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Do US voters care about America’s role in the world?

As part of the Brookings Election ’24 initiative, Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Center on the United States in Europe and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings, talks about whether foreign policy issues matter to U.S. voters, and also what’s at stake for the world in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

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DEWS: You’re listening to The Current, part of the Brookings Podcast Network. I’m your host, Fred Dews.

Leading up to the U.S. elections in November. Brookings aims to bring public attention to consequential policy issues confronting voters and policymakers. You can find explainers, policy briefs, other podcasts, and more, plus sign up for the biweekly email at Brookings dot edu slash Election24.

In today’s episode, I’m talking with Brookings scholar Constanze Stelzenmüller about national security and America’s role in the world. She’s the director of the Center on the United States in Europe, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings, and holds the Fritz Stern Chair on Germany and Transatlantic Relations.

Constanze, thanks for coming on the show.

STELZENMÜLLER: Thank you so much for having me, Fred.

DEWS: So, one of the old saws of U.S. presidential elections is that foreign policy doesn’t matter as much as domestic issues to American voters. A, do you think that’s true? And B, do you think that’s the case this year?

STELZENMÜLLER: Well, I couldn’t speak as to every election since, you know, the late 18th century. I’m pretty sure that during World War I and World War II, American voters cared about what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. But it’s very clear that they care. Now, there appears to be a great deal of support for aid for Ukraine, which is in the third year of its invasion by Russia. And we have all seen the images of U.S. university campuses across the country roiled by protests against the war in, between Israel and the Palestinians.

DEWS: Both the Russia Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas War—as you say, spilling over into U.S. campuses—seem to be proxies for larger global issues that are not only roiling the world and their regions, but roiling the American electorate. Do you think there’s other policy issues that American voters also have on their minds besides those two big issues?

STELZENMÜLLER: Yes, I do, actually. As you said, these are in many ways proxy conflicts. And they are, if you will, theaters of a larger strategic competition in a world where autocracies are forming alliances against the nations of the West in ways that I think were pretty much unexpected by Western governments and publics.

And by that, I specifically mean the alliance between Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China. Let me explain. We’ve known for a while that the Russians were being supplied with missiles and drones by Iran and by North Korea. We also knew that at the Beijing Olympics in February, a few weeks before the Russian full-scale invasion on February 24th, the Russians and the Chinese governments signed a declaration of “limitless support” or “limitless friendship,” I believe, was the term. But the impression, at least in the public domain, was that while the Chinese were giving the Russians political support in the form of supporting their talking points about the invasion, they weren’t actually providing them with military support.

And as I think many here know by now, the American government has recently declassified intelligence on Chinese military component support, saying that the Chinese are supplying the Russians with missile motor parts, with chips, with drones, and with satellite imagery, all of which is deeply concerning and is a major step forward for our assessment of where global strategic competition is at this point.

DEWS: Another major issue that we hear often about that might be seeping into the American electorate is NATO. We’ve heard Donald Trump saying that the U.S. will remain in NATO, but only if European members, quote, “play fair,” meaning paying what he sees as a fair share toward their defense. President Biden has talked about the, quote, “sacred commitment” we make to our allies. Two very different views of America’s role in NATO. Why should Americans care about NATO at all?

STELZENMÜLLER: Well, let me start off with an observation, which is that, like some other colleagues in the Center on the U.S. and Europe, which which I’m currently running, I spend as much time as I can heading out of the Beltway to go talk to American publics in  other parts of the country. I was in Ohio a couple of weeks ago. I am going to Atlanta next week on Europe Day.

And so, my sense there is that there’s actually a great deal of interest in Europe and in security in Europe. And why is that? Because there are a lot of American companies that trade across the globe, including with Europe, and whose corporate leaders and whose and whose, if you will, constituents, right, people who buy their products or the people who work in those companies, understand that the American-European trade relationship is actually the deepest relationship that America has in economic terms. Right? We are fully interdependent. And so, that, I think, gives people a very direct handle on what’s going on in Europe because they have sister corporations in Europe.

And then there’s, you know, there’s the age-old fact that there are across America, you know, population groups that have historical or family roots in Europe, which also makes a difference. And I, I’m always charmed by the degree to which people care about that and maintain family ties. Right?

You just highlighted the difference between the views of the two presidential candidates, and it’s right President Biden is a committed transatlantic service in a very old school sort of style. And it is something for which the Europeans are currently deeply grateful because the direct result of that commitment has been very forceful and very generous American leadership in the support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion. And that is something that Europeans know exactly just how important that has been. I mean, we tend to sort of even be around the same level of military support right now and or if you add together military humanitarian support. You know, there’s one month when the Americans are ahead, one month where the Europeans are ahead.

But this administration is also one that I think has a very sophisticated understanding in ways that previous administrations perhaps did not of how much geo-economics can be a leverage or a brake on American power—right?—in ways that are perhaps are not so clear to the ordinary voter. And what I mean by that is that in the sort of years when I was a young professional, American power defines itself mainly via its nuclear power and its military power. That was what mattered, and that was what entitled America to suggest gently to other countries what to do. Allies and adversaries.

And I think this administration has a deeply sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of, of geoeconomic and therefore gets that the European Union, with its tremendous sort of single market and its regulatory power is actually a source of geoeconomic leverage. And why is that important? Because unlike the Vietnam War, which was the last time that American campuses were roiling with protests, this war, both the Americans and the Europeans have said, we don’t want to put boots on the ground. We are going to use geo-economic power against Russia in the form of sanctions and export controls. And that is where not just Europe, but the European Union has really mattered to this administration.

So, moving from that to the Republican candidate, Mr. Trump, and his camp, I think it’s fair to say that that camp is somewhat split on matters of economics. Let me simplify a little. There is what I would call the Peter Navarro position—remember, he was in the past administration—which is that globalization is a bad thing and is in fact something like a false consciousness, a bad religion.

Then there is what I would call the Steven Mnuchin position—he was the secretary of treasury in the Trump administration—which is that actually economics does matter. And banks matter and currencies matter. And we need to be on top of this.

So, in the campaign literature of the Trump camp that you can read, there is a chapter on trade, and one is called fair trade, and it’s by Mr. Navarro, and one is called free trade.   I’m forgetting the author right now, but there I think we’re going to see a little bit of ideological contradiction and perhaps conflict if Donald Trump should win this election.

DEWS: Let’s stay on European politics for a moment. So, not NATO, but European electoral politics. We’ve seen an illiberal regime take and hold power in Hungary since 2010, a right-wing takeover of power in Italy in 2022. But Polish voters turned out a right-wing government in 2023. Just to simplify everything. What are you tracking in European politics? And like the NATO question, what’s at stake for American voters in terms of European politics?

STELZENMÜLLER:  Sure. I think that’s a very, very pertinent question. And it is one about which I could talk until you’re blue in the face or of our listeners, which I will try to avoid. Very simply, for me there are two major electoral events in the European calendar. One is the European Parliament elections in mid-June. The European Parliament is the legislature, the elected legislature of the European Union, which has not insignificant direct lawmaking powers in Europe over the issues where the EU actually has competence, such as trade, which we were talking about earlier. It also can determine the composition of the EU executive, the Commission, at the top of which sits a president. That position is currently held by the German Ursula von der Leyen, a very determined blond lady who I think is familiar to listeners over here.

There is currently great debate and a fair amount of angst, to use a good American German term, about the outcome of those elections, because the hard right across Europe is hoping to gain at least a quarter of the European electorate.

European elections, I mean, by which I mean European Parliament elections, are often used by voters as a referendum on national politics. Right? And there is a lot of angst and unhappiness right now in Europe about the future of the European economy, about the future of the war between Russia and Ukraine and what that means for European security, etcetera. And so, the hard right is hoping to skate to power on this.

As I say, the their hope is that they will get at least 25% of the vote, which could, doesn’t have to but could, make them the strongest grouping in the European Parliament, which would then give them the right to ask for positions in the executive, so-called commissioner positions. And it might even want them to act as a kingmaker with regard to the position of the European Commission president. That is as I just said currently Ursula von der Leyen, who is running again. We’ll see what happens there.

Even if that does not come to pass, the hard right stays at its current 20% or less, keep in mind that if they have a very successful run in specific national spaces, that will also complicate European national politics. Right now, the hard right outliers in Europe are the Hungarian government and the Slovak government, both of whom are run by hard right populists. We’ll see how this changes in mid-June.

And by the way, since you mentioned the flip in Poland, we’re now seeing for the first time a liberal Democratic challenger in Hungary, a guy called Peter Magyar, who is holding big rallies, political protests in Hungary in ways that haven’t been seen in, you know, well over a decade, which is quite remarkable given the fact that Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has turned it into a one party state. So, that’s the first thing I’m worried about.

The second thing I’m worried about is the German state elections in September, where three east German states and their local and district governments of all five east German states are holding elections. And where the German hard right is trending in first place, with very high levels. And that is of concern to the entire country, not least because it could make the work of the current ___________ government in Berlin even more difficult and make it more inward looking at a time when Europe and NATO needs an outward looking and a responsible German government, rather than one that is inward looking and paralyzed.

So, what does all this mean for America and what does it mean for the world? Look, quite simply, at a time when you were seeing alliances of authoritarian great powers, some of them with nuclear weapons or not very far away from producing nuclear weapons, meaning, again, Russia, which has nuclear weapons, China has nuclear weapons. Iran by all accounts is very close. And then the North Koreans, who would like to have them, and who do the occasional ballistic missile test in the direction of their neighbors. That’s the kind of situation where it really matters to have democratic allies.

And if it’s true, and I do think it is, that that America cannot decouple from the world—right?—that America has deep cultural, social, economic, and political relationships with the world that matter for it because they add legitimacy to its political purposes, they add real power leverages as I was just explaining earlier by by weaponizing sanctions and export controls against the Russian invading power, it, it matters whether America has those allies or whether it doesn’t have them.

And also, because we all know that democracies often don’t live up to their own ideas and ideals of themselves, right? I think that’s true of all of us. All of us, I think, are rightly occasionally accused of double standards and and hypocrisy. I mean, guilty as charged. We could speak about this at length.

But the truth is also that we have systems that at least try, right, to protect minorities, to separate and balance powers in the constitutional order, and that try to maximize the public good for as many citizens as possible. Right? That is why we remain models for countries seeking to chart a path between these threatening autocracies and us, even if those countries that are often in the so-called Global South—bad term—are often frustrated with us.

And so, where Europe goes, whether the hard right surges in Europe or whether the hard right surges in America really does matter to the future of rules, legal standards, the protection of rights in the world. And I think that is, that that is why voters should care here and on the other side of the Atlantic.

DEWS: So, Constanze, I want to end by kind of flipping the perspective. What’s at stake for the world in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election?

STELZENMÜLLER: I think we all know that that pretty much everything is at stake. Right? We may no longer be in a world of unquestioned American hegemony, right? Where American hard power quite literally gets to call the shots, because our economic interdependence, our common challenges like climate change, constrain the power even of a nuclear weapons superpower.

But I think Americans sometimes forget, especially Americans who are critical of their country’s foreign and security policy, forget how immense their soft power still is. And I think one of the countries where that is most sort of touchingly obvious is Iran. Right? But it’s also true for other countries. Right?

America is still an aspirational country for many, many people. It is still seen as a country that could and should be a force of good, even when it’s violating its own rules. Right? And that is something to hold on to. Right? And again, to some degree that’s also true for Europe, right? That is why we are seeing immigration from much poorer regions in the world to America and to Europe, because people want to change the way they live, they want to have a decent life, and they think that that is more likely and more decent in a democracy.

So, whether America remains a democracy, whether Europe remains a democracy, it really does matter to the world. And I think that if I, you know, just to be very clear, I don’t think democracy will fail in America. I actually think American democracy is very, very resilient. But we are in a moment where its validity as a self-organizing  principle is being questioned in ways that I have not seen in my lifetime. And that in itself is undermining to international order. Because the supposition has always been that America will remain a democracy forever. And that’s the fallback value for many countries who criticize it harshly.

And so, what I’m trying to say here is that even an administration that questions the value of democratic alliances, that only questions the value of the separation and balance of powers, or the value of certain civil rights and liberties, that already has a destabilizing effect on the rest of the world. And so, yes, the world cares very much how the American elections will turn out.

DEWS: Well, Constanze, I want to thank you for sharing your time, expertise, and insight today. Very interesting.

STELZENMÜLLER: You’re most welcome. Always a pleasure, Fred.