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From the Center

Florida governor Ron DeSantis traveled to Japan, South Korea, Israel and Great Britain last week, ostensibly to drum up international trade opportunities for his state but primarily to burnish his foreign policy credentials in advance of his likely presidential campaign. DeSantis has been floundering in his pre-candidacy role as Donald Trump’s strongest challenger, so an overseas trip seemed like a good way to change the subject from the difficult questions he’s been facing over abortion, Disney and dwindling poll numbers.

But DeSantis’ expedition also served to underscore how peripheral global issues have become in this country. The governor separated himself slightly from Trump during his stops in Asia, took perfunctory shots at Joe Biden in Israel, and offered predictable comments about America’s role in the world throughout. While he didn’t erase the self-inflicted damage of his previous dismissive comments about Ukraine, he didn’t do himself any harm and can now talk about these visits and meetings on the campaign trail. All in all, nothing happened that will markedly affect his presidential prospects.

We know that foreign policy rarely makes much of a difference in a presidential campaign. But as the war in Ukraine rages, as China’s behavior becomes noticeably more menacing, as North Korea and Iran become even more belligerent, it would seem logical that some of these issues might move to the forefront. But Ukraine is now background noise to most Americans and while China is increasingly seen as a threat to the U.S. and our allies, that danger still feels somewhat abstract to the majority of voters.

But there is another issue of international import that is likely to play a major role in the campaign next year. While most political discussion regarding our relationship with Mexico focuses on immigration policy, the growing and alarming toll that the fentanyl epidemic is taking on communities across this country has the makings of an explosive and potentially ugly election-year brawl as our government struggles to contain the deadly impact of the opioid that is killing our fellow Americans in such horrific numbers.

For many politicians and their constituents, fentanyl is a topic for domestic policy discussion, touching on public safety, health and societal concerns. But Trump has already begun talking about the possibility of deploying the American military to directly confront the drug cartels south of the border that process and traffic fentanyl, and several other Republican leaders have offered similar suggestions.

Shifting the border debate from immigration to narcotics carries massive implications for Republicans and Democrats alike. When DeSantis was beginning to navigate the Ukraine-Russia thicket earlier this year, he offered a slight variation on the isolationist-sounding language that is becoming more commonplace in both parties. Rather than simply questioning the rationale for U.S. involvement in Eastern Europe, DeSantis instead said, “I care more about securing our own border in the United States than I do about the Russia-Ukraine border.”

This could end up being a very effective messaging tool for Republicans next year. While both China and Russia represent immense challenges to democracy, global security and a cooperative international order (not to mention U.S. economic and geopolitical interests), the border crisis is much closer, much more tangible and seemingly much more directly relevant to the lives of most voters.

Framing the border problems in the context of opioids rather than immigrants presents another potential benefit for GOP candidates. Democrats have worked hard in recent years to characterize the most restrictive Republican immigration proposal as racist and xenophobic. But securing the border to protect Americans from deadly narcotics rather than as a way to prevent migrants from entering the country doesn’t allow for this type of counter-argument and offers considerable protection to conservative critics of current U.S. immigration policy.

There are substantial practical obstacles to the implementation of such a cross-border military operation. It would all but destroy U.S.-Mexico relations and essentially end any serious cooperation between the two countries on immigration policy. The resulting flood of arrivals across the southern border also thoroughly disrupt most other efforts at collaboration within the hemisphere and would dramatically worsen the current situation.

A confrontation of this nature with Mexico could also drive that country closer to China at a time when Beijing’s influence in Latin America has become a significant problem for U.S. interests in the region. Ironically, China is the starting point for the chemicals that ultimately become fentanyl. But that is a foreign policy discussion for another day, even if it may be less interesting to this country’s voters.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center Bias).