As the world churns

Foreign affairs and geopolitics will likely loom larger in the presidential campaign as we get closer to the election.

24 Sep 2019

The road to 2020

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ElectionWatch 2020

A closer look at foreign policy

For 70 years, US foreign policy was predicated on free trade, global alliances, and the tacit promotion of free speech and representative government. Presidential candidates espoused different tactical approaches to these issues but a consensus regarding America’s place in the world prevailed. In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump expressed skepticism as to whether those principles were still an effective means by which the US could assert its influence. His subsequent rejection of one free trade agreement and renegotiation of another heralded a substantive change in American foreign policy. Although President Trump walked back his campaign rhetoric that NATO was an obsolete relic of the Cold War, his preference for transactional agreements in lieu of strategic partnerships has been a hallmark of his first term in office.

Back to the future

The importance of foreign policy as a campaign theme has waxed and waned over time. It was a frequent refrain in campaigns from 1948 through 1972. According to the Gallup organization, foreign policy was cited twice as often as the domestic economy by prospective voters for a quarter century after the end of the Second World War.¹ The electorate’s preoccupation with foreign affairs peaked in 1968 as the US prosecution of the war in Vietnam stirred passionate debate. In that year, global security concerns were cited nine times as often as domestic issues when voters were polled.²

Domestic challenges assumed greater importance after the US withdrew military forces from Vietnam and the scourge of stagflation undermined economic growth. Voters were more concerned with their economic prospects in 1976 than with the remaining prosecution of the Cold War. Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the presidency in 1992 rested in part on a recognition that a faltering US economy was an Achilles heel for incumbent George HW Bush. The dominance of domestic and economic issues persisted for another 24 years but waned in the wake of 9/11 and America’s military intervention in Iraq. Since then, foreign and domestic policies have competed vigorously for voter attention.

Conflicting priorities

The Pew Research Center uncovered dramatic differences in how registered voters view foreign policy. While a majority of Republicans and Democrats agree that protection from terrorism ranks high in terms of foreign policy, the consensus ends there. For example, 70% of Democrats favor improving relationships with US allies. Only 44% of Republicans believe it to be a top priority. Conversely, the maintenance of military superiority was favored by 70% of the GOP and those who lean Republican. Only half as many Democrats and those who lean Democratic agree with the premise. Beyond partisan politics, the respondents’ age affected how they view US commitments around the world. Sixty-four percent of Americans over the age of 65 see maintenance of US military superiority as an important goal. Less than half as many individuals under the age of 30 agreed.³

The road ahead

In the months ahead, we expect President Trump to argue that he has fulfilled his foreign policy related campaign promises, from renegotiating or cancelling trade agreements to forcing military allies to bear a larger share of the cost of military commitments. In doing so, he plays to his political base, upon which the prospects for his reelection rest. And thus far, with the exception of the enhanced border wall with Mexico, his Democratic opponents have tended to criticize the manner in which he conducts foreign policy rather than oppose specific decisions.

We believe geopolitics will assume more significance for the American voter during the 2020 campaign. Look no further than the recent attack on the world’s largest oil refinery in Saudi Arabia. The resulting damage triggered an abrupt increase in oil prices and prompted the president to authorize a tap on the US strategic oil reserve. The risks posed by cyberattacks from abroad have prompted public expenditures to protect sensitive data. The imposition of tariffs to compel China to protect intellectual property has imposed a cost on US household budgets. Indeed, globalization in the 21st century often blurs the distinction between foreign and domestic policy and will compel all candidates to address the impact of their foreign policies on the US consumer.

Most important problem in presidential election years

Ratio of poll respondents citing economic (left figure) vs. foreign and security issues (right figure) as most important, by year

































Quick take preview

On the Saudi Arabia oil attack:

In the wake of an aerial drone attack that disabled Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery last weekend, crude oil prices increased to their highest level in more than three years. For oil markets, it is the single-worst sudden disruption ever, and it is expected to take weeks to restore full production at the refinery. The attack comes ahead of Saudi Arabia’s floatation of Aramco, the state-owned petroleum concern, which has only served to raise geopolitical tension in the region and increase the probability of a proportionate military response.

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