Washington, 27 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The last time foreign policy assumed a central place in an American presidential campaign was in 1980, when Iranian students held 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president at that time, and his inability to resolve the crisis was one reason he lost the election to Ronald Reagan. In fact, it was not until the moment Reagan was sworn in on 20 January 1981 that the Iranians released the hostages after 444 days of captivity.
Since then, U.S. presidential election campaigns have focused more on the country's economy. In 1992, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, tried to make foreign policy a key issue in his reelection campaign. But he lost to Bill Clinton, who emphasized the nation's economy.
But now the United States is involved in a bloody war in Iraq, and foreign affairs have returned as a campaign issue. Kerry sees the conflict as an enormous mistake by Bush, one that has diverted attention from the pursuit of Al-Qaeda, which is blamed for the attacks of 11 September 2001. Bush sees the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein as an integral part of the war against terrorism.
But why does it take a war or another major overseas crisis to make foreign policy a significant American campaign issue?
The reason is partly geographical, according to David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington. Boaz specializes in American politics.
Boaz said the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans physically isolate Americans from most of the rest of the world. But he argued that this isolationism is also partly a matter of choice: "Almost everybody in America came here from somewhere else, and in some sense we came to get away from the rest of the world. And because we have these two big oceans protecting us from the rest of the world, we don't have to pay much attention to it."
In short, Boaz said he believes Americans have a strong isolationist tendency, and pointed to their initial reluctance to get involved in the two world wars. He said this attitude has its roots in the Monroe Doctrine, a foreign policy enunciated by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823.
Why does it take a war or another major overseas crisis to make foreign policy a significant American campaign issue?
That doctrine said the United States would regard a European country as unfriendly if it tried to extend its system of government to any country in the Americas whose independence was recognized by Washington.
"The first American foreign policy doctrine was the Monroe Doctrine. It said, 'As long as [European governments] stay out of our hemisphere, we'll stay out of yours.' And we were happy to do that for about the first 150 years of American history," Boaz said. "And I think even today that's true. We don't want to be entangled in the affairs of other countries."
Boaz said he does not share the view that being the world's only superpower means the United States is more likely to intervene diplomatically or militarily in foreign crisis spots. In fact, he said, its superpower status gives America what he called the "luxury" of avoiding such conflicts.
Former U.S. congressman Bill Frenzel agrees that Americans tend to be isolationist, but says they are becoming more in touch with the rest of the world because of expanding international communication. Frenzel served as a member of the House of Representatives for two decades, serving a district in the north-central state of Minnesota.
Unlike Boaz, Frenzel said he believes America's superpower status makes it more likely that it will intervene in foreign crises -- in part to protect U.S. interests, and also because a superpower is expected to step in and use its influence to help resolve crises:
"When something goes wrong in the world, the United States is really the only nation that can take effective action -- quite different from the two world wars, where we were about the last person to come in," Frenzel said.
According to Frenzel, it is not just the Iraq war that is bringing foreign affairs to the attention of the American people. It is also the global economy. He said issues that used to be considered local are now multinational.
"America is maturing as the world shrinks. For instance, the question of jobs being outsourced offshore, the question of whether a free-trade policy is a good one for the United States to pursue, are all wrapped up in this year's elections, and in past years often they weren't important," Frenzel said.
For this reason, Frenzel said, he expects foreign policy to become a standard fixture in American politics for the foreseeable future.