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Public ignores foreign policy at its own peril

WASHINGTON -- Quick, name the No. 1 foreign policy concern facing the United States today?

Deseret News readers tend to be well educated, so many of you probably could come up with answers. But chances are you don't give them a lot of thought from day to day, nor do you consider them the most pressing problems facing the nation. A Washington Post poll late last year asked respondents to list their top concerns. Health care won out over all. Foreign policy came in 15th and national security issues finished 22nd.As a nation, we consider 14 other things more important than our dealings with other nations; 14 things more important than whether Osama Bin Laden will strike again or what to do about Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, or whether to trade with China. This has been reflected in a presidential race that has been almost exclusively focused inward.

Foreign matters have become the unwanted vegetables of public dialogue. The candidates keep feasting on the hot fudge sundaes of tax-cut promises and domestic reforms, but lift the spoonful of brussels sprouts to their lips and . . . well, just remember the look on George W.'s face when he was asked to name the new leader of Pakistan.

Yet if there is any single thing that quickly could bring good times to an end in this country it is a foreign crisis -- an unraveling in a trouble spot, a sudden turn toward nationalism in Russia, an attack by China on Taiwan that would compel the United States to action, or a terrorist attack on our own soil.

I spent two days here last week with 19 other editorial writers. We were briefed by State Department officials on the things that concern them most these days. We discussed Iraq, Kosovo, Sub Saharan Africa, Cuba, Asia, the pending trade agreement with China, global terrorism and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Each subject involved matters important to Americans, but I left with a sense that Americans in general don't see them that way. The gloomy undertones were summed up by Anne Richard, the director of office resources, plans and policy, who noted that the State Department now gets only 1 percent of the federal budget, and the percentage is getting smaller.

She is jealous, she said, of the Department of Defense, which comes to congressional hearings in fancy uniforms and gets what it wants, even though "an ounce of prevention on our side is worth a pound of cure on their side."

But this apathy toward foreign matters shouldn't be surprising. Americans are, quite literally, the kings of the world. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government spelled it out in terms that portray us as giants in a world of ants. The U.S. economy is 40 percent larger than its nearest rival. Not only does it spend more on defense than anyone else, it spends as much as the next six countries combined, and four of them are close U.S. allies.

"The United States leads the world in higher education, scientific research and advanced technology (especially information technologies), which will make it hard for other states to catch up quickly. This extraordinary position of power," he predicts, "will endure well into this century."

Quite naturally, then, most Americans don't care what happens elsewhere. When you own the biggest, most lavish estate on the block, and most of the other wealthy neighbors are your friends, why concern yourself with the less fortunate who live on the other side of town?

Except, of course, for the fact that you share the same community. At some point, the wealthy landowners have to think about more than simply protecting themselves. They have to examine the responsibilities that come with wealth and power. But how far does that responsibility extend? Should we merely try to export openness and freedom through trade and economic incentives, or should we use our military might to try settling every little dispute on the planet? Everything the world's only superpower does is analyzed closely by the rest of the world. In our ignorance, we could be creating the very conditions that lead to our own undoing.

These questions deserve a spot on the same table as tax cuts, health care, education reform and who is doing what to distort the other candidate's record. If not, maybe we will wake up some day and discover we have ignored the rest of the world to our own peril.

Deseret News editorial writer Jay Evensen can be reached by e-mail at