Robert Gates worries that the public doesn’t understand what is at stake in Ukraine:

Crimea and Ukraine are far away, and their importance to Europe and America little understood by the public.

Therefore, the burden of explaining the need to act forcefully falls, as always, on our leaders.

Gates points to a recurring problem in our foreign policy debates, which is the large and increasing gap between the public and our political leaders on what the U.S. should be doing in the world. It may be true that most Americans don’t know and don’t care very much about the crisis in Ukraine, but to date no one has given them much of a reason to think they are mistaken in thinking that the U.S. shouldn’t get too involved. The burden of explaining why it should does fall on our leaders, but for decades our politicians and supporters of an activist foreign policy have acted as if the burden is on the skeptics and opponents to explain why the U.S. should mind its own business. Now that supporters of an activist U.S. role in the world are forced to make their case to a skeptical audience, they prove to be not very good at it. This is perhaps because the arguments in support of this view are so much weaker than the activists think they are. Gates likewise fails to make the case for the “need to act forcefully,” but this is not entirely his fault. The case isn’t very strong, and it is fairly easily rebutted, so it’s no wonder that it isn’t changing public opinion very much.

Gates emphasizes the remoteness of these places, but that misses the point. The U.S. has obligations overseas that are quite far away, but Americans can understand why many of these commitments were made and why they are worth honoring. There is a meaningful difference between treaty commitments that the U.S. has made to its European and Asian allies and the vague, non-binding, and essentially meaningless pledges that it has offered to other states, and I think Americans can recognize that difference when they see it. When supporters of an activist U.S. foreign policy try to tell the public that the U.S. is obliged to act in places where it has no real obligation, it isn’t persuasive because it relies so heavily on bluster and rhetorical sleight-of-hand. It’s not that the public doesn’t “understand” the importance of Ukraine, but rather that our leaders and editorial writers consistently exaggerate its importance to the U.S. and our allies. Over time, the public grows weary of the constant badgering that tells them that the U.S. must act in response to practically every major foreign event, and they get tired of hearing their leaders insisting that the U.S. must “lead” when they can see plainly enough that U.S. “leadership” is neither necessary nor useful in many crises around the world. Americans have been lectured so frequently for so long on the importance of U.S. “leadership” in so many different parts of the world, it should come as no surprise that many pay little or no attention to these arguments and tend to distrust the people that make them.

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