World issues aren't showing up at ballot box - yet

In departure from past decades, candidates aren't having to prove

At least there's one thing all the major presidential candidates agree on: Talking about foreign affairs will get them nowhere.

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Republicans and Democrats are paying scant attention to some of the most pressing issues of the world, including the war in Chechnya, Middle East peace talks, and nuclear nonproliferation.

The only international issue that seems to matter at this stage of the elections is the fate of a six-year-old Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez.

With the end of the cold war, foreign affairs have all but dropped off the front page of the newspapers - and the politicians have taken notice.

"It's a very complex world out there, and there's no longer just a good guy and a bad guy," says Joseph Montville of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "Because of that, the politicians will focus on something else."

The danger, analysts say, is that Americans are becoming more isolated from the world, and could be caught off guard if the US is involved in an international crisis.

The declining importance of foreign affairs in presidential campaigns marks a dramatic change in the post-World War II era. Previously, primary campaigns were won and lost on issues of international leadership, says Fred Holborn, a foreign-affairs professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies here. In 1952, Robert Taft and Dwight Eisenhower debated the commitment of US troops in Europe. In the 1960s, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey argued over Vietnam. In 1980, Panama was a hot topic between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.

As recently as a decade ago, politicians with presidential aspirations fought for status by trying to get seats on foreign-relations committees in Congress. Now they avoid those posts.

In fact, a presidential candidate isn't even expected to be an expert on international affairs anymore, says Mr. Holborn - that's a job for expert advisers brought into the White House.

Last year, when Republican front-runner George W. Bush blew a foreign-affairs pop quiz, it barely affected his campaign. If anything, the television journalist who asked the tough question bore the brunt of the criticism. Furthermore, Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, is considered to be the weakest of the four leading candidates on foreign issues. Yet he is at the top of most polls.

Some analysts say the lack of debate on foreign affairs is at least partially a result of media coverage.

Foreign stories kicked off front page

Most daily newspapers have cut back their foreign staffs and pushed international stories to the back of the paper. Television has followed the same pattern.

Recent studies indicate that foreign stories are only of interest to the public when American soldiers are in danger. Even then, the stories have short shelf lives. The top two stories of 1999 in terms of public attentiveness were the high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. The top story of the decade was the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the ensuing riots.

Americans were interested in last year's war in Yugoslavia primarily at the onset of the bombing and when Yugoslav forces captured two US soldiers near the Kosovo-Macedonia border. But just 7 percent of the US public thought Kosovo was the most important news story of 1999. "Foreign affairs just don't register in our polls," says Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center.

But Mr. Kohut and other analysts say it's too early to rule out the possibility of foreign affairs playing a greater role in the presidential elections - although it probably won't happen in the primaries.

China has been a simmering issue that some conservatives have tried to bring to the top of the political agenda. President Clinton has been criticized for being too soft on Beijing - and some of that may trickle down to the Democratic front-runner, Vice President Al Gore.

Foreign issues may show up at polls

Another issue that could come into play is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was a top priority of many Democrats but was killed by Republican lawmakers. Democrats are still bitter over Congress's decision not to ratify the treaty (which would prohibit new nuclear-weapons testing) and they have pledged to revive the issue.

Finally, the possible deployment of a national missile-defense system could come into play. Democrats, emboldened by a failed test last week, want to stall the system until technological and diplomatic questions can be answered. Republicans want to push forward with the plan even if it means discarding the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia.

The issue is likely to surface in the summer, when the Pentagon will make a recommendation to the president on whether the system should be deployed. But, says Mr. Holborn, it remains to be seen "whether a series of [secondary] foreign-policy issues can add up to anything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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