8 crazy things Americans believe about foreign policy

This evening's town hall-style debate, we're told, will be different. An intimate setting. Direct interaction with the common voter. The potential for curve-ball questions. While audiences might not relate to the presidential candidates or the media, moderator Candy Crowley told CNN, "they do relate to 80 people sitting on a stage that look like them, and maybe have stories similar to theirs.... And I think that's where a candidate has to make a connection."

I'm all for the civic engagement that town-hall style debates promote, of course. But since Tuesday night's forum will feature domestic and foreign policy questions, it's worth noting that Americans have some astonishing misconceptions about international affairs (for more on how Americans view foreign policy, check out this great Carnegie Endowment/Pew Research Center infographic).

As the Washington Post's Dylan Matthews explained last month, the baffling fact that 15 percent of Ohio Republicans believe Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama for killing Osama bin Laden may have as much to do with polling psychology and sampling error as with self-delusion or ignorance. But here are some other statistics that may surprise you:

  • 41 percent of Americans believe China is the world's leading economic power, according to a 2012 Pew poll (the correct answer is the United States, which 40 percent of respondents in the Pew poll selected)
  • 73 percent of Americans could not identify communism as America's main concern during the Cold War, according to Newsweek, which administered an official citizenship test in 2011 (admittedly, it's not entirely clear what if any alternative answers -- the Soviet Union? Nuclear weapons? -- the magazine accepted) 
  • 9 percent of Americans frequently worry about becoming a victim of terrorism, according to a 2011 AP-GfK poll (Reason magazine has calculated that the chances of being killed by a terrorist are roughly one in 20 million, and that "in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist")
  • Nearly 25 percent of Americans don't know that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, according to a 2011 Marist poll
  • 71 percent of Americans believe Iran already has nuclear weapons, according to a 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll (Israel, the United States, and the International Atomic Energy Agency would beg to differ)
  • 33 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11 as late as 2007, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll (it's worth noting that the number was down from 53 percent in 2003, and that more recent polls suggest the percentage has continued to decline since 2007) 

OK, so tonight's town hall participants probably won't bust out a world map to make a point or ask the candidates why they've never acknowledged Saddam's role in 9/11. But a reference to China's economic leadership or Iran's nuclear weapons stockpile certainly isn't out of the question.


Which countries are freaking out most about Romney's surge?

With the U.S. presidential election now closer than ever, the press is brimming with speculation about whether Barack Obama, after turning in a lackluster performance in the first debate, can reverse Mitt Romney's momentum  during his second outing tonight. And not just the U.S. media. News outlets from India to Israel are busy dissecting Obama's setback, Romney's comeback, and what the new state of play in the race means for their countries. Here's a snapshot of some of the most colorful coverage in recent days:


The British press has at times been rather brutal in assessing the shifting dynamics in the presidential race (sample Daily Mail headline this week: "Preparing for a new job already? Obama delivers pizzas to campaign workers as he gets ready for make-or-break TV debate at golf resort"). But commentators have also speculated about what a Romney win would mean for Britain. Over at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley argues that David Cameron and his Conservative Party have expressed their preference for Obama too openly. "By airing these views in public the Tories have gambled too much on Obama winning the election," he maintains. "And if he doesn't, then they'll have a President on their hands who they have routinely insulted. That can't be good for the Atlantic alliance." (Stanley, for the record, thinks tonight's debate will end in a draw or Romney win.)

Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the United States, writes in the London Evening Standard that an Obama victory would be best for Britain:

Romney could turn out to be an excellent foreign policy president, yet right now, his foreign policy team is split between neo-con hawks and those of a more pragmatic, "realist" world view, similar to our own. We don't know which faction will come out on top. In the circumstances, we're better off with the devil we know - and that's Obama.


The state-run news agency Xinhua has a warning today for the presidential candidates: "[I]t would be both politically shortsighted and detrimental to China-US relations if they turned the town-hall-style meeting into a China-bashing competition" (the news outlet appears to be confusing tonight's debate with the third and final debate on foreign policy, which will touch on topics such as "the rise of China and tomorrow's world"). Sure, both candidates' tough talk on China may be nothing more than campaign bluster, Xinhua observes. But "these chameleonic politicians should not always expect that the wounds they have inflicted to the China-US ties would heal automatically" once they assume office.


In an article on the possibility that India could be dealing with several new world leaders in a matter of months, the Times of India marvels that "from being a candidate who could barely control his own Republican Party, Mitt Romney has surged forward to be a surprisingly competent debater and a more than credible opponent." Still, the paper adds, the outcome of the U.S. election may not have a major impact on bilateral relations. "The Indo-US relationship has now become institutionalized and isn't actually dependent on a president," the article notes.

In a debate preview at the Hindustan Times, the U.S.-based journalist Rashmee Roshan Lall argues that Romney is unlikely to endear himself to India or the world during Tuesday night's event.  True, she notes, the "New Delhi punditocracy has always thought Republican presidents suit India much better than Democratic ones." But Romney doesn't mention India on the campaign trail and wants to "reinstate the US as globocop, albeit with a makeover that borrows heavily from some of the darker manifestations of Lord Voldemort." She concludes with a question: "Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored or might the best option for India and everyone else be four more years of Obama?"


As the U.S. race has tightened -- "The presidential race has begun anew," one Israel Hayom headline proclaims -- the editorial boards at Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post have published explanations for why they'll be remaining neutral during the election. Haaretz notes, in rather vivid language, that "Romney would stick with Israel's prime minister and they would become flesh of one flesh" but adds that the substantive differences between the candidates are minor. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, meanwhile, muses about the various leadership permutations that could result from elections in Israel and the United States. 

As for the upcoming debate, Israel Hayom's Abraham Ben-Avi thinks it is "Obama's last window of opportunity to rehabilitate his status as a leader" while Haaretz's Adar Primor argues that the world will still favor Obama over Romney even if the candidates sharpen the distinctions between them on foreign policy tonight. "Those [around the world] who have shaken off their Obama fixation have done so largely because in certain areas of policy he is seen as having adopted the Republican agenda," Primor writes.


Russia's RT didn't buy the widespread verdict that Romney trounced Obama in the first debate, noting that the "tepid" forum had shown the candidates to be "two sides of the same coin." But Romney's post-debate bounce has spurred the Russian press to give the GOP candidate a closer look. News outlets covered Romney's Russia comments during his recent foreign-policy address in Virginia but cautioned against reading too much into the aggressive rhetoric (the state-run Voice of Russia did note that "a serious politician should avoid making that kind of remarks with respect to another leading country"). One Russian lawmaker, meanwhile, accused Romney of embracing George W. Bush's failed policies and presiding over the "last convulsion of the American-style world."

In the most creative commentary, the Voice of Russia compares the debates to chess matches and quotes the chess player Vladislav Tkachev:

"Very often the real moves, such as the candidate's plan of actions and package of reforms, remain in the background and the psychological factor comes to the fore. Suffice it to look at the footage of the confrontation between Karpov and Kasparov to see that the duel of the eyes, a springy step and an overall aggressive look were of paramount importance. It is common knowledge how difficult it is to give the right answer when exposed to the rival's glare. The response of the audience can also either pep one up or completely demoralize. Barack Obama with downcast eyes did not look his best this time, side by side with his opponent who radiated confidence."

However, there are more debates ahead and the results could change. After all, Obama is leading in public opinion polls. The main thing for him now is to get rid of the image of a serious, thoughtful and humane but not very determined leader because this is the wrong style for the time of change. However, chess practice shows that the style of playing games cannot change overnight.


The German press has adopted the Mitt-mentum narrative -- as U.S.-based journalist Gregor Peter Schmitz wrote in Der Spiegel, Joe Biden's vice presidential debate performance "almost single-handedly revived the Obama campaign, which was in danger of being put on life support after the president's disastrous debate performance in Denver." But news outlets have also pointed out that the race would look very different if it were held in Germany (or many other European countries, for that matter), where more than eight in ten people would support the Democrats. "Obama has assured victory -- among Germans," a headline in Die Welt declares (an article in Berliner Morgenpost suggests that Obama's overwhelming popularity in the country helps explain why Romney didn't visit Germany during his overseas trip this summer).    


The Pakistani press has covered the narrowing race. "Even the New York Times, which favours Mr Obama, concedes that Mr Romney has continued to surge since the debate," an article in Dawn observes. But in an op-ed for the same newspaper, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi argues that the weeks since the first debate have shown Obama to be the true victor. "Mr Obama was consistent, without flamboyance, and stood his ground" while "Mr Romney played to the gallery," Siddiqi notes. He adds that "Mr Romney would like to conduct his foreign policy in Cold War fashion" but admits that, contrary to the impression in Pakistan, foreign policy has "taken a back seat in the campaign."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images