Thursday, July 29, 2004

Democrats and Foreign Policy 

David Adesnik remarks that he can't find a unifying ideal in the foreign policy message emanating from the Democratic convention:
If you look at the speeches given by the Democrats' three most experienced foreign policymakers -- Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter -- you won't find any common message about how America's interests and ideals should shape its foreign policy.

Yes, America should establish better relationships with its allies. But to what end? What is it that America stands for?
I'm not sure I see Adesnik's point: why should we care? There seems to be very broad unanimity across the parties and across the electorate on "what America stands for": democracy, human rights, the other usual suspects. Same thing for interests (security, prosperity). I think most people take these questions as read.

If Adesnik is wishing for a way to distinguish the two parties, I'd say (quite unoriginally) that the primary difference between them is on means (multilateralism vs. unilateralism, "trade only"-agreements vs. labor/environment annexes, maybe even pre-emption vs. containment). These are pretty dramatic differences, actually, and I think that on the first and last of them there's pretty strong unity within the Democratic party. If Adesnik insists that there be a strong unified message on ends, there are some secondary ends/ideals associated with the question of means which I think the convention speakers have at least alluded to (maximizing fear of the US vs. maximizing respect for the US, reaching negotiated solutions on transnational issues vs. holding out for the perfect deal).

Matthew Yglesias has a different response to Adesnik's observation: "yeah, what else would you expect?"
Outside of a very small community of foreign policy specialists, neither Americans nor American politicians have any real views on these issues except for an ability to identify the views of politicians they admire. It's no coincidence that Andrew Sullivan soured on Bush's conduct in Iraq after Bush endorsed the FMA -- suddenly he didn't seem like a leader worth following, "toughness" stopped being so important, and it became time for a break from the frenetic activity of the Bush years.

Unless you're in the grips of an extraordinarily rigid ideology (like this hyper-dogmatic view Mark Kleiman attributes to all libertarians) then there's not going to be any especially clear connection between your domestic policy views and your foreign policy views. America's parties, meanwhile, are interest group coalitions and the interests in question are overwhelmingly interested in domestic questions. So people sign up for the coalition they're most comfortable with and find themselves agreeing not at all about foreign policy questions except for the fact that you should (a) support the troops, and (b) call whatever it is you happen to be doing an effort to spread freedom/democracy/goodness through the world.
Yglesias doesn't bother to back up his assertion with any data. The only book I've read on the subject (Ole Holsti's 1996 "Public Opinion & American Foreign Policy") actually demonstrates a very strong historical correlation, particularly since the Vietnam War, between party identification/ideology and opinions on foreign policy topics like military funding, use of force, foreign aid, or image of adversaries, at least among the general public. Holsti also found that the splits could be expressed well in terms of general policy approaches, the sorts of "means" I refer to above. The big exception to the rule is trade: attitudes toward domestic politics go some way to explaining peoples' opinions on this issue, but party identification isn't a particularly good guide to predicting people's opinions.

A devoted Yglesias acolyte might argue that this is unsurprising: when pressed, voters will agree with the foreign policies of the guys in power if they belong to the same party, and will disagree with them if they belong to the opposing party. Maybe this account is correct: on the other hand, Holsti's book (if I recall correctly) shows that the foreign policy approaches favored by each party's voters tended to be pretty persistant over time.

Perhaps this discussion has missed the point: Adesnik, and (I think) Yglesias are probably more interested in the preferences of policy leaders, rather than the general public. There have obviously been massive policy differences in recent years between foreign policy entrepreneurs within both parties (Rumsfeld vs. Powell, Holbrooke vs. Albright). Holsti documented similar infighting in previous eras as well, but suggested that internal differences between the foreign policy leadership of each party were smaller than those across party lines.

My point? Don't expect unanimity on foreign policy, but let's not pretend that there isn't some readily identifiable daylight between the two parties on foreign policy.

Except on trade. More on that soon.

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