December 11, 2011

Cyclical Black Hole of U.S. Foreign Policy

Trevor Thrall recently posted some interesting graphics at The National Interest. An associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, Thrall has examined the general ignorance of and apathy towards U.S. foreign policy. Starting with the bottom to prove his point, Yemen is selected to demonstrate that its uprising “received relatively little attention in the U.S. media compared to other Arab Spring uprisings” - but relatively the same when compared to the U.S. economy.

“The broader and ultimately more painful truth is that the entire Arab Spring movement has already peaked in the U.S. media.”

We noticed this same effect taking over around May, after Libya and Syria’s outbursts subsided, but these graphics bring the downtrend to life and indicate an earlier drop-off. Barring an assassination or some other type of unexpected event, Egypt is unlikely to recover the initial boost of interest that accompanies anything new. The actual process of democracy in another country isn’t overly interesting to most Americans; many simply expect Egyptians to ally with America and Israel. Libya’s democracy-building is just as boring, whereas Yemen and Bahrain have been swept away in the U.S.-Saudi counterrevolution. Syria’s initial spike never came close to Egypt’s.

Compounding the shift in attention is the GOP’s launch party in July, when the trends intersect and permanently diverge. Thrall observes, “The U.S. media doesn’t pay much attention to foreign affairs in the best of times these days, but the Arab Spring’s timing could hardly be worse.” His conclusion leads to another disturbing trend: with U.S. policy in the Arab world thrown into upheaval, many American voters and policy-makers are ignoring foreign policy in favor of America’s dreary economic state. This dilemma blocks out a 21st century debate on the Middle East and reduces the Obama administration’s level of accountability.

“This year’s ritual inward turn may have especially unfortunate consequences for the U.S. foreign-policy agenda and for the world. During the most critical period of modern Middle Eastern history, the United States is taking its eyes off the ball and will play a less important role in helping shape positive outcomes there than it should.”

GOP candidates largely used U.S. foreign policy to attack President Barack Obama and each other, not fix the many problems at hand. Thrall remarks, “At this point it’s not just Yemen having a hard time making the news.” Equally important: GOP candidates support Egypt’s military council, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and Bahrain’s monarchy with no consequence from their base.

Many of Thrall’s observations hit their mark. Despite the Internet’s growth and a host of independent actors probing America’s foreign policy, TV news remains the predominate source of external information for the American people. Al Jazeera’s potential offering is significant in this regard, otherwise U.S. network and cable news will continue to minimize a public debate on the Arab revolutions. One bias may be traded for another, but Al Jazeera’s introduction to U.S. cable lineups could spark an inherent debate on TV.

One cannot dodge the fact that “the American public cares little about foreign policy when the economy is in the dumper.” This reality can be expanded across a good or bad economy, although a good economy and bad foreign policy may create the highest level of external awareness. Thrall expects, “U.S. foreign-policy debate will thus go on hold until next fall, and a crucial period in Middle Eastern history will pass the American public by without raising many eyebrows.”

However Washington’s (and America’s) debate could skip fall 2012, or it could lurch ahead before the campaign’s finale. U.S. foreign policy is stuck on perpetual hold, a reactionary cycle that awaits the latest disaster and blows it away just as quickly. Unless any country is directly involved in a conflict, foreign events can only hold a populace’s attention for so long.

A natural feeling, ignorance of foreign affairs nevertheless generates an incomplete state in the long-term.


  1. It's up.

    2013 will be the year.

    Americans have never paid any attention to foreign affairs.
    Most could not point out Yemen on a map.

  2. Yemen is another world at this point. I would settle for a general sustained increase in foreign awareness. I don't think America's foreign policy should be considered above America's economy, just as I don't think it should come second. Balance is key throughout nature.

  3. I've never quite recovered confidence in US FP since Condoleeza Rice said 'imagine our surprise' when they realised where Afghanistan was on the world map after 9-11.