If there was one thing that we got right in 2017, it was that many Americans, ordinarily apathetic to politics, opened a newspaper and generally began to pay more attention to current events. However, this growing awareness was mostly limited to domestic politics. It was heartening how many constituents picked up the phone for the first time and demanded that their Congressmen say no to a series of bills that would have harmed real lives, and it was heartening to watch those bills fall to defeat.
However, when Congress considered whether or not to impose tough sanctions on North Korea, the vote came and went with barely a ripple. The hot take: Americans don’t pay enough attention to foreign policy or foreign politics. This disinterest has serious implications for our country’s foreign policy decisions and also impairs our collective understanding of the world, which will hurt us as society grows increasingly global.
The less we know, the more we place in the hands of those who make critical foreign policy decisions without hearing what we have to say. In 1964, the problem of Vietnam was scarcely mentioned during the presidential campaign, except when Lyndon B. Johnson claimed that he would never send “good American boys” over to Vietnam. But in the years following, the Johnson administration slowly and covertly escalated the war, which resulted in over 58,000 American casualties and uncountable combatant and civilian casualties in Vietnam. War has terrible, unequivocally cataclysmic consequences for those in the U.S. and around the world, especially given the apocalyptic destructive capability of modern weapons. These are decisions that we must care about and that we must pressure our representatives about; the less light shined on these decisions, the more likely that catastrophic blunders will be made.
In a democratic republic, elected representatives are meant to be the delegates of the people. The past year has taught us that if we know the facts and the real-life consequences of a dangerous bill, we have the power to demand that our Congresspeople say no. Why do we not have a similar attitude towards foreign policy? Just like a poorly constructed health care reform bill, poorly constructed foreign policy actions cost lives. Knowing what is going on around the world matters.
But it would be a terrible mistake to limit our knowledge of world affairs at merely whatever concerns U.S. intervention and diplomacy. That kind of a mindset is still disarmingly ethnocentric. We must all do our best to be “citizens of the world” and grow our literacy in cultures different from our own.
Over the past few years, I’ve done my best to be a keen watcher of foreign politics. For example, I stayed up all night awaiting the results of the Brexit vote and sharpened my French skills reading about the election of Emmanuel Macron. I was also a close observer of the Catalan independence referendum and the snap election in the United Kingdom (not to mention the Jeremy Corbyn memes.) Not only were all of these political processes enormously interesting, paying close attention to them made it clear that the world faces many of the same challenges as the U.S. We aren’t the only ones confronted by hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and a hopelessly fractured body politic. By paying attention to other countries’ solutions to these shared problems, there’s a lot we stand to learn about improving life here.
When we gain a better understanding of foreign politics, we return with an openness about the world that previous generations may lack. No less patriotic than before, we can see how other ways of doing things can make us a stronger country. When we look at what works well in other countries, it helps us question the domestic challenges that run the deepest. Why are we alone in the world in our inability to regulate guns? Should unaccountable super PACs and lobbyists have the power that they do? Why are U.S. presidential elections only seriously fought in a minority of the states? The U.S. was constructed on ideas borrowed from the rest of the world and improved here. That process surely isn’t over.