By CHRISTOPHER R. HILL
For many foreign audiences, the United States' primary elections for the 2012 presidential vote - which will, alas, continue to rage into the summer - must be a frightening display of what Americans and their leaders do not know about foreign policy. Debate after debate reveals the fact that none of the candidates seeking to challenge President Barack Obama is particularly interested in the details of any of America's relationships around the globe, not to mention the crises that dot the international landscape, especially those that do not involve U.S. troops.
Indeed, ignorance seems to be a source of strength for the candidates still in the race. When Jon Huntsman, an early contender, displayed some real intellectual heft by making a few useful points about dealing with China, punctuated by a brief display of his own mastery of Mandarin, some other candidates responded with derision. To have even known the Chinese perspective seems to have been disqualifying for Huntsman, who soon ended his candidacy. Foreign policy, it seems, increasingly excites only the emotional parts of a presidential candidate's brain.
The fact is that Americans often have a difficult time understanding why the details of foreign policy should matter to them. Unfortunately, the Republican candidates have done little to help them. In 2008, then-presidential candidate John McCain occasionally tried to do so, explaining at one point to a skeptical audience his views on the growing problems in Baluchistan. But, for the most part, the candidates have steered clear of speaking Chinese or discussing troubled Pakistani provinces.
The world might expect that the American people, the stewards of the world's only superpower, would be far more engaged on foreign-policy questions. Instead, they see Americans as increasingly reducing U.S. involvement in the world to a morality play; Gary Cooper's iconic role as the lone sheriff among the craven townspeople in High Noon comes to mind.
Foreign visitors often comment that Americans are probably among the most patriotic people in the world, and are becoming much more so. People used to display American flags on their homes only on national holidays. Otherwise, they were found only outside government buildings. Today, they are displayed everywhere all year (with the largest, it seems, outside car dealerships.) Likewise, for decades, baseball games have begun with the national anthem; but now, two-thirds of the way through the game, fans are asked to stand again and sing "America the Beautiful."
This patriotic fervor appears sustained by strong forces - a frustrated emotional sense that America's motives are not properly understood in the rest of the world. A popular and enduring country song sums it up with the refrain: "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free."
This year's presidential debates have addressed foreign policy solely in terms of whether the candidate would be "tough" enough to deal with the challenges - that is, as a question of emotional fortitude, rather than of the intellectual foundation required to understand those challenges.
American political history is replete with presidents who in one way or another did not appear to measure up on the world stage. President John F. Kennedy's first meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev stands out in American political lore: the young American president somehow comes across as underwhelming to his Soviet counterpart, who then tries to get away with deploying long-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, a move that brought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. as close to war as they ever came. Given such narratives, foreign policy devolves in U.S. political campaigns into a kind of testosterone check, rather than what is needed: a test of knowledge and judgment.
The good news is that there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that, once in office, the candidate develops an understanding of the issues and a feel for the nuances in managing them - a fact that should be calming to the international public.
But, whether caused by an excess of cable television, or an excess of debates themselves, this "silly season" has seemed especially prolonged, even frightening. Whether the presidential candidates know it or are in the least bit interested, the world listens to their words with greater care than they have sometimes shown in uttering them.
Christopher R. Hill is a former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords. He was also chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009 and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies. His commentary was made available by Project Syndicate.