How coronavirus, foreign policy can impact 2020 elections

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From left to right: NPR international correspondent Deborah S. Amos; Jose W. Fernandez, partner and co-chair of Latin America Practice Group, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP; Kori Schake, resident scholar and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations

With the 2020 elections approaching, many voters are trying to learn as much as possible—not only about the presidential candidates—but about major challenges facing the United States today.

To shed light on foreign policy issues, including the international coronavirus crisis, and how they will impact the next presidential term, a group of former government officials gathered at FIU and led a conversation with students, faculty and staff.

The event was sponsored by FIU in collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization that engages its members in conversation on the most salient policy and governance issues of the day. The discussion was part of the council’s initiative to co-host several public, nonpartisan forums before the elections at universities across the country.

“I can’t think of a more important time to come together for the kind of discussion we’re going to be having today,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg during his welcome remarks. “And what better partners to have in this conversation than the council. I’ve been privileged to be a member since 2005. I can tell you that the council is always finding ways to be relevant.”

The discussion featured Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former special assistant to President George H. W. Bush; Jose W. Fernandez, partner and co-chair of Latin America Practice Group, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP and former assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs to President Barack Obama; and Kori Schake, resident scholar and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute as well as former deputy director for policy planning to President George W. Bush. National Public Radio international correspondent Deborah S. Amos moderated the discussion.

The group of seasoned experts delved into topics ranging from challenges with Venezuela, Cuba and the Middle East to an analysis of current U.S. relations with international allies and how that could change with a new administration.

But it was the coronavirus outbreak that—perhaps unexpectedly—came to the forefront of the conversation.

“The coronavirus is really the textbook, iconic, international issue,” Haass said. “It proves that the oceans that surround this country are not moats. We can’t pull up the drawbridge. What began in Wuhan, China, did not stay in Wuhan, China. I think we’re just weeks away from this reaching [a] level of high disruption. Groups like this [at the event], I do not think are going to be able to convene much longer. There will probably be a temporary pause in what we consider to be normal life.”

This disruption has already begun. There are national shortages of hand sanitizer and face masks—and the FDA recently released a statement announcing the first U.S. drug shortage related to the virus. Travel restrictions are in place and large public events—including the local Ultra concert—have been cancelled for public safety reasons.

An economic downturn at the national level is up next, Haass said. “This year’s numbers will be fundamentally different in virtually every country.”

Haass also said the virus has the potential to impact the elections, with voters judging how well those in authority have dealt with the challenge so far and voting accordingly. He also cautioned that elections will play out with the coronavirus as its backdrop—a backdrop that has altered the lives and financial landscapes of many.

Students and alumni asked the panel questions during a question-and-answer session after the discussion.

Another major issue that could impact the elections: immigration policy.

Citing a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Shacke shared that in President Donald J. Trump’s three years in office, the American public’s attitudes toward immigration has moved in opposition to the president’s policies.

“I do think this is likely to become a major campaign issue,” she said.

Fernandez added, “As you look at the polling, 75 percent to 80 percent of Americans believe that there ought to be a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented people here, that 70 to 80 percent believe that the DACA kids should stay. The frustrating part is that our polarization sometimes prevents us from reaching decisions that most Americans believe in. So I think it will be an important decision.”

The big thing to keep in mind as voters, the panelists said, is that foreign policy matters.

Foreign policy might not always seem as pressing as domestic concerns—and may not receive much attention during the pre-election season. But it should.

That’s exactly why the council started hosting these discussions and why the group has set up an Elections 2020 section on its website.

“We want you to vote,” Haass said. “But we, in particular, want you to be an informed voter. And that’s what’s behind this, and indeed everything all of us do in our lives on these issues.”

Find a full transcript of the discussion online.


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