Foreign Policy and Voting: Do Presidential Candidates Waltz Before Blind SAISers?

By Zach Wheeler

In 1989, John H. Aldrich of Duke University outlined three conditions which must be present to enable an American to weigh considerations of foreign policy while voting: voters must possess a fundamental attitude toward foreign affairs, voters must have an ability to analyze issues in foreign affairs, and candidates must present voters with different, rather than converging policy choices on issues in foreign affairs. If these conditions are not present, then-presidential candidates campaigning on foreign affairs are “waltzing before a blind audience.”

These three conditions, however, merely enable a voter to weigh foreign policy considerations while voting. These conditions do not answer the question of whether or not voters actually do.

With this in mind, do SAIS students think American voters deeply weigh foreign policy issues when voting in presidential elections, and if so, why? Do SAIS students think American voters should consider foreign policy deeply when voting in presidential elections? Finally, do SAIS students themselves weigh foreign policy when voting?

To investigate these questions, The SAIS Observer interviewed a set of students to hear their views. As a reminder, the answers from this set of students may not represent the SAIS student body as a whole.

Of the students interviewed, most doubted that Americans consider foreign policy positions when casting their presidential ballots.

“Out of ten, I would say a one and a half, Americans don’t weigh [foreign policy] at all,” said Franz Osilia, a first-year strategic studies concentrator. “I would say very low…most people vote on domestic issues as opposed to foreign policy,” said Valerie Cariello, a second-year conflict management concentrator.

Other interviewees noted that voters’ weighing of foreign policy might depend on the global environment during the election year.

 “I think it depends on the global situation; the 2004 election occurred less than two years after the U.S. invasion in Iraq and barely three years after 9/11. Foreign policy was much more important [then] than in other recent elections,” wrote one SAIS student. “If we are not taking into account vital arguments of foreign policy shaping the debate landscape, say the hostage crisis in Iran…I would think that it is probably pretty limited,” said Luke Engstrand, a first-year strategic studies concentrator.

As to why this may be so, most interviewees speculated that the average American perceives domestic issues, rightly or wrongly so, as more salient and with a more significant direct impact on their daily lives than foreign policy issues.

“There are bigger things for them to worry about. Caring about foreign policy is a privilege, in my opinion,” said Osilia.  Another SAIS student noted, “I think it is human nature for most people to worry about things that most pertain to them, and while certainly, things like our relationship with China does impact most or all Americans…I don’t think that is nearly as obvious as ‘what my tax rate is.”

Beyond their thoughts on whether American voters weigh foreign policy while voting, do SAIS students think the American public should deeply consider foreign policy issues when casting their vote in presidential elections? Of the students interviewed, the answer is overwhelming, yes. The interviewees noted the presidency’s strong constitutionally enshrined powers in the realm of foreign policy, the effects of trade policy on Americans’ quality of life, and the consequences of international conflicts as just some of the reasons average Americans should care more about candidates’ foreign policy proposals when voting.

“I think they absolutely should focus more on foreign policy, not only because the President has so much power in that sphere, but also because it does impact us probably more than the average American realizes,” Cariello said. “Personally, I think we should all focus more on foreign policy, particularly in the days of great power competition. There are several critically important domestic issues, but we run the risk of falling behind our great power competitors in several geostrategic areas if we don’t put foreign policy at the forefront,” said another SAIS student.

Contrarily, one student stated that Americans should not weigh foreign policy while voting in presidential elections, “the general population not only doesn’t care about foreign policy, but they don’t know anything about foreign policy. It is good that they don’t care about it because it leaves the decision making to those who actually do,” the student said.

Elliot Seckler, a first-year strategic studies concentrator, feels that it is essential to educate the American public on how foreign policy affects them directly. “I think the most important thing we can try to communicate to Americans who don’t factor foreign policy into their vote is that the world that they enjoy and live in every day did not happen randomly…American leaders who were voted into office in national elections, like the one we are about to have, played an outstanding role in shaping the world that we exist in,” Seckler said.

Most of the SAIS students interviewed feel that presidential candidates are indeed waltzing before a blind audience, and it would be best if that blindfold were removed. However, do SAIS students themselves value foreign policy more than other issues when voting?

Of the students The SAIS Observer interviewed, most students said yes.

Franz Osilia emphasized his consideration of foreign policy while voting, “I weigh foreign policy more when I am voting, I am almost a single-issue voter, and that issue is foreign policy, and that has been the case since 2016,” said Osilia.

Elliot Seckler noted that his weighing of foreign policy while voting has evolved “I have definitely had a personal maturation process on how I view foreign policy in my [voting] decision-making process. Until I started taking an interest in international affairs and America’s role in the world, I didn’t place much consideration of Presidents’ views on foreign policy. Now that I am a graduate student, it has definitely moved to the front of my election decision-making process,” said Seckler.

Luke Engstrand said that foreign policy plays a role in his voting process, but it is not all-encompassing. He noted that the two-party system in the United States makes it difficult for foreign policy to be the deciding factor in his vote, as candidates’ foreign policy views are necessarily bundled with other issues he intensely weighs while voting. “Our system isn’t split enough…I probably lean more moderate on issues of defense and foreign policy and expenditures, but at home, I lean more liberally in terms of social issues…but you can’t split that. The parties have said we are bundling these together…” Engstrand said.

“Oftentimes, implementing foreign policy is my responsibility, so it’s very important to me this and every year. That emphasis doesn’t change in this election. The U.S. reputation internationally is very important, but our partners and allies need to understand that their interests do not supersede our interests.” said another SAIS student.

Devon Sealander, a first-year European and Eurasian studies concentrator, spent most of President Trump’s first term abroad as a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia. Sealander said that despite remaining apolitical, Georgians would often voice their thoughts on President Trump to her. “It was kind of frustrating and strange to see that for a lot of people, the idea of the United States is still very much something to aspire to, but the years I was there, there was sort of a disconnect…[they would ask] ‘why is this happening, this doesn’t align with the image of the united states that we’ve been brought up with or that we’ve understood’” said Sealander. She added, “How the United States is being portrayed and understood around the world has kind of been at the forefront of my mind, that definitely impacted my decision of who to vote for.”

Generalizing from these interviews, it is likely safe to say that SAIS students do care about a presidential candidate’s foreign policy proposals and views while voting. Unfortunately for SAIS students and other Americans who consider foreign policy views while voting, foreign policy discussions have been noticeably absent from both presidential campaigns. Out of three hours of presidential debates, President Trump and Vice President Biden discussed foreign policy for a mere fifteen minutes. While SAISers may not be a blind audience, after all, it appears that the presidential candidates this time around have simply decided not to waltz. 

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