After long hiatus, foreign policy returns as a key US voter issue

Domestic issues usually dominate the US election, but this year, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza will feature heavily in presidential debates

After long hiatus, foreign policy returns as a key US voter issue

Now that it has officially been confirmed that this year’s US presidential election will be a rerun of the 2020 contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the emergence of key international issues such as Ukraine and Gaza are likely to ensure the campaign does not pursue the traditional path of concentrating on mainly domestic issues.

In previous years, American presidential contests have tended to be dominated by key domestic issues, such as the state of the economy and illegal migration.

James Carville, a key strategist in former US President Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, famously said, "It's the economy, stupid,” when asked what would be the deciding issue in the campaign has resonated with American politicians ever since.

As a result, US presidential elections have tended to focus almost exclusively on the status of the national economy.

The emphasis on domestic issues even resulted in former US President George W. Bush securing re-election to serve a second term in 2006 despite the controversy surrounding his controversial invasion of Iraq.

Read more: In the US, domestic issues dwarf foreign policy concerns

A different turn

However, this year’s US presidential contest is likely to take a different turn, with the respective candidates’ approach to the conflicts currently taking place in Ukraine and Gaza likely to take centre stage.

Domestic issues will still be an important factor in determining how Americans cast their votes on November 5th.

Both Democrats and Republicans will debate the Biden administration’s handling of the economy and the long-standing issue of illegal immigration, which became the defining issue of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Indeed, the latest Wall Street data suggests the American economy is performing better than expected, with gross domestic product figures indicating that, after adjustments for inflation, growth increased by 4.9% last year.

Domestic issues usually dominate the US election, but this year, foreign policy will feature heavily in presidential debates.

Taken together with low unemployment figures, the healthy outlook for the US economy this year could yet have a positive impact on Biden's approval ratings.

That said, the deteriorating global security situation, with Europe experiencing its most deadly conflict since the Second World War and Israel's relentless war on Gaza, brings international issues into special focus.

How the rival candidates intend to deal with them will undoubtedly become a prominent feature of this year's campaign.

Different approaches to Ukraine

Indeed, in many respects, the Ukraine conflict, which has now entered its third year of fighting, has already emerged as a key election issue, with the Biden administration reaffirming its commitment to supporting Ukraine. 

This approach contrasts sharply with Trump and his Republican backers, many of whom remain bitterly opposed to maintaining Washington's military and financial support for Ukraine's war effort, which has so far cost American taxpayers an estimated $45bn

The Biden administration announced this week it is sending another $300mn worth of military aid to Ukraine despite attempts by Republican leaders in Congress to block any further US support for the Ukrainian cause.

By contrast, Trump made it clear during a meeting with Hungary's pro-Kremlin prime minister, Viktor Orban, this week that "he will not give a penny in the Ukraine-Russia war" if he succeeds in his re-election bid.

Trump's position on Ukraine, moreover, appears more popular with many American voters, with recent opinion polls in the US indicating that most Republican voters believe the US has given "too much" to Ukraine's war effort.

This has led to speculation that one of Trump's first acts if he succeeds in his bid for re-election will be to negotiate a deal with Russian President  Vladimir Putin to end the war on terms that will be less-than-favourable to Ukraine. 

'Finish the problem' in Gaza

Trump is also adopting an increasingly belligerent line on the Gaza conflict, repeating his claim that Hamas would never have dared to launch its attack against Israel on 7 October if the former president were still resident at the White House.

Trump's position that the US should stop funding Ukraine's war effort appears popular with many American voters.

Having previously kept a low profile on the issue after Israel launched its military invasion of Gaza to destroy Hamas, Trump recently appeared on Fox News to voice his support for the Israelis, declaring that Israel must "finish the problem" in its war against Hamas. 

"You've got to finish the problem," Trump told Fox News when asked about the war. "You had a horrible invasion that took place that would have never happened if I was president."

Trump, though, has remained tight-lipped about how he would attempt to end the conflict, has studiously avoided taking an explicit position on Israel's military effort, and has not provided his own position on the US or Israel's strategy throughout the five months of the war.

Trump's avoidance of key issues relating to the Gaza conflict stands in stark contrast to the Biden administration, which is adopting an increasingly robust approach to the Israeli government's uncompromising military action.

Having publicly rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his handling of the conflict, which has so far, according to aid agencies, claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, Biden is now supporting efforts for Washington to establish its own operations for delivering aid directly to Palestinian victims of the conflict.

Read more: Aid airdrops in Gaza recall their use throughout history

Apart from parachuting aid supplies into the Gaza Strip, Washington aims to build a temporary floating pier off the coast of Gaza that will deliver aid supplies directly to Palestinian aid organisations.

Biden's efforts, though, have made little impression on Trump, who insists the reason both the Ukraine and Gaza conflicts erupted in the first place is because the Biden White House "got soft".

Claiming that the aggression by foreign adversaries would not have happened if he were still president, Trump declared: "That should never have happened. Likewise, Russia would never have attacked Ukraine," he said.

With Biden and Trump already adopting markedly different policy positions on the respective conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, it is already clear that, so far as this year's presidential election contest is concerned, key international issues will be a key factor in deciding which candidate ultimately emerges victorious.

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