Foreign Policy at the U.S. National Political Conventions
Backgrounder

Foreign Policy at the U.S. National Political Conventions

Foreign policy issues regularly come to the fore at the national political conventions, especially during periods of global instability. Sometimes the events are marked by bitter disagreements within the parties.
Delegates cheer on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City.
Delegates cheer on the floor of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Summary
  • National political conventions are held every four years in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
  • Foreign policy has often featured prominently in these gatherings, though it is often overshadowed by domestic issues.
  • At the 2024 national conventions, the parties are expected to focus on the wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine, as well as the rise of China and surging immigration to the United States.

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 multiday 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.

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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, war in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, the rise of China, and other relevant topics such as immigration, human rights, trade, energy, and climate change. Many of these topics have surfaced again in 2024.

What happens at the conventions?

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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 at that time. During periods of conflict, especially when the United States is under threat, foreign policy and security concerns take center stage. In 2004, after 9/11 transformed the international security landscape and tens of thousands of U.S. troops had been sent to fight 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.”

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On the other hand, during periods of relative international and domestic 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 [PDF] and Republican [PDF] parties relegated foreign policy to the bottom of their 2016 platforms.

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 General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. troops during the first Gulf War, suggested that the Bill 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.

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How are policy platforms crafted?

A platform is a written statement—some have run nearly one 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. Platforms are often debated and amended in subcommittees before adoption, usually by the second day of the event.

Platforms can also attempt to sew together some of the cleavages the primaries opened within the party. Critics say the planks are often crafted to satisfy highly vocal blocs that do not represent the whole party.

Do conventions signal the 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 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 2016 Democratic convention, protests erupted after the final platform did not include language explicitly critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which runner-up primary candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) opposed. 

In 2012, controversy broke out after the Democratic party platform circulated language that did not explicitly recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. (This became formal U.S. policy in 2017, when President Donald Trump moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.) The line was reintroduced the following day. 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 Gerald Ford administration following changes the campaign allowed supporters of California Governor Ronald Reagan, who competed against Ford for the Republican nomination that year, 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. Ford won the Republican primary and lost the election to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

And, in perhaps the most notable example of an intraparty 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 H. Humphrey and those of his liberal rival Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) disagreed intensely over how and when to end the U.S. bombing campaign of North Vietnam. After some two hours of raucous debate, Humphrey backers won a vote rejecting the minority plank on the convention floor.

What are the prospects for 2024?

Foreign policy appears set to play a larger-than-usual role at the 2024 conventions, with voters focused on the wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine, U.S. immigration and border security, and growing economic and security challenges from China. Twice as many U.S. adults listed foreign policy topics as major priorities in 2024 compared to the previous year, according to a December 2023 poll by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. However, these issues still paled in comparison to domestic economic concerns.

Some international issues have caused rifts within the two major parties. On the Democratic side, the Israel-Hamas war has opened deep divisions in the party that could surface at the convention. Almost half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning people under thirty years old sympathize mostly with Palestinians compared to less than 20 percent of those fifty or older, according to a March 2024 survey by the Pew Research Center. President Joe Biden, the party’s incumbent nominee, has strongly supported Israel and continues to provide the country with significant military aid, although his administration has been critical of the Israeli government’s prosecution of the war and the high civilian death toll. 

Fissures also exist in the Republican party, largely based on how to respond to the war in Ukraine. Washington has provided Kyiv with more than $100 billion in aid since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in 2022. The aid initially had strong bipartisan backing, but support among some Republicans has waned as the war continues in its third year. In November 2023, Gallup found that almost two-thirds of Republicans believe the United States is doing too much to help Ukraine. However, while a majority of Republicans in the House voted against the most recent Ukraine aid legislation, a majority of the party in the Senate voted for it. Still, it is unclear whether this issue will play out at the Republican convention as well; for the first time in more than 160 years, the party did not release a platform in 2020 and instead pointed to a list of bullets that then President Donald Trump released on his campaign website. Trump has said that he would not commit to boosting military aid to Ukraine if reelected. 

The parties are less internally divided on other issues, such as immigration and the rise of China. With border encounters reaching a record high of nearly 2.5 million in fiscal year 2023, illegal immigration has become a top concern for voters in several swing states. But while Democrats largely agree on policies that make it easier for immigrants to legally enter the country, Republicans tend to advocate for stricter border controls and more deportations, viewing illegal immigration as a national security challenge. On China, there is bipartisan support for some measures, including efforts to “de-risk” the U.S. and Chinese economies and support for Taiwan.

Recommended Resources

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

For Politico, Adam Wren 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.

For The Water’s Edge blog, CFR expert James M. Lindsay covers the ins and outs of the 2024 race.

For HowStuffWorks, Ed Grabianowski and Kathryn Whitbourne explain the political convention process.

Noah Berman and Diana Roy contributed to this report.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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