Study up, Mr. Cain
Recently, presidential candidate Herman Cain freely admitted on television that: “There is more about every situation that we’re in around the world that I don’t know, than I do know. And some people don’t like the fact that I’m honest.”
It’s not the fact that you’re honest, Mr. Cain, though honest politicians do seem almost like the mythical unicorn. It’s more that if you wish to hold the highest office in the land and be responsible for shaping American foreign policy across the globe, most voters would hope that you had spent some time in the last few years acquainting yourself with the subject matter.
I cannot blame Mr. Cain, however. It has been a sad truth for many years that average Americans notoriously are un- or under-informed about international issues. The Great Recession has not helped, as most Americans — rightly — worry more about their job prospects and less about Israelis and Palestinians or what “Right of Return” means. (For the record, it refers to a Palestinian demand that Arab refugees displaced in 1948 by the establishment of the State of Israel — and/or their descendants — should be allowed to return to Israel as citizens. This is obviously a concern for Jewish Israelis, who would essentially become a minority in their own country should this happen.)
What little many Americans know about international politics comes from increasingly editorialized news coverage.
What’s more, it seems Americans just don’t care. A Pew Research Center study from early February found that the Egyptian revolution — the biggest news story on the planet for several weeks — garnered 56 percent of American news coverage at the time. Yet respondents who said they “closely followed” the story numbered only 30 percent, compared to 26 percent who most closely followed the winter storms raging across America at that time.
Interest is higher when the international “situation” is a catastrophe, such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan or the trapped Chilean miners. We always stop to look at the metaphorical car accident, after all, relieved that it isn’t us crushed on the roadside.
Does it matter that we tend to care more about our immediate — domestic — concerns? Perhaps not; life for the average American is certainly already complicated enough. After a long day ensuring that the TPS reports are correctly formatted, few people would wish to go home and spend two hours educating themselves about our trade imbalance with China, Iranian nuclear ambitions or African famine.
As someone who studied international politics and history at university and traveled, lived, and worked overseas, I am the exception to the rule. For the average American, however, foreign policy is why we have politicians. Right?
Which brings me back to Mr. Cain. In spite of his comments, Cain came first in an Insider Advantage/WSBtv poll among Georgia Republicans of potential GOP presidential nominees, beating favorite-son Newt Gingrich. As president, he would be our main voice, our top negotiator, and leader of the Western world. He will inherit a world that is fractious, troubled and struggling. When Herman says he’s being honest, I believe him. It does not reassure me as a potential voter, but I believe him. I would hope — for his sake and for ours — that he is currently cramming like a first-year law student to educate himself on the myriad international issues facing America. Otherwise, the upcoming GOP debate in New Hampshire will prove to be a rough go for the “Hermanator” if he wishes to maintain his status as a viable candidate for the White House.
Wilborn is a former press liaison with the Georgia Department of Education and a veteran consultant and staffer for campaigns at the local, state, and congressional level. In another life he taught English in China. He earned a B.A. in International Affairs at Kennesaw State University.