DENVER – For many foreign audiences, the United States’ primary elections for the 2012 presidential vote – which will, alas, continue to rage into the summer – must be a frightening display of what Americans and their leaders do not know about foreign policy. Debate after debate reveals the fact that none of the candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama is particularly interested in the details of any of America’s relationships around the globe, not to mention the crises that dot the international landscape, especially those that do not involve US troops.
Indeed, ignorance seems to be a source of strength for the candidates still in the race. When Jon Huntsman, an early contender, displayed some real intellectual heft by making a few useful points about dealing with China, punctuated by a brief display of his own mastery of Mandarin, some other candidates responded with derision. To have even known the Chinese perspective seems to have been disqualifying for Huntsman, who soon ended his candidacy. Foreign policy, it seems, increasingly excites only the emotional parts of a presidential candidate’s brain.
The fact is that Americans often have a difficult time understanding why the details of foreign policy should matter to them. Unfortunately, the Republican candidates have done little to help them. In 2008, then-presidential candidate John McCain occasionally tried to do so, explaining at one point to a skeptical audience his views on the growing problems in Baluchistan. But, for the most part, the candidates have steered clear of speaking Chinese or discussing troubled Pakistani provinces.
The world might expect that the American people – the stewards of the world’s only superpower, – would be far more engaged on foreign-policy questions. Instead, they see Americans as increasingly reducing US involvement in the world to a morality play – Gary Cooper’s iconic role as the lone sheriff among the craven townspeople in High Noon comes to mind. (Those who see a role for “coalitions of the willing” might be broad-minded enough to consider Rio Bravo, in which John Wayne welcomes some allies.)