Beneath the technocratic jargon and competing claims that obscure so many of today’s foreign policy debates, there remains a familiar philosophical divide. Across that divide, two camps of intellectuals quarrel over the degree to which America’s international conduct should reflect the nation’s values and ideals.

The debate has, in many respects, evolved little since the First World War. Rhetoric once marshaled in support of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and later against the moral failings of détente is today, for example, mined by a coalition of religious activists, neoconservatives, and human rights advocates to criticize American policy toward China. Corporate spokesmen and foreign policy “realists” counter with an equally venerable catalogue of arguments, seeking to discredit the opinion that U.S. foreign policy rests on a uniquely moral foundation.

In his provocative though deeply flawed Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, Eric Alterman challenges assumptions embraced by those on both sides of this exchange. The author, a columnist for the Nation , purports to bring a populist perspective to a dispute thus far conducted as a conversation between elites. It is precisely this elitism, and the manner in which it molds the contours of American foreign policy, that most rankles Alterman. Highlighting the detachment of the foreign policy establishment from the citizenry it ostensibly serves, he calls into question the certitude and motives of those who “invoke the language of altruism and uplift to justify actions that happen to increase . . . [American] power, prestige, or commercial wealth.”

The architects of American statecraft, Alterman contends, seek mainly to achieve the narrow aims of the corporate sector. This is evident in both the style and substance of American diplomacy. If it is to reflect democratic ideals, the author reasons, U.S. foreign policy must instead be formulated through democratic means. For Alterman, this prescription constitutes less a procedural remedy than a moral imperative. Thus, he anticipates that a popularly conceived foreign policy would no longer sustain repressive regimes, blindly pursue open markets, and, more generally, compromise democratic values. No longer, in short, would American foreign policy be devised for the benefit of a select few.

That thesis challenges assumptions held dearly by members of the foreign affairs community. Indeed, to counsel the democratization of foreign policy deliberations is to renounce not only the American style of foreign policy, but also a liberal tradition. Enlightenment thinkers from Locke to Madison to Tocqueville specifically questioned the wisdom of allowing for democratic participation in matters of foreign affairs. Those reservations later would be shared by, among others, Franklin Roosevelt and Walter Lippmann. The latter wrote that on foreign policy issues, “the unhappy truth is that the prevailing public has been destructively wrong at critical junctures.” Echoing that appraisal, no less an American institution than George Kennan compared the American public, uncharitably, to “one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as [a] room and brain the size of a pin.”

Alterman eloquently counters this charge of public idiocy. “Even if the American people were as incompetent as the members of the foreign policy establishment believe they are, that would be an unacceptable argument for their exclusion from the foreign policy process,” he writes. “In a democracy, the majority of the people have the right to be wrong.” In a somewhat selective and always tendentious retelling of American history, Alterman tallies the costs of ignoring this truism. Who Speaks for America? recounts President after President disregarding the will of the American people and subsequently blundering into overseas quagmires. From the subjugation of the Philippines to the war in Vietnam, the author maintains, elite wisdom repeatedly has been tested and found wanting. Not so the common sense inclinations of the American public, which he praises at every turn as the source of republican virtue.

To be sure, Alterman concedes a few instances where popular opinion on international matters fell short and elites got things right-most notably, regarding the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Here too, the fault lay less with public ignorance than with flawed institutions, specifically the executive branch of the United States government. According to this view, the twentieth century witnessed an expansion of executive power in matters of foreign affairs extending well beyond the President’s already oversized constitutional role. With enhanced power came insularity and a lack of accountability, which only reinforced elite disdain for the governed. Thus could Kennedy advisor Maxwell Taylor advise that, on matters of foreign policy, “a citizen should know those things he needs to be a good citizen and to discharge his functions.”

By most accounts, that bargain collapsed in the jungles of Vietnam. Yet Alterman still discerns a public deceived, principally on trade-related issues. Prevailing elite wisdom, of course, sees expanded commerce as conducive to democracy, political freedoms, and much else besides. But as Alterman rightly admonishes, this formulation is too pat. A foreign policy based upon the principle of sheer acquisitiveness, he contends, not only slights democratic aims overseas, but is itself a product of anti-democratic means, namely, corporate lobbying and an elite consensus that runs counter to the preferences of a vast majority of Americans. Thus has the attempt “to pursue virtue and commerce” caught the foreign affairs establishment in a bind of its own devising, exposing the hollowness of its idealistic pretensions.

“Unless Americans are willing to rethink and ultimately to reconstruct the nation’s present system for dealing with foreign policy issues,” Alterman writes, “then the belief in democracy in America will become, in this fundamental aspect, a historical anachronism.” To prevent this, the author recommends electing “citizen-juries” to oversee foreign policy deliberations. The idea is, however implausible, not an entirely new one. Prior to the Second World War, Congressman Louis Ludlow introduced a constitutional amendment requiring that declarations of war be subject to popular referendum. Members of the New Left floated a similar proposal during the Vietnam War. Alterman’s vision, though, specifically derives from John Dewey’s enthusiasm for a “Great Community” governed by plebiscite, and from Jürgen Habermas’ related proposal for a “public sphere.” He treats these concepts only briefly, all but conceding their impracticality. His policy recommendations are, indeed, unnecessary afterthoughts, having little to do with what has gone before.

Still, Alterman’s book intrigues, perhaps because it restores an element of leftist indignation to an arena no longer known for ideological disputes. The novelty of Who Speaks For America? is, in that sense, precisely its strength. Yet, if we rarely hear such voices anymore, it is for good reason. Alterman, after all, has things slightly backward.

There is, to begin with, his misreading of that great Rorschach blot, the American People. Alterman’s enthusiasm for a populist foreign policy rests on what he assumes will be its inevitably leftist character. Specifically, he foresees an enlightened public pressuring for an end to the unilateral use of force, demanding the cessation of covert action programs, and insisting on increased attention to global environmental concerns.

But are these likely to be the priorities of a populist foreign policy? To be sure, Alterman’s skepticism toward trade agreements and military entanglements presumably would be sustained, but beyond that it is impossible to say. The disposition of populist statecraft could just as easily be nationalistic, even mean-spirited. Far from embracing “progressive” aims, a populist foreign policy might well scorn Alterman’s “global issues” agenda, as well as his proposals to subordinate America’s freedom of action to a web of multilateral institutions. To glean its temper and substance, then, an equally credible guide may be Pat Buchanan.

Then, too, Alterman’s proposals themselves betray a certain elite sensibility. The author’s calls for the United States to act only in concert with others, to secure “the destruction and replacement of the CIA,” to put environmental considerations at the top of its foreign policy agenda-we have heard these before. They were themselves staples of a foreign affairs establishment that not so long ago equated populism with, among other “isms,” anticommunism, militarism, and chauvinism. Nor were they any more products of public deliberation than policies embraced by elites at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

Their elitist roots do not, however, diminish the merits of Alterman’s proposals (of which, it must be said, there are admittedly few). Indeed, the many flaws of an elite-devised foreign policy notwithstanding, modern history offers little evidence to bolster his contention that public support is, in matters of national policy, a necessary precondition to virtue. To the contrary, American foreign policy at its most principled moments owed its idealism less to democratic means than to democratic aims. Those aims derived, moreover, not from popular whims but from the ideals of a specific political system. Their export hardly requires extra-constitutional measures of the sort proposed in this peculiar manifesto.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a fellow in strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Articles by Lawrence F. Kaplan

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