Will U.S. Foreign Policy Play a Decisive Role in the Fall Presidential Election?

Image of U.S. flag and sign reading Vote 2024

Mietek Boduszyński is associate professor of politics at Pomona College with expertise in U.S. foreign policy and democracy movements around the world. Before coming to Pomona, Boduszyński was a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, serving in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Japan, Kosovo and Albania. During an academic leave in 2022-23, he was a policy advisor for the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy at the Pentagon. This is the second in an occasional series with Pomona faculty about election issues.

What is at stake in the fall Presidential election?

America’s role in the world will be on the ballot in November 2024. One candidate, President Joe Biden, supports a traditional leadership role for the United States in upholding a “rules-based world order.” His opponent, former President Donald Trump, champions an “America First” foreign policy that seeks to lessen U.S. involvement overseas and compel other countries to take on more of the burden in areas such as collective security. The choice before voters is therefore a stark and consequential one. Many observers predict that in a second term, Trump would almost certainly seek to overcome the kind of bureaucratic obstructionism that checked certain isolationist impulses during his first term in office and pursue “America First” with much greater resolve.

What do you see as motivating American isolationism?

Foreign policy isolationism has been on the rise for a while now and is represented in parts of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republicans in particular have grown doubtful about the value of continued U.S. engagement overseas. A Chicago Council survey found in September 2023 that, for the first time ever, a majority of Republicans think the United States should stay out of world affairs rather than play an active role. But it is notable that President Biden chose to hold on to some of his predecessor’s “isolationist” policies such as protectionist trade measures. This is because they are widely understood to be popular and attract working- and middle-class voters.

But the data also show that Republicans who want to stay out of world affairs do not differ so much from those who prefer active engagement when it comes to issues such as the rise of China or immigration policy. And we have seen that when push came to shove, most Congressional Republicans supported continued aid to Ukraine. There has also been much bipartisan agreement on the need to aggressively counter China—witness the bill attempting to force the sale of TikTok.

What other divides are you seeing in views on foreign policy?

The regional differences are stark as well. A 2023 Carnegie Endowment survey found that nearly four in five Californians believe international engagement is important to American security and prosperity. And we have witnessed students at Pomona and universities across the country mobilizing in support of the Palestinian cause and in opposition to traditional U.S. support of Israel. This suggests a new interest in foreign policy among the younger generation—as well as a deepening generational divide on one of the most vexing conflicts in the world. Yet the latest polls suggest that the larger population of Gen Z voters care much less about Israel-Gaza—and indeed much less about foreign policy more generally—than they care about the economy.

So, will foreign policy play a decisive role in November?

In short, the picture is somewhat complicated. The conventional wisdom is that presidents can’t win on foreign policy, unless the country is at war, but they can certainly lose on it. In the wake of the problematic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan—albeit one supported by many Americans—President Biden’s response to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been admirable. He has rallied America’s allies and strengthened NATO. And objectively speaking, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the most significant threat to the international order. Unfortunately for Biden, the Ukraine war no longer commands public attention, and as the conventional wisdom suggests, Biden probably wouldn’t have been able to win just on that foreign policy success alone in any event. Biden’s perceived mishandling of the Israel-Gaza war, as noted above, is a major issue for some of his core voters in critical swing states. These voters are unlikely to prefer Trump, but they may not vote at all. If large enough numbers in states such as Michigan do make the choice to stay home, the second half of the conventional wisdom—that presidents can lose on foreign policy—may be confirmed.