19 April 2012

Nobody cares about foreign policy

Above is a screenshot of the navigation bar from the Obama 2012 Web site.

What's really remarkable about this is that the only mention of international topics comes under the rubric "National Security."

I'm hardly a subscriber to the securitization literature, but there really does seem to be something to the fact that the Obama campaign--which is presumably thinking about how to attract liberal and independents--doesn't think about "Foreign Policy" as a valuable tool to that end. Instead, it thinks about "National Security."

There are two points to be made here for students of international relations.

The first is that viewed over the past ten years we now have a real puzzle. Friedberg asked why the Second World War and the Cold War didn't turn America into a garrison state. That seems broadly correct. But if WWII and the USA-USSR matchup didn't, then somehow 19 terrorists were able to force a shift that Hitler and Stalin combined couldn't. So why did 9/11 make the USA a garrison state?

The second is that nobody gives a damn about foreign policy. Theories of democratic responsiveness and empirical models of foreign policy choice need to begin with this fact. Nobody cares! That thing we do? The international relations bit? It's somewhat less important than professional bowling or HGTV. People only care about security--and their understanding of that is about as sophisticated as the Toby Keith song about the Statue of Liberty.

So where does that leave us? Well, first, Joe Nye is wrong: we can't intervene in policy debates because our concerns are largely orthogonal to the concerns motivating politicians, policymakers, and voters. What they want are technocrats who can tell them the best way to use drones to kill "hajis."

Second, our brilliant little theories about how voters express their desires over foreign policy rest on the idea that voters have some utility over foreign-policy choices. That, in turn, may also be flatly wrong. When voters vote, their choices are likely wholly driven by domestic factors. If that's the case, there's no residual term--foreign-policy voting is in the error term. This means that foreign policy should be relatively unconstrained, both ideologically (except among a very few elites) and in its implementation (because nobody cares).

And that, I think, is a good splenetic burst....

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