I see little reason to disagree with George Friedman’s observation. Americans, by and large, have tuned out the world. They no longer care what is happening in foreign countries. When they notice crises around the globe, they shrug.
In Friedman’s words:
Last week, several events took place that were important to their respective regions and potentially to the world. Russian government officials suggested turning Ukraine into a federation, following weeks of renewed demonstrations in Kiev. The Venezuelan government was confronted with violent and deadly protests. Kazakhstan experienced a financial crisis that could have destabilized the economies of Central Asia. Russia and Egypt inked a significant arms deal. Right-wing groups in Europe continued their political gains.
Any of these events had the potential to affect the United States. At different times, lesser events have transfixed Americans. This week, Americans seemed to be indifferent to all of them. This may be part of a cycle that shapes American interest in public affairs. The decision to raise the debt ceiling, which in the last cycle gripped public attention, seemed to elicit a shrug.
By way of analysis Friedman suggests that Americans have traditionally ignored what was going on elsewhere because two large oceans have always separated it from elsewhere.
For the most part, he continues, nations that are actively interested in foreign affairs are most often those who are forced to do so… for reasons of geography.
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.
Of course, he continues, Americans develop an extraordinary interest in what is going on elsewhere when it intrudes on their lives. When we were attacked on 9/11 we became very interested in Afghanistan and the Muslim world. Were there an oil shortage we would be far more concerned about what is happening in Venezuela.
It's not that Americans are disinterested in foreign affairs, it's that their interest is finely calibrated. The issues must matter to Americans, so most issues must carry with them a potential threat. The outcome must be uncertain, and the issues must have a sufficient degree of clarity so that they can be understood and dealt with. Americans may turn out to have been wrong about these things in the long run, but at the time, an issue must fit these criteria. Afghanistan was once seen as dangerous to the United States, its outcome uncertain, the issues clear. In truth, Afghanistan may not have fit any of these criteria, but Americans believed it did, so they focused their attention and energy on the country accordingly.
It sounds like America has entered a new period of isolationism. If people in foreign countries are hell bent on killing each other, let them do it without us. Why should we should we interfere, spend our blood and be disrespected for as much. The more America becomes energy independent the less we care about the Middle East.
Friedman than analyzed the isolationism that gripped America before World War II:
The isolationists opposed involvement in Europe during World War II for a number of reasons. They felt that the European problem was European and that the Anglo-French alliance could cope with Germany. They did not see how U.S. intervention would bring enough power to bear to make a significant difference. They observed that sending a million men to France in World War I did not produce a permanently satisfactory outcome. The isolationists were willing to be involved in Asia, as is normally forgotten, but not in Europe.
I would not have been an isolationist, yet it is hard to see how an early American intervention would have changed the shape of the European war. France did not collapse because it was outnumbered. After France's collapse, it was unclear how much more the United States could have done for Britain than it did. The kinds of massive intervention that would have been necessary to change the early course of the war were impossible. It would have taken years of full mobilization to be practical, and who expected France to collapse in six weeks? Stalin was certainly surprised.
Strangely, Friedman does not name the president who was conducting foreign policy in the build-up to World War II. Similarly, he does not name our current president.
Even if he is merely trying to assess the national mood, surely the American attitude toward foreign affairs is influenced by the president.
Effectively, Friedman offers something of an explanation for his failure to connect FDR with American isolationism in the 1930s. He declares that there was nothing anyone could have done to save France in 1940. This misses several important important points.
The crisis leading up to the fall of France did not begin in 1940. The menace that was Adolph Hitler did not begin in 1939 or even 1938. It had been an ongoing crisis, one in which FDR did not very much involve himself.
Since we are dealing with counterfactuals, and since one good counterfactual deserves another, I would point out that we do not know what would have happened if Roosevelt had been actively engaged in diplomacy with our European allies throughout the 1930s. For all we know, a failure of American leadership created the power vacuum that allowed Hitler the chance to try to fulfill his depraved wishes.
Why didn’t FDR get involved in vigorous diplomacy before the war? Three reasons present themselves.
First, the New Deal notwithstanding, the nation was still mired in a Great Depression. When things are going badly at home you direct your attention to solving those problems first.
Second, FDR was an amateur in foreign affairs. He was not elected to be a foreign affairs president and did not know how to conduct effective diplomacy.
Third, FDR was a polarizing figure who sought to impose his will on the nation. He was more a divider than a uniter. A house divided cannot direct a unified attention elsewhere.
With a different president, a Theodore Roosevelt, one imagines that the crisis in Europe would have been dealt with more effectively and more skillfully. At the least, it would have been managed.
As for our current wave of isolationist fervor, it may well be that we Americans have lost interest in foreign affairs for similar reasons.
First, Obama’s stimulus notwithstanding, the nation still has not recovered from the Great Recession.
Second, Obama is an amateur on the world stage.
Third, Obama has governed by dividing the nation and by trying to impose his will on it.
In one way, Obama distinguished himself from FDR. By necessity Obama has tried to portray himself as a world leader. He has tried to get involved in foreign policy issues and to present himself as a world leader.
Unfortunately, most of these efforts have ended in failure. They have made Obama and America look diminished. Many citizens have concluded that Obama can do no better than to embarrass himself and America. In that case, perhaps it is best that, for now, America cultivates its own garden.