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Opinion: This election, Americans are shedding an ugly stereotype

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — For many years, American voters maintained a reputation of caring little about what happens in other countries.

Back in 2010, the veteran editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, Jim Hoge, noted that “for a long span of time, 100, 150, 200 years,” the US public has been “mostly disinterested, or least only casually interested in what is going on in the rest of the world.”

It’s now time to retire that reputation.

Proof that American voters have not only awakened to the world but have become profoundly interested and concerned about what goes on beyond US borders is everywhere – from the Democratic primary in Michigan, where critics of President Joe Biden’s support for Israel voted “uncommitted,” aiming to pressure him into changing his policies, to the Republican primary, where challenger Nikki Haley is lambasting former President Donald Trump and his “bone-chilling” comments that he would encourage Russia to invade NATO allies because of shortfalls in the allies’ defense spending.

Increasingly, 2024 is becoming a foreign policy election.

Even on domestic policy, one of the top issues is immigration, an area where foreign and domestic policy intersect.

The two men likely to face off, Biden and Trump, have sharper disagreements about America’s role in the world, and about US foreign policy, than the nominees of the two major parties in any election in memory. Perhaps that’s one reason why voters are focusing on world affairs. The difference between the candidates is less about specific policies than about a fundamental belief about what the United States stands for in the world, one of the distinctive traits of the country since its founding.

Already, an isolationist Trump is actively working to sabotage US aid for Ukraine, pressuring his acolytes in Congress to block it, as he shows open contempt for US allies alongside admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dictators.

Biden, by contrast, advocates a vigorous role for the United States in the world. He has already strengthened US alliances and vows to continue doing it, as he embraces democracy activists and disparages Putin and other dictators.

And with two wars raging – between Russia and Ukraine, and between Israel and Hamas – the entire country has become keenly interested in world affairs.

One of the most striking polls of recent weeks confirms it.

Pew asked Americans if they consider important to US interests the war between Hamas and Israel, between Russia and Ukraine, and the tensions between China and Taiwan. Some 75% said they are all either somewhat or very important to US national interests.

Here’s the remarkable part: When they were asked if the conflicts are important to “them personally,” majorities agreed on all the conflicts. On the Israel-Hamas war, 65% said it was personally important; 59% said it about Russia and Ukraine and 57% on China and Taiwan.

Of course, foreign policy has a lot of competition in the voters’ minds. After all, this is the first election in history where one of the candidates faces multiple criminal indictments. And, in addition to immigration, Americans are concerned about the economy and inflation, in particular. Social issues such as access to abortion are also crucial. But foreign policy has still managed to emerge as a key concern.

How engaged are Americans? When CNN’s polling asked US adults if they think the US is doing too much, too little, or the right amount to help Israel in its war against Hamas, one of the most notable results was that only 1% of respondents said they had “no opinion.”

Ironically, the poll also showed that the issue motivating the protest vote against Biden is one where a country divided down the middle on so many issues finds common ground. Despite a growing number of Americans saying that Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza has “gone too far,” support for backing the Jewish state remains strong.

Only one-in-three said the US is doing “too much” to help Israel, with 66% saying it’s doing “too little” or “the right amount.” A recent Gallup poll had very similar results, showing 62% saying the US is doing the “right amount” or “too little” for Israel, with 36% judging the current level of support as “too much.” A Harvard-Harris poll found 82% of Americans support Israel over 18% who support Hamas.

That shows how complicated the politics of the Israel-Hamas has become for Biden. If he moves too far in the direction of the anti-Israel camp, he risks losing Israel’s supporters, a larger number.

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the shift in interest in global affairs among voters.

In 2013, when President Barack Obama launched his second term, I listened to his inaugural speech looking for clues about foreign policy. “The most subtly striking part…was how he largely ignored the rest of the world,” I wrote. “In his 20-minute address, he dedicated perhaps one minute to foreign policy.” He said the country would “try to resolve our differences with other nations peacefully,” and would “remain the anchor of strong alliances,” but spent the speech on other topics.

The second term would focus sharply on domestic matters. “If only the world would cooperate,” I noted skeptically.

It didn’t. Within a few months, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s “red line,” using chemical weapons against his people. The war careened further into catastrophe. The Islamic State, ISIS, took control of large swaths of Syria and IraqMillions of refugees fled. Huge refugee flows paired with gruesome televised decapitation by ISIS terrorists, setting the stage for the rise of far-right, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration demagogues in Western democracies.

In fact, I am convinced that the chain of events unleashed in Syria’s civil war and the inadequate response by the West was an important contributing factor in Trump’s rise to power.

And yet, Obama’s aim to focus squarely on domestic issues aligned with the country’s sentiments. Voters were ranking global issues far down the list of priorities.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had left US voters exhausted and demoralized about US involvement in the world.

The new focus on international issues is partly driven by social media, which brings vivid images of faraway suffering that might have been hidden before. But there’s more.

A Trump victory would not only transform the United States, it would also have lasting, reshaping reverberations across the globe at a time of troubling change. Americans worry about what’s happening in the world and about the role the United States will play in directing that trajectory.

We can now discard the stereotype of the American voter who doesn’t care about the rest of the world.

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