How foreign policy might impact the outcome of the US election

Divisions over key foreign policy issues, from the war in Ukraine to Gaza, could play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

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In 1992, Bill Clinton’s political strategist James Carville quipped that the outcome of US elections was determined by ‘the economy, stupid’. Joe Biden must certainly hope that this remains true because, if so, he would almost certainly be a shoo-in for re-election in 2024. 

The facts speak for themselves. Unemployment is at an all-time low, the US economy is growing by about 3 per cent per quarter, wages are going up, and the stock market is going through the roof. Meanwhile, interest rates, which have been at an all-time high for over two years, are finally predicted to come down. And to cap it off,  of the top ten corporations in the world right now, eight just happen to be based in the US. As one pundit has put it, if the US was in an economic war with the rest of the world, it would be ‘winning’

If polls are any kind of guide, the Biden team clearly has a lot of work to do.

But despite all this, Biden is still behind Trump in the polls. Of course, much can and will happen by November, and polls taken now may not be a great guide to how Americans will actually vote when presented with a simple but stark choice between Biden and Trump.  

But if polls are any kind of guide, the Biden team clearly has a lot of work to do. A November 2023 poll put Trump ahead in five of the six battleground states (Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, though not Wisconsin), while a February poll conducted by NBC News showed that Biden’s approval rating had dropped to 37 per cent.

Nor is the tide turning in Biden’s favour. If anything, quite the opposite seems to be happening. As Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research recently pointed out, ‘on every measure compared to 2020’ support for Biden has declined.

But why is this? 

There are several common explanations. Among the most popular are Biden’s age and alleged memory loss (something he vehemently denies); his administration’s failure to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States (the number arriving has roughly doubled since 2020); and last but by no means least, the fact that even if the Dow Jones is on the up, many ordinary Americans are hurting. A recent CBS poll found that 65 per cent of Americans remember the economy under Trump as being good, but with only 38 per cent giving the same positive assessment of the current economy under Biden. 

However, this is by no means the whole story. Foreign policy might be playing a role here too. While Biden’s foreign policy may get good marks from both his supporters at home and US allies abroad, especially those worried about Trump returning to the White House, it may not necessarily be working  to his advantage.   

Take the war in Ukraine. It is true that the majority of Americans stand with Ukraine against Russia. However, Trump’s brand of isolationism has struck a chord with part of the American electorate who believe that there is little point backing Ukraine militarily if this extends a conflict to which  there appears to be no end in sight. In 2021, Biden controversially decided to call a halt to what he termed a ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan. Could Trump do the same in Ukraine?   

While the stakes in Ukraine may be higher, there are many (or at least enough) Americans who seem prepared to vote for someone like Trump who has promised to end this other ‘forever war’ by negotiating some kind of peace deal with Putin. Among a reasonably large swathe of Americans, pressure is growing to call it a day. 

China is proving to be another foreign policy headache for Biden. Both Biden and Trump agree that China is the only power in the international system which has both the intent and the capabilities to challenge the US-led world order. But the Biden administration has also pointed out that there are several reasons – not least strong economic ones – why the US should remain engaged with China. 

This approach might make perfect sense to American companies who operate in China and to political realists who see little wrong in working out a way to coexist with another great power. However, in the hurly-burly of American politics where 81 per cent of Republicans, 59 per cent of Independents, and 56 per cent of Democrats view China as a critical threat, it leaves Biden open to attack by the Republican Party for either going soft on China, or worse, appeasing it.     

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Finally, there is the crisis in Gaza. The Biden administration may indeed be working overtime to put a brake on the military policies being pursued by the Netanyahu government and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Biden may even have warned Israel of diminishing international support for its policies. But the perception among those demanding a ceasefire is that this is all window dressing which is making no difference at all in Gaza itself where the humanitarian crisis is going from bad to worse. 

Biden’s dilemma is that a good number of Americans, particularly in his own party, among the young and among groups of Arab-Americans, do not back military aid for Israel and wish to see a cessation of the war now.

Of course, if all Americans were on the side of Israel this might not make much of a difference. But Biden’s dilemma is that a good number of Americans,  particularly in his own party, among the young and among groups of Arab-Americans, do not back military aid for Israel and wish to see a cessation of the war now. 

And this may have long-term political consequences, as the recent Democratic primary in Michigan showed when 100,000 voters cast ‘uncommitted’ ballots in a major protest against what they view as Biden’s support for Israel’s military campaign. Of course, this does not necessarily translate into support for Trump, who also lacks support outside his own base. However, given that the 2020 election was decided by less than 50,000 votes in three swing states – including significantly Michigan – the White House must be concerned. 

What happens in November will have huge consequences for the rest of the world. But by the same measure, what is happening in the rest of the world could play a key role in determining who enters the White House. The world can only wait and watch.