U.S. presidential campaign in the Humanosphere #3: What about the rest of the world?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Randy Bayne/flickr)

This is the third story in a running series of dispatches providing analysis on issues that come up in the U.S. presidential primaries and election that are relevant to the Humanosphere. Global poverty and inequality will get scant attention from the campaigns, but issues raised and ideas tabled during the process will have an impact on the world’s poorest people.

When the U.S. presidential primary went into full swing in the fall of 2015, myriad foreign policy issues were competing for attention. A growing refugee crisis in Europe caused by the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, terror attacks in Europe and immigration from Central America were among the most-discussed topics. The first few debates for the Republican candidates featured hopefuls all but thumping on their chests to appear the toughest against Russia, North Korea and Islamic terrorism.

A few months later, as the first primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire drew near, candidates turned inward to domestic politics. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gained major ground on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by repeatedly raising the issue of inequality and campaign finance reform. Soon those issues took the backseat to a popularity contest. As both Sanders and Donald Trump built momentum in their respective races, the primaries became more about the people running as opposed to their ideas.

It is now clear that the presidential race will be between Trump and Clinton. Both candidates have transitioned their campaigns to focus on the national race, marking a return to some of the foreign policy-based discussions that dominated the early moments of the campaign season.

Clinton’s campaign recently released a letter signed by 19 former government and foreign policy officials raising concerns about where Sanders stands on foreign-policy issues.

“We respect Senator Sanders’s passion for building a better America, but we are troubled by his continued inability to articulate a vision of our nation’s role in the world,” the letter read. “Many of us raised concerns earlier this year that Senator Sanders had not thought through crucial national security issues. His interview with the New York Daily News shows that he’s made no effort to change that.”

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Various columnists have attempted to characterize Sanders’ foreign-policy views. While Clinton has a well-documented record as secretary of state, less is know about Sanders, aside from his own comments. As a result, others are characterizing his policies as everything from unserious to realist to uninformed.

The Sanders campaign responded to the criticisms with its own letter signed by 20 foreign policy experts, including international development economist Jeff Sachs, supporting his positions. It endorses his ability to confront the country’s challenges. The hope from the campaign was that it would allay concerns about his foreign-policy credentials and return the conversation to the topics at the core of his campaign.

Political scientist Charli Carpenter defended Sanders in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog in late April and explained that there are “three distinct thematic pillars of progressive foreign policy” evident in the candidate’s actions and speeches. Amid the back and forth is a notable silence from the candidate himself. Sanders’ answers to questions posed during a conversation with the editorial board of the New York Daily News precipitated the exchanges, but he has managed to largely not discuss foreign policy during the campaign.

It would be easy to agree with Sanders critics and say that he does not give much thought to foreign policy. But there are other possible reasons for his focus on the U.S. It might be that Clinton’s strength lies in her foreign-policy experience, and the campaign decided it was prudent to stick to the core issues that helped turn what was thought to be a blow-out primary into a closely contested race; or it could be that nobody else is talking about foreign-policy issues. When Bill Clinton took on incumbent President George H.W. Bush, democratic strategist James Carville summed up the message of the campaign with the phrase: “The economy, stupid.” By talking about the recession in 1991, the Clinton campaign managed to defeat Bush.

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An updated version of the phrase should read, “Us, stupid.” The foreign-policy discussions of 2015 focused on fears of direct threats. Fear took hold as refugees poured into Europe and pressure built on the U.S. to take in more people. Add a xenophobic candidate making gains by talking about banning Muslims and a terror attack in Paris, and you have the conditions that make the outside world important to the average American voter.

The news cycle moved on and so did the campaign. It means that only now, as Clinton and Trump look to the general election, issues relating to the rest of the world are making a return. The Clinton campaign’s attacks on Sanders were a reminder that she is easily the most experienced candidate in foreign policy, across all parties. It will be the place where she can truly distinguish herself from Trump and potentially expose his weaknesses.

For voters, it means that meaningful debates within the parties on foreign policy never really took place. Even when Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul questioned fellow Sen. Marco Rubio’s support for expanding the military during a televised debate, the end analysis was about the Trump show and who the pundits thought won based on a set of criteria that has nothing to do with proposed policies.

Sanders, Trump and other candidates did not have to speak to foreign policy because it was rarely asked of them. It would be convenient to say that problem falls on the media, but that is not entirely the case. It is on the voters who get wrapped up more in the politics of personality than policy.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.