David Adesnik offers (note: permalinks broken, scroll down to Sunday May 11, “The Left vs. Itself” ) a history of U.S. foreign policy, and an outline of what he believes a liberal, Democratic, and effective foreign policy might look like.
First I have to publicly go on record that this is an exciting time for me; I’ve felt isolated from much of the Democratic party and what passes for liberalism for some time, and am constitutionally incapable of moving to the other side of the aisle. But now, I feel that there is some ferment in the Left both here in the U.S. and in the U.K., and that we’re starting a process that could well result in an effective, moral, and progressive vision of the country and the world. I’m happy as all get-out to be one of the smaller yeast organisms and a part of that fermentation process. We’ll taste the beer in a year or two and see if it’s fit to drink.
But I think that David is waaay off the mark in at least three areas, and want to offer some off-the-cuff collegial corrections.
First, in case, you haven’t, go read his post.
OK?? Click through to see some quick thoughts on what he’s written and some directions I think the Dems ought to be taking.
[Update: I respond to his rebuttal below…]He neatly collapses the history of recent American foreign policy into a blog post, and talks about the varying positions of the Democratic and Republican wings of our politics. But in doing so, he misses or mis-states a few things.
First, he characterizes Bush as a Wilsonian (in the Mead sense). Uh, sorry?? Wilsonians are typically defined as attempting to enmesh nations in a framework of democracy and the rule of law. Bush?? I’d have to make him as a Jacksonian/Hamiltonian in the Mead framework.
Overall, I think that David is right in characterizing most of the recent Republican administrations as Hamiltonian in promoting “a realist approach to foreign policy that considered no dictator unworthy of an American alliance provided that his brutality was matched by his anti-Communism”.
Carter was Wilsonian/Jacksonian, as was Clinton.
Adesnik argues in favor of the Wilsonian notion that “democracies do not make war”, with this comment:
As any compelling liberal foreign policy must be, Wilson’s was founded on the idea of protecting individual rights. Having witnessed the horrors of the Great War, Wilson belived that such tragedies could be avoided if governments would only listen to the voice of their citizens.
Anticipating the democratic peace theorists of today, Wilson believed that no democratic government would commit acts of agression against any other. Thus he insisted that the German Empire be replaced by a German republic.
Yet Wilson also recognized that most governments at the time were not democratic and would not become so. Thus, he sought to project democracy onto the international stage by creating the League of Nations. Its purpose was to create a forum for “world opinion”, which Wilson believed would be an unfailing opponent of war. While this approach has considerable merit, critics point out that the people of the German Reich overwhelmingly supported war when it was declared in 1914, as did the citizens of most other nations.
You’d have to add me to the list of those critics, because I’ll point out that democracies can and often are bellicose (not as often as tyrannies which often rely on demonizing the ‘other’ and the rigid apparat of the wartime state).
Democracy alone…whether within states, or among them…is itself not a strong defense against war, as commentators from Thucidydes forward have shown us.
Neither is the rule of law alone enough. As the U.N. and the E.U. (and to an extent, the U.S.) show us, writing laws itself does not solve problems, it does not prevent injustice, it does not build stable or progressive societies. It does build complicated legal-regulatory structures which ignore inconvenient realities and find ways within the law to ignore (or perpetuate) injustice.
So when Adesnik comes out as a Wilsonian,
As you might have guessed by now, I believe that the foundation of a liberal vision for American foreign policy must entail a return to the Wilsonian vision that animated American liberalism from the First World War until the tragedy of Vietnam. Perhaps the greatest flaw of such a foreign policy is that it does not provide Democratic candiates with a credible means of differentiating their views from that of the current administration.
I think that he’s missing the boat in three ways.
The current Administration isn’t Wilsonian.
The most successful Democratic foreign policies – FDR, Truman, and JFK – weren’t either.
We have a surfeit of international institutions, laws, and regulations. They aren’t working. The public – here and abroad – sees this. Democratic candidates who tie their foreign policy to a new round of international institution-building may as well go home now and save themselves and their donors dollars and heartache. It won’t work and it won’t sell.
So what do we do?
Well, I’ll suggest a few things.
First, and foremost we have to sell America. Adesnik is absolutely right when he points to the Vietnam War as the turning point in U.S. foreign policy, but it wasn’t just because we ‘lost he war’. It was because for the first time, a number of Americans and people abroad were united in the vision that America was wrong, and bad, and even evil.
Our foreign policy has to be based, not just in our mechanistic view of ‘doing what’s good for America’, as one nation among many, but on the notion that we (along with many others) have something to offer the world. And what we have to offer the world – the reason why so many want to come here – is not only our prosperity, but our freedom, our belief in and respect for the individual, and most of all our belief in justice – that everyone is equal before the law, that everyone gets an opportunity, and that if we get it wrong once, we’ll work and change and eventually get it right.
It is our belief in the dignity of every American.
Now those values are under attack within America, too. Not just in our imaginations, but in our policies, laws, and institutions. We need to fight on two fronts – to restore the power of those beliefs here – and to expose them to the world as what we have to contribute.
We need to make it clear that violence will be met with violence. Because we aren’t ashamed to be Americans, we need not be ashamed of defending ourselves nor of taking threats to ourselves or others seriously. Out of a mixture of guilt and passivity, we’ve tolerated extremism and saber rattling and watched it turn into saber waving.
Democrats love their country as much as Republicans do, and shouldn’t have a problem with “kill an American and you’re toast”.
But this (standing up to violence) is a cornerstone of Bush’s policy, and taking that stand alone won’t do much for the Democrats.
First, a successful challenge to Bush’s foreign policy will rest on highlighting the close connections between Bush’s ‘Engine Charlie’ Wilson (““What’s good for General Motors is good for the rest of America.”) view of the U.S. and the world and his policies.
Second, we have to show fairness above all. The Kyoto treaty was probably a bad treaty, but driving CAFÉ and a gas tax – or even a commitment to a future gas tax – would go a long way to show the world that we’re not liberating Iraq to make commuting in a Hummer affordable.
Third, we need to focus on foreign intervention and aid that empowers from the bottom up, rather than the top down. The Soviet-style of building immense projects and the institutions to support them has to be inverted toward something more like this:
The ramshackle facade of Christopher Wilson’s two-room home in the gritty Southside neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, doesn’t raise great expectations. But through the rickety wooden gate and beyond the drainage ditch lies a new, freshly plastered extension to his house and woodworking shop.
Wilson, 36, who has a wife and two young children, brings in $800 a month making cabinets, tables and chairs for a furniture store and for neighbors. His business got a big kick six months ago when he bought a used drill press and lathe for $650. It doubled his productivity, which in turn allowed him to purchase the materials for the extension and hire a mason.
Wilson bought the tools, at a 20% discount from their secondhand value, from a nonprofit called Tools for Development. Started 15 years ago by Roy Megarry, 65, the former publisher of Canada’s prestigious Globe & Mail newspaper, Tools for Development has a simple but powerful premise: Make secondhand equipment available to poor entrepreneurs at an affordable price. There are no handouts. The entrepreneur pays for the tools either up front or on credit, with interest rates slightly lower than banks charge.
Foreign aid is only one component of foreign policy, but part of what we need to do is pitch our policies downward, at the people affected, and sell them on the value and power of American friendship.
It will be hard to do…selling American ideals and friendship retail, one-by-one. But it is vitally necessary.
We ought to work with our friends and allies to do this, but while we figure out how to do this together, we ought to be doing it on our own.
If that makes me a Jacksonian, so be it.
Addendum in response to Adesnik’s rebuttal:
David Adesnik takes me to task on my interpretation of the Wilsonian and Jacksonian threads in American foreign policy.
I’m irritated – at myself.
I should have made my points more clearly. Haste is an explanation, not an excuse. So first off, let me move away from formally mapping him against Mead. I read the book when it came out, and it’s still in the Giant Stack Of Boxes in the garage. Another explanation, not an excuse; I’ll go dig it out and we’ll talk about what Mead meant later.
Let me try and explain in some greater detail what I meant.
Adesnik points out the post-Boshevik invasion of Russia as an example that Wilson was no dove. I never meant to suggest that he was.
What distinguishes the Wilsonian view, in my opinion, is the belief that formal international institutions and a body of international law – rules between nations, as it were – was the route to peace and international stability. When those institutions permit, violence is certainly acceptable.
Jacksonians, on the other hand, rely on the direct relationships between people and subnational institutions (along with violence).
I’m arguing that the core defect in his proposal is the overreliance on international law and institutions which directly bind states – institutions and laws which today have virtually no legitimacy worldwide, and less here in the U.S.
My counterproposal is that we work to build and nourish good subnational institutions and attack (sometimes literally) bad ones. To me that is a Jacksonian position; I’ll stand abashed if I’ve misinterpreted Mead, but will work to expand and defend my argument.