Increasing Foreign Policy implications on the 2024 U.S. Presidential Elections?

Nabil Fahmy , Saturday 13 Jan 2024

If the 2024 presidential race is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the political landscape is poised for a heated and closely followed campaign.

The White House
File Photo: The White House. AP


The results of the 2024 US presidential election on 5 November 2024 and the winner who will be inaugurated on the 20th of January will be determined by several factors. While not being normally a decisive factor in election results, foreign policy’s influence in a closely contested race may surpass the norm, particularly in determining the results of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College Dynamics

Candidates compete for the popular vote across the fifty states, but the result is determined by the Electoral College of 538 members; a system established by the “Founding Fathers.” A victorious candidate must secure at least 270 members’ support. This system aimed to ensure that election results would not be overwhelmingly swayed by highly populated states and to address the then perceptions about layman voters not being knowledgeable enough to meritoriously make the appropriate choices between the candidates.

Fulfilling the electoral college requirement is often complex due to varying voting patterns across states based on demographics, ethnicity, and economic characteristics…etc. A candidate's policy position may help him gain popular support in one state but hurt him in another. Notably, in six presidential elections, winners lost the popular vote but triumphed in the Electoral College and became president, the most recent being in 2016 (Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, and 2000 (George W. Bush vs Al Gore).

The 2024 Determinants

In the event that the 2024 presidential race is between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the political landscape is poised for a heated and closely followed campaign. With both candidates having distinctively varying policy approaches feeding into the increasing polarization of public opinion, the election could hinge on how each candidate addresses the current foreign policy challenges facing the US and the traditionally paramount economic issues and perceptions.

1. Public discontent:

Recent trends in several elections indicated that voters tend to vote against the status quo and political elites.  Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain partially as an antidote to resentment towards George W Bush’s policies. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, who was considered even by Democrats as being too “establishment.” Then, Biden’s appeal was nostalgia for tradition and respite after four nerve-racking years of Trump.

In the upcoming election, it is evident that public discontent with both Trump and Biden appears to be rapidly rising. Accordingly, Republican candidates are positioning themselves as alternatives to Trump's persona, albeit without clearly disassociating themselves from his positions in order not to forgo his popular base. Democrats, on the other hand, express a preference for a rejuvenated alternative to Biden. Despite the overall sentiment of discontent with the current candidates from both parties, Trump, who is in the midst of numerous legal battles, still retains significant public support and faces Republican competitors for the party nomination. Nevertheless, recent polls still indicate that he has more public support than all of his competitors, whether Republicans or Democrats. And there are no significant competitors to Biden in the Democratic Party.

If Trump or Biden are ultimately the candidates, their success or failure may hinge on the other candidate’s unpopularity rather than the appeal of their character and policies. The incumbent will also have to carry the burden of a slow American economy and the negative public perceptions associated with it.

2. The economic factor:

Elections are for the most part traditionally determined by economic factors. In the 2024 elections, they are likely to play a pivotal role in shaping voters’ attitudes and perceptions and consequently determine the outcome of the election.  

On the one hand, Trump, known for his pre-pandemic economic policies characterized by tax cuts and deregulation, may emphasize throughout the campaign his track record of promoting market-driven economic policies and growing employment rates. On the other hand, Biden, facing the aftermath of the pandemic, may highlight his administration's work on economic recovery, infrastructure development, and social welfare programmes.  

The contrasting economic approaches of the two candidates are expected to be central in voters' decision-making processes, reflecting the broader national concerns regarding fiscal policies, unemployment rates, and overall economic well-being.

3. Foreign policy:

The two significant factors in determining the choices of the electorate will be perceptions of the economy and lack of affinity towards a particular candidate. No foreign policy issue has a strong enough constituency to independently and substantially sway the popular vote.

However, one should not quickly brush aside the implications of foreign policy issues as having an impact specifically on the Electoral College, the ultimate and determining factor of who will be the next American President.

The Republican candidates present themselves as leaning right of centre – characterized as “Trump light.” With the exception of Nikki Haley, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, all candidates lack significant international relations experience. While slight variations may exist between these candidates on foreign policy issues like NATO and possibly Russia, assessing future foreign policy positions of the respective parties based on the parameters set by Trump and Biden remains a prudent approach for now.

A. The Transatlantic alliance and Ukraine: Trump and all the Republican candidates’ positions align with the “America First” approach, synonymous with an isolationist stance. This is driven mainly by budgetary and financial concerns, evident in the stronger call for NATO countries to fulfil the military expenditure commitments. Consequently, this may impact the extended support for Ukraine amid the rising costs of inconclusive operations. Notably, during Trump’s past presidency, most leaders of NATO member-states had strained relations with him.  

In contrast, Biden and the Democrats will continue to embrace an alliance-driven foreign policy at the core of which is NATO, viewing it as revitalized due to the Ukrainian crisis. However, Biden is expected to tone down his “democracies vs. autocracies” rhetoric, which has not resonated well or provided concrete foreign policy dividends.

As the US contends with “Ukraine fatigue” in 2024, diplomatic overtures are more likely in the second half of the year or at the latest in early 2025, particularly if Trump is elected given the perception of Ukraine as Biden’s war. With Putin expected to secure reelection in 2024, Trump’s more favourable relations with him could facilitate diplomatic engagement in Ukraine and overall relations with Russia.

B. Relations with China: The US political establishment, both Republicans and Democrats, identifies China as a key strategic challenge to American national security, particularly in the realms of nuclear weapons, space, and artificial intelligence. This relationship is poised to remain inherently sensitive although Biden managed to stabilize its course in recent weeks. However, it is anticipated that Trump or other Republican candidates will probably follow a similar China policy, characterized by robust competition but fundamentally articulated in a confrontational rhetorical posture.

C. The Middle East: Amid conflicting trends of dialogue and confrontation, the Middle East is bound to be high on the agenda of the next American President. Both candidates will approach relations with the Arab world in a highly transactional and pragmatic manner, seeking shorter-term benefits and curbing wider Chinese influence in the region. In North Africa and Syria, the focus will primarily be on deterring Russian and Iranian expansion, respectively.

In the case of Iran, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian Nuclear Deal, while Biden’s attempt to resume it proved unsuccessful. However, both administrations used force only in responding to American personnel casualties. Future policies are expected to echo past patterns, without much focus on the nuclear deal.  

Support for Israel will remain strong irrespective of who is elected President of the United States. However, the ongoing crisis in Gaza in itself presents a potential complication, especially if it escalates into a wider regional conflict with Israel drawing in Hezbollah, or in case Houthi engagement becomes too robust.

Furthermore, the Gaza crisis has once again brought the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the forefront of American interests. Trump advocated for a novel approach to the conflict that focuses on Arab-Israeli relations. He proposed an economy-centric pro-Israel plan, ultimately claiming, with little credibility, to offer a two-state solution. Biden, in contrast, frequently reiterated the importance of a two-state solution and normalization but unwaveringly supported Israel even amid blatant violations of international and humanitarian law during its operations in Gaza.

Both candidates will continue to provide unconditional support to Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause. Neither will expend political capital and will to support the creation of a Palestinian State, although Biden frequently asserts that the two-state solution is the preferred outcome. Both candidates will aim to pursue greater Arab-Israeli relations as a political goal.

Potential Foreign Policy Impact

Trump has a solid foundation of unwavering supporters and vocal detractors, with no affinity for his coarseness or policies. Neither of such trends is greatly influenced or swayed by foreign policy considerations.

Biden, on the other hand, faces declining support amongst the more progressive faction of the Democratic Party nationwide. This shift could prove pivotal, potentially leading to the loss of electoral votes where these numbers are large enough to sway a state.  Biden’s stance on Gaza and his opposition to a ceasefire, despite Israel’s inhuman indiscriminate bombing causing tens of thousands of deaths and casualties, has been the main cause for this waning support.

While the Arab American constituency remains smaller and less influential than its Jewish American and Evangelical counterparts, a closer analysis is warranted to determine the potentially negative consequences of these positions in swing states. A case in point is Michigan, traditionally a Democratic stronghold with a large Arab American community but won by Trump in 2016. With 15 electoral votes currently at risk, Michigan could emerge as a decisive factor in determining the results of a competitive race in the Electoral College, particularly if Biden and Trump are the contenders.

After generations with little influence on election results in America, it would be quite ironic to see Arab Americans becoming a game-changer in the elections, challenging historical norms.  The candidates' unequivocal support for Israel may unexpectedly transform into a liability in the election results, adding a layer of complexity to the unfolding narrative. The trajectory of this impact remains uncertain. Let's wait and see.


Nabil Fahmy is the former foreign minister of Egypt 

*The article is published in collaboration and with permission from the Future for Advanced Research & Studies, a UAE-based think tank.


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