I really think Displayname and the excellent piece from the Brookings Institute raise a good point - is it possible to create and sustain an American electorate better informed about foreign policy?
I say "create and sustain" because I think it's one thing to talk about a public that informs itself around election time, and another thing to talk about creating a culture of individuals that continually inform themselves about foreign policy. Personally, I think it is a citizen's duty to do so.
I'm struck by former NSA Brzezinski's comment. I'm of his original opinion, that foreign policy has become inaccessible to the average citizen. But I don't believe that the trend is irreversible.
Before WWII, foreign language education in the United States was almost nothing. The methdos of foreign language instruction followed the method of Latin, translating text word by word with no regard for meaning. It took Pearl Harbor and war with Germany to get the US Government to set up the educational standards and programs that have made it possible and mandatory for students to have at least some understanding of foreign language and culture.
I think you can see the same thing with knowledge of foreign policy. It took a monumental horror such as 9/11 to wake the average citizen up to the necessity of becomming aware of world politics. Now is the time to improve this disasterously neglected section of the American education program.
Here's the issue. Look at the methods use to inform the sample population and get them to think "more about the issues":
- two days time
- carefully balanced (and publicly available) briefing materials.
- discussions in randomly assigned small groups led by trained moderators
- pose questions developed in the small groups to panels of experts and political leaders.
How do we adapt these methods to fit the general population? A real grasp of foreign policy requires all of these things because it requires a different method of thinking about issues. You can't just read a book, you have to discuss it. You have to look at theories and models of behavior and apply them to current events. You have to be able to understand what foreign policy makers are talking about. Basically, you have to learn a whole new language.
The question is, again, is this possible? Do people have the time? Will they make the time? Or do we literally have to start the education of foreign policy like we do everything else? Do we need Big Bird reading The Economist and discussing the results with the Count (who you know is a big fan of The Weekly Standard). Do we plan to have our children watch Scooby Doo and other cartoon guest-stars discuss the pros and cons of Realism vs. Constructivism? If we can have Bill Nye explain molecular interaction, if we can have a vampire puppet teaching arithmetic, then we should have a way of educating children about foreign policy.
For all the backwardness in the American awareness of foreign policy, it's still not as bad as it could be. Americans have access to more information about more places than almost any other population; they just choose not to look at it. They have more elections to vote in than anyone else. But quantity doesn't make up for quality, and we do need to improve that as best we can.