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David Allen: What Happened to Democracy in Foreign Policy?

Every Citizen a Statesman: The Dream of a Democratic Foreign Policy in the American Century, David Allen (Harvard University Press)

Americans live in a very limited democracy. I don’t tell the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates; I don’t decide where the government puts my money; and I sure as hell didn’t vote to go to war in Iraq. Many of the most consequential decisions lie outside the purview of ordinary Americans, who have few means by which to make their voices heard in the corridors of power. This is by design. As numerous historians have shown, in the twentieth century’s second half U.S. elites constructed a state that intentionally restricts the ability of ordinary people to shape policy. Though they might disagree about a lot, the powerful in both political parties agree that, on most things, the public cannot be trusted.

This attitude is especially entrenched when it comes to foreign policy. Since World War II, elites have insisted that U.S. foreign affairs are simply too complex, and the public too volatile and too ignorant, for average Americans to have a say in its formation. As political scientist Gabriel Almond declared in 1950, “the gravest general problem confronting policy-makers is that of the instability of mass moods,” which made it very difficult to promote a stable foreign policy. Moreover, as Almond clarified several years later, when it came to world affairs “often the public is apathetic when it should be concerned, and panicky when it should be calm.” For Almond and many who came after him, a public-directed foreign policy was guaranteed to be a foolish and ineffective one.

Today, one rarely hears members of the foreign policy establishment discuss the idea that ordinary Americans should have a significant say in the U.S. role in the world. A major reason for this is that Almond’s generation institutionalized a system that ensured ordinary people were kept far away from foreign policy. It’s not for nothing that the National Security Act of 1947, which created the modern U.S. security state, established government bodies like the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency, both of which have no connection to public opinion. And beyond the official organs of state, after World War II think tanks like the RAND Corporation, which oftentimes operate outside public view, began to exert significant influence on U.S. foreign affairs. When foreign policy is made and they disagree with it, the best Americans can do is participate in mass protests, like those that erupted during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Even Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942.

According to those who run the U.S. national security state, foreign policy must be an elite, expert-driven affair. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early twentieth century, some Americans sought to establish a system that would give the American public a say in foreign policy decision-making. In his revelatory Every Citizen a Statesman: The Dream of a Democratic Foreign Policy in the American Century, historian David Allen tells the story of the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), the most important group to attempt to develop a public ready and able to make foreign policy.

The FPA’s story allows readers to return to a moment very unlike our own, when some elites sought to reconcile democracy with expertise. It brings us back to an era when certain well-heeled Americans, less alienated from their fellow citizens, believed that public discussion could shape how decision-makers made policy. And it enables us to trace past efforts to educate an inchoate public and make it a crucial actor in U.S. policymaking.

But most important, if most depressing, the FPA’s total failure to accomplish any of its goals highlights the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of creating a democratic foreign policy in a country whose rulers are fundamentally skeptical of the public they deign to rule.

Read entire article at Boston Review