President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden respond to questions posed by moderator Chris Wallace during the first 2020 presidential debate. Photo Credit: Adam Schultz / Biden for President
Both Republican and Democratic voters cite foreign policy as a topic of concern for this election cycle. Presidential candidates of both major parties have ample reason to campaign on foreign policy issues. The winner of the election could fundamentally define American foreign policy for a generation to come.[i] And yet, foreign policy has remained notably absent from the 2020 election cycle.[ii]
And that’s not at all surprising.
On paper, it would make sense for foreign policy to matter this year.
With less than three weeks until the 2020 presidential election, it seems as though major parties can’t even agree on which issues we should be talking about. Even on some of the most defining issues of this election season — coronavirus, the economy, and race relations — public opinion of their relative importance is divided sharply along party lines. In September (prior to President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, which seems to have moved the needle some), 52% of Republicans said they were concerned that they or someone they knew would become infected, compared to more than 80% of Democrats.[iii] The same month, 74% of self-identified Biden voters said they agreed that it is “a lot more difficult to be a Black person” in the U.S. than a white person; just 9% of Trump voters agreed.[iv]
One issue both parties seem to agree on, however, is foreign policy. An August poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 57% of both Republicans and Democrats viewed foreign policy as “very important” to their vote in the presidential election, placing it on average higher in importance than abortion, climate change, economic inequality, racial inequality, and gun policy.[v] Even accounting for partisan divides, foreign policy was more important than the coronavirus, healthcare and abortion for Republicans, and outranked immigration and gun policy for Democrats.[vi]
And these numbers are far from surprising: in an election year that has included a high-point of tensions with Iran, friction with China over both economic policies and the coronavirus, and a worldwide economic downturn as a result of the pandemic, it makes sense that voters of both parties would view foreign policy as a consequential issue this election.
It would also make sense to see foreign policy as a frequent topic on the campaign trail. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has built much of his career on his foreign policy experience, serving as Barack Obama’s Vice President and previously as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Indeed, Biden’s foreign policy experience was a driving force behind his selection as Obama’s running mate in 2008.[vii] For his part, Republican President Trump has frequently boasted of his tough stance on China, his close relationships with adversarial leaders like Valdimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, and most recent foreign policy win in the form of a brokered peace deal between Israel and Bahrain.[viii]
And yet, despite foreign policy being clearly important to both voters and the candidates themselves, the issue has largely taken a backseat this election cycle. The Presidential candidates barely discussed foreign policy during their first of three-scheduled debates on September 29, and the brief mention that foreign policy did get during the Vice Presidential Debate on October 7 was quickly eclipsed by lengthy discussions of coronavirus, adeptly-dodged questions about the Supreme Court, and a memorable fly.
Foreign policy rarely plays a large role in elections. 2020 isn’t any different.
The reality of recent history of national elections, however, tells us that foreign policy rarely takes center stage.
Even though voters frequently maintain coherent and consistent attitudes on foreign policy issues, few have concrete knowledge about the policies themselves. Adam Berinsky has noted that, even in critical moments of war, the public largely take their cues on policy positions from elites of their own party.[ix] Even during times of war, Berinsky found that individual-level knowledge of the most basic and fundamental facts of the war (like the number of casualties) was incredibly low. Rather than doing their own research, voters were far more likely to defer to policy positions of elites to form their opinions.
In the rare elections that foreign policy has played a major role, it has typically followed some existential national security threat. The 2002 midterm elections, for example, were defined by the aftermath of 9/11, and public frustration with the Iraq War became a decisive (and partisan) issue in the 2006 midterms.[x]
For some, the coronavirus presented that type of exceptional threat: in April, Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute argued that the pandemic could push US-China relations to the center of the debate stage.[xi] Despite Carpenter’s accurate forecast that the Trump campaign has highlighted the administration’s decision to restrict travel from China early on in the pandemic in its campaign, however, a foreign policy-centric contest has failed to materialize in subsequent months.
Carpenter is also not wrong that the coronavirus pandemic could have significant implications for US-China relations in the coming years. This consequence, however, is largely overshadowed by the domestic impact of the virus. “The mother of all domestic issues,” the coronavirus has exacerbated racial tensions, decimated the economy, and profoundly altered daily life for the majority of Americans.[xii]
For all the ways the coronavirus could — and likely will — alter foreign policy, with more than 210,000 Americans dead, 8% unemployment, and likely months until a vaccine, the domestic consequences of the virus are likely to remain the topic of conversation for the final three weeks of the election.
Foreign policy is usually hard to campaign on.
Even without the background of a global pandemic, uncertain economy, and widespread racial justice protests around the country, foreign policy is not often the centerpiece of any candidate’s platform for the simple reason that it is hard to develop a distinct foreign policy.
Foreign policy issues themselves are often intertwined with other, domestic issues (read: the coronavirus) and others are simply not salient enough to form the basis of a candidate’s platform. And with low levels of public awareness about foreign policy issues, there are diminishing returns for any candidate who builds a campaign around foreign policy.
There is also the simple fact that it can be hard for candidates to draw a distinction between themselves and the other party on issues of foreign policy.[xiii] While parties may disagree on levels of American involvement or particular policy positions overseas, both Republicans and Democrats generally agree that the United States should maintain its leading position in the world.[xiv] Debates around foreign policy, then, center around not what American priorities are, but a more nuanced discussion of how to get there.[xv] These nuanced discussions do not make for exciting campaign fodder.
In the rare cases where foreign policy issues have drawn high levels of partisan attention, debates have largely been driven by larger domestic issues or party priorities. As negative partisanship, or distrust of the opposite party, has grown, politicians face increased pressures against embracing a foreign policy proposal from the other side of the aisle.[xvi] Republican opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action during the Obama administration, for example, grew more out of a desire to oppose a policy architected by a Democratic president than differing foreign policy aims.[xvii] But even in the case of a hyper-partisan debate about foreign policy like the JCPOA, the issue still failed to become a centerpiece of the 2016 election.
And none of this is new. Historically, foreign policy has not presented candidates with the same opportunities to draw stark distinctions between themselves and their opponents that domestic issues often do. This trend has held true in 2020.
With the exception of a few key differences, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden fundamentally agree on the importance of U.S.-China relations, Middle East policy and counter-terrorism strategies, and the containment of Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs as core to their foreign policy strategies.[xviii] Even where there are distinct differences in the candidates’ approach to foreign policy, those issues — climate change, economic policy, immigration — are intertwined with their domestic policy positions and offer nothing new to the conversation.
In a race that has been so defined by the contrast between Biden and Trump, then, it makes sense that foreign policy has remained absent from the debate stage. Scrutinizing their foreign policy doesn’t tell us much about the candidates themselves, and is therefore unlikely to move the needle.
And this is perhaps the key to understanding foreign policy in 2020. It is unimportant not because, like in historical examples, there is a lack of existential foreign policy threats. Rather, it is unimportant because of the real nature of this election as a whole.
This election isn’t really about policy at all.
2020, perhaps more than any election in recent history, is a candidate-driven election. Intense levels of partisan gridlock, low rates of undecided voters, and a controversial Republican President have ensured that this contest is more about the candidates themselves than about any party’s platform or policy positions.
Biden’s own campaign motto, “fighting for the soul of our nation,”[xix] is a direct jab at Trump — an argument that he is unfit to hold the office of the President not because his policies are bad, but because he is a bad person. Trump, for his part, has responded with consistent barbs about Biden’s own physical and mental fitness, as well as the size of the crowds his rallies attract.[xx] With the exception of regular critiques over the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, neither candidate has focused much on criticizing their opposition’s policies — or even bothering to outline their own.
To be sure, negative partisanship has been a growing trend in American politics for the better part of a quarter century.[xxi] As media coverage has shifted toward national politics and parties themselves have become more rigid in their policy positions, it has become harder for politicians to break from their party’s positions. Parties, in turn, are incentivized to elevate controversial, extreme candidates rather than moderate ones who might be favorable to cross-party consensus-building.[xxii]
And this shift has trickled down to voters, too: on both sides of the aisle, between 60 and 70 percent of voters said they agreed with the statement that “the opposing party is a serious threat to the United States and its people.”[xxiii]
Such rigid levels of partisanship leaves little room for dialogue or variation among party members on policy positions.
So, it seems likely then, that the 2020 election will be decided not by a measure of how much voters like their candidate or their policy positions, but rather how much they dislike the opposing candidate. An August NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 58% of likely voters who said they supported Biden stated that their vote was more “against Donald Trump” than it was “for Joe Biden.”[xxiv]
So where do we go from here?
Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of questions about the future of foreign policy unanswered.
Both a Biden presidency or a second-term Trump White House could have profound impacts on U.S. foreign policy for years to come.
What would either administration mean for our alliances? Or our relationships with adversaries? Our economic policies? Is any kind of bipartisan consensus around foreign policy possible in 2020?[xxv]
We’ll likely have to wait until after the election to find out.
[i] Hirsh, Michael. “The Most Important Election. Ever.” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/25/2020-election-donald-trump-joe-biden/.
[ii] Lindsay, James M. “Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: Foreign Policy is AWOL,” The Water’s Edge Blog, Council on Foreign Relations, September 11, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/blog/campaign-foreign-policy-roundup-foreign-policy-awol.
[iii] Skelley, Geoffrey and Amelia Thomson-Devaux. “How Americans are Reacting to Trump’s COVID-19 Diagnosis,” FiveThirtyEight, October 5, 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/will-trumps-diagnosis-change-the-way-republicans-think-about-covid-19/.
[iv] “Voters’ Attitudes About Race and Gender Are Even More Divided Than in 2016,” Pew Research Center, September 10, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/10/voters-attitudes-about-race-and-gender-are-even-more-divided-than-in-2016/.
[v] “4. Important issues in the 2020 election,” Pew Research Center, August 13, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/13/important-issues-in-the-2020-election/.
[vii] Quinn, Colm. “Here’s How Biden’s Possible VP Picks Stack Up in Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, July 30, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/bidens-vp-picks-foreign-policy-harris-warren-rice/.
[viii] “President Donald J. Trump Has Brokered a Historic Deal Between Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain,” The White House, September 11, 2020. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-brokered-historic-deal-israel-kingdom-bahrain/.
[ix] Berinsky, Adam. “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict,” Journal of Politics 69 (4), November 2007, pp. 975-997.
[x] Saunders, Elizabeth N.. “Will Foreign Policy Be a Major Issue in the 2016 Election? Here’s
What We Know,” Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog, January 26, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/01/26/will-foreign-policy-be-a-major-issue-in-the-2016-election-heres-what-we-know/.
[xi] Carpenter, Ted Galen. “China’s Coronavirus Policy Will Impact the U.S. Presidential Election,” The Cato Institute, April 1, 2020 https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/chinas-coronavirus-policy-will-impact-us-presidential-election.
[xii] Lindsay, “Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: Foreign Policy is AWOL.”
[xiii] John H. Aldrich, John L. Sullivan, and Eugene Borgida. “Foreign Affairs and Issue Voting: Do Presidential Candidates “Waltz Before A Blind Audience?”” The American Political Science Review 83, no. 1 (1989): 123-41. Accessed October 12, 2020. doi:10.2307/1956437.
[xiv] Biden, Joseph R.. “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
[xv] “The 2020 Candidates on Foreign Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, Updated August 11, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/election2020/candidate-tracker#china.
[xvi] Kenneth A. Schultz, “Perils of Polarization for U.S. Foreign Policy,” Washington Quarterly
40, no. 4, pp. 7-28
[xvii] Cordesman, Anthony H.. “The Iran Nuclear Deal and The Threat From American Domestic Politics,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 10, 2015. https://www.csis.org/analysis/iran-nuclear-deal-and-threat-american-domestic-politics.
[xviii] “The 2020 Candidates on Foreign Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations.
[xix] Joe Biden, Twitter post, August 13, 2020. https://twitter.com/JoeBiden/status/1293910176026763264.
[xx] Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, October 12, 2020. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1315735543003721729.
[xxi] Drutman, Lee. “How Hatred Came to Dominate American Politics,” FiveThirtyEight, October 5, 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-hatred-negative-partisanship-came-to-dominate-american-politics/.
[xxii] Drutman, Lee. “Why There Are So Few Moderate Republicans Left,” FiveThirtyEight, August 24, 2020. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-there-are-so-few-moderate-republicans-left/.
[xxiii] Kalmoe, Nathan P. and Lilliana Mason. “Lethal Mass Partisanship: Prevalence, Correlates, & Electoral Contingencies,” 2019. https://www.dannyhayes.org/uploads/6/9/8/5/69858539/kalmoe___mason_ncapsa_2019_-lethal_partisanship-_final_lmedit.pdf.
[xxiv] NBC News/Wall Street Journal. Public Opinion Poll, August 9-12. https://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/WSJNBCPollAugust2020.pdf.
[xxv] Coons, Chris. “A Bipartisan Foreign Policy Is Still Possible,” Foreign Affairs, October 7, 2020. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-10-07/bipartisan-foreign-policy-still-possible.