Philosophy, not “Jeopardy!”: Making Foreign Policy Relevant

| December 2019
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The Council on Foreign Relations and the National Geographic Society commissioned Gallup to survey Americans about foreign affairs. From the press release announcing the results, the pollsters concluded that “adult Americans exhibit gaps in their knowledge about geography and world affairs. Respondents answered just over half of the knowledge questions correctly, and only 6 percent got at least 80 percent of the questions right. Although adult Americans show limited knowledge about geography and world affairs, seven in ten respondents consider international issues to be relevant to their daily lives and express a desire to promote education in these areas.”

These results are no surprise. It is not realistic that for those Americans who do not make their livelihood from the study and analysis of foreign affairs there should be an expectation of expert-level knowledge. But it also speaks to a more fundamental question about the role we expect the “ordinary citizen” to play in U.S. foreign policy. The default assumption is that foreign policy ought to be left to the experts, and this, on its face, is a reasonable assumption: subject matter experts ought to guide both elected politicians and citizen-voters. But this also runs up against the tendency that we see during every election cycle: wanting candidates to play foreign policy “Jeopardy!” where reporters try to trip up aspiring office-holders by asking them to name foreign leaders or to provide bumper sticker answers to policy questions.

In seeing this report, I defaulted back to my observations made during my discussions with the Greater Des Moines Committee on Foreign Relations:

I asked that we move away from our traditional style of compartmentalizing foreign policy and playing a version of Jeopardy with candidates (Name the president of Burkino Faso! Should we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia?).

Whether a candidate is a walking, breathing version of Google who can call up names and dates at a moment’s notice is, in my opinion, less important than understanding that candidate’s calculus when it comes to international affairs. By calculus, I mean understanding how he or she prioritizes competing values and interests, how he or she makes tradeoffs in terms of attention and focus, and his or her risk and cost tolerances.

Education matters, and a more educated public produces more engaged voters. But, realistically, we cannot cram an entire graduate education in international relations and foreign policy analysis into a compact voters guide, nor can we expect that candidates themselves will be expert in everything. This is, after all, why we have both personal and professional staff for Members of Congress when it comes to foreign affairs, and why we connect senior civil servants with relevant expertise with the political apapointees in the executive branch.

Foreign policy is, like domestic policy, a question of choices–of assigning and accepting risks and tradeoffs in pursuit of desirable end-states. Whether a candidate–or even the voters–know where a particular country may be located–will be less critical than understanding whether or not that person sees international affairs via a transactional lens, is inclined to see people as more competitive or cooperative, how he or she weights commercial considerations as opposed to human rights concerns, and his or her predisposition towards the use of force. We take for granted that a candidate’s philosophy of governance will impact how he or she will see domestic policy issues, even if he or she lacks a detailed health care plan, proposed tax code or approach to education. Somehow, we think that politicians are tabula rasa when it comes to foreign policy. But, as domestic and international policy become ever more mingled, philosophical starting points matter for both.

Knowing the details of the Paris climate accords, NATO obligations and the general parameters of the international trading system is important. But even lacking that knowledge, voters can and should be able to press the 2020 candidates as to how they prioritize issues and how they assign resources and risk.

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Category: Blog

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