Why Americans Don’t Care About Foreign Policy

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

\r\nJim Hoge: The reasons why the American public over a long span of\r\n time, 100, 150, 200 years has been mostly disinterested or at least \r\nonly casually interested in what is going on in the rest of the world is\r\n that we were developing a whole continent here.  We had our own major \r\nmission, which was manifest destiny to the other coast.  We had two huge\r\n oceans on either side of us and up to our north we had a very benign \r\nneighbor and to our south while there are immigration problems and so on\r\n from a national security point of view that has been very benign, so \r\nthere were far fewer reasons why we would be engaged than if you lived \r\nin a smaller country in Europe where they were always in conflict over \r\none thing or another for hundreds and hundreds of years.  9/11 did \r\nindeed change this because it is the first time since the War of 1812 \r\nthat the United States actually had foreign hostile activity within its \r\nown borders and what 9/11 did among many other things is to suddenly \r\nmake the American public aware that in the modern world of globalization\r\n both of security weaponry as well as economics and culture was no \r\nlonger sort of invulnerable to the plights and the conflicts and the \r\ntensions and the angers elsewhere in the world, that those oceans, those\r\n two benign north and south borders were only now a smaller part of the \r\nstory, so that did indeed create a greater interest, but primarily the \r\nAmerican public’s interests in foreign affairs waxes and wanes dependent\r\n on how much they think a crisis is about to affect us at home. 
\r\nDuring the Cold War years, the 50 years or so of the Cold War the \r\natomic… the bulletin of the atomic science used to have a clock and they\r\n would show the secondhand getting or the firsthand getting closer and \r\ncloser to midnight whenever the Soviet Union United States got into a \r\nfirst class clash, the biggest one being of course over Cuba.  Every \r\ntime that happened the interest in international affairs zoomed to the \r\ntop.  As soon as things calmed down again it disappeared again and they \r\nworried about local problems and so on.  The same thing to a certain \r\nextent has happened since 9/11.  There is not the same level of acute \r\ninterest now that there was then, but globalization has also meant there\r\n are other reasons to be interested in what is going on in the world \r\nbesides the security question.  There is the prosperity of the country, \r\nwhich now is dependent on a highly internationalized economic system, so\r\n I think we’re better off than we were and when polls are taken for key \r\nthings like do you think the UN is a necessary institution and set of \r\nprocesses, the answer invariably is yes.  It’s a reluctant answer.  They\r\n wish it wasn’t so.  They’re not enthusiastic and they know all the \r\nproblems of the UN, but they don’t take an isolationist position that we\r\n would be better off without it.  Some politicians from usually the \r\nextremes of one party or another still try to sell the idea that a \r\nfortress America would work, just have a strong military, a strong \r\neconomy, stay out of everybody else’s business and we’ll be okay.  That \r\nis not an opinion that anymore captures a large public.  They don’t \r\nbelieve it is realistic.  They don’t believe that you can have a \r\nprosperous America, a safe America just by staying within some sort of \r\ncontinental fortress so to speak.

Recorded May 28, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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

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