The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas. ~Walter Russell Mead

Mead has a bad habit of concluding that “the American people” favor something if that thing happens to become U.S. policy. It also doesn’t follow that “the people” accept or acquiesce in a policy because of their “commonsense reasoning.” If most Americans see nothing wrong with aggressive and activist foreign policy (or at least raise no objections to it), this is because many of them are simply accepting the status quo. That isn’t the chief obstacle to altering U.S. policies. One reason that “Paulites” will have difficulty in defining a “foreign policy for the Tea Party” is that there are a lot of people and institutions with vested interests in preventing significant changes to U.S. foreign policy commitments and military spending levels.

If Americans perceive a rising China as a threat, it is largely because their political leaders have encouraged them to view it in these terms. Having hyped the threat and stoked public outrage, supporters of aggressive and activist U.S. policies can then point to the “widespread public opinion” that favors their position. The good news is that public opinion is malleable, and support for or opposition to a policy is never very strong outside of a limited number of activists and analysts. The bad news is that public opinion doesn’t actually have much effect on the shape of U.S. foreign policy.

If it did, changing public opinion would have a much greater impact on policy decisions. If there is a revolt of “Jacksonian common sense” going on that relates to foreign policy, one would never know it by looking at most of the policies being proposed by the leaders of either party. Arguably, the one moment when Republican leaders have yielded to or encouraged what might be called Jacksonian distrust of internationalism was when they pushed for delaying or scrapping the new arms reduction treaty. Republican leaders were hostile to engaging with another state and their position was at odds with U.S. security interests, but it wasn’t out of deference to “Jacksonian common sense” that they took this position.

If we are talking about what “the American people” say they support, the treaty should have been of the least controversial things to come before the Senate in years. I should add here that the treaty ratification didn’t become a consensus position because it was popular, but it became popular (to the extent that this means anything) because there was an overwhelming consensus in favor of it. Instead of sailing through the Senate, it became one of the more hard-fought arms control treaties, and for some reason opposing an overwhelmingly popular and sound treaty became a new test of ideological and partisan purity. This wasn’t because Republican leaders were heeding “Jacksonian common sense,” but because they were intent on opposing the treaty for their own reasons, most of which had to do with protesting administration Russia policy, continuing reflexive opposition to every administration initiative, and indulging their obsession with missile defense.

I doubt that most Americans believe that “security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.” The Jacksonians that Mead talks about are among the least likely to believe that. It seems to me that Jacksonians would prefer very minimal engagement overseas, and they are unlikely to define American security very broadly. What counts as “substantial” engagement for some might be excessive and unreasonable for many others. Even if most Americans approve of “substantial engagement overseas,” that doesn’t mean that there is broad public support for specific kinds of engagement. In any case, it’s a distraction to dwell on what the public does or doesn’t believe about U.S. foreign policy, since the factors that determine what that policy will be are quite different.