Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Foreign Substance
The Growing Prominence of International Policy

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, November 16, 1999 --  

With the incredible popularity of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, it was perhaps inevitable that the national quiz show frenzy would enter the arena of the U.S. presidential campaign. A full week of impromptu foreign policy quizzing of the front runners in both parties has proven nothing about the intellectual shortcomings of the candidates. Instead, it has highlighted the idiocy of the American public.

When Boston reporter Andy Hiller first asked George W. Bush Jr. to name a series of obscure national leaders, he did so with the intent of highlighting the Texas governor's ignorance about foreign policy.1 But Hiller designed his question to be understandable to an electorate that knows virtually nothing of lands beyond their borders. Therefore, meaningful, issue-oriented questions about American policy toward foreign nations were out -- the ignorant electorate would be totally unable to grasp whether George W. had answered any of the questions right or not. Instead, Hiller chose nit-picky questions about the names of foreign leaders, the answers to which have no true bearing on the election, but can easily be understood by the uneducated masses.

The truth, of course, is that trivial details don't mater -- substance does. And the substance of foreign policy will be of greater relative importance in this presidential election than in any election in decades. This importance comes not from the existence of acute external threats to the United States, but from the decreased relevance of domestic government policy, and the greater integration of global markets.

On the domestic front, the federal government quite simply matters much less than it used to. As the private economy has surged over the last 16 years, the amount of federal government spending as a percentage of GDP has declined from a peak of 23 percent in 1983 to under 19 percent this year.2 Along with this decline in government spending has been a decline in government influence. This trend shows no signs of stopping in the future. Simply put, the federal government just doesn't matter as much anymore.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other countries that cover the globe have failed to reign in their governments, yet have economies that are increasingly critical to Americans. The American president, as the most powerful and influential leader in the world, is in a unique position to change these other countries in a way that is to the benefit of everyone on the planet. It is critical, therefore, that the next president have the vision and passion to use this influence to better the world as follows:

  • Opening world trade. The president must be an outspoken advocate of reducing trade barriers -- unilaterally if necessary -- to grow the global economy, promote stability, and lift undeveloped countries of of dire poverty.
  • Eliminating Cold War military deployments. The president must pull back U.S. forces in Europe and East Asia not for the sake of isolation, but to foster reduced tensions in a post0Cold War world, to promote self-defense by all countries, and to redirect a reduced American military budget to defending American citizens.
  • Promoting democracy and free markets overseas. The president must seek to redirect outdated diplomatic and foreign aid relationships away from U.S. military allies and toward international partners in the proliferation of free societies.

By focusing on such international issues while letting domestic government whither, the next president of the United States could prove to be as influential to the world in the next century as Wilson, Truman and Reagan have been in this century. It is these substantial questions -- and not silly matters like the names of world leaders -- that will prove to be of great importance to citizens of the world in the next decades.


1. The Washington Post, Bush Falters in Foreign Policy Quiz, November 5, 1999

2. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis / The U.S. Department of Commerce, Federal Government: Current Expenditures, Gross Domestic Product historical data, October 28, 1999