South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Andrew Hammond says while the prospect of a president Trump has sparked international concern, deeper global interest is being fuelled by the wider foreign policy and security issues at stake
This Monday’s first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be eagerly watched not just in the United States, but right across the globe. Given the major differences, and the large stakes in play, international audiences are showing a very keen interest in the election outcome.
Part of the reason is the massive international concern about the prospect of the maverick businessman Trump getting elected. However, a deeper factor driving global interest, which also potentially increases the unpredictability of the race, is the high salience of international issues in the campaign.
For instance, a Pew Research Centre Poll at the beginning of this election year found that 34 per cent of the US population believes foreign policy, especially tackling international terrorism, is the biggest challenge facing the country. By contrast, “only” 23 per cent mentioned economic problems.
The higher prominence of foreign compared to economic issues is unusual in the past few decades. Indeed, it resembles the first 25 years of the cold war, from 1948, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters during presidential campaigns.
By contrast, since the early 1970s, economic matters have tended to be the electorate’s highest priority. For instance, in December 2011, just before the last presidential election year in 2012, some 55 per cent of US citizens cited economic worries as the most important issue facing the country, according to Pew. By contrast, only 6 per cent mentioned foreign policy or other international issues.
The centrality of foreign and security policy issues in this year’s election largely reflects US concerns about terrorism. When the Pew poll was taken, after the Paris attacks last year, and the atrocity in San Bernardino, California, almost 18 per cent of the population believed that terrorist danger was the biggest issue facing the country. And an additional 7 per cent of voters asserted that Islamic State specifically (as distinct from terrorism in general), or the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, are priority No 1 for the nation.
These numbers will have been buoyed by further terrorist attacks, including the ones last weekend in New York and New Jersey. The apparently lone attacker allegedly responsible for those atrocities, an Afghan-born US citizen, may have been radicalised on trips to Pakistan.
Although foreign and security policy has returned to the forefront of the US electorate’s mind, at least temporarily, there are significant differences between now and during the first two decades of the cold war. This earlier period was characterised by a relative policy consensus and widespread bipartisan cooperation on foreign and security matters.
Today, however, this policy area is significantly more divisive politically, as is underlined by the attacks by Republican candidates on President Barack Obama, and Clinton – his former secretary of state. For instance, Trump asserts that “Obama’s foreign policy is a complete and total disaster – the worst president we have ever had”, while Obama and Clinton have – rightfully – described Trump as unfit to be president.
To be sure, the early cold war consensus can be overstated. Nonetheless, a significant degree of bipartisan agreement on foreign affairs, and wider political decorum, did exist until breaking apart in the late 1960s under the strain of the Vietnam war debacle and the demise of the notion of monolithic communism in light of the Sino-Soviet split.
No clear foreign and security policy consensus has emerged in recent years. For instance, many Republicans and Democrats differ significantly on how they view the power and standing of the US internationally; on the degree to which the country should be unilateralist; in their attitudes towards the campaign on terrorism and the methods by which they are being fought; and on what the foreign policy priorities should be.
An example is the campaign against so-called Islamic State, where Trump has called for much more hardline actions. This includes a fundamentally different military strategy, including potential “carpet-bombing”, which appears to involve intensification of US military commitments in the Middle East.
Many international audiences have also been shocked by Trump’s proposed total ban on Muslim immigration, and his perspective on the favourability of nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.
It is not just his incredible views, however, that account for higher foreign scrutiny: Trump is also generally less well known, internationally, than Clinton who has been a significant US figure since 1992 when her husband, Bill, won the presidency.
In this context, Trump has much to do to reassure US voters, and also many internationally, that he should be the next president. A key part of his challenge is painting a credible and coherent vision for the future of the world’s most powerful state.
Barring significant economic developments in coming weeks, it is likely that the current high salience of foreign and security issues will remain a central aspect of politics for the rest of the election year. And the partisan splits on these topics will reinforce high rates of political polarisation in the US electorate, and also global interest in the race.
Indeed, it is likely that the international focus on the race will be even higher than in 2012. Then, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project report, more than a third of populations in countries as diverse as Britain, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, China, India and Japan were either “closely or somewhat closely” following the presidential campaign.
Taken overall, foreign policy and security issues are likely to maintain their high prominence in this year’s US election, especially if there are further terrorist attacks on the US homeland. Partisan divisions have prevented the establishment of a foreign policy consensus in recent years, and the gaps between the parties on these issues may only widen during the remainder of this crucial election year.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics