Could 2016 be an election year where foreign policy and defense issues play a major role? The only election in recent memory where non-domestic issues played a significant role was 2004, and even that election’s emphasis on terrorism was limited mostly to a vague discussion, some would say a manipulation, of the threat to the “homeland,” a word I will always put into quotes because it strikes me as fascist. Even visiting the “way-back machine,” it’s hard to find an electoral cycle, even at the height of the Cold War or Vietnam, where foreign policy played more than a supporting role. Ironically, external affairs — just a footnote in elections — often take center stage shortly after the new administration and Congress convene: for example, after the elections of 1968 and 2000.
So will be 2016 be different? Let’s posit that the world hasn’t seemed as tumultuous or dangerous to U.S. interests in a long time. It is the kind of world that leads a veteran student of the Cold War, Graham Allison, to muse about the likelihood of another world war. (He concludes, after much analysis, that a war between China and the United States within the next decade is more likely than he first thought, but still unlikely.) As I have argued before, our politics have entered uncharted territory, both at home and abroad. Domestically, six decades of robust growth in the standard of living has stagnated for the vast majority of Americans, while overseas our country faces multiple, asymmetric threats.
We have the Palestinian crisis at full boil without any prospect for peace; the difference this time is that both sides see absolute necessity (Israel) and advantage (Hamas) in pursuing conflict. In wide swaths of the Middle East, the Islamic State represents an organized and well-funded threat to the West that makes al-Qaeda look moderate. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his people seem intoxicated with renewed nationalism, and China’s military and economic interests grow more powerful and problematic for the United States.
In 2016, then, the standard domestic gut check may be given a foreign twist: “Is America safer and more secure today than it was four years ago?” The answer will undoubtedly be “no”; less clear is whether it will be any more important to the electoral outcome. Yet, it will be harder than ever for the election of 2016 to avoid global affairs. In short, the world is too much with us now.