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Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy

Dan Drezner recently embraced RINO status, but that wasn’t what interested me about this post. One of the comments that wasn’t included in his Spectatorarticle on Republican foreign policy caught my attention:

[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I’m unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.

Except for the 2004 example, Drezner is describing presidential politics during the Cold War. During this extremely abnormal period of American history, foreign policy and national security received more attention because the U.S. was engaged in a major international rivalry with the USSR. Further, there was a bipartisan consensus that anti-Soviet containment was necessary and important, and presidential candidates were expected to demonstrate that they were competent to handle this responsibility. After 1991, it was natural that these issues stopped dominating presidential politics to the extent that they had earlier, and now that we are beginning to realize that there are no comparably grave threats to the U.S. these issues are starting to fade into the background again.

In the years immediately following 9/11, national security issues defined the political landscape. This made them major issues during the 2004 election, but it also produced the Iraq war debacle. Bush’s re-election was interpreted by the administration as a green light to continue their mismanagement of the occupation and many of their other misguided policies in the world. Considering the hysteria and demagoguery that shaped the national security debate during at least the first half of the last decade, I’m not sure that we are missing out on very much this cycle.

My guess is that Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon lost him a lot more votes than those debate remarks, but with the exception of 1988 these elections resulted in the victory of the less competent candidate when it came to foreign policy and national security issues. That may not have been entirely obvious in 1976, but it was in 2004. To the extent that these elections turned on issues of foreign policy and national security, they did so for utterly superficial reasons. I won’t find it the least bit disconcerting if this election isn’t decided by who happens to “appear weak.” Goodness knows we have had more than enough candidates eager to demonstrate how “strong” and “tough” they are with belligerent and demagogic rhetoric.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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