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OPINION: Foreign policy rises in public attention

By Lee Hamilton


Americans now seem to be more interested in foreign policy than usual. Four in 10 U.S. adults named it as an important issue to address in 2024, according to a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. That is twice as many as a year earlier.

That sounds right to me. From what I can tell, Americans are paying closer attention to foreign policy than they have for some time. Part of it, no doubt, is driven by media coverage of the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine. When the media pays attention to a topic, the public pays attention; and when the public pays attention, the media pays attention. It works both ways.

Of course, what really captures the public eye is the prospect of U.S. casualties, as we saw in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which killed thousands of Americans. There’s been nothing like that yet in the current conflicts, although about 30 U.S. citizens were killed in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and an estimated 300 Americans were stranded in Gaza by the fighting. [Editor’s note: Three U.S. soldiers were also killed in a drone attack on a U.S. military outpost in Jordan on Jan. 28.]

In the AP-NORC poll, 20 percent of respondents said they were concerned about U.S. involvement overseas, up from 5 percent a year earlier. That’s a significant increase, and it’s reflected by debates in Congress over helping fund the wars. But whether foreign policy has much of an impact on the 2024 elections is an open question.

Even if Americans follow foreign policy, I don’t have the sense that they vote on those issues. Problems at home are more meaningful to most voters, by far. They’re worried about inflation, affordable health care, gas prices, and the cost of housing and food. Voters are concerned about crime and public safety. They pay attention to interest rates, jobs, and other economic indicators.

Many Americans are deeply concerned about immigration, especially at the southern border. Immigration is a domestic matter, but it’s entwined with foreign policy. Immigrants and refugees often are fleeing dire conditions in their home countries. We need to work with those regions to address the issue.

I learned early in my time in Congress that foreign policy wasn’t something most constituents were eager to discuss. I rarely spoke about foreign policy on visits to the district, where people were more likely to want to know about a local dam project or government actions that directly affected them. Interestingly, I was most likely to receive questions about foreign policy when I spoke at high schools. The high-school students were well-prepared for my visits, and they would zero in on foreign-policy issues.

With current issues, most Americans were outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and inspired by Ukraine’s brave resistance. But, as the war dragged on, it receded from the headlines, and interest in the U.S. has flagged. Recently, center stage has gone to [the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s military response in Gaza.] The Middle East is almost in a category by itself for public attention.

Many Americans feel strongly about Israel’s importance in U.S. foreign policy. Conflicts in the Middle East, and relations between Israel and its neighbors, get more coverage in U.S. news media than news from Asia, Africa, or even from Europe.

Wars and conflicts draw news coverage, but other foreign-policy issues also matter a lot. Our relationship with China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and problems there can have a global impact. Climate change is an existential issue that transcends national borders. Trade, terrorism, cybersecurity, and global migration require multinational cooperation.

Foreign-policy issues may not rise to the top of the public’s concerns, but voters — and politicians — should pay attention to them in this election year.      

Lee Hamilton, 92, 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. 

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