Talking about foreign policy

Interesting blogpost in The New York Review of Books online.

The lead is simple enough: the world as seen from the third debate of the US presidency campaign is limited to the Middle East and China – and then mostly as potential warzones and competitors. Europe, India, Japan, Southern America, Sub-Saharan Africa were not mentioned once. Russia? Mexico? Not once. The main conclusions of the piece in a few quotes:

…Political obsessives and night owls who watched the debate, as I did, in the small hours in London, for example, were divested of any delusions they might have still been nurturing about the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US.

…It was the Middle East and its environs that mattered…

…The two candidates competed to be Israel’s best friend… The simpler explanation is that in the Obama era the Republicans, and Romney especially, have taken an issue that used to be broadly consensual and sought to exploit it for partisan advantage. Hence Romney’s claim in his convention speech that Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.” That has left Obama on the defensive, forced to spell out his record of staunch support for and military co-operation with Israel, which he did again on Monday night. If Romney believed there were votes to be had in casting Obama as soft on Cuba, they’d have sparred on that too…

…For those abroad who still see Obama the way the Nobel committee did when it awarded its Peace Prize in 2009, the debate would have come as a sharp reality check. The president was firm, his gaze steady when he declared, “[A]s long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” the implied meaning hanging heavy in the air…

…Romney sought to nudge in the other direction, to prove that he is less hawkish than you think. He spoke of “peace” often, a word that did not pass the president’s lips, and said we “can’t kill our way out of this mess.” It was Romney, not Obama, who mentioned the Palestinians, deploring the lack of progress on Middle East peace…

…And yet the larger picture that emerged was of a country looking inward rather than outward. It was telling that both men, but especially Romney, frequently sought to shift away from foreign policy altogether and talk about the economy instead. At one point the two candidates had an animated conversation about small business in Massachusetts. “This debate will go down in history as one of the moments where it is tacitly confessed that the US is a lesser power,” tweeted Carne Ross, a former British official at the UN and founder of Independent Diplomat. He was struck by what he regarded as the candidates’s shared lack of ambition: gone was the talk of spreading democracy around the globe, replaced by “retrenchment, defensiveness and caution.” That view, coupled with Yglesias’s map, suggested that—no matter who wins in November—this is an America whose world is slowly shrinking.

I would really like to see a comparison here with other, previous debates of the same kind. This kind of debates is generally not about foreign policy per se, but about what the candidates think the domestic audience wants to hear about the world. In the complex interplay between domestic and foreign policy, foreign affairs are related, told as a story for an audience both candidates know does not care that much. What Freedland means is that the debate was part of a process where the candidates tried to chase down “what the people want to hear”; they worked to define a symbolic narrative about their country’s foreign relations that would globally fit into what they think are the average voter’s prejudices, while roughly keeping in mind the reality of this country’s international position.

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