Rand Paul

Will Rand Paul's Positions on Foreign Policy Be Heard By an Indifferent Public?

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Credit: Gage Skidmore/wikimedia

Stratfor Global Intelligence Chairman George Friedman has written an interesting article on the American public's indifference to current affairs.

Friedman begins his article by highlighting that Americans seemed indifferent to numerous international stories last week, each of which has the potential to affect Americans. These stories included the financial crisis in Kazakhstan, the protests in Venezuela, the Russian-Egyptian arms deal, and a proposal from Russian officials to turn Ukraine into a federation.

Friedman makes two points that stand out to me the most, one of which may be of interest to those who want the GOP to reform its foreign policy.

Friedman makes a point that is sometimes overlooked when the American public's opinion on foreign affairs is discussed. The United States is geographically isolated and its government is less involved in the private lives of its citizens compared to many other governments. 

This is worth mentioning because, as Friedman explains, foreigners who live in less isolated regions are going to be more interested in foreign affairs when other countries are so close and they are used to the state being more involved in their lives than Americans are:

Of course, there are times when Americans are aroused not only to public affairs but also to foreign affairs. That is shaped by the degree to which these events are seen as affecting Americans' own lives. There is nothing particularly American in this. People everywhere care more about things that affect them than things that don't. People in European or Middle Eastern countries, where another country is just a two-hour drive away, are going to be more aware of foreign affairs. Still, they will be most concerned about the things that affect them. The French or Israelis are aware of public and foreign affairs not because they are more sophisticated than Americans, but because the state is more important in their lives, and foreign countries are much nearer to their homes. If asked about events far away, I find they are as uninterested and uninformed as Americans.

Another point made by Friedman that is worth noting is that American interest in foreign affairs is cyclical and "finely calibrated." Unsurprisingly, in the wake of 9/11 Americans were increasingly interested in foreign affairs, but even then the level of interest changed over time:

American interest is cyclical, heavily influenced by whether they are affected by what goes on. After 9/11, what happened in the Islamic world mattered a great deal. But even then, it went in cycles. The degree to which Americans are interested in Afghanistan—even if American soldiers are still in harm's way—is limited. The war's outcome is fairly clear, the impact on America seems somewhat negligible and the issues are arcane.

Of course, the level of American indifference was very different during the Cold War, during which time Friedman notes that he was taught in elementary school of the importance of the fight against communism in the Congo. But, as Friedman notes, things have changed:

at this moment, public indifference to foreign policy and even domestic events is strong. The sense that private life matters more than public is intense, and that means that Americans are concerned with things that are deemed frivolous by foreigners, academics and others who make their living in public and foreign policy.

Friedman's belief that Americans are indifferent to foreign affairs is reflected in recent polling conducted by Gallup. According to Gallup, when asked earlier this month about what they thought was "the most important problem facing this country today" 2 percent said "National Security," 2 percent said "Terrorism," and 1 percent said "Wars/War (nonspecific)/Fear of War."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is widely expected to run for president, and although perhaps not as non-interventionist as his father, he does advocate for a less involved foreign policy. As was recently outlined by Jim Antle in The American Conservative, Paul is against further involvement in Syria, and is skeptical of passing sanctions on Iran amid nuclear negotiations. But, as appealing as Paul's foreign policy positions are, the fact is that Americans are not thinking as much about foreign affairs as they once were. This is a shame given that American soldiers are still fighting a war in Afghanistan, American drones have been killing people in Pakistan and Yemen, and the U.S. military budget dwarfs that of any other country. 

A lot could change before the 2016 presidential campaigns begin in earnest. However, assuming there is no major shift in American opinion before Paul's widely expected White House bid begins, it unfortunately looks like Paul's positions on foreign policy, which ought to be taken seriously given the current state of American foreign affairs, will be mostly overlooked by an American public that continues to be largely indifferent about foreign affairs.