Spending Drunkenly + Solving Nothing
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
The election is finally over. However, one thing has not changed even after nineteen months of debates, emails, and incessant TV advertising: the average American’s understanding of international issues and foreign policy. When discussing foreign issues, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama didn’t have a single “Big Bird” or “you didn’t build that” moment. In the campaign, there was an overwhelming absence of understandable, memorable dialogue in the realm of foreign policy. A productive discussion on foreign policy was consistently overshadowed by an unproductive discussion on the economy.
This trend did not just result in a dry, shallow campaign. It deprived the American public of the knowledge they need to understand foreign issues in a time full of dynamic threats, up-and-coming superpowers, and a changing international landscape.
“In a lot of ways, the only real thing the President has control over is foreign policy,” said Dante Toppo CMC ‘15. “Yet the general population has never really been interested in what goes on outside our borders. There is a reason the foreign policy debate turned into one about the economy.”
Instead of discussing foreign issues, politicians resort to something less complex. As a result, politicians create a “good vs. evil” mantra when discussing foreign policy. In a recent visit to CMC’s Athenaeum, former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman joked about this sensationalist rhetoric.
“Five wars had already been declared on China by the time it was my turn to talk,” Huntsman said, in reference to the Republican primary debate.
However, sometimes simple talking points spill over into a lack of effective policy.
“Pro-American talking points make sense in an election, but they have begun to reflect complacency rather than motivation and self- satisfaction rather than initiative,” said Jennifer Taw, CMC professor of government. “This country was built on progress — social, economic, industrial, technological, and political — and will stagnate in its absence.”
In addition to the implications Taw suggests, this distortion of foreign policy issues makes defining America’s enemies difficult. For instance, Iran is all over the news, but the issue of Iran’s nuclearization was rarely discussed in depth during the election. In the foreign policy debate, Romney critiqued Obama, saying “Iran is now four years closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb.” But what does this mean? Comedian Stephen Colbert cleverly remarked that he, too—as well as everyone in the world—is four years closer to obtaining a nuclear bomb.
In a lot of ways, the only real thing the President has control over is foreign policy.
Dante Toppo CMC ’15
“[Politicians] tend to simplify and underestimate actual threats,” President of the 5C Republicans, Kyle Woods CMC ’15 said. “Threats to the United States are more nuanced than the public wants them to be, so politicians pinpoint extreme threats—like Iran—to talk about.”
Woods stressed that the “well-known” threats to the US, mainly Iran and North Korea, are not as dangerous as the media and politicians describe.
“There are different threats in different spheres, but I think the greatest threat overall is a terrorist attack”, Woods said. “The US knows how to deal, to some extent, dip- lomatically with Iran and other states, but when it comes to lawless organizations, they are much harder to figure out. Since they are more complex, the public doesn’t really hear about them.” Woods used Al-Qaeda as an example, saying that with the death of Osama bin Laden, “Al-Qaeda has been splintered and is now spread across the Middle East.”
Taw disagreed, arguing that the blow dealt to Al-Qaeda has been lethal. She said that the U.S. has been too slow in changing its policy towards the organization and its regional off- shoots.
“[The US] has lost perspective in the nature of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and its ilk… these people are terrible bullies in their own realms; they pose no direct threat to us; so we need to help those whom they are bullying stand up to them effectively,” said Taw.
While Al-Qaeda and other external threats are distorted in politics, amplified by the media, and generally hard to define, there is another serious threat to the United States: the United States itself.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the country has not had a clear sense of its place in the world and has stumbled about the globe like a bull in a china shop…spending drunkenly and solving nothing…[losing] ground in health and education which are the backbone of our future,” Taw said. “No one else needs to hurt us; we are doing a good job ourselves.”
An ominous outlook is not promising, but it is necessary. The only way America will move onward – domestically and internationally – is to cut through clouded rhetoric and recognize real threats, implement real policy, and find a real way to move forward.