Why It’s Important to Know Something About Foreign Affairs

By: Ryan McMaken

During the 2016 race, presidential candidate Gary Johnson was asked what action he would take in response to the refugee problem created by the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

In response, Johnson asked “what is Aleppo?” Once prompted with enough reminders, Johnson was finally able to answer the question.

The exchange in itself, of course, was not sufficient to prove Johnson didn’t know anything about the situation in Syria. In fact, Johnson gave a reasonably coherent answer about the Syrian situation once he figured out Aleppo is a Syrian city that at the time was central to the civil war in Syria.

Johnson’s critics, however, used the gaffe to claim Johnson was clueless on foreign policy and ought to be disqualified as a viable candidate.

Johnson was never able to demonstrate any real competence on the issue for the duration of the campaign. In fact, he claimed it was a virtue to not know much about foreign policy :

“You know what? The fact that somebody can dot the Is and cross the Ts on a foreign leader or a geographic location, that then allows them to put our military in harm’s way,” Johnson argued.

“We wonder why our men in service and women suffer from PTSD in the first place,” he continued. “We elect people who can dot the Is and cross the Ts on these names and geographic locations as opposed to the underlying philosophy, which is, let’s stop getting involved in these regime changes.”

Unfortunately, many of Johnson’s defenders, plus many anti-interventionist libertarians, flocked to Johnson’s defense, claiming it is indeed a good thing to not know anything about foreign policy or foreign regimes. This is a terrible take on foreign policy ignorance.

First of all, it’s not apparent that ignorance of foreign policy necessarily leads one toward anti-intervention. One example of this is the infamous poll showing nearly one-third of Republican primary voters favored bombing “Agrabah” the fictional city featured in Aladdin. Apparently, many voters were willing to bomb a city even though they couldn’t possibly have known anything about the city’s actual location or the threat its residents posed. Now, it’s possible this poll is bogus, but its plausibility suggests there is no reason to just assume that ignorance of foreigners leads one to assume they ought to be left alone. One might just as easily come to the conclusion that most foreigners are barbarians in need of a good bombing. The latter idea is certainly the message most voters get in the media, day in and day out. 

The idea it’s a good thing to not care about foreign countries would be fine if we lived in a world with no resident foreign-policy establishment in Washington. But that’s not the world we live in.

One could imagine what that might look like, though: the new president arrives in DC, and he’s the sole decision-maker in foreign policy. But since this new president doesn’t care about foreign policy and knows nothing about it, American foreign policy wonks, military generals, and CIA agents all just sit on their hands, waiting for the president to give them something to do. But since the new president never gives these bureaucrats something to do, the foreign policy establishment all resigns and gets real jobs. The end.

In the real world, though, when the president arrives in Washington, he’s confronted with a huge cadre of foreign policy interventionists who want more war, more bombing, more invasions, and more sanctions against “rogue” foreign regimes. These people leak info to the press designed to stir up aggression against foreign states. Former generals and former CIA agents go on TV to talk up the need for another war. Members of Congress and various Party hacks demand various interventions to suit their own ideology and the ideology of their constituents.

In order to counter this constant agitation for war, an anti-interventionist president would need to be able to explain to both the public and to policymakers why such-and-such invasion or such-and-such sanctions are a bad idea. Were this president to simply shrug and say “golly, I never heard of Syria before,” agitators for more war and sanctions would be more likely to win over public opinion. And then the interventionists would be able to apply political pressure to the president until he changes his mind for either principled or cynical reasons.

After all, if the president doesn’t know anything about the world outside the US, how does he know the interventionists are wrong? And ignorant man is an easily-manipulated one.

This, of course, is why Ron Paul always remained very well informed on public policy and knew a lot about foreign affairs. Even his enemies admitted this. For example, in a column for The Hill, Brent Budowsky praised Paul’s knowledge in order to condemn Johnson’s ignorance:

The former Republican congressman from Texas always added depth, insight and ideas to presidential politics. Sometimes I might agree with Dr. Paul, other times not, but he was always informed and knowledgeable.

Had he ever become president, Paul would have likely been able to provide a much needed voice of reason to foreign policy while explaining why his positions were prudent, even in a world where foreign-policy hawks were constantly agitating for more war.

Moreover, a sound foreign policy for the US would require more than just doing nothing. It would require active attempts top undo the status quo: to withdraw troops, to sign peace treaties, and to engage in diplomacy rather than stick with the way things are. In the world we live in, this sort of thing requires a lot more than just insisting the US “do nothing.” It requires slashing military budgets, opposing military “experts” and reining in the intelligence agencies. To pull this off, one needs to be able to rout the interventionists both administratively and in the court of public opinion. Being clueless about foreign policy would be a rather odd method of pursuing this goal.

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