defining American interests

Stranger things have happened, but this is still worth noting.  It turns out that a slim majority of Republicans now believe [pdf] that it is not America’s responsibility to “actively promote democracy around the world.”  I’m not sure Republican leadership has quite caught up with this sea change, but the sooner they do the better.  Even George W. Bush, despite his inevitable legacy as nation-builder, began implementing a more realistic foreign policy in his second term.

Apparently Americans are catching up:

defining American interests

According to AEI’s Datapoints:

A bare majority of Republicans (51 percent) and strong majorities of Democrats (63 percent) and independents (62 percent) agree that democracy promotion is not America’s responsibility. Americans have always been reluctant internationalists, aware of the global role that the United States must play, but at the same time, concerned about the costs that come with such responsibility.

So now that the neocon fervor is being supplanted by a more cautious foreign policy both in the oval office and in public opinion, what should we expect?  How do we begin to redefine not only American interests, but our pursuit of those interests?   “Democracy promotion” may be off the table (at least after Afghanistan), but a myriad other reasons to flex our military muscle still exist.  Genocide, natural resources, terror havens, piracy, and a plethora of other conflicts and will continue to test American resolve and restraint.

I’m afraid that as wrong as the neocons have been, the alternative absolutism – total non-interventionist foreign policy bordering on isolationism – is going to be equally unrealistic.  Implementation of such a policy would be nearly impossible.  Absolutism is funny that way – it sounds great, makes tons of sense, and then fails miserably the acid test of reality.  However reasonable such a foreign policy sounds, and however essential it is that our leaders listen and take into account those voices of caution, non-interventionism continues to ignore one simple fact: we are enmeshed, perpetually, in a globalized economy that has been built upon the back of a strong American military.  Ironically, this is the same fact that the neoconservatives ignored.

We may need to begin scaling back this model of course, weening Western Europe and other nations off the American defense I.V. but it won’t happen overnight, and it will never happen to the degree many on the anti-war left and right would like.  Add to this the China factor, and any scaling back we may see in the future of Western Europe will only be met with a shift in resources to Asia and the Middle East (and perhaps Africa?).  America is simply not built to sit on the sidelines of global events, however reluctant Americans are to become involved in global crises.  Such is the odd American mix of exceptionalism and isolationism in our national politics.

In the coming years, we will likely find ourselves rethinking and reviving American realism – cold, cramped and calculated as it may be – rather than a Ron Paul style non-interventionism.  And it’s quite likely that the old Wilsonian bug, or some strain of “vanilla neoconservatism” will be channeled in whatever neo-realist foreign policy we settle upon.  American realism, after all, was always infected by American exceptionalism – and perhaps that’s not necessarily such a bad thing.  Exceptionalism properly understood demands a high road that our leaders these past eight years have strayed from.

Natural resources and terrorism will be at the heart of this foreign policy, much as they have been for years, but  democracy promotion and Holy War 2.0 have worn out their welcome.  The realism of the future may not look that much different than the neoconservatism of our past except for in its scale and its exuberance.  Perhaps, in the end, those were neoconservatism’s two fatal flaws to begin with.

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7 thoughts on “defining American interests

  1. good post e. i guess my question is whether the democracy promotion was just a veneer covering (a still untouched) tough kernel of American exceptionalism. [In a weird way isolationism is itself an exceptionally American trait].

    For example with the neocons the loss of democracy promotion (and naive belief in its power) meant a return to an older paleo-neocon (if that makes sense) strain of colonialism. Especially talking about having to stay in Iraq essentially forever. The Cheney solution I suppose. My sense is that is still very strong among the right’s base.

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  2. Perhaps “intervention” should become global responsiveness. Yet, I think our greatest involvement will be, and should be, economic involvement, and this moreso private than state interaction — free and open trade is in the best interest of all concerned. I think the Bush Doctrine is flawed in that it’s almost impossible to know ahead of time from where the threat originates — although if we did know of a plot, and it was conclusive, there would be nothing wrong with a strategic strike — but the Bush Doctrine in general gives too much leeway to the U.S. to control through grand schemes and military might, and become bogged down in quagmires. Global responsiveness would be more in line with modern global co-operation to transition from war to trade — perhaps some form of NGO can become effective dealing with internal conflicts in weak states.

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  3. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a military solution to every problem. As bad as I hate Keynes, he had an economic solution after WWI that could have prevented WWII. As bad as the solution was, economically speaking, it would have been better that 20 million or so deaths. NGOs specializing in regional cultures and problems could possibly broker non-military solutions to many internal conflicts. War between super-states seems to be a thing of the past — concerned parties ought to be able to come up with good solutions for weak states who had statehood forced on them, causing internal cultural and religious strife, without the proper institutions to become strong –and, if the UN can’t handle peace-keeping operations, than perhaps a better international group-solution is called for.

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  4. E.D.:

    So now that the neocon fervor is being supplanted by a more cautious foreign policy both in the oval office and in public opinion, what should we expect?

    It pains me to say it, really, it hurts, but we should expect almost nothing.

    High politics is the domain of the elites. Public sentiment has virtually nothing to do with it except in extremely rare circumstances, at which point, the elites that exploited that sentiment immediately betray it.

    Coincidently, I happen to own a near-full run of AEI’s now-defunct journal “Public Opinion” and these new findings are not that different from the early 1980s.

    Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.

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