The role of foreign policy issues in the American presidential campaign is both serious and frivolous, and appears to be a cause for concern, given the many contentious and negative issues involved. Yet things may not be as they appear, and we probably should not be very worried about what we are hearing these days.
The variety of “foreign” issues that capture so much of the public debate to date is striking, as is the often strident tone. The extent and intensity of the “foreign” policy issues is usually not matched by either real knowledge of what is being discussed, or clarity, accuracy, and precision in the offered facts. These issues include the whole range of ideas related to terrorism, immigration, Iran, wars in the Middle East and Asia, supporting Israel, and global trade.
A closer examination suggests that the real issue being discussed is not the foreign “policy” of the United States, but rather how many Americans perceive and interact with the world, and how “foreign” issues relate to Americans and their sense of their own place in the world. The distinction is important, and will become more meaningful as the field of candidates (especially Republicans) gets smaller and the political arguments and debates move more towards practical policy proposals and less towards venting raw emotions.
That the slightly embarrassing Republican caucuses in Iowa have allowed the American people to once again enjoy the political freak show that is Sarah Palin is one telltale sign of the real nature of this process to date. Like Donald Trump whom she endorsed, Palin offers a tirade of tough-gal emotional triumphalism that has little to do with crafting actual policies, but is mostly about waving the flag, chest pounding jingoism, and asserting the might and primacy of the United States in the world. She, he, and most other Republicans use “foreign” policy issues to celebrate what they see as the great values of the United States that stand head and shoulders above anyone else in the world (I really admire many American values and practices, but if you ask me to choose really admirable countries on the basis of their domestic conditions and interactions with the world, I would choose Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden every day, and Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands most days, well ahead of the United States). But even these exaggerated, flamboyant, and childish displays of emotional patriotism are not actually about foreign policy. They are mostly compensatory actions to camouflage the real fears that permeate many quarters of American society about the United States’ place in the world, its declining global respect and impact in some situations (like Israel-Palestine and Syria in my neighborhood), and its vulnerability at home, despite its immense military and economic power.
The discussions and mentions of “foreign” issues are mirrors of domestic and internal American concerns and weaknesses, which are heavily anchored in ignorance about the world. These dynamics reveal themselves most clearly in talk on issues such as immigration, Islam, refugees, terror, and anything else in that dangerous realm. These issues that generally denigrate “foreign” people also broadly apply to American citizens who are not white and Christian, including American-born Muslims, blacks and others.
These debates genuinely spark the enthusiasm of millions of voters who are concerned that the United States is losing its primacy in the world (correct, because the world is changing into a much more multi-polar situation), and cannot adequately fix some of its own domestic problems (wrong, because the United States is impressive in correcting most of its major domestic flaws in economic, social, environmental, and other sectors).
This is all largely a consequence of two major issues, I sense: First is immigrants who are seen as taking American jobs and foreign countries that take American manufacturing operations, and second is the terrorism problem that mostly kills people in the world and very occasionally strikes at Americans at home. These are two very serious and real challenges that the U.S. government is addressing with mixed success. Together, along with issues of cultural identity and others, they generate genuine and often intense fears among Americans who generally do not have the facts needed to counter the fears.
As we learn yet again, especially in foreign policy issues, fear trumps fact in American presidential primaries. This is mostly domestic emotional exhibitionism at this stage, and not genuine foreign policy-making, so we should just enjoy the show and not worry about the nuttiness.
However, if this is still the tone of things in September, then the world should worry; but I doubt that will happen, as elections tend to turn on domestic and economic issues. So relax and do as I do. Watch sports events and comedy shows more than news shows on the U.S elections for now.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global