Beyond Content: Paternalism and Foreign Policy in the Presidential Debates

October 25, 2012
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Obama and Romney shake handsThere is a theory known as “The mere-exposure effect” which argues that the more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more we will tend to like said stimulus. In short, familiarity does not, in fact, breed contempt. Rather, the more exposed we are to something the more we begin to like it. Now, this isn’t always the case.  I never have been able to acquire a taste for mushrooms, for example, but Mitt Romney and Barack Obama certainly seem to believe that if they can just repeat the same arguments over and over again, people will not only see them as truth, but start to like them as they become more and more familiar to us. The third and final debate is a perfect example of this. The debate (ostensibly) centered on foreign policy, and unsurprisingly the two presidential candidates were asked to repeat (yet again) their stances on Iran and Israel, Syria, Libya, China, and Iraq and Afghanistan. So what did we learn from this debate? Content wise, I would say virtually nothing. The moderator and candidates seemed to take this debate as yet another opportunity to trot out stock answers to stock questions. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but check out this article by the Washington Post to see what kinds of questions policy experts think should have been asked that would have told viewers something new about the candidates’ foreign policy positions.

The debates, however, were not completely without meaning. Though we learned very little about policy positions that we didn’t already know, it was a moment in which U.S. paternalism and egoism took center stage. The language we use to talk about foreign policy is not just about whether Obama or Romney think we should bomb Syria, or how we should deal with Afghanistan, even though those are important things to know about a President. It also reflects how we think about other countries and our relationships with them. When we talk about Iran and how it would be “completely unacceptable” for Iran to gain nuclear capability, it begs the question—when did we get elected in Iran? At what point did we decide that we could dictate what a country could and could not do? Of course the United States has been doing that since we decided that Germany had no right to violate the sovereignty of other nations and subjugate them (i.e. World War I). JFK gives the commencement speech at American UniversityIronically, the candidates both agreed that should the sanctions fail we would use military force to secure our own safety. In 1963 John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “American University” speech in which he declared that, “the world knows that America will never start a war.” To imply that we would violate the sanctity of sovereignty for our own sake is pride at it’s most dangerous. To boldly claim that war is justified if it keeps America safe opens a door that could lead to a new era in U.S. colonization in which any country that could be labeled “dangerous” runs the risk of invasion. The fact that Romney and Obama pledge to use violence if necessary is deeply problematic, and that the public sees this as an option in the future is even more cause for concern.

Another example of U.S. paternalism and egoism was exemplified in the conversation on Pakistan. Bob Schieffer asked Romney if it was time for the U.S. to “divorce” Pakistan and stop sending billions in “aid” to a country that “still provides safe haven for terrorists.” His reply was simple. We cannot sever our ties with Pakistan because they have nuclear weapons, and if they become a failed state terrorists will use those weapons to bomb us. This, of course, implies that if Pakistan is not a democratic nation, then it is a failed nation. Romney then goes on to argue that in order to “save” nations like Pakistan, the US must create an “effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.” The implication is that the Arab countries like Egypt, Libya, or Pakistan first need us to identify those threats for them, and then “help” neutralize them. Again we see Obama and Romney very casually discussing what in essence is a violation of state sovereignty. Imagine for a moment if Hu Jintao or Kim Jong-un gave a speech in which they stated they would create a comprehensive plan to move America away from extremist capitalism and towards a more communist system of government. Hard to imagine? That might be because it seems to be the sole responsibility of the U.S. to craft a domestic policy for the world.

As the campaign season comes to a close, many of these same policies and opinions will be repeated again (and again…and again). Perhaps listeners will become more enamored with the arguments once they’ve been repeated ad-nauseam. Or perhaps listeners will become more critical of the language used to communicate policy and will look beyond the words to see the ideological underpinnings and their consequences for the U.S. and for the world. And if I keep trying, maybe I’ll come to like mushrooms.


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One Response to “ Beyond Content: Paternalism and Foreign Policy in the Presidential Debates ”

  1. Philip Tschirhart on October 29, 2012 at 9:14 PM

    This is a really significant and concise rhetorical insight. I hope that this is produced further for publication. Thanks for the great read.