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OPINION: Foreign policy merits attention in elections

By Lee Hamilton


We heard a lot in the recent U.S. election campaigns about inflation. We heard a great deal about crime. We also heard about the erosion of rights and threats to our democracy.

What we didn’t hear much about was foreign policy. Most candidates didn’t have a lot to say about America’s role in the world or what relations should be like with our allies and adversaries.

That’s not entirely surprising. Politicians go where the voters are, and voters, for the most part, are not focused on foreign policy. They are much more interested in issues that have an immediate impact on their lives, and they don’t see foreign policy in that category.

I’ve been aware of this tendency throughout my career, but I have always resisted the idea that that foreign policy had to play second fiddle, so to speak, in our elections. When it does, decisions about international issues become the preserve of a relatively small group of experts and interest groups, which have a disproportionate impact on foreign policy.

In my view, we’re better served by broad public engagement on the full range of issues. Serious and engaged discussion will result in more popular and effective policies.

It’s true that this was a midterm election when the presidency wasn’t on the ballot. We tend to think of foreign policy as the president’s job, but Congress has a significant role to play. The Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate foreign commerce, declare war. and raise armies. The Senate must approve treaties and the appointment of diplomats.

And foreign policy has a profound impact on people’s lives, even if it’s not always obvious. Americans who travel and engage in international commerce rely on the government. American support for human rights and humanitarian aid is vital to millions. Our policies can help maintain a peaceful world order, which is important to everyone.

As taxpayers, we pay for our nation’s foreign-policy decisions. Foreign aid, somewhat surprisingly, makes up a trivial share of the federal budget, but the military and national defense cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The State Department budget runs to tens of billions.

Americans don’t routinely prioritize foreign policy, but people pay attention when it directly affects them. One obvious example was the Vietnam War. When Americans saw their sons and daughters going off to war — and soldiers coming home in body bags — debate over the war divided the country. After 9/11, Americans of all political stripes wanted justice for the victims of the attack. Initial support was strong for U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foreign policy seemed vital to homeland security.

Today, there is no shortage of foreign-policy issues that do impact us. Xi Jinping has cemented his hold on China’s government and is using his authority to threaten China’s neighbors and challenge the United States: a topic that, to be fair, some candidates did raise in election campaigns.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has unsettled Europe and caused more than 100,000 casualties on both sides. The war has raised energy and food prices, which are important drivers of global inflation. Ukraine has had largely bipartisan support in the U.S., but it hasn’t been unanimous. Congress will play a role in deciding whether that support continues.

Climate change is an existential challenge that threatens the world that our children and grandchildren will inhabit. Addressing it will require cooperation and compromise by nations large and small, rich, and poor. And this will require effective foreign policy.

Issues like these are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple political slogans —another reason we don’t hear about them in election campaigns. But the question of America’s role in the world affects us all. Politicians should discuss it seriously, both when they’re running for office and after they are elected.        

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.