What About the World?

As America’s primaries move beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, it is simply impossible to predict who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees, much less who will become the 44th president of the United States. But it is not too soon to address the question of what effect US foreign policy is having on the campaign and what it reveals about how Americans see the world.  

To the surprise of many seasoned observers, foreign policy is having only a modest impact on voters. This is unexpected, because only six months ago the war in Iraq dominated the political landscape. Although Iraq still matters a lot to Americans, its importance for determining how they vote has receded, partly because US casualties there are markedly down as the security situation appears to be gradually improving. As a result, there is considerably less public pressure to do something dramatically different. 

Foreign policy has also become less salient than it was only months ago as the chance of war between the US and Iran has diminished, following the recently published National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. The judgment by America’s intelligence community that Iran has suspended its nuclear weapon development program – and, more importantly, that its large-scale uranium enrichment capacity is likely years away – postpones the day when a US president may have to decide between living with or attacking a nuclear Iran.

A third reason for the modest impact of international issues on voters’ choice of the next president is another surprising development: more agreement between and among the leading candidates than meets the eye. There is something of a consensus, for example, emerging around the notion that the US should remain in Iraq for some time to come, albeit with a reduced level of military forces.