How Local Issues Drive Foreign Policy

Political consultants should kick off their primers for presidential candidates in 1996 with the motto: “It’s foreign policy, smarty.” Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, American voters not only care about foreign policy, they often generate their own issues quite independently of the latest televised crises. What is more, their foreign policy concerns differ markedly from one region of the United States to another. “All politics are local,” said Tip O’Neill. That is no less true of the politics of America’s place in the world, and in “normal” times regional interests often have a far greater impact on elections in our federal system than those interests we would regard as national.

The United States, let us recall, was the worlds first postcolonial “developing nation.” The country grew rapidly from a long, skinny seaboard state of many farms and few cities into an expansive continental polity with few farmers and many urbanites. In the process, she became what political scientist Joel Migdal calls a strong society within a weak state.’ This weakness in our national government was no accident. Prior to 1776, each colonial government had more contact with London than it did with other colonial capitals. In order to reassure nervous new neighbors, the Virginia planters who wrote America’s state documents promised a dispersal of power downward, away from the center, out to the periphery. One need only reread James Madison’s Federalist Paper Number 10: “the great and national interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.” The chaos following the revolution only accelerated this devolution.

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