Seal of the President of the United States
In ten short months, Americans will head to the polls to elect the next President of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever witnessed, and the Leader of the Free World. President Obama’s successor will inherit a unique set of challenges — old and new — that will define the tone of America’s future engagement with the world and gauge the influence that the once-sole-superpower is capable of wielding. Some of these challenges are forbidding:
• The Syrian Civil War is poised to enter its fifth year in March. Bashar al-Assad, the instigator of the conflict, is predicted to remain in office at least until the next occupant of the White House is chosen. This conflict is also the root cause of the refugee crisis that has become a highly contentious topic in both the U.S. and Europe.
• America’s war in Afghanistan, its longest war to date, will be extended into 2017 after President Obama’s decision to keep a fighting force there of approximately 5,500 troops, punting the decision of whether to withdraw from Afghanistan completely to the November victor.
• An emboldened Vladimir Putin is eager to reassert Russia’s position on the global stage by antagonizing NATO and the United States.
• North Korea has resumed its sabre-rattling with the recent test of a nuclear weapon.
• And, of course, the ongoing effort to defeat ISIS and prevent terrorism in the United States.
To explain why foreign policy matters in the 2016 election cycle, we must examine the authority the president has to make and implement U.S. foreign policy and the salience the American people place on international issues. Traditionally, presidential candidates run on a platform promising better economic opportunities for the nation. This is to be expected, as the economy always tops the polls as the most important issue that voters care about. Foreign policy, on the other hand, either fails to appear on the polls or is lowly ranked.
Voters, then, should be furious that U.S. presidents often spend much of their time tending to issues beyond the shores of the country. George H.W. Bush became entrenched in the Persian Gulf War; Bill Clinton tried his hand with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, intervened in Kosovo, and had a military blunder in Somalia; George W. Bush started two of America’s longest wars. Barack Obama, for his part, has extended the war in Afghanistan, taken the fight to the Islamic State via airstrikes, and negotiated the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The phenomenon of American presidents spending what seems like an inordinate amount of time and effort on foreign ventures is no fault of their own. Indeed, it is simply another feature that comes with the office they so highly sought. The Constitution makes the president and Congress equal brokers of foreign policy. The president has the power to negotiate treaties while the Senate must ratify them. While the president is the commander-in-chief, only Congress has the power to declare war. So on and so forth. What the Constitution does not specify is which branch of government has the resolute authority to chart the foreign policy of the nation.
A number of factors can influence the making of foreign policy, even the president’s domestic agenda. Presidents must cooperate with Congress to accomplish their legislative priorities, and recent experience with the Obama administration has shown how troublesome that can be.
When a president’s policies are going awry at home, the executive sometimes turns to a tactic known as distractionary (or diversionary) foreign policy. As the name implies, this strategy is used to deflect attention away from a failing economy or other domestic shortcomings by instigating a war. Some have called Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War an example of distractionary foreign policy, meant to distract the public from widespread social and racial injustice. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, is said to have redirected the public’s attention from a declining economy to the administration’s war on terror.
Using his or her prerogative powers as commander-in-chief, the president leads the charge on most issues of foreign policy. The occupant of the Oval Office is often keen to take initiative in making the nation’s foreign policy and Congress is either reluctant to challenge the executive or loses said challenge. President Obama succeeded in negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran and reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, both with minimal congressional consultation. Congress has also steered clear of Obama’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) sent to them nearly a year ago. President Obama even initiated airstrikes in Libya without asking Congress. There are plenty of other examples from previous presidents, but the aforementioned presidential actions demonstrate the executive’s dominant authority in determining the nation’s foreign policy.
So, what exactly makes foreign policy more prevalent in the 2016 election cycle? Following the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, national security and terrorism have become top issues for the American people, overtaking even the economy by a 40%-23% margin in a December 2015 WSJ/NBC poll. Candidates have now been asked to convey their strategies to combat terrorism and ensure the national security of the United States. Debates have changed accordingly to reflect the top priority of the president: the safety of the American people.
In this election cycle, the presidential field is a bit lacking in international affairs experience, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being the only presidential candidate with foreign policy bona-fides. Candidates such as Marco Rubio and John Kasich are not allowing this to go unchallenged, laying out their own vision for America’s role in the world.
Foreign policy has effectively become a defining issue in the 2016 race for the White House and is positioned to remain at the forefront of the national debate.
Larry Ornez Harris, Jr. is a second-year graduate student at American University’s School of International Affairs.
Image Attribution: “Great Seal of the President of the United States” by Tim Evanson, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0