Why Americans Don’t Care About Foreign Policy

The American public’s interest in the rest of the world waxes and wanes depending on how close a crisis is to home.
  • Transcript


Question: Why don’t Americans care about foreign affairs?

Jim Hoge: The reasons why the American public over a long span of time, 100, 150, 200 years has been mostly disinterested or at least only casually interested in what is going on in the rest of the world is that we were developing a whole continent here.  We had our own major mission, which was manifest destiny to the other coast.  We had two huge oceans on either side of us and up to our north we had a very benign neighbor and to our south while there are immigration problems and so on from a national security point of view that has been very benign, so there were far fewer reasons why we would be engaged than if you lived in a smaller country in Europe where they were always in conflict over one thing or another for hundreds and hundreds of years.  9/11 did indeed change this because it is the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States actually had foreign hostile activity within its own borders and what 9/11 did among many other things is to suddenly make the American public aware that in the modern world of globalization both of security weaponry as well as economics and culture was no longer sort of invulnerable to the plights and the conflicts and the tensions and the angers elsewhere in the world, that those oceans, those two benign north and south borders were only now a smaller part of the story, so that did indeed create a greater interest, but primarily the American public’s interests in foreign affairs waxes and wanes dependent on how much they think a crisis is about to affect us at home. 

During the Cold War years, the 50 years or so of the Cold War the atomic… the bulletin of the atomic science used to have a clock and they would show the secondhand getting or the firsthand getting closer and closer to midnight whenever the Soviet Union United States got into a first class clash, the biggest one being of course over Cuba.  Every time that happened the interest in international affairs zoomed to the top.  As soon as things calmed down again it disappeared again and they worried about local problems and so on.  The same thing to a certain extent has happened since 9/11.  There is not the same level of acute interest now that there was then, but globalization has also meant there are other reasons to be interested in what is going on in the world besides the security question.  There is the prosperity of the country, which now is dependent on a highly internationalized economic system, so I think we’re better off than we were and when polls are taken for key things like do you think the UN is a necessary institution and set of processes, the answer invariably is yes.  It’s a reluctant answer.  They wish it wasn’t so.  They’re not enthusiastic and they know all the problems of the UN, but they don’t take an isolationist position that we would be better off without it.  Some politicians from usually the extremes of one party or another still try to sell the idea that a fortress America would work, just have a strong military, a strong economy, stay out of everybody else’s business and we’ll be okay.  That is not an opinion that anymore captures a large public.  They don’t believe it is realistic.  They don’t believe that you can have a prosperous America, a safe America just by staying within some sort of continental fortress so to speak.

Recorded May 28, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman