Some IR Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

I guess if you speak a foreign language, you’re a traitor

Here were my first, domestic politics thoughts on the GOP debate-run, particularly the competitive, extreme position-taking forced onto the candidates by the audience reactions. But I thought the debates actually taught us very little directly on foreign policy (beyond bombast, or just watch the vid above you francophile, cheese-eating traitor to the heartland). Instead, most of my cues were indirect, such as audience reaction:

4. We (and the world) learned a lot from the audience behavior. I don’t think anyone anticipated this, but the GOP audience demographic (aging white evangelicals), plus its hoots and hollers (for torture, against the Palestinians, for executions, for war with Iran) communicated a lot of information in itself. It showed just how captured the GOP is now by a hard right Christianist ideology that comes off as more than just angry, but downright belligerent, if not scary. And for IR, this is important too. Foreigners will see this stuff and hardly believe that American hegemony is ‘benevolent’ or ‘benign.’ I’ve said this before, but this Tea Party radicalism is washing downstream to the rest of the world; a few years ago, my students here were asking me in amazement why Americans were comparing Obamacare to the Nazis, and I just ran out of lame excuses. Foreigners do pick up on this stuff, Fox News execs. You can’t talk like this and be a superpower at the same time. Foreigners do think we are fairly bonkers, and don’t even start with that ‘bound to lead’ schtick (more like unfit), when so many Americans muse that Obama might be the Antichrist or a Muslim non-citizen.

5. The debates showed how little foreign policy counts, beyond self-congratulatory nationalist bluster about how exceptional we are, or lust for stomping on our enemies (Ron Paul excepted). I suppose in the first post-Great Recession election, this was inevitable, but the debates show just how dominant domestic policy really is. Foreign policy was a minor bit, and then overwhelmed by simplistic, manichean soundbites in which just how ‘exceptional’ the US is became a major issue. Bleh. There is a reason why US political science departments are staffed over 50% from just one subfield (American) –  because we couldn’t care less about foreigners. Call it the luxury of being a superpower. They need to worry about us, but we don’t about them. I see this in Korea all the time. IR is a much bigger chunk of political science here, the two Korean-published SSCI journals I know of are in IR, and foreign policy is much more in the news and politics. Whenever foreign students (especially Chinese) tell me that America should pay more attention to this or that part of the world, I always tell them, you are lucky we care at all – just look at our pathetic foreign language acquisition rates, the wildly inaccurate American belief that we spend huge amounts on foreign aid that should be cut to zero, that we routinely deny foreigners judicial rights in the US that we howl about when it happens to our nationals overseas (Amanda Knox), or that Romney refuses to admit that he speaks French, because the Tea Party will call him a wimp or a traitor or something (watch that vid above). Wow. In most places in the world, foreign language is a highly prized skill. To my mind, that tells you an awful lot about the contemporary GOP’s foreign policy: if you are not an American, you are probably mentally ill or something.

6. There was almost nothing on the Asia pivot; it was all about the ME, because of its central religious importance to hardcore GOP voters. If you actually looked at what was covered, it was almost all the ME, basically Israel and Iran. It seems like the GOP has basically out-sourced US ME policy to Netanyahu. Issues like the BRICs and other second world risers, the drug war in LA, NK and Burma’s transitions, the euro crisis, even China barely got any attention. If the euro meltdowns, it will impact Americans a lot more than an Iranian nuke, but that’s boring economics. The Tea Party doesn’t care; foreign policy is the war on terror and clash of civilizations in which American exceptionalism must endlessly re-affirmed. Instead of coping with rising states, we just chest-thump that America is not in decline and that Obama is an appeaser. Whatever. This is just fantasy, which in itself is rather important information for the rest of us, so again, the debates served a useful purpose.

Cross-posted on Duck of Minerva.

8 thoughts on “Some IR Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

  1. sad, but true.

    In my eyes, this seems to be symptomatic of superpowers (or countries seeing themselves as such).

    Example China: When you are watching CCTV-news (Chinese Television), you will find almost nothing but “Today, President Hu/… opened a hospital/factory/… and talked to sick people/young workers/… . Knowledge about other countries is scarce and Chinese always complain about the bad treatment they receive abroad (partially true but also the consequence of an arrogantly, ignorant chain of misbehaviors – actually quite similar to the American stereotype). 200 years ago, China didn’t even have a foreign ministry. The government didn’t care about having any relations with foreigners.

    Russia is certainly not a superpower anymore but Russians still like to talk only about how great they and their achievements are. The behavior of Russian tourists is really a shame.

    The Romans were certainly one of the first superpowers in history. The basically ran according to the way: conquer what is worth conquering, buy Barbarians with your own achievements to make them defend you against other Barbarians, never stop waging a war.

    I feel that unilateralism, ignorance for other cultures and arrogance is a key part of the mindset to becoming a superpower.


    • I think this flows from being a superpower first. Once you are huge you can not care about others, because you matter more to them than they to you. I see this in Korea all the time. Koreans learn English obsessively, follow US politics, and always ask me what Americans think about Korea. And my answer always disappoints: we don’t (just go watch Gran Turino).


  2. One of the sad realizations I’ve had in living and traveling abroad is how insular nearly every country I’ve been in is about its own politics. Mexico seemed to only care about Mexican issues, and even when I return to Canada I’m surprised how oblivious the press is to foreign affairs. I teach in an International Affairs college and I’m continually shocked how many Koreans see globalization as nothing more than a one-way we-export-culture-and-stuff relationship.

    If there is any bright light, it’s that I’ll be optimistic and assume that Mr. Romney (maybe Santorum less so) are intelligent enough to privately know that a nuanced handling of foreign affairs is important after an election, even if not during the chest-thumping of the campaigning. Has there been a postwar presidential campaign where this was not so? Good post.


    • Thanks for the kind words. I think that is basically right, but I do think American superpowerdom allows an ‘exceptional’ level of insularity. My impressions of Koreans are quite the same (nice description, btw, lol), but they do learn a foreign language and watch lots of foreign TV and film. We can’t even do that. Good grief.

      I saw your website. Congrats on finishing. How is Keimyoung?


  3. Pingback: The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (1): We don’t really Want to | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: The US will not ‘Pivot’ much to Asia (2): We don’t really care @ Asia | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: Why America won’t pivot to Asia anytime soon – Global Public Square - Blogs

  6. Pingback: My CSIS-PacNet Newsletter on US Alliances in Asia: Balance-Positive, but Downsides should be Admitted Too | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s