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Populism is not the solution

July 9, 2011

One of the unfortunate consequences of the so-called realist turn in American politics is its confusion of populism for realism. To be blunt, anybody hoping for realism and restraint in American foreign policy is setting themselves up for failure if they put their trust in the inherent wisdom of the mass public to provide a sound guide for foreign policy. It is true that after serious disasters in American foreign policy or prolonged wars, the public does tend to tack a seemingly “realist” course in foreign policy matters. However, a “realist’ inclination that only evinces itself in a politically meaningful way after enough time has passed for thousands of lives to have been lost or billions of dollars spent is not a very useful constraint on the interventionist tendencies of the US government.

Those who hope an appeal to the common sense of the American public will ingrain a realist posture to US foreign policy must ignore the long-standing complicity of an impassioned population in any number of ill-advised adventures abroad. It took two years for a majority of Americans to turn against the invasion of Iraq, and despite the status of Afghanistan as a realist litmus test today, majority support for that war lasted well into the decade. Indeed, that politicians marketed their opposition to Iraq as a way to escalate the intervention in Afghanistan should show the political appeal of intervention persisted well into the period of supposed disillusionment with a foreign policy of escalating overseas commitment.

Since Athens in the Peloponnesian war, democracies – especially those where the people have significant power over foreign policy, have more often been associated with ambition and self-righteousness than restraint. Consider the Corinthian description of the Athenians in their appeal to Sparta:

They are revolutionary, equally quick in the conception and in the execution of every new plan; while you are conservative–careful only to keep what you have, originating nothing, and not acting even when action is most urgent. They are bold beyond their strength; they run risks which prudence would condemn; and in the midst of misfortune they are full of hope. Whereas it is your nature, though strong, to act feebly; when your plans are most prudent, to distrust them; and when calamities come upon you, to think that you will never be delivered from them. They are impetuous, and you are dilatory; they are always abroad, and you are always at home. For they hope to gain something by leaving their homes; but you are afraid that any new enterprise may imperil what you have already. When conquerors, they pursue their victory to the utmost; when defeated, they fall back the least.

Of course, Thucydides, like many prominent Greek commentators on politics, was a critic of Athenian democracy, but that the Athenian populace consistently elevated men such as Cleon and Alcibiades to leadership does reveal something of the power that canny orators – some would say demagogues – can exercise over a supposedly wise public. Naturally, one of the advantages of the American republic, as articulated in the arguments of Publius, was that a larger state would have more opposing interests and thus balance ambition with ambition, and prevent such figures from gaining power. However, in an age of mass media, the locality is no longer the anchor of political sentiment, and the geographic checks that might have allowed the federalist system to constrain American power operated no longer. In other words, it was more likely in the 19th century for segments of the population more in favor of Britain to balance those in favor of one of Britain’s opponents, say France or Germany, to balance each other in political affairs. Yet there was nothing inherently “realist” or restrained about these factions. If the object of their distrust committed some outrage against the United States, they called for war. If the government prosecuted war against their favored state, they cried for peace, or even threatened secession. The behavior of the Federalists, at least from what I can tell, confirms this – they were those calling for war against France in the era of the XYZ affair and Quasi-War, but peace with Britain during the war of 1812 and the later Hartford Convention.

Leaving the regionalist digression (and the thought that America’s largeness, in an age of modern technology, may no longer be a source of constraints against government adventurism), it should be clear that at many points in history, public sentiment eagerly latched on to causes for war as often as they have cried out against it. There is, after all, a reason why commentators have Clausewitz have more often associated (in error or not) the trinity’s element of “passion” with the people. As for Thucydides’s triptych, fear and honor certainly play a role in arousing popular passion towards the cause of war and intervention.

After a terrorist attack, a foreign despot’s chilling speeches, or appeals from an empathetic friend of democracy, the popular constraint on interventionism is rarely to be found. At the same time, popular parochialism and ignorance of foreign politics and cultures enables the inflation of threats abroad just as easily – if not more so – as it provokes skepticism. It may be hard to convince Americans that the US ought stay engaged in a region they know little about such as Central Asia or the Middle East in theory, but after some event originating from those regions imposes itself on the public consciousness, stereotypes about the danger of such regions and gullibility about the means to combat them runs rampant. It often takes experiencing the failure of these policies at excruciating length to overcome the initial fears, and then the psychological limitations of sunk costs, for the popular outrage about overseas adventurism we might mistake for “realism” to reemerge.

That interventionist candidates win elections, and so-called populist candidates are so often hawkish, should tell us that even if the American public has apparently realist tendencies, they do not bother to express them at the ballot box. Unfortunately some realists, after the disappointment of the Obama administration, have expected the populist opposition, such as the Tea Party, to provide the vehicle by which policies of realism and restraint can capture national leadership. Of course, some politicians in the Republican Party oppose Libya – but that is as much about the President and party which launched it as it is evidence of any rising popular tide in favor of realism. Leaving aside libertarian-affiliated candidates, the one whose “realist” label has the most credibility, Huntsman, has a candidacy removed from populism in tone and virtually no popular recognition.

Indeed, one might argue that the ability of mass media and public opinion to captivate policymakers plays a role in the continued interventionism of policymaking elites. Where once elites might have been insulated from popular outrage, today the notion of the President needing to answer directly to public opinion and the needs of the masses is quite widespread. Officials feel they need to respond to public outrage discourages restraint and inflates the importance of inopportune events, even if it makes them fearful about nation-building or the duration of wars. The public is fickle, but what it wants, it wants. Attempts to make realism an ally of populism only demonstrates that the historical realist prescience about the pitfalls of modern nationalism, democracy, and mass politics does not always imply insight into leveraging those domestic politics towards their own ends.

UPDATE: Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld’s Compass blog and Daniel Larison at Eunomia kindly link, and Larison adds some useful historical examples from Orlando Figes’s The Crimean War and Kennan’s The Decision to Intervene.

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