“Americans don’t care about foreign policy.” It’s a truism that has shaped presidential campaign rhetoric for both the Democrats and Republicans this year. It is also why, we are told, international news often gets sidelined in favor of the latest socialite news involving, say, Kim Kardashian. And if international policy news isn’t great for the news industry, then it probably doesn’t produce votes either. The result is that we are saturated with 24 hour news coverage – and lots of political rhetoric – that reinforces the truism that Americans just don’t care.
But American voters are not petulant, spoiled children. The import of political discourse cannot be judged based on whether or not we think it’s “boring.” And the degree to which our public officials engage any given issue should not depend on how it performs in any given focus group of so-called “average people.” Here are five reasons why candidates should be talking about foreign policy despite the insulting assumption that we just “don’t care”:
1. We do care. Who can forget that the clamor for intelligent international news in the United States during the early days of the Egyptian revolution finally brought Al Jazeera English to New York? Who can forget how Fox News’ typical fear-mongering – “This is disastrous for Israel!” – was overwhelmed by general solidarity with Egypt’s revolutionaries? It is no accident that the public’s interest in news of Egypt skyrocketed in early 2011.
Yes, there is a strain of isolationism deeply rooted in US culture, and it’s been around since the very beginning. The devoted pockets of support for isolationist Republican candidate Ron Paul have underscored the fact that some of us really don’t care. That Paul wants to end all foreign aid programs has not deterred the fanaticism of his most hardcore supporters. And the post-9/11 success of that ever-present meme – “they hate our freedoms” – confirmed that we are strikingly under-informed when it comes to international politics. But Paul’s supporters are a small – if vocal – minority, and the success of patriotic talking points without substance merely confirms the fact that we need better coverage.
2. Our economic well-being is intertwined with that of other countries. It’s no secret that the United States has seen better days. Hence, Foreign Policy Magazine’s introduction of a blog called Decline Watch. The US is simply not the hegemonic superpower it once was, and growing economies like that of China will ultimately overtake our own. Mandarin language instruction has been spreading throughout primary schools for a few years now.
More immediately, the Eurozone debt crisis could have a devastating impact on the already struggling US economy. But where are we learning about the dangers? Certainly not from our politicians, who make far too much out of slight economic gains and minimal decreases in the unemployment rate. It isn’t that we’re not worried about any of these things. We are seeking information, but good information isn’t available. Many of the top Google hits for this subject are conspiracy theory and/or end times paranoia sites. Not hard news sites, and certainly not discussions between political candidates.
3. Our future as a responsible democratic republic depends on how well our citizens understand global politics. When it comes to international politics, our capacity to understand world events is more and more crucial to those of us who want to be responsible, civic-minded citizens. The democratic movements throughout the Middle East are a major challenge to the US tradition of realpolitik in the developing world. The age in which US diplomats could rest assured that the dictators in power were – for better or worse – “our dictators” is over. Those dictators are being taken down one by one, and this is as it should be.
The US has long been criticized for hypocrisy when it comes to preaching high-minded democratic ideals at home – and helping sustain undemocratic governments abroad. The counterinsurgency efforts of intelligence operatives and the military during the Cold War made this a fundamental characteristic of US foreign policy. But as US influence founders worldwide, the writing is on the wall for US-friendly puppet dictators. Ignorance of world events is the privilege of citizens who live in great hegemons. Now that the US has lost its special place in the global order, citizens must learn to engage with the rest of the world.
4. We need to understand how the international financial order – represented by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – creates global economic instability. These two institutions are dangerous, as the Western world only just learned as a result of economic collapse in Greece. For many years, they have been imposing devastating structural adjustment programs on sub-Saharan African countries forced to submit because they are desperate for basics like anti-retroviral medications or food aid. As in Greece, countries indebted to the IMF and World Bank must drastically cut their most basic social services, like public health initiatives and public education. That means public services have to be privatized, which just instantiates global inequality and keeps the very poor “in their place.”
Economic collapse in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy should alert US citizens that the West is not immune to the punishing aspects of the global banking order. And the predatory institutions that have propped up Western domination for so long are destroying basic safety nets in countries that never dreamed they would have to negotiate with the IMF. Most US citizens have never heard the term, “structural adjustment.” It’s time for that to change.
5. The US must cooperate with the rest of the world to prevent widespread environmental devastation. A very small group of global warming deniers in the United States – one that consists of major industry conglomerates and Armageddon-seeking religious zealots who do their bidding – bears much of the global responsibility for the world community’s failure to successfully combat environmental degradation. That small minority does not represent a majority of US citizens, and yet it maintains a stranglehold over world environmental policy.
And while the promise of environmental disaster marches ever onward, the global poor have suffered the most. For years now, we have known that climate change and ozone depletion have had the most disastrous consequences for poor countries. And very poor countries lack the resources to contain what is happening to their natural environments. It’s hard not to see this as the continuation of colonial practices that include pillaging an occupied country’s natural resources. And as with other world problems, of course, environmental damage will ultimately spread to the West. In spite of this, US environmental debates are often reduced to whether or not a given political candidate “believes” in global warming. In light of actual climate change, though, this kind of debate obscures real questions like: “How best can the US work with other countries to combat environmental damage?”
The world is not now – and has never been – a static entity. Things change, and countries must learn to adapt to these changes. That means electing politicians who understand how to help. But even now, too many journalists have focused on Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s off-putting personal demeanor. Very few journalists have mentioned his dearth of foreign policy experience or knowhow. Most importantly, they haven’t asked him many questions about it. So whether or not the media is convinced that we all find international affairs “boring,” we have no choice but to learn how to “play well with others.” That will mean substantive cooperation and careful diplomacy – and we deserve to know whether or not our candidates for higher office can handle either responsibly.