How can a candidate for POTUS be so ignorant about foreign affairs?

I am super cranky about the presidential primaries.


As a teacher of international studies, I know that foreign affairs are really important.   Our relations with other countries shape our economy and our national security.   Our sons and daughters can be sent to war, terrorists can shoot up our buildings, pandemic diseases can enter our borders.  How we handle crises around the world is literally life and death for American citizens.

Foreign affairs REALLY MATTER.

And yet for almost all the people running for President of the US, foreign affairs don't seem to matter much at all.   Ben Carson can't tell the difference between a terrorist group and an appetizer.   Ted Cruz's entire foreign policy is "make the sand glow."  Donald Trump thinks that his animal magnetism will convince the Mexicans to build a wall (well, if he's elected, they might have stem the torrents of people moving to Mexico to avoid a Trump Administration.)

The Democrats aren't much better.   O'Malley, who has left the race, had no foreign policy experience and said almost nothing about Syria, Russia, Iraq or Afghanistan.   Sanders, who is an amiable peacenik, has said that the US should take no action without the UN.  And he's already ruled out any military conflict with Russia.  (Nice work, Bern.  You gonna give Putin the keys to Georgia, or can I just leave them on the table?).   He has very few specifics about policy, and despite 25 years in the Senate, a very weak knowledge of politics and economics outside the US.  Isolationism just isn't a viable foreign policy, but that's what he's advocating.

The only candidate who knows Syria from a hole in the ground is Hillary Clinton.   As First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, she has travelled the world and learned about global politics firsthand.   She can make subtle distinctions rather than using military force as a blunt instrument (as Cruz would) or eschewing it altogether (as Sanders would).   Has she always made the right call?  No.  Her vote for the war in Iraq was ill-considered.  But she has been making calls, and lots of them.  No other candidate in the race can say that.  

The world is becoming increasingly complex.   The international system is breaking down.  Russia's more and more aggressive.  The EU is falling apart.  Syria's such a hot mess there are no answers in sight.   Now is not the time to rely on somebody being a good guy, or to hope that if he's elected, he'll have good advisors. (That was the Bush Administration strategy...and his advisors told him "Iraq can be the Switzerland of the Middle East."   That didn't go well.)  I think that if we are to avoid a long, grinding multilateral war, we are going to need somebody who can dodge and weave and make well-informed judgements on the turn of a dime.

There's lots not to like about Hillary.  She's in bed with Wall Street, she's part of a dynasty, she's been in Washington a long time.   But that's the point: she's been in foreign policy circles a long time.  And right now, that's what we need most.  Experience.

Pentagon judges Russia Greatest Threat


News yesterday was that the Obama administration has decided to quadruple military spending in Eastern Europe, and that the Pentagon has now judged Russia the greatest threat to the US.   The New York Times editorial staff disagrees with this assessment, arguing that $3.4 billion is too much and that fending off Russia will distract from the more immediate threat, Daesh.

Actually, the Pentagon is right.  (No, really, I actually wrote that.  I can't believe it myself).

Putin has been very strategically exploring NATO's weakness on the Eastern Flank.   Russian warplanes have gone into European airspace, testing air defenses.   Russian agents have kidnapped Estonian intelligence officers.  Capturing breakaway provinces in three East European countries seeking to join NATO and the EU (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) has allowed Russia to use the threat of full invasion to effectively dictate whether those countries can join Western European institutions.  (Mike Bobick and I write an article, "The Empire Strikes Back," that argues this in more detail).  

Now Russia has created a missile defense system that could prevent NATO forces from accessing European airspace, including the skies over a big chunk of Poland.   The Baltics and Poland are naturally screaming bloody murder and are asking the US and/or NATO to prepare to defend them.

We ignore Putin's increasingly aggressive moves at our peril.   Yes, ISIS is a flashier and more attention getting target.  ISIS is an insurgency masquerading as a state, and so it deforms the practices of states in attention-getting ways.   The beheadings, the morality police, the chopping off of hands for food safety violations.....Da'esh knows how to grab eyeballs.  But realistically, these are rank amateurs.  They are not heavily armed.  They do not control nuclear weapons, an air force, or even a respectable armored cavalry (what they have, they captured from the Iraqi military, which was donated by the United States).

Putin is another story.   The huge revenues from oil and other natural resources that he's amassed over the last decade have led to a serious arms buildup.   The Russian Army, which was sadly out of date in 2000, has now been modernized topto bottom.   Putin adopts many of the tactics of insurgencies, including sponsoring rebel groups, funneling arms in secretly, and launching surprise attacks.   But make no mistake: this is a state, one of the largest and most powerful in the world.   It controls the military material that a state does.   And that makes Putin very, very dangerous.

We ignore him at our peril.   So in refocusing attention on Russia, the Pentagon is making a very savvy move.


Students and the News: 21st Century Information

Here's a problem I face in teaching, semester after semester: my students have extremely little knowledge of current events.    This would be a minor irritation if I taught biology or art history, maybe, but since I teach international affairs, it's a serious handicap in the classroom.   We can't discuss particular cases that illustrate important points.   We can't use ideas from our readings to analyzing concrete problems in the world today.   And we can't try and prognosticate about how things will turn out, because they don't have the faintest idea what happened last week, or last month, or ten years ago.

It's bad enough when I teach gen ed courses.  Last year, I had students who couldn't identify Berlin as the capital of Europe, and who had never heard of Putin, much less Lenin.  One student actually asked me, "Will the books for this class be in English or in European"?

But when I'm teaching a 400 level course for International Studies majors?  It's inexcusable.  It's keeping them unemployable.  Who the hell is going to hire an international studies major who doesn't know what is going on in the world?

When i was in college, we fancied ourselves to be adults.   We called each other 'women' and 'men' instead of 'boys' and 'girls,' we spent endless hours drinking coffee in the student union and shooting the shit over ideas, and we read the newspaper.   Every day.  Preferably while smoking (which was also a part of being an adult for some of us).

The smoking, okay, I can see why the students today have given that a pass.  But the news?  It's even FREE---they can get a free pass to the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal, etc.   Why don't they read the news any more?

Am I missing some crucial understanding of their media ecology?   How do I encourage them (or MAKE THEM) keep up on current events?  I hate to do the namby-pamby in-class summary event, mostly because it wastes class time, but I'm getting desperate.  And I want this to be a practice they'll continue throughout their adult lives, not a class assignment they'll drop when class is over.