Not Just the Economy, Stupid

It’s the economy, stupid. So goes the conventional wisdom about Presidential elections anyway. The theory is that domestic politics – and the economy in particular – trumps everything else, including matters of foreign relations. Are you better off than you were four years ago? If not, little else matters. It was most notably the case in 1992 when Bill Clinton focused with laser–like intensity on the economy while George H.W. Bush rested on his Gulf War laurels. And, supposedly, it will be the case in 2012 as well. Yet while I do not disagree with those who say the economy will be at the heart of the forthcoming election, foreign policy issues do still matter.

They have always mattered. The question of exactly how much and why foreign policy issues matter varies from election year to election year, and along with Andrew Priest from the University of Aberystwyth, I am organising a conference in London next April to further examine the somewhat neglected historical relationship between Presidential elections and American foreign policy. During the early Cold War, polls suggested that foreign policy issues actually mattered more than domestic issues in how voters made their decisions in the polling booth. In more recent elections, the influence of foreign policy issues on voters has varied (with 1992 being an example from the other extreme), but it is always there. It is there in two forms. The first, most commonly noted form is (as above) the way foreign policy issues affect the decisions of the voting public. The second form is the way that foreign policy issues affect the way that candidates campaign and present themselves, and even the way that campaigns influence policy. While the former may be of relatively little consequence in the forthcoming election, there is no way that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can afford to ignore the latter.

In fact, given the parlous state of the American economy, foreign policy issues have been surprisingly prominent over the last couple of months, especially following Mitt Romney’s visit to the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland. While the hope would have been for Romney to receive a reception equivalent to Obama’s visit to Europe in 2008, there was in fact considerable change from that aim. The “Romneyshambles” tour – the name adopted from British political comedy The Thick Of It – began in the UK on the eve of the Olympics, with the Republican candidate suggesting that London might not be fully prepared for the games. To be fair to Romney, most of us in Britain felt the same, and were happy to be subsequently proven wrong, but international diplomacy it wasn’t. Direct and public responses quickly followed from both David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, and if Boris is criticising you, you know you’re in trouble. Romney raised further question marks over his diplomatic credentials in Israel with comments about the differences between Israeli and Palestinian culture that could be seen as offensive by both sides. The gaffe-laden trip ended with a Romney aide swearing at reporters in Poland. Foreign policy was firmly on the news agenda, just not in the way that Romney intended.

More recently, foreign policy issues have loomed large at both party conventions. At the Republican event in Tampa, Romney tried to regain the initiative, criticising Obama for being too soft on America’s enemies, such as Iran and Cuba, and for being too friendly with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Similarly, he attacked Obama for failing to fully support America’s allies such as Israel and Poland (appealing to domestic voters in the process). Romney also made a vague historical reference to the “bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan,” which presumably did not refer to Truman’s handling of the Korean War or Reagan’s Central American interests. The reference added little in terms of detail and – depending on your perspective –reinforced the image of Romney as either a candidate ready to seize the mantle of global leadership or an ageing Cold Warrior out of touch with the contemporary world.

Missing from Romney’s speech however, was any mention of Afghanistan. While it is understandable that Romney sought to distance himself from the controversial foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush, it was striking that a Republican candidate failed to acknowledge American troops in the field, especially when there are approximately 77,000 currently in Afghanistan. Media commentators were swift to pick up on this, as of course, was the Democratic Party.

The Democrats began their convention with a surprisingly large amount of emphasis on foreign relations. Admittedly, this had the added benefit of diverting attention away form the economy, but it also made good political sense as polls suggest the Democratic candidate has a foreign policy advantage over the Republican for the first time in decades. Key Democrats were quick to paint Romney as an overly confrontational warmonger with no real experience of international affairs. They were also quick to brand Romney as a warmed over neo-conservative, linking him closely to the legacy of George W. Bush.

On a more positive note, Democrats moved to promote Obama’s record, highlighting his credentials as Commander-in-Chief in three main ways. They emphasised how Obama brought an end to the unpopular Iraq war, how he had repaired frayed relations with key allies and restored some of the international credibility lost under Bush, and of course, how he had presided over the death of Osama bin Laden. However, it was not all good news. The controversy over the dropping of a line supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel from the Democratic platform led to an embarrassing u-turn; it also looked like a clear reaction to the attacks of the previous week and an acceptance of weakness in an area that might also affect domestic votes. It clearly showed how domestic politics can influence foreign relations issues.

Nevertheless, Obama’s convention speech targeted Romney’s foreign policy inexperience, suggesting the Republican was stuck in a Cold War time-warp. The President also made direct reference to Romney’s London gaffe, suggesting that Romney “might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing” if he can’t “visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.” And of course, Obama made sure to mention the troops in Afghanistan. Admittedly, there was little specific detail about future policy and moving forward, but it was clear that both parties looked to emphasise the difference in broader foreign policy approach between them.

As the election campaign proceeds, foreign policy will remain an area that cannot be ignored. It will not be the reason most Americans vote the way they will this particular November, but even in this most economically oriented of election years, it still matters. This election will be too close for the candidates to ignore any potentially significant issue, and that certainly includes considerations of America’s place in the worl