The current slate of Republican presidential candidates disagree on many things, be it how much to restrict abortion or whether U.S. President Joe Biden rightfully won the 2020 election. But when it comes to international affairs, almost all the contenders have taken aggressively hawkish policy positions. The top four front-runners for the GOP nomination—Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and former U.S. President Donald Trump—have endorsed attacking Mexico to combat that country’s drug cartels. Trump, for instance, said he would send to Mexico “all necessary military assets, including the U.S. Navy.” Most of the field has also called for escalating confrontation with Iran. And the candidates have, by and large, demanded more hostility toward China, often using dire terms in making their appeals. DeSantis, for example, declared that Washington must treat Beijing as it treated “the Soviets.” Haley asserted that China is leading a new global “axis of evil.” Ramaswamy labeled China “our top enemy.”
On the surface, these stances seem out of touch with Americans’ attitudes. A September 2023 Reuters poll found that just 29 percent of voters approve of attacking Mexico’s drug cartels without support from that country’s government (which would almost certainly not be forthcoming). A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey conducted in January of this year found that only 22 percent of Americans consider China to be an adversary. And although national surveys do not necessarily reflect the views of primary voters, Donald Trump captured the Republican base in 2016 by renouncing military adventurism and promising to reduce Washington’s global commitments. Proposals to send U.S. soldiers to Mexico or to wage a cold war with China thus fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which is that Americans want presidents who will avoid costly overseas endeavors and will focus their attention at home.
But although Americans say they oppose individual interventions or acts of U.S. aggression, their behavior at the voting booth reveals they like tough, combative presidents. According to my research, voters are more than three times as likely to vote for a presidential candidate based on the voters’ beliefs about whether a politician is a strong leader as they are to vote based on the candidate’s foreign policy stances. When asked to say why they think one presidential candidate would do a better job of handling foreign policy than others, voters are more than twice as likely to cite the candidate’s personal attributes—such as strength and decisiveness—as they are to praise specific elements of that candidate’s foreign policy platforms. These patterns indicate that presidents and presidential candidates have incentives to take unpopular foreign policy positions if that helps them show they are tough enough to serve as the country’s commander in chief.
Politicians have noticed. Over the last half century, candidates from both parties have frequently used aggressive foreign policies to demonstrate that they are strong enough to lead the United States. This hawkishness can help win elections. But it also produces a suite of policies—rising defense budgets, open-ended wars of choice, unilateral diplomacy—that are at odds with public opinion.
Fixing this disconnect will not be easy given the cold electoral logic. But candidates can look strong without being hawkish if they redirect their aggression away from international adversaries and toward the domestic elites who promote belligerence. Politicians can also explain that strong leadership requires sticking to a set of core priorities, such as reinforcing the credibility of the United States’ alliances, instead of expanding Washington’s foreign policy commitments. Meanwhile, voters and pundits should be aware that a seemingly reasonable desire to elect a strong commander in chief can actually distort U.S. foreign policy, encouraging leaders to make decisions that are more hawkish than what Americans want.
HARD AS NAILS
When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he saw foreign policy as one of his principal political vulnerabilities. Kennedy had served with distinction in the navy during World War II, but he had little high-level experience handling international affairs. By contrast, the Republican presidential nominee, Richard Nixon, had gained fame leading anticommunist investigations in the U.S. Senate, confronted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a nationally televised debate, and spent eight years touring the world as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, the man who remained the country’s most trusted voice on global issues. John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard economist who was one of Kennedy’s foreign policy advisers, summarized this challenge in a campaign memo, arguing that “Nixon’s claim to vast experience in a period of trouble and peril is going to be one of our most difficult and perhaps our most difficult issue.”
Kennedy’s team believed the solution to this problem had little to do with proposing foreign policies that voters liked on the merits. As George Belknap, a political scientist who advised Kennedy on public opinion, wrote, “A large percent of people express a concern over ‘keeping the peace,’ but specific foreign affairs issues were not of great importance to them.” Instead, Belknap explained that most voters tended to turn foreign policy discussions into referendums on the candidates’ leadership strength. Ithiel de Sola Pool, an MIT political scientist who also advised Kennedy’s campaign, agreed. “Particular postures on issues will not directly affect many voters,” he wrote. “The primary objective for Kennedy in dealing with specific foreign affairs issues is to enhance his image by demonstrating his knowledge and competence.”
To do this, Kennedy oriented his foreign policy platform around increasing defense expenditures, particularly by expanding the country’s supply of nuclear missiles. In theory, this should not have been a winning bid. According to Gallup, just 22 percent of voters thought defense spending was too low, 19 percent thought it was too high, and 45 percent thought it was about right. Clearly, the most popular policy would be to hold military expenditures constant, which is what Nixon proposed doing. But as Walt Rostow, one of Kennedy’s foreign policy advisers, explained, taking a hawkish position on military spending would allow Kennedy to seem as though he would “seize the initiative” in international politics while making Nixon appear complacent in the face of the Soviet menace. “It represents Kennedy on the offensive and Nixon on the defensive,” said Louis Harris, Kennedy’s pollster. Kennedy therefore hammered his proposal home in campaign speeches, arguing that his aggressive stance on defense spending showed he would be “a vigorous proponent of the national interest” rather than “a bookkeeper who feels that his work is done when the numbers on the balance sheet come out even.” Surveys conducted by the Kennedy campaign showed him steadily gaining ground with voters who were concerned with issues of war and peace. Kennedy ultimately concluded that taking a hawkish position on defense spending was critical to his narrow win.
Candidates exploit voters’ impulses cynical ways.
Four years later, when President Lyndon Johnson entered the presidential race, he also saw foreign affairs as one of his main political weaknesses. Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, appeared to be gaining traction by arguing that Johnson was using timid half measures to contain the communist insurgency in Vietnam. Goldwater called for a more aggressive response and laced his stump speeches with claims about how Johnson had gotten the United States “bogged down in an aimless, leaderless war” and how Vietnam was “being sacrificed to this administration’s indecision.” Johnson’s private polling confirmed that Vietnam was his most unfavorable policy subject. “The Republicans are going to make a political issue out of it, every one of them,” Johnson told Georgia Senator Richard Russell, his former mentor. Russell agreed. “It’s the only issue they’ve got,” he said.
Johnson’s polling data indicated that just 15 percent of Americans supported escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. But Johnson’s advisers nevertheless believed that shifting Vietnam policy in a hawkish direction would help parry charges that Johnson was weak. Johnson aide Bill Moyers explained this logic in a memorandum, arguing that “it is difficult for a government official—and particularly for a candidate—to get much mileage out of being for peace” because this would require him to “make assurances that he is not soft.” The question, then, was how Johnson could take a hard stance on Vietnam without spooking Americans who were reluctant to go to war.
Johnson decided to thread this needle by asking Congress to grant him open-ended authorization to use force in Vietnam without committing to an invasion. His administration began preparing such a proposal in May 1964. When North Vietnam attacked U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in August, Johnson introduced it. As Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy explained in a memorandum titled “The Case for a Congressional Resolution,” the measure allowed Johnson to provide “a continuing demonstration of U.S. firmness” without having to explain to the public exactly what he intended to do with his Vietnam policy.
Despite its deftness, Johnson’s gambit still encountered opposition. At first, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, told Johnson that he opposed escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. But Johnson persuaded Fulbright that the use-of-force resolution was simply a tool to rebut public concerns that he was soft on communism and promised that he would return to Congress to seek additional approval before sending ground troops to Vietnam. Fulbright then took the lead in shepherding the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress with minimal debate. “You pass this thing and it gives Lyndon a tool in the campaign,” Fulbright privately assured skeptical Democrats.
And it did: although Johnson’s polling data showed that 58 percent of Americans opposed his handling of Vietnam before the Tonkin crisis, a whopping 72 percent supported Johnson’s handling of the war once the resolution passed. “In a single stroke,” wrote Harris, Johnson’s pollster, the president had “turned his greatest political vulnerability in foreign policy into one of his strongest assets.” But the Tonkin Resolution also gave Johnson the ability to launch a war that voters had not asked for. The next year, Johnson broke his promise to Fulbright, sending U.S. soldiers to Vietnam without additional congressional approval—and setting Washington on a course toward a costly and humiliating defeat.
Recent elections provide many similar examples of leaders using hawkish foreign policy positions to bolster their personal images. According to the political commentator George Stephanopoulos, Dick Morris, U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign manager, encouraged Clinton to “bomb the shit out of Serbia to look strong,” even though a minority of voters supported military intervention in the Balkans. After Clinton agreed to bomb Serbian military positions (and to send U.S. forces to the region for peacekeeping), he realized that Morris had given him sound political advice. According to the journalist Bob Woodward, the president repeatedly “voiced fascination that while 60 percent of the public had opposed the deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia, public approval of his foreign policy went up, not down, after he ordered the deployment anyway.” Clinton, Woodward wrote, concluded “that toughness and decisiveness were appreciated even if people disagreed” with the policies he had chosen.
The politics of posturing have high stakes when it comes to U.S.-Chinese relations.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign exploited a similar logic. According to polling data gathered throughout the campaign by the National Annenberg Election Survey, just 43 percent of Americans supported Bush’s handling of the Iraq war. But rather than announcing a new course, Bush stridently promised to “stick to his guns” in Iraq despite the political pressure. Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, explained in a post-election interview that he believed the substance of Bush’s Iraq war policies was less important than what those policies revealed about Bush’s personal qualities. “Staying the course” in Iraq might not have appealed to voters on the merits, but it helped depict Bush as a steady wartime president, a stance Mehlman saw as worth taking. “Issues are usually about attributes, not issues,” Mehlman said, and the attribute Bush had that was “most important and relevant to voters was the fact that he was a strong leader.”
To some extent, Trump broke this mold when running for president in 2016. He criticized his predecessors for waging wars of choice, and much of his international agenda—particularly his efforts to negotiate a withdrawal from Afghanistan (and the fact that he did not start any new wars of his own)—reflected voters’ demands to avoid costly military adventures. But Trump took aggressively hawkish stances in other areas of foreign policy, most notably through his harsh criticisms of the United States’ traditional allies and partners. For example, Trump called NATO “obsolete,” accused Mexico of “killing us economically,” and said that Americans were “tired of being ripped off by everybody in the world.” Trump promised that he would stand up to these countries—including, famously, by declaring that he would build a wall on the U.S. southern border and make “Mexico pay for it.”
In theory, such rhetoric should have been a political liability. Decades of survey data show that most Americans want their leaders to cooperate with other countries to solve global problems. Those attitudes persisted even after Trump took office; according to a May 2017 Quinnipiac poll, 88 percent of Americans thought it important for the president of the United States to be publicly supportive of allies. But Trump’s claim that he was a hard-nosed bargainer who would prevent other countries from taking advantage of the United States helped illustrate his resolve. It was, in the view of Trump’s campaign, crucial to his political success.
THE POWER OF POSTURE
Strength is not the only personal attribute that voters associate with a competent commander in chief. Voters also want presidents to possess good judgment—in other words, ones who avoid taking unnecessary risks. Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964 provides a case in point. By taking extreme foreign policy positions and expressing them through careless language—such as his stated interest in “lobbing” a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin’s men’s room—Goldwater came across as a fanatical anticommunist who could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. Johnson capitalized on this unease by releasing a now infamous attack ad in which a girl plucking daisies in a field is enveloped by a mushroom cloud. At the end of the ad, a narrator instructs viewers to vote for Johnson because “the stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
But most presidential candidates reap relatively little benefit from trying to convince voters that they possess good judgment in international affairs, if only because such wisdom is exceptionally difficult to signal. Good judgment depends on context: a foreign policy that is reasonable in one situation might be too risky or too cautious in another. Even with the benefit of hindsight, foreign policy experts frequently disagree about how to distinguish good judgment from good luck in international affairs. Lay people can rarely make such assessments with confidence. It is, by contrast, easy for presidential candidates to use hawkish foreign policies to project strength. By promising to confront adversaries, refusing to make diplomatic concessions, and promoting expanded military capabilities, candidates can make it seem like they will stand firm in protecting U.S. interests.
Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 provides a good example of how it is hard to evaluate a policy’s wisdom—but simple to spot resolve. After Trump ordered the strike, many observers accused him of recklessly risking war with Tehran. Others said that the United States should have targeted Soleimani long ago and that the strike would help deter Iran from challenging the United States in the future. Even in retrospect, it is difficult to determine whether Trump’s decision reflected good judgment. Iran’s retaliation for the Soleimani strike was less severe than many people predicted. It is thus possible that Trump carefully analyzed the situation and accurately understood that his choice to kill Soleimani was not as dangerous as critics claimed. But it is also possible that Trump had no idea how Tehran would react and nonetheless opted to roll the dice without good reason—and happily lucked out.
What Soleimani’s assassination did unambiguously show was Trump’s willingness to punish Iranian aggression in a manner that other leaders would not. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had declined to take direct action against Soleimani, and during the 2020 presidential election, Biden explicitly said that he would not have approved the strike. Trump leaned into this contrast by invoking the assassination throughout his 2020 reelection campaign and accusing Biden of being soft.
Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 provides a clear contrast to the Soleimani strike. Polling data at the time suggested that voters lacked firm views about whether it was a good idea to remove U.S. troops from Kabul. Many analysts believed that Biden’s choice to end a long and unpopular conflict would generate substantial popular support. But the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government and the chaotic pullout dealt a sharp blow to Biden’s reputation for being a competent commander in chief. His approval rating quickly dropped by six points, which he never recovered.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
It is easy to understand why voters place a high priority on whether candidates are fit to be commander in chief. Many of the events that shape presidents’ legacies relate to international affairs, such as Harry Truman’s conduct of the Korean War, Kennedy’s management of the Cuban missile crisis, and George W. Bush’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Each of these events was unexpected when those presidents ran for office. Since world politics are often dominated by surprise challenges, voters have good reason to care about whether their highest leaders are competent at handling foreign policy issues in general—not just whether they advance a set of specific foreign policies.
Yet the way candidates use foreign policy issues to shape their images can have important, tangible consequences. It is easy, for instance, to dismiss the Republican presidential candidates’ statements about attacking Mexico as bluster that would never shape their behavior in office. But presidents face pressure to honor their hawkish promises, and they often follow through. Kennedy increased defense spending in ways that most voters did not want. Johnson waged the war that Congress authorized him to fight. Bush stayed the course in Iraq for the remainder of his presidency. And Trump strained relations with allies throughout his four years in office.
Today, the politics of posturing have especially high stakes when it comes to U.S.-Chinese relations. It is extremely hard to know how the United States should respond to China’s rise; even experts and policy professionals disagree about which kinds of actions will be more likely to contain Chinese aggression. Voters certainly cannot be expected to have firm views about which policies are superior to others on their merits. But presidential candidates have clear incentives to use China as a way to demonstrate their commitment to winning a great-power competition, to show that they will not back down in the face of aggression, and to portray their rivals as complacent about threats to U.S. security. In doing so, candidates risk making U.S.-Chinese relations, which are already tense, far more confrontational than what Americans want.
Candidates can look strong without being hawkish.
Reconciling these impulses—Americans’ desire for a restrained foreign policy and their attraction to tough leaders—is not easy. In the past, political parties did so by nominating presidential candidates with extensive military experience who could rely on their records to convince voters that they were strong without having to adopt hawkish stances. Eisenhower’s military record was undoubtedly part of why he proved unusually successful at limiting defense spending and keeping the United States out of foreign wars. But few candidates in history have possessed Eisenhower’s credentials, and except for DeSantis, none of the leading 2024 candidates have any military experience at all. As a result, if they want to advocate for less hawkish positions without appearing weak, they must resort to other methods.
One approach, which is common today among the progressive left, is to cloak foreign policy restraint in confrontational language. Instead of railing against Washington’s adversaries, these politicians talk aggressively about standing up to the pernicious influence of the foreign policy establishment. For example, the 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren argued in Foreign Affairs that Americans need to “fight back” against misguided leadership in order to “adopt a foreign policy that works for all Americans, not just wealthy elites.” A different approach is to argue that strong leaders need to “keep their eye on the ball” of managing great-power competition rather than be distracted by unnecessary wars of choice or superfluous military programs. That was the heart of George W. Bush’s foreign policy message during the 2000 election, in which he argued that Clinton had dragged the U.S. military into humanitarian interventions and nation building on an ad hoc basis.
But progressive presidential candidates have struggled to win presidential primaries in recent decades, let alone general elections. And despite promising restraint, Bush became one of the most interventionist presidents in history. If Americans really want less hawkish behavior from their leaders, they will ultimately need to change how they evaluate them. Americans should realize that by demanding that presidential candidates publicly demonstrate their toughness, they force those candidates to make tradeoffs between satisfying voters’ policy preferences and crafting appealing personal images.
It may be hard for voters, collectively, to adjust long-standing views of what makes a good commander in chief. And U.S. citizens have the right to determine how much emphasis they want to place on electing strong leaders. But voters should also be aware of how candidates exploit their impulses in systematic—and frequently cynical—ways. Otherwise, Americans will continue to be frustrated by the cost and scope of their country’s global role.