Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney rattled sabers over foreign policy last week on the assumption that it’s a big issue for voters. But is it?
A recent national survey by the Pew Research Center shows that, despite differing diplomacy styles, the two candidates are evenly matched in voters’ opinions on who would do the better job overseas.
But the poll also found that Americans are far less interested in the doings of other countries than in what goes on within their own borders. As in the periods following World War I, Vietnam and the Cold War, long-ranging conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll, and foreign policy fatigue has set in.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t feel that the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have led to lasting improvement for those living in the Middle East, and roughly the same percentage feel a growing disillusionment with our own nation-building efforts in that region.
Similarly, many Americans feel we should be less involved in the ongoing struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians and the violence in Syria. In fact, two-thirds of Americans say that a stable government of any kind in those regions is more important than establishing democracy — a long-standing goal of each administration.
These numbers belie our supposed faith in our role as a world leader and a spreader of democracy. So while Obama and Romney spar over whether it’s better to catch flies with honey or vinegar, and how many ships, submarines or bayonets we should be funding, voters, it would seem, could not care less.
Do the candidates’ differing approaches matter? Is foreign policy really a deal-breaker in this election? Should the U.S. continue to press its agenda in the Middle East and other parts of the world, or should we become a more isolationist nation?
Robert C. O’Brien, Senior advisor to Mitt Romney on foreign affairs and national security; Former U.S. representative to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration; Attorney & Partner, Arent Fox international law firm
Nina Hachigian, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; former senior political scientist, RAND; Staffer, White House National Security Council, 1998-1999
Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of three books including The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous and Less Free (Cornell University Press, 2009)