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Some IR Thoughts on the GOP Debate Marathon

March 5, 2012

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 (Korea) 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, but I guess not in NASCAR-land. 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 Middle East, 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 terrible effects of the drug war in Latin America, 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 Christianized 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 in an oblique way.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.

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Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, Pusan National University, Korea
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Twitter: @Robert_E_Kelly