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Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics

Aaron David Miller objects to contempt for domestic political considerations in foreign policy debates:

And in a hot argument about Syria the other day, a former State Department official pronounced that he didn’t give a damn what the American people wanted; the president needed to lead and intervene militarily. So let me get this straight: What the public wants or doesn’t shouldn’t matter? Really?

Kennan was well-known for his dislike of the effects of domestic politics on the conduct of foreign policy, and to a lesser extent many people that specialize in foreign policy sometimes share that view. For his part, Kennan feared populism as a destructive political force, and saw foreign policy becoming the vehicle of the agendas of specific lobbies and interest groups at the expense of a broader national interest. Those are understandable concerns, but there is also a danger of ignoring public opinion too often.

Nowadays the negative attitude toward domestic politics is different from Kennan’s in several important ways. First, it usually isn’t rooted in an underlying distrust of democracy. If anything, it stems from an overly idealized conception of how domestic politics should work. Whenever the practice of domestic politics falls short of the ideal of bipartisan “pragmatism,” this is taken as evidence of hopeless political dysfunction at home and it is blamed for much of what ails the country. Foreign policy analysts and writers often seem to suffer from the illusion that the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy is the normal, healthy approach to policy issues, as if it were expected that there shouldn’t be fundamental disagreements in policy debates. It doesn’t often occur to them that the bipartisan consensus on the U.S. role in the world is extremely artificial and can’t be replicated in domestic policy debates. There is a similar contempt for populism, but only when it presents an obstacle to U.S. action overseas. There is a related and misguided admiration for a leadership style that deliberately ignores and overrides public opinion, which we see in Miller’s anecdote about the angry former official. If a president refrains from “acting” abroad because the public doesn’t support it, he is accused of allowing domestic politics to “interfere” with what the supporters of “action” know must be done. Public opinion becomes irrelevant as soon as it becomes too “isolationist” (i.e., not supporting more foreign wars), and when that happens presidents are expected to dismiss it as invalid. Unfortunately, they often do just that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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