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WHO SPEAKS FOR AMERICA?

WHO SPEAKS FOR AMERICA? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy by Eric Alterman Cornell University Press, $25

Elitism in the fashioning of foreign policy, a fact of life for much of 20th century American politics and even an active goal of Walter Lippman's cohort, is now generally perceived as a defeated problem. The Foreign Service has been racially and sexually desegregated; the club-based WASP aristocracy is in shambles; everybody knows everything via the Web and CNN; Congress has become a 535-ring circus where foreign-policy hearings are a favorite sideshow; Washington is now so open and disordered that only the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve still function as secret societies, and even they seem increasingly headline-driven. No diplomat has actually worn striped pants in a long time, or seems likely to don them again soon.

Nevertheless, posits journalist and commentator Eric Alterman, U.S. foreign policy remains "deliberately shielded from the effects of democratic debate, with virtually no institutionalized democratic participation." Alterman, who writes for The Nation and is a senior fellow at the prestigious World Policy Institute, believes that between White House primacy on trade and military-deployment issues and the continuing prevalence of a chummy, self-referential Ivy League contingent at the National Security Council, State Department, Council on Foreign Relations, and a few related organizations, the foreign policy establishment stands fast as "For Professionals Only." This is a view once often heard from the right; Alterman phrases it mainly from the left. He cites, for example, the 1998 Ohio State University public forum, staged at a time when the Clinton Administration was preparing voter opinion for what it thought would be a new round of attacks on Iraq, at which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acted huffy and disdainful of the public when audience members barraged her with the sort of antagonistic questions from which she is normally screened.

Because it argues against the grain--asserting that something society is inclined to dismiss actually does remain a problem--Who Speaks for America? sits square in the tradition of the book that should be read precisely because it's full of material we think we do not need to read. Alterman has produced a volume that is well-written, vigorous, and perceptive. But has he made his case?

Anyone arguing for more democratization of foreign policy must first deal with the Framers who, along with pivotal Enlightment theorists such as Locke and Rousseau, specifically excluded foreign affairs from the inventory of government functions that the common person should control. There were many reasons the original liberal republicans felt foreign policy should be for leaders and specialists: from anxiety about warlike mass opinion; to the worry that typical voters would be ignorant of issues beyond their daily sphere of experience; to the 18th-century presumption that great states require powerful diplomats to speak for them; to simple fear that affairs between nations would become hopelessly cumbersome if, in effect, everybody had to be consulted. In well-done chapters on the history of foreign-policy theory, Alterman proposes answers to all but the last of these concerns. Think, for example, of how much chaotic influence Congress already exerts on foreign policy making, favoring more technology trade with China one year and banning such trade the next year, to cite a recent flip-flop.

Congress is a subject that Who Speaks for America? doesn't handle well. The legislature is already highly democratic, perhaps hyper-democratic, and is the institution the Framers thought would solve representational problems. But Alterman dismisses the House and Senate by calling them corrupted and peopled by hooligans "sell[ing] their votes to the highest bidder while spending the balance of their working days searching for potentially higher bidders." This view is problematic, to say the least: If senators and representatives are scoundrels, isn't it the public's will that seated those scoundrels? And if foreign policy were democratized, how would typical men and women suddenly manifest significantly more wisdom in the selection of international goals than they now do in the selection of members of Congress? Alterman's views of Congress seem too influenced by the ephemera of the current reversionary majority. Not that long ago Congress was a leading progressive force in American life, and there's no reason to think that it cannot play this role again.

For a book whose thesis requires that typical people be smarter than "The Experts", Who Speaks for America? displays puzzling ambivalence about the public mind. At several points Alterman dismisses opinion sampling as a gauge of democratic sentiment, warning that "the public's own well-documented ignorance about even the broadest outlines of major foreign policy issues makes polling data on these issues particularly suspect." But at other points, he uses polls to suggest that typical women and men would back policies different than those favored by the privileged few: citing polls to show, for example, that today "84 percent of elite respondents would go to war to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion, while only 45 percent of the public would," and similar divergences. If most people are ignorant of foreign affairs and the polls can't be trusted, why is this sort of data in Alterman's book?

And assuming the elite-everyman Korean divergence is correct, what does this really tell us? It might mean typical people are more peaceful than elites; or that typical people don't care about potential victims in South Korea, while elites are more broadminded and do care; or that elites are willing to sanction war because no one from their class will serve and die, whereas typical people and their sons and daughters do. Though everyday Americans are this book's heroes, we don't encounter many as interview subjects, so we can only guess as to how their foreign policy views really differ from those of the dreaded Experts.

Having rejected polls, plebiscites, and the legislature as agents of foreign policy democratization, Alterman suggests that a new institution be created, a foreign policy advisory counsel similar to a trial jury. Typical citizens would run for election to single terms as foreign policy advisors. (It's not clear how typicalness would be determined; presumably anyone whose last name ends in a Roman numeral would be declared ineligible.) Election would bring a six-year commission, long enough to become familiar with the details of foreign policy; but re-election and fundraising would be forbidden, removing, Alterman supposes, any incentive for a typical citizen, once chosen as a foreign policy counselor, to sell out to interest groups. (Why interest groups wouldn't start the process by fielding candidates for the advisory boards he doesn't explain.) The advisory juries would engage in heartfelt debate, respecting and listening to each other as, it is widely agreed, trial juries of typical citizens usually do. Gradually authority over foreign policy would be transferred to these groups; Foreign Service Officers and the national security apparatus would answer to democratic advisory boards, not the White House or the alphabet agencies. This idea has obvious drawbacks, but merit as well. Perhaps, in the spirit of laboratories of democracy, some foundation could fund the establishment of a trial-run citizens' foreign policy advisory panel, to see if the body would work and produce any valuable ideas. Even one good idea from a citizen's advisory panel would more than justify the investment.

Democratic foreign policy forged by citizens' juries might seek, Alterman suggests, "stable peace," free trade tempered by job security and better conditions for developing world workers, "realistic" control of immigration, more effective foreign aid, "a global effort to reduce the worldwide flow of arms," and an end to covert action and support for dictators. But how different is this list from the goals of the existing foreign policy elite, except on tolerance of dictators?

At many points, Who Speaks for America? implies that there are multiple foreign policy questions on which the ideal course would be clear to the common person but is being avoided, for shadowy reasons, by entrenched foreign affairs cadres. This seems implausible. Consider the Korea question, for example. It is far from certain whether, if North Korea attacked South Korea, American military intervention would be good or bad, noble or conniving; a public-driven decision not to intervene might run the same risk of going badly haywire as an elite-driven impulse to act. Few members of the striped-pants set are privately scheming for war, industrial decline or arms proliferation. They're just unsure of how best to reach goals like "stable peace," exactly as citizens' advisory juries would be.

GREGG EASTERBROOK is a senior editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and author of Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt. (William Morrow).
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Title Annotation:Review; evaluation of book by Eric Alterman Cornell
Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Abstract
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:1441
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