Americans have forgotten the rest of the world. Nothing could make that clearer than the candidates running for election to the U.S. Congress and the Senate right now. If you watch the campaign ads, listen to the debates or the candidates themselves, Afghanistan barely figures, Iraq is history, the Middle East peace process a yawn. Forget China. Forget Latin America. Russia is an old memory and Europe a fading idea. Some candidates have talking points dutifully memorized on these subjects, but many don’t. And why would they? When voters are asked about the most pressing problems facing the country, only 3 percent say Afghanistan; 60 percent say the economy and unemployment.
Even some politicians are appalled. “Has there been a serious exchange between any candidates—Tea Party, Republican, Vegetarian, Libertarian, Democrat—about what we should be doing with Iran?” asks Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (who is not up for reelection this year). “Have you seen one commercial about whether our Afghan strategy is good or bad? We’re within days, literally, of a major shift in power in Washington,” Graham told an audience in the capital recently, “and you would never know that this nation is involved in two wars, and looming threats face us all that could change the course of humanity and mankind.” Graham seemed genuinely puzzled: “What I don’t understand is how in the world did this happen?”
In fact, what Americans have always wanted most from the rest of the world is, precisely, to forget about it. And for those abroad who may be profoundly affected by U.S. foreign policy—or the lack of it—this tendency to superpower insouciance may be as baffling as it is offensive and even dangerous. Yet this kind of apathy is deeply ingrained in a nation of immigrants who came to escape the conflicts and privations of their original homelands: Americans traditionally build their lives around the idea of the future, not the burdens of the past, and they don’t want to be distracted from their mission. Today it is vital to understand the American public’s deepening lack of interest in global affairs because it is that apathy, not activism, that is likely to guide—or constrain or confuse—the actions of the American government for the foreseeable future. Or, until, as Graham says, a “dramatic event” gets people’s attention.
As political-science professor John Mueller of Ohio State University puts it, there’s a sort of rubber-band effect in American public opinion, with the focus always “snapping back” to concerns at home. Based on many decades of polling data, Mueller concludes that the public’s attention “can be diverted by major threats or by explicit, specific, and dramatic dangers to American lives, but once these concerns fade, people return their attention to domestic issues.” For those at home and abroad who are preoccupied by foreign affairs, says Mueller, “this proclivity may resemble an attention-deficit disorder.”
The challenge for America’s leaders has always been to resist that tendency. President Barack Obama, with the most international background of any U.S. chief executive in history, understands the need to engage the world. Obama came to office committed not only to exercising global leadership but to partnering with allies and reaching out to America’s enemies. But Obama has failed to bring the public along behind him. If, as many anticipate, Obama’s Democratic Party loses control of the House of Representatives and holds on to only a narrow majority in the Senate, then the president’s ability to marshal support for foreign-policy initiatives will be compromised still further. Any hope of dialogue with Iran and other hostile powers will be undermined by the sloganeering of a hostile majority on Capitol Hill.
The general apathy in America is, in all too many cases, joined to willful ignorance. At a time when rage is rampant and rationality in retreat, when, as Sharon Begley wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, “for many angry voters, expert consensus on anything from climate change to economic policy is reason enough to reject it,” nobody wants to hear from policy wonks (including the president) about the damnably complicated business of foreign affairs. In the discourse of the campaigns, “overseas” is where jobs are sent by cynical businessmen, or allowed to go by hapless incumbents. Or both. In the meantime, immigrants—illegal immigrants—are coming into the United States by the millions, it’s said, to take those jobs that are already in such short supply. In this campaign season, the whole world can be boiled down to “them” and “us,” and “they” don’t have a voice or a vote.
The American impulse to ignore the world is not really a matter of party politics or a traditional left-right divide. “We’re on the cusp of new isolationism that’s likely to hurt all of us,” writes Robert Reich, the liberal economist and former Clinton administration labor secretary, who blames both the Tea Party movement on the right and the labor unions on the left for espousing protectionism. As Reich sees it, this could include a “backlash against free trade, immigration, and maybe even international bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and IMF.” Conservative analyst Danielle Pletka, at the American Enterprise Institute, meanwhile deplores the declining public interest in defending freedom around the globe. She warns against “withdrawing from the world to a countinghouse America” where everything is reduced to miserly dollars and cents.
Pletka cautions against blaming this on the Tea Party movement. “As with any powerful grassroots movement, everybody wants to ascribe their own views to them,” she says. “But we are not really sure, because foreign policy really hasn’t been front and center in these elections.” Pletka suggests that “you don’t wake up saying, ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’ you wake up saying, ‘Where’s my job?’ But if you turned to anyone in these [Tea Party] crowds and said, ‘We want to give up the fight against bin Laden,’ they’d say, ‘Hell, no!’?”
Americans have been in this sort of apathetic but emotional mood many times before, and the record is grim. After World War I, the United States turned away from the League of Nations and back in on itself, only to watch from an unsafe distance the resurrection of Germany under the Nazis. After the Cold War evanesced, the Gulf War was won, and history, it seemed, had ended in the early 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency with the axiom “It’s the economy, stupid.”
In the years that followed, the American public was almost completely unmoved by enormous tragedies elsewhere on the planet. Little was done to stop the genocides that swept through Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. After a brief and bloody intervention in Somalia, the United States stepped back, let the country slide into chaos, and promptly forgot about it. “Americans have a great ability to shrug things off,” says Professor Mueller. With the Russians out of Afghanistan, the U.S. lost interest, opening the way for the Taliban to take over, Al Qaeda to thrive, and Pakistan to be destabilized. What was there to worry about? In the summer of 2001, not long before 9/11, polls showed that the issue of “terrorism” ranked a flat zero on the American public’s list of concerns.
As Senator Graham said, sometimes it takes a “dramatic event” to focus America’s attention.