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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Take note of your candidate’s foreign policy platform

Foreign policy is something that has long been a priority of lawmakers, but not always of voters.

The Harry S. Truman building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of State, is pictured.

The Harry S. Truman building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of State, is pictured.

Foreign policy has long been an essential aspect of American domestic politics, though it is not one Americans often consider when voting for president.

Foreign policy encompasses choices concerning trade, sanctions, military alliances and treaties, among other issues. Still, Americans are most concerned with the choices that directly impact them at home. In a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, the most favorable foreign policy goals were reducing infectious disease spread, limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction and protecting American jobs. Comparably, promoting democracy abroad and reducing overseas military commitments were among the lowest. Of course, these issues have domestic impacts, but most Americans prefer to think in the direct terms of jobs and lives, which translates into the largely domestic policy platforms of presidential candidates.

Importantly, I think there is one key exception to this: war. Because Americans do not seem inclined to think about affairs that do not obviously affect them, there needs to be a significant motivator to consider foreign policy issues. War fulfills this for a couple of reasons. People are unlikely to have an attachment to specific international conflicts, especially if they don’t have international familial connections. This means that news outlets are more likely to report on international affairs if they involve conflict because those stories tend to get more attention. This is due to our negativity bias built on thousands of years of evolutionary impulses looking out for our safety. 

This is a pretty good explanation for how conflicts, particularly those that the U.S. does not directly intervene in, can receive national attention. But I think that other important factors also make the media and public take extra notice of certain conflicts.

The first variable is impact on the U.S. Inherently, U.S. citizens will care more about something abroad if they believe that it impacts them at home. For example, even though the Clinton administration had authorized deadly force on Osama bin Laden before 9/11, it wasn’t until Al-Qaeda’s terrorism directly impacted the U.S. on 9/11 that public awareness rose dramatically. Moreover, impact on the U.S. came in the form of its war in Afghanistan and the continued deployment of U.S. troops.

The next variable is controversy. Even if a conflict is removed from the U.S. context, if there is significant discourse generated, a polarization effect can occur, encouraging people to take sides and solidifying their views. For example, though the U.S. hasn’t sent any troops to Ukraine, House Republicans are increasingly anti-involvement. As a result, the war in Ukraine has been framed partly as a question of U.S. foreign policy goals in terms of involvement or isolation.

The problem with this philosophy is that it perceptually mitigates a lot of issues by boxing them into this mentality. For instance, Azerbaijan’s activity in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which has a significant ethnically Armenian population, was labeled an ethnic cleansing by many, but the conflict lacks both controversy and an American connection. This perpetuates a cycle where voters are unwilling to pressure leaders to take action because, in large part, they don’t know enough about the situation since it is not considered newsworthy.

Instead, voters should consider the power of the presidency in controlling foreign policy, seek out information on international issues and vote accordingly. The president’s power in foreign policy is broad, especially in comparison to domestic policy, where the power to legislate rests largely in Congress. For instance, though Congress must declare war, the U.S. infamously hasn’t done so since World War II but has been engaged in many conflicts in that time. This is a result of norms surrounding presidential powers becoming less restrictive. Though domestic issues may seem to be a popular priority, presidents may find the most effectiveness in their foreign policy agenda due to the relative ease of executing it. President Joe Biden pulled out of Afghanistan completely, fulfilling an agreement made earlier by former President Donald Trump. Both of these actions constituted massive shifts in U.S. foreign policy over the last 20 years, and indeed, the pullout was in fact highly controversial.

If voters hold presidents accountable during their presidency and keep foreign policy goals in mind while voting, it can break the cycle of disregarding foreign policy that hurts the efficacy of such a representative position. These ideas are essential to being an informed voter.