American Public Still Ahead of Its Leaders on Foreign Policy

Americans are famous for not paying much attention to the rest of the world, and it is often said that foreign wars are the way that we learn geography.  But most often it is not the people who have little direct experience outside their own country that are the problem, but rather the experts.

The latest polling data is making this clear once again, as a majority of Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan, but the Obama Administration is escalating the war and his military commanders are asking for even more troops than the increase to 68,000 that the Administration is planning by the end of this year.

This gap between the average American and the foreign policy elite has been around since the Vietnam War and long before.  The gap is also large between Democratic voters, three-quarters of whom oppose the war in Afghanistan, and the politicians and think tanks that represent them in the political arena.  A few decades ago there was a real voting base of “Cold War” liberals — people who were progressive on social and economic issues but right wing on foreign policy.  That base has largely disappeared.  Yet amazingly, the foreign policy establishment — including most of the media — has managed to maintain this political tendency as a very influential force.

The gap between the public and the foreign policy elite is not due to the ignorance of the masses, as the elite would have it, but primarily to a different set of interests and values.  Very few foreign policy decision-makers — just a handful of Members of Congress, for example — have sons or daughters who actually fight in the wars that they decide are “wars of necessity.”  The tax burden for these wars is more affordable for most foreign policy experts than it is for an American with median earnings.  And perhaps most importantly, the average American doesn’t have the same interest in trying to have the U.S. rule the world.

For the foreign policy elite, the importance of running the world — as much as it is possible — is taken as given.  Walter Russell Mead is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), one of the most influential foreign policy organizations in the United States.  He represents the more liberal end of the political spectrum at the CFR.  In a recent interview with The Brazilian Economy, he argued that all countries must accept what he called “the Anglo-American system.”  For him, the lessons of history show that there is no alternative: “To me, there is one clear lesson: by joining the [Anglo-American] system and becoming part of it, you can achieve far greater results, whether measured by international power, state security, or the prosperity of your people.  You actually do much better by co-operating than resisting.”

While one can argue that Europe and Japan have done reasonably well as subordinate partners to the United States in the post-World-War II era, the same cannot be said for the majority of countries in the world.  This is especially true in the years since 1980, which have seen a sharp slowdown in economic growth, and reduced progress in social indicators such as life expectancy and infant mortality, in the vast majority of low-and-middle-income countries.  The biggest exception is China — which succeeded by rejecting the “Anglo-American” policy prescriptions and opted for state control of their banking system, foreign exchange, foreign capital flows, and a host of other important economic decisions.  China also remained outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) until 2001, when they were economically strong enough to take advantage of it.  Resistance, it seems, is not always futile.

Foreign economic policy is even more removed from public input than foreign policy in general, with unaccountable institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and WTO making decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.  It is this one-step-further removal from public accountability — there are no voters that these institutions have to answer to — that makes them so attractive to the elite in rich countries.  In the current economic downturn, the IMF can use taxpayer dollars to bail out Western European banks who made imprudent loans in Eastern Europe, something that the contributing governments might not be able to get away with politically if it were done directly.

Policies that primarily cause harm in other countries, such as the failed macroeconomic and development policies that the IMF, World Bank, and WTO have pressured other countries to adopt, would not get support from the public as they do from the elite.  The average American has a moral sense that seems lacking in policy discussions here in Washington, where it is the custom to appear amoral, almost like an insect.  In 2006, when television newscasts were showing regular footage of Iraqis killed and maimed by explosions, Americans were horrified and opposition to the war increased substantially.  It is only by keeping the ugly reality of our foreign occupations away from the public that our government can even get enough support to keep funding them.

Conversely, where there are independent citizens’ organizations that can exert influence, some of the crimes involved in U.S. foreign policy can be successfully challenged.  For example, the American Civil Liberties Union waged a five-year battle that led to Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision this week to appoint a special prosecutor to look into some of the instances of torture and abuse of prisoners by the CIA.

But the powerful and rigid institutional arrangements of our foreign policy establishment, the sloth and weakness among the intelligentsia, as well as the corruption from the interests of military contractors, makes it an uphill battle for common sense to prevail.  It is not that the American people are so backward and ignorant, or bellicose; rather the main problem is that the public has so little input into foreign policy decisions.  That is what must change if we are to get away from the prospect of never-ending wars and conflicts, and from a foreign policy that continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to social and economic progress in the world.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy.  He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published by the Guardian on 27 August 2009 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.