Foreign Policy at the Conventions

Authors: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor, and Gopal Ratnam, Online Writer
Updated: July 22, 2016

President George W. Bush during his speech to accept the Republican Party's nomination, September 2004. Photo: Scott J. Ferrell/CQ-Roll Call Group
Introduction

Every four years, in the summer leading up to the U.S. presidential election, the major political parties hold national conventions to crown their nominees, issue policy platforms, and conduct other business. These multi-day gatherings of political elite are also media events designed to promote the parties’ visions for the country, defend (or attack) the current administration, and rally their bases ahead of the November vote.

Conventions tend to focus on the parties’ domestic priorities, but foreign policy and national security issues regularly come to the fore, especially during periods of global instability or armed conflict. In the elections since 9/11, convention speeches and party platforms have waded into the debates over terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, and other relevant topics like immigration, human rights, trade, energy and climate change. Many of these topics have surfaced again in 2016.

What happens at the conventions?

Contemporary conventions tend to be choreographed affairs intended to showcase party leaders, rising stars, and celebrity supporters to a primetime television audience. Over a period of three to four days, carefully crafted speeches and videos promoting a party’s message are interwoven with official business, including the appointment of committee members, and ratification of party rules, credentials, and policy platforms. Conventions culminate in the nomination (and acceptance speeches) of the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Much of the suspense associated with many past conventions—particularly the mystery of who would win a majority of the delegates (and the nomination)—largely petered out beginning in the 1970s when the parties opened up the primary process. This transparency has allowed presumptive nominees to emerge during the spring. 

How does foreign policy factor into these events?

The foreign policy issues discussed and the priority they are given in convention speeches and party platforms mostly reflect the national and international dynamics of the day. During times of conflict, especially when the United States is under threat, foreign policy and security concerns take center stage. In 2004, after 9/11 had transformed the international security landscape and tens of thousands of U.S. troops were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, both parties led with foreign policy, laying out their plans to win the “war on terror” and stop the spread of “weapons of mass destruction.”

These issues featured prominently again in the 2008 Republican platform, which opened with a chapter titled “Defending Our Nation, Supporting Our Heroes, Securing the Peace.” Meanwhile, the Democrats that year bumped foreign policy down to the second section titled “Renewing American Leadership” (the first dealt with the ailing economy).

Four years later, when voters’ basic economic concerns had eclipsed nearly all others, both parties pushed most discussion of foreign and security policy to concluding sections in their platforms. 

Timeline: Political Conventions and Foreign Policy

On the other hand, during periods of relative international stability, foreign policy and national security tend to take a back seat to kitchen-table concerns like taxes, education, health care, and jobs. For instance, both the Democratic and Republican platforms of 2000 opened with a section on “prosperity,” while relegating most discussion of foreign policy to later chapters.

But even during such cycles, parties raise foreign policy to the extent they can use the issue to criticize the opposition or laud their candidate, especially given the president’s role as commander-in-chief. For instance, during the 2000 Republican convention, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. troops during the first Gulf War, suggested that the Clinton administration had allowed the military to atrophy over the previous eight years. Days later, at the Democratic convention, the outgoing president defended his record, including his military and foreign policy achievements. “We are more secure, and we're more free because of our leadership in the world for peace, freedom, and prosperity: helping to end a generation of conflict in Northern Ireland, stopping the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, and bringing the Middle East closer than ever to a comprehensive peace,” Clinton said.

How are policy platforms crafted?

A platform is a written statement—some have run nearly a hundred pages—that lists a party's governing priorities and policy prescriptions. So-called planks in the platform speak to particular issues. The document is drafted ahead of the convention by a group of delegates known as the Platform Committee, whose leadership is typically appointed by the respective party’s chairperson (PDF). Platforms are often debated and amended in subcommittees before adoption, usually by the second day of the event.

Platforms attempt to sew together some of the cleavages the primaries may have opened within the party. Planks may be crafted in such a way to satisfy highly vocal blocs that may not be representative of the whole party.

Do conventions signal the foreign policy of an incoming president?

Policy platforms, much like candidates’ pledges on the campaign trail, are not binding. While they may reflect the policy wish lists of the candidate and party, events of the day and the president’s relationship with Congress often play larger roles in determining policy. Still, platforms—and the internal debates that shape them—are indicative of the parties’ often distinct worldviews.

Is foreign policy a divisive issue at conventions?

Different factions within a party, often supporting rival candidates, have locked horns at the conventions over certain foreign policy positions. At the 2012 Democratic convention, controversy broke out after the party platform was circulated without language recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (The U.S. government does not.) The line was reintroduced the following day in an awkward session.

U.S. policy toward Israel was also a hot topic on the Republican side that year, with elements within the party pushing the platform committee to drop language endorsing the so-called two-state-solution: “We envision two democratic states—Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine—living in peace and security.” (The amendment failed.) GOP delegates also sparred over defense spending, detention policy, and immigration.

Going back further, at the 1976 Republican convention, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly threatened to resign from the Ford administration following changes the campaign allowed supporters of Gov. Ronald Reagan to make to the platform’s foreign policy plank. The Reagan camp inserted a section called “Morality in Foreign Policy” that seemed to challenge the existing U.S. policy of détente: “Ours will be a foreign policy which recognizes that in international negotiations we must make no undue concessions; that in pursuing détente we must not grant unilateral favors with only the hope of getting future favors in return.” Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the convention, which was closely contested, Reagan zeroed in on Ford’s foreign policy, claiming that “under Kissinger and Ford, this nation has become number two in a world where it is dangerous—if not fatal—to be second best.”

And, in perhaps the most notable example of an intra-party clash over foreign policy, Democratic delegates at the 1968 convention in Chicago split sharply over the so-called Vietnam plank in a draft of the party platform. Supporters of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and those of his liberal rival Sen. Eugene McCarthy disagreed intensely over how and when to end the U.S. bombing campaign of North Vietnam. After some two hours of raucous debate on the issue, Humphrey backers won a vote rejecting the minority plank on the convention floor.

What are the prospects for controversy at the 2016 conventions?

Both parties had some internal divisions over foreign policy and related issues heading into the 2016 conventions, and many analysts questioned if and how they would be resolved. On the Republican side, the platform approved in Cleveland incorporated many but not all of Donald Trump’s signature proposals. For instance, on trade, the platform promoted an “America first” policy that would reject agreements that did not safeguard U.S. interests. The document also criticized China for manipulating its currency and subsidizing exports, and it dropped any reference to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive Asia-centered trade deal opposed by Trump. The 2012 Republican platform specifically endorsed TPP.

Meanwhile, on immigration, the document included the presidential nominee’s call to build a wall across the entire U.S. border with Mexico. But while it advocated for “special scrutiny” of foreign nationals from “regions associated with Islamic terrorism,” it omitted his controversial plan to temporarily block Muslims from immigrating to the United States.

Notably, the platform advocated for an overhaul of the treaty process and said that existing U.S. multinational agreements, namely the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, would be “deemed null and void as mere expressions of the current president’s preferences.” The platform also did not mention a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been stated U.S. policy since the George W. Bush administration. “We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms,” the plank says.

Foreign policy and the 2016 election

Ahead of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, some analysts wonder if party leaders will clash once again over U.S. policy toward Israel. Some Democrats, particularly those who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the primary, have generally been more supportive of Palestinian positions.

Meanwhile, Sanders supporters have been more critical than Clinton of U.S. trade policy and hope to push stronger language opposing TPP into the party platform at the convention.

Additional Resources

The American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara hosts an archive of the political party platforms dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Politico presents an engaging oral history of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, where the Ford and Reagan campaigns battled intensely for every last delegate.

More on this topic from CFR

View more from Elections, United States