The U.S. election year can be a frustrating time for foreign policy wonks. This is especially true in 2012, when both presidential campaigns are laser-focused on issues of the economy and jobs. Tonight’s debate is sure to feature a question or two on international affairs, but the answers will likely matter more to policy elites than the average voter—unless one of the candidates forgets or mispronounces the name of a foreign head of state.
But a national survey released last week by the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington offers hopeful results for global policy wonks: “an overwhelming majority of Americans (92.2% of respondents) believe it is important for the United States to continue playing a significant role in world affairs.”
Conventional wisdom about the upcoming election is that the candidates should talk all economy, all the time. Still, it would be foolish for any campaign to ignore these new survey results reflecting such broad agreement among likely voters regarding American leadership in the world.
The FPI survey asked respondents which issue ranks highest on their list of concerns when considering for whom they will vote. Not surprisingly, the economy tops the list for 49% of voters. While only 5.7% of respondents listed national security as their number one concern, the crosstabs reveal that the issue is disproportionately important to undecided voters and moderates—two groups that both campaigns surely want to court. Among undecided voters, 8.5% listed national security as their top concern, as compared with 7% of respondents who plan to vote for Romney and 4% of those who plan to vote for Obama. And 8.1% of moderates named national security as their most important issue, compared with 6.5% of those who consider themselves conservatives and 2.4% of self-identified liberals.
Twenty years ago, the governor of a small state challenged an incumbent president whose greatest perceived strength was foreign policy. With all that was at stake in the 1992 election, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, German re-unification and the Gulf War, the Clinton campaign had a clear domestic focus. The now-famous mantra enshrined on a sign in campaign headquarters to keep everyone on message read, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And it proved to be a winning strategy.
But the Clinton campaign did not ignore foreign policy. During the race for the White House, Clinton outlined a global vision with many specifics: he focused on promoting democracy and human rights abroad, advocated for military action in Bosnia, promised to appoint a special representative for Northern Ireland and proposed reorganizing the U.S. military. Choosing Al Gore as his running mate added foreign policy credentials to his ticket; Gore was a seasoned member of Congress who sat on the Senate Armed Services, Homeland Security and House Intelligence Committees—and was one of only 10 Democrats who supported the Gulf War.
The Clinton campaign emphasized the economics of foreign policy, masterfully articulating a global worldview without taking the focus off of domestic policy. Clinton said that reviving the American economy would provide the foundation for remaining engaged internationally. This is a strategy worthy of consideration by any presidential candidate during a recession.
Almost exactly twenty years ago, in the weeks before the 1992 presidential election, an article called “How The World Will Look in 50 Years” in the October 15th issue of TIME Magazine asked the following questions:
Is the U.S. in an irreversible decline as the world’s premier power? Will Japan continue its competitive conquest of international markets? Can Europe manage to hold together the world’s largest trade bloc in the face of strong centrifugal forces? And does the future hold any hope at all for the poverty-stricken Third World?
Replace “Japan” with “China,” and those same questions could appear in TIME this month. Presidential elections may revolve around domestic policy, especially during a bad economy, but Americans do not vote with only their wallets in mind. The question of America’s role in the world remains central, and the voters resoundingly agree on the importance of U.S. global leadership.