"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why Was Foreign Policy Ignored At The ‘Foreign Policy’ Debate?

Many observers have wondered why both candidates in the third presidential debate skirted almost all foreign policy issues in what was billed as a Foreign Policy forum.  No matter how hard the moderator tried to extract ideas, policies, or even comments on the rage of issues that currently affect the United States, he got no more than a few glancing remarks on any issue other than Syria or Libya.

This is not surprising, for although those of us who live in the Northeast and on both Coasts consider world events crucial and directly related to the well-being of the United States, most other Americans do not. A recent survey of the National Assessment of Education Program (NAEP) found that only 12 percent of American public high school students were ‘proficient’ in American history.  The NAEP doesn’t even bother to test students on world history.

After a long career in International Development during which I worked in over 50 countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern and Central Europe, I never expected my fellow Americans to have the understanding of world history that I did, but I was nevertheless astounded at the profound ignorance of even the simplest elements of geography.  Much has been made of Mali recently, because it was mentioned in the debates, and I paid particular attention because it has an ancient culture, unique and compelling music, fascinating indigenous architecture, moderate Islam, and a regional pride. Few people I asked – and these were not exactly crackers and swamp rats – had any idea where it was, let alone what it was like.  Other than Kenya, recognized because of its game parks and the Robert Redford movie Out of Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Gambia, Malawi, and most other African countries got a dull stare.

There are many reasons for this indifference and ignorance.  Perhaps first and foremost we have only two international neighbors – pussycat Canada and poor Mexico – unlike our European allies who fought each other continuously for centuries.  In the 19th century, America was more interested in expanding its national territories and taming the vast frontier.  The War of 1812, the Mexican American War, and the Spanish-American War were not conflicts started because of real threat to the United States but by-products of American expansionism.  They were minor distractions in our push Westward.  Life in the hinterlands, far from the European-style worldview of the Eastern Seaboard, was newly American – individualistic, isolated, remote, and fiercely independent.  World affairs in our huge territory were insignificant.

Third, for much of the post-WWII period, we did not need to know anything about the rest of the world.  We were the undisputed greatest power on earth, a superpower, whose might and influence could not be challenged.  In the Fifties we became aware of the Soviet Union which became our arch-enemy, but other than duck-and-cover, our lives were unchanged.  The Cuban Missile Crisis changed that calculus, and foreign affairs came very close to our shores; but the rest of the world was insignificant. China was a developing country, albeit with an impressive army; most of India was still eating chapattis and rice on palm fronds; Africa was still under colonial rule; and the Arabs, as they had been for over 1000 years were quiet.  We pumped their oil, sheiks ruled a few inhabitants, and the Middle East was just an area on the map until the 1967 War.

During all this pre-globalization period, other than the nuclear standoffs and regional eruptions, there was little to know and be concerned about.  We knew that that the thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at us were matched by the US destructive power aimed at Russia.  Even as the world became more interconnected and dangerous, we could still afford to think simplistically.

Vietnam was the first chink in the armor.  A foreign engagement went badly for the United States, we lost the war, our civil society was rent with violent protest and demonstration; and we realized that foreign affairs could, in fact, encroach upon our lives here at home.

Now, of course, we are intimately linked with the rest of the world and not from a position of power.  The Chinese are an economic threat, the Russians a political one.  Rogue states like North Korea and Iran threaten our very existence.  We are fabulously in debt to China and the rest of the world, limiting our ability to call the shots.  American exceptionalism, that last futile gasp of a muscular political power, is all but dried up. The stock market is no longer concerned with the Dow, GE, and Apple, but what is happening in the EU. 

Ironically world events have become too complicated to follow; and we conveniently fall back on our traditional posture of ignorance and self-contentment.  If our politicians give us nostrums, saying that we are still the greatest country in the world, we easily believe that after 250 years of dominance and supremacy, after having won WWI, WWII, and the Cold War we will never be defeated or brought down by world affairs.

If our historical ignorance and our persistent belief in American manifest destiny and  exceptionalism were not enough, our powerful religious fundamentalism has further closed our doors to the world.  God has a plan, say many, and America will always be its centerpiece. George W. Bush publically admitted that he felt God had chosen him to lead America to greatness.

Lastly and perhaps most generously, most people care only about losing their job down at the plant and getting another one.  Forget the fact that the Euro, China, the Middle East, and international bankers have something to do with this sorry state of affairs.  It is a domestic issue to be solved by Obama or Romney alone.  I don’t get exercised by the lack of depth at the third debate because it was perfectly predictable.  Romney especially understands that elections are about image, presentation, a projection of strength and leadership; and an appeal to core American values, and that there is no need whatsoever to get down into the politics of an insignificant, small, poor African country.

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