They haven’t yet posted the second half (actually, the middle – they edited the video to put the movie stuff in the first half when it was really the end of the discussion) of the bloggingheads discussion between Ross Douthat and yours truly, but I wanted to point to this section as an excuse for elaborating on one point I make in passing.
I talk about the need for a different “emotional dynamic” on the right with respect to foreign policy, where right now a kind of identity politics usurps everything, and the goal is not to articulate some vision of foreign policy but to prove that you’re a “real American.” But then I segue into talking about George Bush Sr. and the appeal (or lack of appeal) of “competence” in the management of foreign policy. And I think Ross’s answer to that is right: “I’ll manage well” is never a winning slogan, and wasn’t the slogan even of Presidents who are admired in retrospect for managing well, such as Eisenhower.
But I think where I was really headed with this was somewhere else.
The danger in the existing emotional dynamic isn’t so much that it is an emotional dynamic, that it’s not a cold-blooded search for a good manager, but rather the conflation of patriotism and militarism. The gauntlet to run within the right is to prove that you’re a real, patriotic American – fine. But apparently you prove this by asserting that no amount of military spending is ever enough, by making torture a virtue, by mocking the very idea of diplomacy, by dividing allies into two camps, vassals who must be punished if they don’t obey our commands (Japan, the various countries of Europe) and holy causes for whom we must be willing to bear any burden, pay any price (Israel, Taiwan, Georgia) and, most alarmingly, by a kind of hero-worship of conquering generals. This is not the way it has to be, nor how it was within fairly recent living memory. America has a citizen army, and the right has a long tradition – one that encompasses leaders like Eisenhower who were hardly isolationist – of calling for caution in the commitment of our military precisely because it is an extension of the citizenry, not a mere tool of the government.
I don’t actually expect revival of full-throated anti-interventionism on the American right, something like the pre-World War II America Firsters. I don’t think even Daniel Larison expects that. But some kind of tendency to counter militarism is necessary, and right now, with Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney trying to outdo each other in their appeals to the militarist tendency on the right, I kind of despair of any counter-dynamic getting traction.
And that’s why I need to revisit something else that Ross said, in this case something I don’t agree with but let slide. I pointed out that the Wilsonian and Jacksonian tendencies within the GOP are wildly contradictory – you can’t simultaneously believe that we have a mission to shape the world to promote democracy and that we don’t owe the world anything and just want to maximize our independence of action and defend our honor. Ross pointed out that the Democratic tent embodies a similar contradiction between liberal internationalists who are a marriage of Hamiltonians and “soft” Wilsonians, who favor American leadership of international institutions to regulate international affairs, and the left-Jeffersonians that first came to prominence in the McGovern campaign, who distrust American actions abroad and want to see American power checked. I let this slide, but shouldn’t have.
The two Democratic poles of liberal internationalists and left-wing critics of American power obviously don’t agree with one another, and the left-wing America critics in particular surely think liberal internationalists are dupes or liars with corrupt interests behind them. But notwithstanding, those same left-wing critics, who will never be dominant, can provide a useful check on liberal internationalists who might too easily talk themselves into the notion that American values and American interests are perfectly aligned. If they are intelligently constructed – big if – critiques of American power and how it is perceived abroad are precisely what liberal internationalists need to read if they want to do their job effectively, and not blunder into unnecessary or unwinnable conflicts.
By contrast, while I see how they get in each other’s way, I don’t really see how Jacksonian militarism and “hard” Wilsonianism effectively check one another at all. The need to appease Jacksonian militarists will only increase foreign opposition to Wilsonian interventions, and the increased level of conflict will only increase the perception by a Jacksonian militarist that we are surrounded by enemies and need to be even tougher in response. Rather than a negative feedback loop, you have a viciously escalating cycle.
Now, Jacksonians don’t have to be militarists, and if they weren’t they might serve as such a check. Jacksonians care deeply about national honor; to serve as a useful check on Wilsonian impulses, they would need to oppose the commitment of the national honor when there is no important national interest. So, when conflict between Russia and Georgia erupts, and John McCain (hard Wilsonian militarist extraordinaire) says we’re all Georgians, you’d need to hear the response – “no we aren’t: we’re Americans, and don’t you forget it!” Sounds like a Jacksonian response to me – but that’s not what we heard.
BTW, I’m throwing out Walter Russell Mead’s typology without explanation. As Ross said in passing on the video, that’s a topic we’ve discussed before, and here is where to go if you want to see that discussion.