I've noted on more than one occasion this election season that I'm a bit of an odd duck - a political scientist who takes little joy in observing politics (at least of the US Presidential election variety), and who wishes it would all just end and go away. I know plenty of other people who think this way, but they don't do what I do for a living.
One easy explanation could be that I'm just not interested in American politics. All of my graduate work and subsequent research has been in international relations (or, occasionally, in the boundary zone between IR and comparative). I'm particularly interested in conflicts, especially ethnic conflicts, and conflict resolution. Since elections may be good ways of choosing leaders but are lousy ways of resolving conflicts, I guess that could explain some of my disinterest.
But you would think that, with that profile, I would at least be looking forward to tonight's Presidential debate - the only event in the entire campaign specifically focused on foreign policy. It's true that, unless one of the candidates tonight catches fire (literally or figuratively), what happens tonight is unlikely to sway many voters. This isn't a foreign policy-relevant year; American voters both know and care even less about foreign affairs than usual this year. But at least they'll be talking about stuff I take a professional interest in.
Unfortunately, that interest makes me even less likely to pay attention. I expect that the vast majority of what is said tonight (by both candidates) to be vapid, pandering, and without substance. The public politics surrounding foreign policy in the United States has become largely worthless, with no broader discussions worth having and no relevant distinctions between the parties.
A large part of this is because both candidates will be forced, of political necessity, to repeat the American Exceptionalism mantra. There was an excellent article about this in Sunday's New York Times, which is well worth reading. The author focuses more on domestic policy and our foolish tendency to think that America is better than everywhere else at everything (to the point that some folks simply make stuff up to support that contention).
Nowhere is the disease of American Exceptionalism worse than in the arena of foreign policy. Without argument, discussion, or debate our politics over the last 10+ years have shifted to a new consensus in foreign policy:
• That the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet (true, at least militarily), possibly in all of history (arguable, but largely beside the point - like trying to decide whether the Babe Ruth Yankees were better than the A Rod version of recent years).
• That the existence of terrorism means that the US should involve itself in anything that smells of terrorism or Al Qaeda, wherever in the world it may be.
• That when bad things happen in other places, it's the US's responsibility to make them better (e.g. Libya, Syria), unless it's in an area so obscure that we really don't care (eastern Congo?) This is closely aligned with the ever-popular Peter Parker Principle ("With great power comes great responsibility.")
This isn't a strategy, it's a recipe for blind imperial overstretch (to borrow Jack Snyder's term). Particularly galling is that we've arrived at this position without the slightest scintilla of public debate. Foreign policy is decided by a small elite in Washington, without significant comment from outside. We have fallen into the trap that Eisenhower warned of some 50 years ago.
Where are the alternatives? Where is the discussion of appropriate limits on either interests or capabilities? The continued "we're number 1" rhetoric in an election year pushes candidates to outbid each other, each one going to greater and greater flights of fancy with regard to what the United States should (implying can) do. Thus does Mitt Romney take Barack Obama to task for not fixing Syria - as if an American President is capable of doing such a thing, if only he makes up his mind to do so. How did our "fixing" of Iraq go? How's Afghanistan going? Panama? Haiti? Anyone?
So I expect tonight to be filled with bombastic-sounding rhetoric largely divorced from reality. In this, the "debates" in the public arena bear no resemblance to the debates among IR scholars. Where are the Realists (or neo-realists), the Institutionalists, the Constructivists? We have theories that explain the chest-thumping that passes for foreign policy pronouncements today (see Gilpin, Robert, as well as the aforementioned Jack Snyder). But does anybody outside of the DC elite think this is good foreign policy? Not that I can see. Maybe the Monday Night Football game will be good.