Democrats called “a secret plan.”

In 1980, a campaign that in some ways resembles the present one, Ronald Reagan emphasised the economy in his challenge to President Jimmy Carter. But the underlying issue was Americans held hostage in Iran whom Carter had tried and failed to rescue. Reagan rarely mentioned the hostages. He didn’t have to, because the issue was on the minds of voters, many of whom blamed Carter for their continued plight.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Obama was the irresistible candidate of hope and change. Running more against outgoing President George W. Bush than his actual opponent, John McCain, Obama promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. He has kept that promise, partly because Iraq would not agree to U.S. conditions on a status-of-forces agreement to extend the American deployment.

Foreign policy has ostensibly taken a back seat in the 2012 campaign. Journalist Peter Beinart contends that’s because the differences between Obama and Romney on foreign policy are relatively minor when compared to their disagreement on domestic issues. This view was bolstered during the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney running mate Paul Ryan, when effective questioning by ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz helped flesh out the similar foreign policy views of the two sides.

Both Obama and Romney plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. The quibble is whether the withdrawal date should be announced ahead of time. Neither candidate bothers to mention that the United States is committed to keeping thousands of trainers and advisers in Afghanistan for years after the bulk of forces are withdrawn.

Both the president and his challenger also promise to maintain pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. Obama claims with scant evidence that sanctions against Iran are working. Romney promises to intensify them but typically provides few details.

It would be refreshing on Monday if the candidates acknowledged to each other and the world that they at least share mutual goals of bringing home U.S. troops, reducing global tensions, and trying to find new options for peace in the Middle East.

It would also be useful if the candidates acknowledged that “foreign policy” and “national security” are not neatly separated from the economy in an age of globalism. Economists on both sides know that the economic success of China is vital to global recovery. It would be constructive for Obama and Romney to concede as much instead of continuing their China-bashing. It would also be a step in the right direction if Romney recognised that his proposed increases in the defence budget would add to the deficit or if Obama conceded that taxing the rich won’t raise enough to balance the budget.

Candidates don’t make concessions in tight races, so don’t hold your breath on any of this. But they could at least admit that domestic spending decisions have global consequences. In reality, Obama and Romney have been talking about foreign policy all along.

This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.

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