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June 27, 2007

Two Scholars' Prescriptions for National Consensus
Posted by David Shorr

I find very little to dispute in Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz's Grand Strategy for a Divided America, in the new Foreign Affairs. They ring an alarm bell for the pitfalls of domestic polarization for our foreign policy. Much as I agree with their substantive policy platform, though, I see problems in how they situate their approach within domestic politics.

The authors echo Walter Lippmann's warning about the "deficit" that results when a nation makes international commitments beyond its material ability to cover the checks it is writing politically. Internal political divides only make matters worse, as the extreme wings of both parties play tug of war over foreign policy. This introduction led me to expect a major reformulation of US international objectives that transcends the Right-Left split. Yet the Kupchan-Trubowitz platform is sensible primarily as a corrective to the radical Right, and the poliitcal spectrum they use as a backdrop is skewed precisely because of how neoconservatives pulled the putative center of gravity toward themselves.

The first mistake is that staw-iest of straw men: liberals who purportedly believe that all of the world's problems can be resolved through diplomacy and cooperation, and force is unnecessary. To be fair, the supposed shoot-first-ask-questions-later cowboys of the Right are also a constituency whose numbers are routinely inflated. And this is precisely the point, we need to stop and ask just who is this sensible center that people are always talking about?

Political analysis always seems to paint the center as a set of independents who stand above and apart from partisanship. In other words, partisans largely align with "the base" and its extreme views. But if that's the case, then bipartisan consensus can't really be very bipartisan. Consensus can only be found among the plague-on-both-their-houses independents. If I'm correct, though, that many voters who are aligned with the parties share moderate and balanced approaches, then the consensus extends significantly beyond the independents.

Now where Kupchan and Trubowitz are undoubtedly correct -- and where they rest much of their argument -- is their depiction of the dynamic within Congress. The safe seats and the extension of the "us versus them" permanent campaign into the legislative process (see Ornstein and Mann's Broken Branch book) are indeed amplifying extreme viewpoints. If someone has ideas for how to fix this, let me know (maybe Ornstein and Mann's institute does).

Meanwhile, I should summarize the authors' proposed policy solutions, which as I say, are sensible indeed: more effective burden-sharing, pursue terrorist networks instead of regime-change, rebuild hard power, use engagement more effectively with [rogue] regimes of concern, energy independence, and a diversified multilateral portfolio.

Am I crazy, or does that sound like a course correction in response to neoconservatives?


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Am I crazy, or does that sound like a course correction in response to neoconservatives?

It sounds pretty much like just about every other foreign policy prescription I have read over the past three years.

What "Right-Left split"?
What debate? Article: "The United States is in the midst of a polarized and bruising debate about the nature and scope of its engagement with the world."

It seems to me that the US government, "The United States", including the Congress (except for a few powerless progressives), is virtually unanimous in its pursuit of military and economic world hegemony using military aggression as a primary implementing action for regime change. The continuance of the Iraq fiasco and the recent nonsensical House resolution on Iran are examples. Why else does the US have 700 bases in 120 countries and the new Penatagon creation AFRICOM?

True, 67 percent of the American people (according to Public Agenda/Foreign Affairs) favor "diplomatic and economic efforts over military efforts in fighting terrorism" but the American people are a non-factor and you were right not to mention them.

So we could say that the split (and the debate) is between the government and the people, but I don't think that's what the authors meant.

A lot of confusion is created by equating centrism with moderation. Much of the extremism I've seen the past 10 years has come from the center. Four years ago the centrist position on Iraq was that we needed to invade Iraq because "we can." Five years ago the Washington Consensus was still destroying countries like Argentina.

And now these guys want to tell us that we should return to the bipartisan extremism of 40 years ago? Bull. The two party consensus in the Cold War was maintained through terror. McCarthyism. Nonexistent bomber gaps, missile gaps, and windows of vulnerability.

All of this scare-mongering -- by both parties -- naturally skewed the national conversation heavily in the far right's favor, and we're seeing the results of that now. You'll pardon me if I restrain my nostalgia.

Roosevelt overcame the Republicans' opposition to liberal internationalism by reaching out to them... The next administration should follow suit, appointing pragmatic members of the opposition to important foreign policy posts and establishing a high-level, bipartisan panel to provide regular and timely input into policy deliberations.

Yes, perhaps the next Democratic president can nominate William Cohen as Defense Secretary. That'll moderate the Republicans' views.

Oh wait.

The foreign policy expert class in this country already exhibits a remarkable degree of uniformity. They all agree that the goal of US foreign policy is to preserve and extend US power.

The polarization is over two means to this end. One group favors a heavier reliance on brute force, threat, intimidation and a posture of command. The other favors a heavier reliance on diplomacy, wheedling, public relations, cooperativeness and consensus-building.

But in the end they both want the same thing. Whether more attracted to hard or soft power, they believe the purpose of American policy is to use whatever power we already have to acquire even more power, to aggrandize the nation. How a country with such deep Christian roots came to embrace this essentially pagan view of life is an interesting question for historians.

But there are a growing number of Americans who understand that both a free republic and a vigorously democratic society are incompatible with the will-to-national-power state. The forms of social organization required for a perpetual pursuit of power are destructive of liberty, self-government and equality.

The intelligent pursuit of power, on the other hand, requires elite consensus and elite command: a small group of unified and well-informed helmsmen who deceive and manipulate everyone else into following them. The helmsmen now perceive that country's foreign policy leadership has lost its sense of balance due to an incompetent and extremist administration, and must now restore the lost equilibrium to the ship of state. All their writings of late are obsessed with this quest for the lost elite consensus.

My reaction may get the same skepticism as the original post, but let me dispute this broad-brush characterization, if only to speak for myself. I don't believe in American power for power's sake, or solely for US aggrandizement. My ultimate objectives are widespread peace and prosperity. If that's just a cover story, it's hard to explain much of my resume (maybe some of my posts, too).

But yes, I do believe that American power can serve wider beneficial international purposes. Where we differ is on the question of whether the United States is ever a source of global public goods. Probably there won't be a changing of minds in either direction on that one.

"The safe seats and the extension of the "us versus them" permanent campaign into the legislative process (see Ornstein and Mann's Broken Branch book) are indeed amplifying extreme viewpoints. If someone has ideas for how to fix this, let me know (maybe Ornstein and Mann's institute does)."

The issue is of some interest to me, so here's a range of suggestions on fixes:

  1. Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV): In races with more than two candidates, third party challengers can function as spoilers. IRV works by having voters rank the candidates. The lowest vote getting candidate is eliminated and those votes are redistributed to the voters next choice.
  2. Patriot Dollars: Instead of the FEC giving out matching funds, give every voter $25 they can only use for political donations. The voter can give the money to any candidate that agrees to abide by fund raising rules. This gets around the problem of whether to fund third party candidates and could probably avoid the unpopularity of the federal campaign fund tax checkoff.
  3. Redistricing Reform: Delegating redistricting decisions to independent commissions is a way of dealing with the temptation to gerrymander. Gerrymandering shifts the balance of power, but it also provides incumbent protection for both sides by concentrating partisans.
    Proportional Representation: Via multi-member districts, move away from a winner-take-all system. Under winner-take all, a district that's 66% Whigs and 33% Federalist may elect 3 Whig representatives. Under proportional voting, there'd be 2 Whigs and 1 Federalist. This helps minority groups, political, ethnic, or otherwise.
    4+:1 matching on small donations: Different take on the Patriot dollars idea. Rather than matching all contributions, multiply the effect of contributions of $250 or less per person. This greatly increases the importance of small donors.

These reforms are aimed at making Congress more representative and making seats more competitive. They would still naturally result in some extremists, but moderates and third party candidates would be more competitive. I don't think the old bipartisanship model is coming back but we can get rid of some of the perverse incentives in the present model.


I think there is no doubt that the US is sometimes a source of global public goods. Many countries are, but the US being the most influential provides more than most. The US is also, in my view, sometimes a source of global evils.

But what always seems to be taken for granted, no matter which party is in charge, is that US foreign policy should be devoted to the perpetual extension of US power, and the perpetuation of US hegemony or "primacy". Now maybe some want this power in order to do good in the world, but the practical policy effects of the different versions of this common commitment are very similar.

The question of whether there is such a thing as too much power for a country that seeks to preserve republican liberty and democratic self-governance at home, or whether the state apparatus and organizational structure that are needed to carry out the draining and rugged task of preserving primacy in a competitive world are ultimately destructive of liberty and democracy, are never even debated within the circle of foreign policy practitioners. I see these topics debated by outsiders like Chalmers Johnson, but not by the insiders who float in and around government.

The way I see it is that the United States constructed a wartime national security state and global garrison during the Second World War, whose directors then moved to solidify that war state and foreign occupation with the Cold War, and that we have never escaped from it. This perversion of republican intent has been destroying the habits of American democracy since its inception, and it has created a class of people whose careers now depend on its maintenance, whose ideologies have been formed by its presuppositions, and who are now completely in charge of our foreign policy.

I take David's point that the correctives Peter and I recommend are more a response to the hard right than to the center (however diminished it may be) and the center-left. But I would not underestimate the fight that is going within the Democratic Party about the assertive use of American power. To be sure, many of the more prominent members of the party are rather hawkish on matters of national security. But party activists are a different matter. Many of them are still in post-Vietnam mode, an instinct that is only being reinforced by the war in Iraq. Moreover, the revival of liberal internationalism depends not only on bipartisan support for the projection of U.S. power, but also for adherence to norms of international multilateralism. The Democrats may be on board, but the Republicans certainly are not. The two parties are diverging, not converging, on the central issues of foreign policy.

The Democrats may be on board, but the Republicans certainly are not....

Exactly! That is the heart of the problem, and it has been for 50 years.

The bipartisan foreign policy of the Cold War was paid for by moving the country ever further to the Right, until only the crazies seemed manly enough to protect us. First Kennan was marginilized, then Kissinger, and before you know it, Cheney and Rumsfeld appear sane and reasonable.

BTW, Mitt Romney wants us to double the size of Guantanamo. Clearly a bipartisan compromise would be to keep the prison the size that it is, or perhaps increase it by 50%...

Fist it was a purported left-right split and now it's a "fight within the Democratic Party", and even that is highly questionable. The DLC with its allied Truman Project (Kleinfeld) and 'Progressive' Policy Institute (Marshall) are committed to US world hegemony using military force, with AIPAC and the Pentagon as major drivers. The Democrats got us into every major war (except the Gulf War) in the last century so what's new.

Money rules politics in the US and there is too much money in armaments, with major contracts in all significant congressional districts, and in war, which greatly increases corporate profits. Then there is the wrap the flag and carry the cross crowd that are so significant in elections. All war all the time is a proven political winner not least because it also keeps the proles in line, stifling any meaningful pleas for better domestic welfare.

This "dispute" may exist in some think tanks but is, except for a few progressives and libertarians, non-existent in the real political world, unfortunately.

Many of them are still in post-Vietnam mode, an instinct that is only being reinforced by the war in Iraq.

Mr. Kupchan, it is not a temporary "mode"; it is not a syndrome; it is not a hangover, or reaction or pathology. It is not just some pre-cognitive "instinct". Nor is it confined to "activists". Nor, finally, is it even a phenomenon of the left alone, or confined within the Democratic Party alone.

What you are talking about is an enduring anti-imperial outlook and tradition within American culture. It's much, much older than Vietnam, and much more widespread than you imagine. It's not going away, and I think that all those devotees of "power projection" are going to have to learn to accommodate themselves to its permanent existence.

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