Why foreign policy will factor in US election year

Trump believes international policy will be among strongest reasons for his re-election

Published : 30 Dec 2019 07:07 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 07:41 PM

As the New Year approaches, Donald Trump is anxiously awaiting his trial in the Senate after the House of Representatives voted to make him only the third US president ever to be impeached. The impeachment process will shape domestic politics in early 2020, and beyond, yet it will also increasingly bring US foreign policy into the imminent election year too given the Ukrainian dimension to the affair.

There are already growing signs that the Democratic US presidential candidates, who have mainly focused on domestic policy in their multiple debates, are dialling up their foreign policy focus. Meanwhile, the president believes that his international policy is one of the strongest reasons for his re-election in 2020 wanting to make it key to his campaign.

This combined emphasis on foreign policy will mean that the 2020 campaign will be especially eagerly watched not just in the United States, but right across the globe. Part of the reason for the global interest is the massive international concern about the prospect of Trump getting re-elected.

In India, there was a 12 percentage points fall-off in responses to this question between 2014 (when Barack Obama was president) and 2019. Meanwhile, in the Philippines the drop-off is 19 percentage points, and in Indonesia 12 percentage points.

Within the United States itself, it is also likely that foreign policy will be a significant factor on the minds of the electorate. This is not just because of the controversies over Trump’s Ukrainian policy, but also continuing wider concerns of his stance toward key international allies, not to mention his unorthodox policies toward longstanding states of longstanding US concern, including Russia.

Trump could yet enter election year

 with an international tail wind

 behind his campaign

In the last US presidential election year in 2016, the very high salience of international issues in the campaign was illustrated in a separate Pew survey that found 34 per cent of the population believed foreign policy, especially tackling international terrorism, was then the biggest challenge facing the country. By contrast, ‘only’ 23 per cent mentioned economic problems.

That data showing higher salience of foreign policy compared to economic issues was very unusual in the context of the past few decades. Indeed, it resembles the first 25 years of the Cold War, from 1948 to 1972, when international security issues dominated the concerns of US voters during campaigns.

While foreign policy may not prove to be quite as salient for voters in 2020, as it was in 2016, there are a significant number of reasons why international affairs will be prominent. In part, this is because Trump has — unlike many presidents in the modern era put a very significant amount of emphasis on foreign policy in the first three years of his presidency.

International affairs have been a surprisingly big feature of Trump’s presidency so far from China to North Korea, Iran to Russia, not to mention multilateral trade from the new US-Mexico-Canada agreement to pulling out the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. This pattern looks set to continue in 2020.

The United States is for instance hosting next year’s G7, which will occupy a significant amount of White House attention. In placing so much emphasis on foreign policy, Trump has replicated a pattern of most recent second term (rather than first term) presidents who have tended to increasingly look overseas after re-election, rather than before. This has often been done for reasons including the search for legacy, and the ‘lame duck’ factor which sees power drain from presidents as they approach the end-point of their second terms because they cannot serve more than eight years.

There are at least three areas where Trump is seeking key achievements in coming months, including China, Iran, and North Korea. Take the example of North Korea where it remains an open question whether sustained moves toward “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula will ultimately prove anything more than a mirage.

Yet, Trump is nevertheless likely to continue his Korea gambit with election year on the horizon. This, along with his desire to cement a place in history, means the potential prize of potentially permanently de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War frontier is likely to remain appealing to him.

At the heart of the apparent logjam, right now, between Washington and Pyongyang is not just the vagueness of the commitments agreed in Singapore. There also appears a fundamental difference between Pyongyang and Washington over what next steps are needed to build confidence.

It was always very likely that Kim would be wary about making big concrete commitments, and want to win economic and political concessions from Trump before any reduction in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearisation”. The next few days could be key with Pyongyang putting an end of year deadline on significant progress being made, or it threatens “a different path to the one promised” at Singapore.

Taken together, this underlines why 2020 could be such a significant year for US foreign policy. Trump could yet enter election year with an international tail wind behind his campaign, or continue to be flummoxed by challenges that have long bedevilled him, with the US populace and world-at-large watching.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics. Source: Gulf News