Everyone is heading to the polls today in the United States. What's interesting to me, though, is the absence of foreign policy issues from the discussion points of the two primary candidates. One debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy issues, but both candidates were criticized for veering toward domestic issues during that debate. Further, when discussing with the media or on the campaign trail the foreign policy issues that most affect the United States-- Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran sanctions, Israel, immigration, drone strikes... -- the candidates and the parties approach each issue quite similarly, despite the campaign bluster. This is only one high-profile case, but I believe that lack of attention to foreign policy runs counter to many explanations of the effects of domestic politics on international relations.
For example, democracy is not informing in this particular instance. There has been no open debate really as the campaigns have instead focused on employment and economic growth. There will also be no sanction of the leadership for a very long war (10 years in Afghanistan), and the attempts of the challenger to make an issue out of the Libyan embassy attack have been met with ambivalence according to most polls.* Perhaps the only democratic-peace-related theory that could provide a modicum of explanation for this election is Schultz's theory of opposition parties, but I find it less persuasive than an explanation suggesting the public just doesn't care about foreign policy issues. I think, in this case especially, the parties cannot seem to find electoral traction with the public on any foreign policies of consequence and have instead positioned themselves jointly on a policy of defense strength-- whatever that means.
As I argue in the book, the United States has friendly neighbors and fish on their borders. It is incredibly isolated from external threats to core territories, and, because of this, few foreign policy issues are going to be salient to the public at large. While many lament the public's lack of foreign policy knowledge, I often think it's a good thing. An informed public suggests a public susceptible to external threats.
*The discussion over the attack on Libyan has been interesting for those who study whether leaders are sanctioned. In this example it's unclear whether President Obama knew of the dangers for the embassy, whether it was his policies of security that contributed to those dangers, whether he could have done anything to prevent it, and whether anyone actually cared about the issue more than their jobs or wealth. As this case makes clear, I think, there are a host of (implausible) assumptions that have to be t is very difficult to make a persuasive case that audiences sanction their leaders.
This blog provides additional commentary on current events and academic discussions on themes related to my book, The Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict, available from Cambridge University Press, September 2012.