As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Bill Clinton amplified this aphorism in 1992 with his "It's the economy, stupid." Still, in the 2020 presidential election, foreign policy should play a decisive factor. But will it?
Going back 60 years, the O'Neill-Clinton formulae dominated presidential elections. Richard Nixon had far more foreign policy experience than Jack Kennedy and lost in 1960. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was unbeatable. 1968 and 1972 were exceptions in that Nixon had his "plan" for Vietnam and the outreach to China was masterful.
In 1976 after Watergate, foreign policy was not relevant. In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan was devoid of real foreign policy experience. Ironically, George H.W. Bush was arguably the most experienced foreign policy candidate the nation has had over this period. He lost to Clinton in 1992. Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were foreign policy novices. All three won second terms. We will see what happens for Donald Trump.
Nearly a dozen Democrats have announced their candidacies or are considering a run. Of the group, so far only Joe Biden is clearly qualified in foreign policy terms. And if Trump is challenged by a Republican, foreign policy skills may not be part of his or her kit.
Why is foreign policy so important? First, unlike what happens in Las Vegas staying there, what happens round the world is unlikely to be contained there. China is a key example linking foreign and domestic politics. The Trump administration is threatening heavy tariffs on China should trade negotiations fail. If negotiations do fail or if China suffers an economic slowdown, that will not stop at its borders. The global economy will be adversely affected.
Similarly and second, Western democracies are under assault because many are unable or incapable of providing good government for their societies. Russia and China are in the ascent geo-strategically. A Brexit hard landing will prove disastrous. Scotland and Northern Island could conceivably leave the United Kingdom. And American allies in Europe neither trust nor like the Trump administration.
Withdrawal from the TransPacific Trade Partnership; the Paris Climate Accords; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and five others; and now the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty have shaken the foundations of the Atlantic alliance, as well as partners in Asia. At the Polish Iran meeting last week, while Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised American commitment to NATO and to Article 5, the centerpiece of the alliance that guarantees "an attack on one is an attack on all," allies are not fully convinced.
The annual Munich Security Conference following the Polish meeting, normally a NATO love-in, was far from that. Profound differences between European and American views were in plain sight over Iran, the JCPOA, INF and how to deal with Russia.
Third, a good bet is that a foreign policy crisis or crises will occur over the next six years. Venezuela could erupt. The Islamic State or al-Qaida could employ a particularly destructive act of terrorism approaching Sept. 11. The Middle East could explode, whether in an Iranian-Saudi or Iranian-Israeli conflict. If sanctions provoke an Iranian revolution that replaces the ayatollahs, most likely the Revolutionary Guards, who are even more radical than the clerics, would win power.
An economic downturn or worse is not out of the question. Russia might further intervene into Ukraine or elsewhere and increase its active measures against the West. Afghanistan's future is far from certain. The 2020 campaign is a ripe target for Russia. The range of contingencies is quite daunting.
The only crises the Trump administration has faced are of its own making, starting with the Mueller investigation and the indictments or convictions of dozens of aides, four of whom were close to the president, including his personal attorney. Looking at the Trump team, none has the depth of experience in coping with a real crisis such as the 1962 Cuban missile standoff, Iraq's occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the economic implosion of 2008. Indeed, national security adviser John Bolton forcefully supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has long advocated regime change in Iran. The Secretary of Defense, Pat Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and still "acting," has no real foreign policy experience.
The 2020 choice could be between Trump, who shows no sign of admitting or learning from his mistakes and blunders, nor being truthful about the record, and a Democrat with even less foreign policy background. Domestic policy may indeed win or lose elections. But don't discount foreign policy in 2020.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.