To get involved or not to get involved, that’s the question

4 min read

Usually, foreign policy takes a backseat during U.S. presidential elections, while domestic issues dominate the debates. 

Except when two ingredients are present in a perfect combination. A highly salient international crisis, for one, and clear foreign policy differences between the competing candidates.

This year, with President Biden pitted against Donald Trump, the perfect brew is boiling in the cauldron. 

There is no lack of global crises, either: Russia’s war in Ukraine, the quickly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, on top of those, the looming question of the rise of China. And trade wars and illegal migration. 

The average American’s life seems to be influenced more by events far from home than by domestic issues. Not surprisingly, the latest poll of The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that 38 percent of Americans want their government to focus on foreign policy (in 2023, this number was only percent). This makes foreign policy the second most important issue after the economy, pushing worries about personal financial situation into place No #3 (37 percent), followed bz immigration with 35 percent. Foreign policy became such a pressing issue, that government spending bothers only 13 percent of Americans. 

Voters’ “appetite” for foreign policy is marked by a sharp division between Republicans and Democrats, as the first are more than twice as like to say than the latter (53 percent vs 25 percent) that their country should have less active involvement abroad (putting the average at 40 percent against foreign interventionism). 

No wonder that foreign policy became an important feature of the election campaign, in fact, a highly polarizing one. 

Probably even more so, as President Biden faces some difficulties on other fronts. No matter, how his post-Covid recovery track is good, unemployment is at record low, wages are rising and the stock markets are fine. According to a recent CBS poll, Americans’ view on economy is mixed, at best, with most (65 percent) remembering as the Trump Era economy was good and only 38 percent is willing to give the same credit to Biden. Many think that it was better during the Trump presidency, because of the present’s cost-of-living concerns and inflation.

The (re)new(ed) crisis in Gaza couldn’t have come in a worse moment for Ukraine.

The effect is (as of now) mostly indirect: attention and resources are shifting. And the implications are dire: with multiple crises dividing attention, a slowdown in aid and weapons’ delivery cannot be rule out. As Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba put it, “When you’re fighting an existential war, the last thing you should worry about is the outcome of an election you cannot have any influence on because it is other people making the choice. You will have to work with that choice, whoever it is.”

It might be a deliberate communication decision that President Joe Biden diverted public attention towards the conflict between Israel and Hamas; and linked the two conflicts in public communication. Ever since, there has been a notable decrease in public mentions of the ongoing war in Ukraine. There, yet, not there, as seemingly the war in Ukraine is currently low on the agenda of American voters. 

As shown by the polls referred to above, Democrats and Republicans are highly divided in their views on conflicts and on the focus points American foreign policy should adapt, and on the best way to approach those points. 

Even within their respective constituencies, challenges are aplenty. For President Biden, for example, the conflict in Gaza is a balancing act in itself, as he is trying to satisfy (or at least mollify) both the Israeli lobby, and large sections of his party on their side AND the younger generations of voters, generally more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Donald Trump’s Republicans are more unified in their support for Israel, sparing Trump from the balancing act, especially as he doesn’t need to voice a strong opinion, given his voters’ general aversion towards active U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. 

Opinions on Ukraine differ, too. 

About half of the Democrats say the U.S.’s current role in the Russia-Ukraine war is about right, while about 30 percent want a more active role. In general, Democrats are more likely to favor U.S. intervention in Ukraine: nearly 6 in 10 think it’s very or extremely important for the U.S. to provide aid to Ukraine’s military to fight Russia or negotiate a permanent cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine. To offer a comparison: only 24 percent of Republicans prioritize more military aid, whereas 41 percent of them says that it’s extremely or very important for the U.S. to help broker a permanent ceasefire.

Republican voters seem to have better historical memory than Democrats, as a recurring argument against more activism is Washington’s not-so-stellar track record of foreign interventions (starting grom Vietnam and ending with Iraq, and anything in between, all costly and ultimately futile exercises). Worries are high that Ukraine and the Gaza Strip won’t be different, either.

Less appetite for interventionism doesn’t equal abandonment and Ukraine can maybe draw some comfort from the fact that Donald Trump had agreed to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine while in office, (in fact, when he did so, he reversed former U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to do so). He sent the first Javelins, he sent ships for the Ukrainian navy and fought hard against the Nord Stream II project. It is also unlikely that (would he win again), Trump would cut all the support to Ukraine, but a less active military role (as expected by Republican voters) could still weaken Ukraine’s positions. 

But the effects of a less-than-enthusiastic support were already shown. For example, Republicans in Congress opposed a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, contributing to delays in its approval. They argued that America should prioritize its own domestic needs before committing resources to foreign conflicts. Additionally, some Republicans advocated for a less active U.S. role in the war between Ukraine and Russia, suggesting that America’s involvement should be scaled back.

While, in general, Democrats are more supportive towards more role in Ukraine, facing two major crises simultaneously makes it harder to respond effectively to either one; and Democrats start to realize it.

The situation bears some resemblance to the 1956 “twin crises”: the anti-Soviet Revolution in Hungary in parallel with the Suez Crisis. 

One such resemblance is that today, just like back then, one of the crises was about the extent to which Russia/Soviet Union could control its neighbors and what Moscow was ready to do to keep its sphere of influence intact. Another resemblance is the location of the “parallel” conflict and the involvement of Israel.

Either way, though Western military intervention against the occupying Soviet forces was highly unlikely (no matter, how high up the hopes of Hungarian revolutionaries were), even the minimal attention that first followed the events in Budapest was quickly lost as the situation got out of control in the Middle East. As (then) Vice President Richard Nixon said, “we couldn’t on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary, and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser”. 

Given the strongly divided public opinion, the next few years will likely see a delicate balancing act, no matter who wins the elections, when the outcomes will be uncertain and highly “case-sensitive”. The more crises foreign policy makers will try to juggle at once, the less bargaining chips they will have and public support will be the more divided.

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