|Albrecht Dürer, ca 1497-98|
The Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse
If our leaders get foreign policy wrong, we may suffer more than a severe recession. Think world economic collapse. Rampant terrorism. All-out nuclear destruction. Conquest, war, famine, death (the four horsemen of Revelation 6).
Unfortunately, tonight's debate is likely to have fewer viewers than the first two presidential debates: it will be competing against Monday night football. We Americans have priorities.
And, as writers for Forbes magazine recently pointed out, learning foreign languages--perhaps the most important tool for understanding other cultures--is not high on our priority list. Though demand for foreign language learning is increasing, "schools at every level are balancing their budgets and offsetting reductions in government allocations by cutting their offerings and/or eliminating foreign language requirements."
In 2001, before the latest round of language cuts took place, only about one in four Americans could carry on a conversation in a second language (Gallup poll). Half of these were native Spanish speakers. By contrast, "just over half of Europeans (54%) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25%) are able to speak at least two additional languages and one in ten (10%) are conversant in at least three" (Europabarometer survey, 2012).
President Obama agrees about the importance of speaking foreign languages and has apologized for not speaking any himself (though he apparently knows some Indonesian from his childhood).
Governor Romney claims to speak French. After listening to him read a speech at the Salt Lake City Olympics, I'm guessing that he's far from fluent without a script.
Vice-President Biden and Congressman Ryan, as far as I know, speak no foreign languages at all.
OK then, what about the foreign affairs knowledge and experience of these men who want to lead the world?
President Obama lived in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971, between the ages of 6 and 10; for part of that time he attended local schools. His undergraduate major at Columbia University was political science with a subspecialty in international relations. Between 1981 and 2006 he traveled to Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Kenya (three times), and Europe.
Governor Romney lived in France from 1966 to 1968, between the ages of 19 and 21, working as a Mormon missionary. I was unable to find evidence of other overseas trips before this summer's tour of Europe and Israel--a trip that may have contributed to the fact that "the reputation of the US in Europe risks sinking back to Bush-era levels of unpopularity if Mitt Romney becomes president, according to new international polling published on Tuesday" (The Guardian, September 11).
Vice-President Biden was for many years a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and chaired that committee three times. Over the years Biden has met with dozens of heads of state. The Council on Foreign Relations summarized his positions and achievements (up until 2008) here.
As far as I can tell, Congressman Ryan has had no particular education or experience in foreign policy.
Not so long ago the United States had an administration that understood so little about the world, they really believed they could overthrow the Iraqi regime without giving Iran a license to do their worst--and they really thought that if they did this, Iraqis would fall to their knees in gratitude. We don't need another administration with that kind of dangerous naïveté.
Today the New Yorker magazine, in a long and thoughtful article dated October 29, endorsed President Obama. Here is what they said about Governor Romney's approach to foreign policy:
Holding foreign bank accounts is not a substitute for experience in foreign policy. In that area, he has outsourced his views to mediocre, ideologically driven advisers like Dan Senor and John Bolton. He speaks in Cold War jingoism. On a brief foray abroad this summer, he managed, in rapid order, to insult the British, to pander crudely to Benjamin Netanyahu in order to win the votes and contributions of his conservative Jewish and Evangelical supporters, and to dodge ordinary questions from the press in Poland. On the thorniest of foreign-policy problems—from Pakistan to Syria—his campaign has offered no alternatives except a set of tough-guy slogans and an oft-repeated faith in “American exceptionalism.”I am posting this four hours before tonight's debate begins. I sincerely hope both candidates show broad knowledge and deep wisdom about questions of foreign policy, because one of them is going to win this election. I also hope that voters have enough wisdom and understanding to be able to tell when they are speaking truth and when they are blowing smoke.
A lot depends on the winner's understanding of and ability to work with other nations. A lot.
P.S. None of the four candidates served in the military. None of Governor Romney's five sons served in the military. One of Vice-President Biden's sons joined the National Guard and has done a one-year tour of duty in Iraq.