The World

Interest vs. Interests

Peter Beinart has a very perceptive new essay in the Atlantic arguing for a return to a focus on national interests in foreign policy debates. He points out that when pundits and politicians weigh in on international issues, they are “rarely asked to reconcile those opinions with the ones they offered on a different crisis the day before.” For instance, what impact would “getting tough” on Russia have on our ability to isolate Iran? Would punitive sanctions on Iran affect the likelihood of a breakthrough on Syria?

But given that I’ve been thinking and writing lately about how to get more people to follow international news, I found Beinart’s recommendations for the role of the media a bit limiting:

[R]eporters should begin their coverage of each foreign crisis with this question: Why should Americans care? In today’s environment, that sounds churlish. But it didn’t always. Lippmann famously called U.S. foreign policy the “Shield of the Republic.” Part of his point was that the best yardstick for evaluating U.S. policies overseas was their effect on citizens at home. By asking why Americans should care that Russia controls Crimea or that Iran has a nuclear program, journalists would force a discussion of American interests. They’d make politicians and pundits explain exactly how events in a given country might make Americans less safe, less prosperous, or less free. In some cases, after all, when America enlarges its sphere of influence, its citizens lose more—in money, freedom, or blood—than they gain. Focusing on ordinary Americans would bring attention to this possibility.

At times, the politicians or pundits might admit that Americans have no tangible interests in a given country, just a moral obligation to prevent killing, poverty, or oppression. That’d be fine. At least they’d be making their case honestly.

These are excellent questions to ask of politicians advocating certain policy responses. But the problem is that it assumes that the only framework the media should use to cover an international crisis is to ask what the U.S. should do about it. More often than not, as with the Boko Haram abductions, this takes the form of a debate over whether or not to employ U.S. military firepower and the whole thing becomes another installment of the ongoing partisan debate over willingness to use force.

Covering global events as merely a series of policy challenges for the Obama administration is a dispiritingly narrow way of looking at the world. I recognize that life is short, attention spans are limited, and we can’t expect every global issue to get equal attention, but it’s still worth informing the U.S. public about international events before jumping into a debate over what the U.S. role should be. In the Ukraine crisis, for instance, the U.S. policy response is certainly not irrelevant but it’s far from the most interesting or pertinent part of the story.

For one thing, today’s “quarrel in a far-away country” can quickly become tomorrow’s pressing national security debate. (Benghazi was a city in Libya before it was #Benghazi, after all.) And there are a host of issues that do affect Americans, from climate change to immigration to macroeconomics to food policy, which can’t be understood without their international dimension. A large number of Americans travel, study, do business, or have family abroad, and have interests in international issues independent of U.S. foreign-policy priorities.

The problem isn’t that coverage of international issues too rarely ties them to U.S. politics, it’s that it always seems to tie them to U.S. politics in the very narrow point-scoring sense.

Beinart’s right to demand that those advocating U.S. intervention in one crisis or another be asked to explain both how U.S. interests are involved and what the potential international consequences for such an action might be. But I’d also argue that in the long term, it’s dangerous for the media and the public to take the attitude that if the U.S. government doesn’t have a role to play in a problem overseas, it’s not worth our interest.