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Jim Hoge has been the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine since 1992.  He holds the Peter G. Peterson Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a director of[…]

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

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

rnJim Hoge: The reasons why the American public over a long span ofrn time, 100, 150, 200 years has been mostly disinterested or at least rnonly casually interested in what is going on in the rest of the world isrn that we were developing a whole continent here.  We had our own major rnmission, which was manifest destiny to the other coast.  We had two hugern oceans on either side of us and up to our north we had a very benign rnneighbor and to our south while there are immigration problems and so onrn from a national security point of view that has been very benign, so rnthere were far fewer reasons why we would be engaged than if you lived rnin a smaller country in Europe where they were always in conflict over rnone thing or another for hundreds and hundreds of years.  9/11 did rnindeed change this because it is the first time since the War of 1812 rnthat the United States actually had foreign hostile activity within its rnown borders and what 9/11 did among many other things is to suddenly rnmake the American public aware that in the modern world of globalizationrn both of security weaponry as well as economics and culture was no rnlonger sort of invulnerable to the plights and the conflicts and the rntensions and the angers elsewhere in the world, that those oceans, thosern two benign north and south borders were only now a smaller part of the rnstory, so that did indeed create a greater interest, but primarily the rnAmerican public’s interests in foreign affairs waxes and wanes dependentrn on how much they think a crisis is about to affect us at home. 
rnDuring the Cold War years, the 50 years or so of the Cold War the rnatomic… the bulletin of the atomic science used to have a clock and theyrn would show the secondhand getting or the firsthand getting closer and rncloser to midnight whenever the Soviet Union United States got into a rnfirst class clash, the biggest one being of course over Cuba.  Every rntime that happened the interest in international affairs zoomed to the rntop.  As soon as things calmed down again it disappeared again and they rnworried about local problems and so on.  The same thing to a certain rnextent has happened since 9/11.  There is not the same level of acute rninterest now that there was then, but globalization has also meant therern are other reasons to be interested in what is going on in the world rnbesides the security question.  There is the prosperity of the country, rnwhich now is dependent on a highly internationalized economic system, sorn I think we’re better off than we were and when polls are taken for key rnthings like do you think the UN is a necessary institution and set of rnprocesses, the answer invariably is yes.  It’s a reluctant answer.  Theyrn wish it wasn’t so.  They’re not enthusiastic and they know all the rnproblems of the UN, but they don’t take an isolationist position that wern would be better off without it.  Some politicians from usually the rnextremes of one party or another still try to sell the idea that a rnfortress America would work, just have a strong military, a strong rneconomy, stay out of everybody else’s business and we’ll be okay.  That rnis not an opinion that anymore captures a large public.  They don’t rnbelieve it is realistic.  They don’t believe that you can have a rnprosperous America, a safe America just by staying within some sort of rncontinental fortress so to speak.

Recorded May 28, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman