Experts, Populists, Democracy, and Foreign Policy

Alex Christy
Oct 8, 2019 · 11 min read
Donald Trump shakes hands with Vladimir Putin. Trump’s rhetoric towards Putin’s Russia has been a flash point in the elitist-populist battle over the future of American foreign policy

Foreign policy, foreign policy experts, and democracy have always had, at best, a difficult relationship. On one hand, foreign policy is a field populated with experts who have advanced degrees and it is these people, along with self-styled nerds, who influence government policy. This enforces a sort of elitism, because foreign policy, at least in the American context, is different than domestic or social policy. Because it is something that goes on “over there” it does not have the same impact on the average voter’s life that other issues do. How does the war in Donbass affect my life? On the other hand, the foreign policy of the United States is determined by the president, who is elected by universal suffrage, that is people who are, for the most part, not experts and these non-experts have their own ideas that they want to see their elected leaders implement.

Because they are experts in an esoteric field, foreign policy elites tend to believe that they should be in charge. After all, the national interests do not change just because the unwashed masses are a bit rowdy at the moment. Enter Donald Trump, who is viewed by many of these people as an idiot, if not worse, and who was elected in part, to flip these experts the bird. He, therefore, represents everything many of them oppose.

The flip side, is that because of this Trump enjoys a certain level of support from self-styled populists and other dissenters from conventional wisdom. Not only that, they suspect that there is a “Deep State” made up of bureaucratic members of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus is out to get the elected president who was elected precisely because he wasn’t one of them. Some people respond by claiming that proponents of such concerns are either paranoid, saying they just can’t bring themselves to admit their beloved president is an incompetent moron who endangers national security. Others reply that the “Deep State” is really just our institutions protecting us from the idiot in the White House. Thus the populist versus elitist battle continues without end.

The latest battle between Trump, his supporters, and the foreign policy establishment of experts is over his decision to abandon the Kurds to their fate against Erdogan’s invading Turkey. Already, Trump’s defenders are claiming that the establishment is willing to risk war with Turkey, repeating chants of “forever war.” Meanwhile, on the other side, Trump is accused of dishonoring the nation by abandoning our allies, which damages the country’s credibility, gives a win to the nation’s enemies, and risks giving ISIS a chance to re-create itself. Some point out that Trump has a hotel in Turkey, implying the real motive for the move with withdrawal from northern Syria was about Trump’s own personal financial interests.

Is there a way to bridge this populist-elitist divide? Some say, even if there is, we shouldn’t. After all, the populists are immoral because they do not care if Erdogan slaughters our allies. They are also stupid, don’t they know the lessons of history? They can not and should not be trusted with state power when the consequences of their naivety could be dire. They need to be soundly defeated as a political force. Or is it that the elites are actually the stupid ones? Don’t they know free trade didn’t reform China? Don’t they know the moralizing wars and other regime change operations failed spectacularly often creating even worse humanitarian nightmares? It is they who can not be trusted with power, because they’ve screwed up time and time again. We need to drain the swamp.

This is all bad news for American foreign policy and American politics generally, so first some criticism of elites.

When the Untied States won the Cold War, the United States stood on top of the world with no clear rival. This allowed President Bill Clinton to commit military fores for humanitarian purposes in former communist Europe. With no clear rival, the U.S. could also work with institutions such as the United Nations to advance human rights and democracy around the world as it was no longer constrained by the nasty business of Cold War power politics. It was said the U.S. could now live up it its values by promoting human rights as an end in an of themselves.

Unfortunately, after 9/11 the United States, under both Bush and Obama, took these goals and tried to export them to the Middle East. Operating under Cold War assumptions where dissidents against communist regimes were synonymous with pro-Western lovers of democracy, the United States tried to turn the Middle East into Western Europe. It didn’t work and eight years of war in Iraq and eighteen and counting in Afghanistan, not to mention Libya and, while it was not a military intervention, the failed democracy experiment in Egypt, did not lead to sprouting of liberal democracy as promised. Many of these Bush and Obama officials are now the same ones condemning Trump for one thing or another.

Experts who believe that human rights have an important role to play in foreign policy have decried Trump’s lack of interest in the subject, but their impracticable approaches to the area led to them digging their own graves. They were overconfident in their belief in liberal universalism and are now paying the political price for their hubris.

Human rights and democracy have an important role to play in American foreign policy, but the pursuit of those objectives requires prudence and a level head to know that not every society is ready for a Westminster-style political system right now. Supporting the the Hong Kong protesters is wise and right, because we know there is a legacy of freedom in Hong Kong and that China is a rival. Wanting to kick Saudi Arabia to curb in a fit of anti-Saudi knee-jerkism just to show much you hate Trump and his alleged anti-free press tendencies is unwise emotionalism.

Foreign policy experts have done a poor job explaining their beliefs to voters. Academics talk to other academics, but average voters do not spend their time thinking about island chains, strategic choke points, land bridges, or the fate of some ethnic minority group in Syria. Elites need to counter this by either formulating better arguments or need to be willing to trust voters with more complex arguments. If you are concerned about the Trumpification or Tulsi Gabbardification of foreign policy, you need to convince the voters that you are right and simply saying “You’re stupid” or “Trump is only doing this because he has a hotel in Russia/Turkey/Insert-name-of-country-here” is not going to work. You may win in 2020, but the overriding concerns will not simply go away.

To illustrate just how badly experts understand Trump and his voters, let us recall an episode early in the Administration where Steve Bannon was talking with academic Walter Russell Mead. Mead, who wrote a book that came out just before 9/11 entitled Special Providence, took an original look at American foreign policy. Instead of dividing American foreign policy into conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat, or even realist/liberal internationalist, Mead said there are four schools of American thought: Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians, and Jacksonians. The Jacksonians are the populists who are, to use Trump’s term “America First,” and who view elites, whether they be in government or business with suspicion. They have no problem taking the fight to the nation’s enemies, but who do not have the grander visions of American foreign policy that the free trading Hamiltonians or moralizing Wilsonians do.

Mead’s depitction of Jacksonianism greatly interested Bannon who thought the description perfectly encapsulated Trump’s world view and foreign policy vision. The interest in Mead’s work eventually led to a phone call, where Mead then shocked Bannon by saying, “ Well, you know, Steve, I write about Jacksonianism. That doesn’t mean I am a Jacksonian.”

The story is remarkable, because Mead, who voted for Clinton, might be the only widely known and respected academic who has described Trump’s world view in way that Trump would recognize and describe as accurate. This is tragic because you can’t accurately criticize Trump or seek to convince others if you are burning strawmen. Most experts start with the premise that Trump is different, therefore, because he’s not like me, he’s an idiot or therefore he likes dictators, maybe he’s an actual Putin puppet.

Nobody disagrees that Trump is different when it comes to foreign policy. It is just that some think that is terribly dangerous, while others think it is a great opportunity to correct decades worth of mistakes. The truth, like always, is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

A lot of elites will look at Trump’s rhetoric on NATO for instance, and say it is dangerous and when asked why, will respond “Because that’s been the bedrock of American national security for the last 70 years.” In other words, because that’s the way it has always been. Foreign policy elites say “Exactly, because that means predictability, which equals stability which equals peace.” Populists on the other hand say think it is just strange to say that because something was done in 1949, therefore it must be done in 2019. It’s a different world, after all, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist. Which brings us to some criticism of the populists.

It is no doubt true that just because the foreign policy establishment or bipartisan foreign policy consensus says something, that does not mean it is correct, but that does not mean populist solutions are correct. Dichotomous foreign policy is bad foreign policy. If elites burn strawmaen, then so do populists. Nobody wants “forever war,” but power vacuums could well ignite more wars. To rephrase an argument listed above, unpredictability leads to instability and instability possibly leads to war. But, who cares about those wars? Why is it any of are business? Here it is impossible to come up with a decent answer, because one size does not fit all. It is not true that the only two options facing the United States are “forever war” and whatever your dovish policy on Russia or Syria happens to be.

Sometimes, however, there is a reason that something, such as NATO and support for allies, has been a bedrock of American foreign policy for decades, throughout presidents of both parties and that reason is because it works.

When it comes to the more rabid cries for isolationism that advocates withdrawal from NATO and other mutual defense treaties, the truth is that three times from 1812–1945 the United States was drawn into Europe’s wars, despite our best efforts to stay out of them. The idea that the Atlantic Ocean protects us has been disproved over and over again. As a maritime-based trading nation the United States will always have oversees interests that make a guns out foreign policy impossible.

Speaking of overseas interest, the U.S. relies on allies to keep threats to those interests at bay. In the Pacific, the United States is losing our edge over China, this makes conflict more likely as China grows more confident in its ability to bully its neighbors or provoke a crisis. You may not like the U.S. portraying itself as the guardian of global order or the responsibility that entails, but power politics works in such a way that where the U.S. retreats, someone will take advantage of that. Do the same populists that hate China and say the elites were wrong about China, really want to see China run the world? Americans might not appreciate American global dominance, but they will when its gone, by which point it will be too late to regain.

Allies, annoying as they can sometimes be (looking at you, Angela Merkel), are not burdens that entangle the United States in far-flung affairs that are against are interest. Trump should be able to criticize allies without a cascade of hyperbolic commentary that implies that Trump is wrong simply because he is Trump or because our allies disagree with him, but he does not help himself when he questions the value of the alliance itself. The United States has allies in Asia to keep the Chinese away from Hawaii and other U.S. territories in the Pacific. We have allies in Europe to keep the Russians away from the Atlantic. We have allies in the Middle East to prevent Iran from being able to blackmail the world’s economy. And yes, as corny as it sounds, most of our allies help us preserve the idea of free government. There is a difference between protecting and defending democracy as a national interest and seeking to export it to the Middle East.

There is also no monolithic group of foreign policy experts, it just seems like there is because sometimes their bad ideas find homes in both parties. The false “forever war”” versus “anti-forever war” dichotomy is just as popular among certain elites and traditional politicians as it is with the populists.

Finally, there is the hypocrisy. For as much as populists like to accuse elites of still living in the Cold War era, it is amazing how many people think that George Washington’s 1793 neutrality declaration should be a guiding principle for all time, despite it being a radically different world in 2019 than it was in 1793. Sometimes, when someone tells you to read history, you should, for Washington’s neutrality in the French Revolutionary Wars did not even last through the John Adams Administration where the United States fought an undeclared naval war with France and pulled Washington himself out of retirement to head an greatly increased army just in case a land war became necessary.

Foreign policy is complex, more complex than most other political issues. It therefore leads to the rise of specialists and experts who because of their specialization tend to look down upon the unwashed masses. If the United States wants to have the best possible foreign policy, this is a mistake for it is the people who elect the leaders and therefore the people who need to support the country’s foreign policy objectives. This country’s foreign policy ultimately go where the voters take it and therefore the experts need to talk with the American people, not at them.

To go back to Mead, at the beginning of this book, there is a quote that is alleged to have been said by Otto Von Bismarck, “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America,” which highlights that despite the tension between our constitutional system government and foreign policy, the United States has been wildly successful in foreign policy. To continue this we must continue to follow the wisdom of those who have come before, but also learn from their mistakes, the mistakes of both elites and populists.

That sounds simple enough, but when everybody thinks they are the wise ones and it is everybody else is the one who made the mistakes, then you are where we are today. Everybody needs to be less arrogant: just because you have an advanced degree does not make you infallible and just because the consensus was once wrong does not mean it is wrong today.

The foreign policy elites in this country must do a better job explaining America’s foreign policy interests to voters, not just each other. They need to explain their ideas in such a way that they bring the populists on board, which means gaining their trust and not looking down their noses at them. Yes, some people are “lost causes” and who cannot be convinced, but populists are not ideological, most of them can be won over, but they cannot do that if the voters think that the elites care more about what Turtle Bay or some Eurocrats think about America’s image than what Americans think of America’s image.

Populists, meanwhile, need to understand the world is full of anti-American revanchists, expansionists, and other conniving actors and to point that out, does not mean one is in favor of “forever war” who subordinates the national interest to some other principle. The United States is a global power with global interests and therefore needs allies. Sometimes putting “America First” means having friends help you achieve those interests, which are in far away places.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Alex Christy

Written by

Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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