Peter Trubowitz is a professor of government who specializes in international relations and U.S. foreign policy. His latest book, “Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft,” provides a sweeping analysis of grand strategies and the politics behind them.
In this election cycle, if there is one thing political analysts seem to agree on, it’s that foreign policy doesn’t matter. All eyes are fixed on the economy and on whether President Obama can beat the odds by winning reelection during an economic downturn.
There is little question that pocketbook issues will dominate this November. But that doesn’t mean that Obama, or his Republican opponent, should ignore foreign policy. Indeed, Obama has good reason to do just the opposite. So do the Republicans.
For Obama, the calculus is straightforward: the public gives him higher marks on foreign policy than on domestic policy. Fully 65 percent of the public approves of his handling of international threats such as terrorism (e.g. the successful operation against Osama bin Laden). By contrast, only 38 percent think Obama is doing a good job managing the economy.
What Obama has to figure out is how to highlight his foreign policy achievements without appearing to be running away from his economic record. Speaking at a Florida fundraiser last week, Vice President Joe Biden offered one formula: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
Obama’s foreign policy record is strong, but it is not Republican-attack-proof. The administration’s early reliance on diplomacy to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambition did not pan out. Obama has since reversed course, but Iran is one foreign policy issue on which he is potentially vulnerable.
Russia may be another. Obama’s much ballyhooed “reset” (improvement) of relations with Moscow has proven to be something of a mixed bag. Last week’s Russian veto of the UN resolution calling upon Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad to step down revealed that there are limits to how much cooperation the United States can expect from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Republicans are already attacking Obama over his policies toward Iran and Russia (read about it in The New York Times and Reuters). But arguably, Obama’s biggest foreign policy liability going into the fall campaign will be China and its export-led approach to economic growth.
This is potential liability because voters think China’s spectacular rise and America’s economic woes are two halves of the same walnut. In a recent PEW poll, nearly 60 percent of the public identified China’s rise as a threat to America’s economic wellbeing. Only the national debt was considered a greater danger.
What makes this issue particularly dicey for Obama is that it worries independent voters almost as much as it troubles conservative Republicans. In that same PEW poll, 66 percent of Republicans said China was an economic threat. Sixty-two percent of independents agreed.
This helps explain why Obama used his State of the Union address last month to threaten to slap economic sanctions on Beijing if it does not change its trading ways. It also helps explain why Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich are using China’s rise to hammer Obama for failing to do enough to protect U.S. workers.
Blaming China for America’s troubles is the new normal. Whether Republicans will run anything as powerful as the infamous “Chinese professor” ad that aired in the 2010 mid-term elections remains to be seen. But this much is certain: voters will hear plenty about China this fall.
The question then is not whether foreign policy will figure into the November election. It will, even if the pundits have not yet focused much attention on international affairs. The real question is, at whose expense?