Walter Russell Mead—a professor at Bard College, fellow at the Hudson Institute, scholar of American foreign policy history, and contributing editor here at Providence—spoke at Arizona State University on bipartisanship and foreign policy at the end of March. Speaking in his characteristic straightforward style, Mead liberally sprinkled his talk with funny asides and bits of wisdom, usually drawn from his Episcopalian priest father.
Though Mead’s talk was focused on bipartisanship in American foreign policy as part of a speaking series on civil discourse, he had news for the audience: American foreign policy has rarely ever stopped “at the water’s edge,” as the saying goes. The call for bipartisanship in foreign policy is the cry of the party in power, but he was quick to remind us that none were too keen on engaging in bipartisanship themselves. Compromising is for the other guy.
Even at the height of periods where consensus was imagined to be more bipartisan, say in the 1950s, Mead stressed foreign policy was still contentious and contested. Mead’s strong historical perspective on America’s foreign policy grounds his thinking, and he stressed to many of the students in the audience that, while history does not provide a foolproof means for addressing future challenges America will face, it is the best resource we have.
During the Q&A portion of the event, Mead stressed Congress’ importance historically in shaping and influencing foreign policy. While the president has always been the leader in executing foreign policy, Congress has usually played an important role. As of late, Congress has tended to take a back seat to presidents in foreign policy, and he believed Congress should reassert itself.
With the revolution in shale gas and oil, America has experienced a fundamental shift in our energy policy as we turned from being a consumer into a producer. This has had a profound effect on how Americans view the Middle East and our involvement there. If you think what happens there is going to affect the price of gasoline, then you may think America needs to be involved. But if, as is now the case, what happens in Saudi Arabia will not affect our energy supply in a significant way, we will think about our involvement differently. Maybe we should be more reluctant to insert ourselves into the latest conflagration.
Mead argued that the American people have been signaling for decades a desire to pull back from the Cold War posture. The last four presidents since the end of the Cold War, Mead noted, have been notable not as foreign policy presidents but as candidates who ran on domestic issues. Clinton defeated the internationalist par excellence, George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush was chosen over Al Gore and John Kerry—senators with distinguished foreign policy credentials. Barak Obama touted his opposition to the Iraq War from the beginning of his candidacy and promised to end America’s wars and bring the troops home. Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, well, puts America first. Enough said.
The point Mead was driving home is that Americans have been signaling in their elections that they want leaders more concerned with the home front and domestic issues now that America’s maximalist position in the world is less of a necessity in the post-Soviet era. Right or wrong, this signaling does not look like it will fade anytime soon.
This gets to a related point that Mead articulated with particular clarity. When asked about the disconnect between the foreign policy community and the American people, Mead was blunt. It is a problem to have a group of people, such as our foreign policy community, who tend to be removed from the political process having an outsized influence on American politics. The foreign policy community is run by an “elite” in that it is a relatively small, highly trained, and insular community. Those who advocated for the Iraq War have not learned from its many lessons. The Army recently published a vast two-volume history of the war. Do not expect anything so probing by the policymakers.
One particularly thorny question that Mead singled out was making clear what exactly winning a war looks like for the American military. Painting an achievable and clear picture of what victory would entail could help build trust and realistic expectations for future interventions. World War II is an enticing but unrealistic model, though it seems the American public expects victory to look something like that.
The First Gulf War is admirable in this respect. President Bush laid out achievable and realistic objectives. He built a large coalition. Saddam was pushed out of Kuwait, and the war came to an end.
The policy on China and the promotion of democracy around the globe in the post-Cold War era were policies that had broad support within foreign policy circles but were much less popular in the general public. We were told for a long time that cooperation with China on economic issues would bring about liberalization and openness. The strident tone of the current president is more reflective of the current consensus across the West that Chinese ambitions are starting to pose a threat economically and strategically.
The other policy that the foreign policy community championed was democracy promotion. The failure of the Arab Spring and the brief intervention in Libya to stay the hand of Muammar Gaddafi, along with the dashed liberal democratic hopes of Iraq as the shining city on the Tigris, have sobered even the most devoted zealots of democracy promotion. The idea that America should actively seek to establish liberal democracies across the globe as a foreign policy objective seemed reasonable when the “end of history” appeared to have arrived. In retrospect, it was, at a minimum, overly idealistic if not foolish to expect liberal democracies to take root and flourish in parts of the world that had no history or values that would lend themselves toward these forms of government.
At the end of his talk, Mead stressed the importance of character in foreign policy, which one does not often hear in a foreign policy discussion but seemed fitting. Mead stressed the challenges, pressure, and humility that engaging in foreign policy requires. In order to have an effective and responsive foreign policy, we need men and women of character who will be able to undertake the pressures of working in foreign policy without succumbing to the challenges and temptations that beset one on all sides.
Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Walter Russell Mead at the Amerika Haus in Vienna, Austria, in March 2017. By US Embassy Vienna, via Flickr.