Thursday, August 28, 2008

Public Perceptions of "National Security"

Yesterday in class, one of the issues raised was the gap between what "national security" actually means (and, as Wolfers reminds us, its attachment to national values) and the public's perception of the term "national security." The 2008 Presidential Campaign offers us an instructive example of this gap.

It has generally been accepted in the 2008 campaign that John McCain is the stronger candidate on issues of "national security". Public polling indicates that Americans rate Sen. McCain higher than Barack Obama on questions of national security, such as who is a "stronger" leader or who would better protect the country against terrorism or handle the war in Iraq. Sen. Obama's recent selection of Joe Biden as running mate was widely perceived as an attempt to make up for this disadvantage on security issues. Even Mrs. Ready-On-Day-One herself, Hillary Clinton, conceded during the primaries that Sen. McCain had "crossed the commander-in-chief threshold" while Sen. Obama had not.

I would suggest that the public, the newsmedia, & even Sen. Clinton are abiding by the old framework of "national security" discussions that Wolfers described way back in the early days of the Cold War. A study of modern security related issues doesn't really support the public perception of Sen. McCain as somehow "stronger" on these issues. It does support Wolfers' notion that the term "national security" in public parlance basically means, roughly, "threatening to blow lots of shit up."

Many of Sen. McCain's positions on these issues are out of the foreign policy mainstream or even, in my opinion, downright silly: from a long-term sustained presence in Iraq to creation of a "League of Democracies" presumably to supplant the UN to booting Russia out of the G8 (not to mention his sidekicks Sens. Lieberman & Graham's recent call for what amounts to a new Cold War).

This aspect of Campaign 2008 is evidence that, just as Wolfers described in the 1950s, a gap still exists between the actual meaning of the term national security and public perceptions of its meaning.


Researcher said...

I'd be very curious to see what kind of form such a "League of Democracies" would take. It's obvious that the values that McCain (at least publicly) gives the most support to are those of external democracy, while sacrificing our own military readiness (and thus the ability to respond to attacks on our other values). Would the League of Democracies be to supplant the UN, or would it instead by an extremely expanded NATO? Also, what level of democratization would be needed to join? (For example, Syria has elections...and the people in Tonga might well like their king, and want him to stay in power. Which would be more likely to join?)

But I agree, we need more about what is being defended in this "national security".

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