Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Letter to a Student of U.S. Foreign Policy
You took on a difficult topic and I commend you for that. Your argument- that the will of the people should be the moderating and mediating factor in the delicate balance of idealism and realism in foreign policy- is a good one. Since the ideals of a nation are to a certain degree subject to interpretation from one administration to the next, what better beacon of consistency is there than the will of the people? Likewise, isn't national interest best defined by the nation itself?
However, your thesis is also fraught with difficulties of its own. How do you measure the will of the people? How do you account for mass hysteria? There have been, sadly, times in our history where bowing to public opinion has been little more than stooping to the lowest common denominator of prejudice and fear. I still think the discussion of Kantian Ethics undermines, rather than strengthens, your argument...Few if any politicians are likely to re-hash university debates over Kant when deciding how to vote, and the American public is much more likely to be influenced by Hollywood or the Parish priest in their thinking on ethics. An essential American characteristic is a belief in moral absolutes, even if not particularly absolutely.
The liberal backlash against Bush wasn’t just a matter of his wars going poorly, but a repudiation of his old-school American worldview and his audacity (interestingly, that’s Obama’s word) to put it into practice. When his wars did go poorly (though I think the Vietnam comparison, while gaining some traction in the darkest hour of Iraqi Freedom, is one that already doesn’t hold water in the history books), the average American has been more than willing to go along with the anti-Bush sentiment. The average American's understanding of current and recent U.S. foreign policy doesn't extend much beyond the talking points.
Don’t be just the average American. The Bush legacy in foreign policy is a complicated one, and one largely unrepudiated by any politician as of yet, including President Obama. Has Guantanamo been closed? The drone program restrained or ended? The “war on terror” brought to a close? A new era of diplomacy and bilateral action ushered in? A new political atmosphere of bipartisan cooperation established in Washington?
Actually, I may be wrong about this. Perhaps the only ones who have really parted with Bush in anything more than rhetoric is Rand Paul and the Libertarians. But then they are such terrible realists, they may be guilty of the most dangerous idealism of all.