America First, or America Only?

At the dawn of this new decade, the American electorate stands poised to select the next President, a decision that will affect not just the U.S but the entire world. The world, however, seems of little interest to U.S. voters. While hot-button issues like healthcare and immigration, and consistently relevant topics like the economy, capture the attention of voters nationwide, interest in foreign policy trails considerably behind. A recent Gallup Poll found that only 21% of U.S voters said a candidate’s proposed foreign policy was “extremely important” in their decision — well behind issues like immigration, the economy, and national security, which all stem from foreign policy. For whatever reason, voters are neglecting a crucial area of presidential fitness, and we have already seen the consequences. To address this problem is first and foremost to understand it.

First, that inescapable consideration — does it come down to domestic politics? Like with virtually every other issue in modern politics, the partisan divide is expanding. Just six years ago, Americans agreed almost unanimously that the U.S. should “concentrate more on [their] national problems rather than international.” However, in 2017, fewer than 40% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said the US should pay less attention to problems overseas (down from almost 60% in 2014), while across the aisle this figure dropped only marginally (60% to 54% in the same time frame). Nonetheless, in the 2020 race, it’s clear that international relations is still far from voters’ minds. 

Why is this? 

If you’re Jonathan Tepperman, Foreign Policy journalist, it could have something to do with the fact that many current presidential hopefuls “have [little] international experience to draw on.” Candidates will assuredly stick to the issues they know best; however, the interests of the electorate will decide the issues discussed. Therefore, it is illogical to imply that public interest would follow candidates’ talking points, rather than the inverse. 

Then perhaps it has to do with America’s current hegemonic standing; as long as they rest an unrivaled global superpower, why should average Americans concern themselves with the intricacies of foreign policy when they have the breathing room to focus on fixing their own nation? Even though the United States currently boasts the world’s top military spending and largest economy, public confidence in the president’s ability to protect U.S. national security has been waning, and fears of China’s surging economy soon overtaking America’s position as a  current global leader have risen steadily in the 20th century. This understanding of China is of course barring the economic ramifications of the coronavirus, along with its devastating human toll. 

Maybe Americans just don’t know enough to care. International relations is as complex as it is important, so could the inaccessibility of the subject deter voters from paying closer attention? Furthermore, could selective media coverage exacerbate this problem, as news outlets cater content to public interest and in turn public interest is curated by the nightly news? Research shows “important gaps in voters’ basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy objectives and widespread confusion about what the nation is trying to achieve in the world”. Nonetheless, this explanation fails to take into account the equally complicated domestic issues with which voters have had no trouble engaging, like healthcare and immigration. 

Many other possible explanations, such as the perceived physical and cultural distance between Americans and the rest of the world — juxtaposed with the closeness of domestic affairs — and a lack of “global” education in the U.S. public education system, are also on the table. Notwithstanding their relative shortcomings, the true source of American apathy vis-a-vis foreign affairs likely lies somewhere amidst these speculations, a combination of factors that are wholly inextricable. 

Nevertheless, the consensus is that voters believe America needs to be strong at home in order to be strong in the world. Seems logical, but the opposite is equally true. United States voters risk fallaciously assuming that the domestic can be separate from the international, or that economic strength can be independent of key foreign policy decisions — and in so doing, voters are more likely to elect leaders who lack global savvy. 

Very recently, concurrent with certain conspicuous foreign policy decisions by the POTUS — such as Iranian general Qassem Suleimani’s assassination — polls have seen a decline in foreign policy apathy. Have his obvious blunders indicated to the American people the importance of international relations? Might voters be awakening to the inherent dependence of domestic change on foreign policy?

One can only hope. Well — that, and elect the next President with robust foreign policy initiatives in mind.

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