First Mondays: Final Thoughts – April 2016 Policy Salon

Impact of Domestic Politics on Foreign Policy

This month’s topic provoked a wide-ranging discussion on the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy decisions. In particular, the 2016 election has provoked healthy public debate across a range of issues. While foreign policy is primarily the domain of the President and the dedicated professionals who provide policy advice, it is also clear that “domestic politics — the lifeblood of the republic — is necessary and inevitable, if at times inconvenient” for furthering the national interest abroad.

Elections and Foreign Policy. Much election research shows that US voters generally care more about economic issues than foreign policy concerns, but this year may be different. The terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and the recent attacks in Europe have raised fears and again brought international terrorism to the forefront. In 2012, terrorism was one among a handful of priorities. Now, the overwhelming focus is on ISIS, which eludes a firm set of policy options, and on Syria, a complex situation that has proven immune to clearly defined and easily communicable policy responses. The way we confront challenges abroad will need to become more adept and creative. Whichever candidate the voters consider able to confront these challenges will likely have an edge in the general election.

US Power – Perceptions and Limitations. There is a difference between the general perception of what the US can accomplish and the actual limitations of US power. Consider the difference between the recent moves by the US and Russia in Syria. Putin finally took aggressive – though limited – action to prevent the Assad regime from falling. Some regard this action as “decisive,” yet Putin waited four years into the conflict to help his ally with direct military support. Obama responded with more special forces and military trainers, but remains unwilling to put to put US troops on the ground. This action may have been influenced by US public perception that we should be “doing more.” More likely it was influenced by classic balance-of-power and realism theory, which dictates that every foreign policy move is, at least in part, a reaction to the moves of another actor, assuming that both actors are rational. Yet, in many foreign policy situations, all bets are hedged: an actor cannot be absolutely certain that a move is in his or her interest because there are so many variables. Articulating the myriad of things that could go wrong – or that it’s hardly possible to guarantee a favorable outcome – requires a greater level of attention than the public is generally willing to exercise.

No Patience with Strategic Patience. While opinion is divided on the use of ground troops against ISIS, Americans tend to like and understand what they consider decisive action in foreign policy. This bias for action fits neatly with our can-do American ethos. It is easier for the President to articulate a war strategy than it is to explain a strategy based on patience, negotiation, and diplomacy. Obama’s approach of strategic patience is particularly difficult to rally the public around, since that strategy depends on the notion that the US is strong and secure enough to wait for facts on the ground to change or for other actors to come to decisions that work in our favor.

Where Public Opinion Holds Sway. While many foreign policy decisions are made independently by the President, there are instances in which domestic politics is crucial to the conduct of foreign policy. For example, President George W. Bush and his administration spent an enormous effort to garner public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Helping with this effort was a network of think tanks and media outlets, which one can argue should have exercised more skepticism. Ultimately, this full-court press swayed US public opinion in favor of the war, when initially it had been against overthrowing Saddam Hussein.