Think Globally

The 2004 election results carry especially profound implications for the Democrats on foreign policy. John Kerry's defeat means that the party must develop both new voices and a broader vision of America's role in the world.

It will not be sufficient to argue merely that the Republicans have bungled foreign policy. (If that message didn't work this time, amid the chaos of Iraq, will it ever?) Nor is it enough to claim that the Democrats have their own personnel with hands-on foreign-policy experience. How many presidential campaigns will the Democrats enter with the same old spokesmen, like Richard Holbrooke or Sandy Berger, arguing that if they were in office, they could manage things better than the Republicans?

I agree with Alan Brinkley's assertion that the loss of the White House “is not the Democrats' most difficult challenge,” and that overall, the erosion in Congress is more serious. Yet the loss of the presidency counts more in foreign policy, because foreign policy gets made mostly in the executive branch. That's where the jobs are. And so the fact that the Republicans have controlled the White House in five of the last seven elections (or seven of the last 10) means that over time, the Republicans possess considerably more opportunities to rise through the ranks via political appointments at the State and Defense departments.

So in coming elections, the Democrats probably won't be able to compete on the basis of experience. And they shouldn't. They need to develop a much deeper framework of ideas for their foreign policy. Yes, America needs to rebuild its alliances, as Kerry argued. But for what ends? To speak merely of alliances, without saying more, confines foreign policy to the rarefied world of the elites.

Do progressives believe the United States should seek to spread democracy? Or should the United States leave repressive countries alone and instead merely work to ensure its own security and prosperity? For some, these may be uncomfortable, simpleminded questions. Yet the inability to answer them leaves a presidential candidate unable to talk to ordinary voters about larger goals. One of Kerry's biggest failings was allowing President Bush to invoke -- repeatedly and without challenge -- the causes of freedom and democracy, as though these were uniquely Republican virtues. Kerry might have argued that the Bush administration has in fact set back the causes of freedom and democracy for years by linking these ideals so inextricably to the use of U.S. military power.

Brinkley urges progressive forces to make peace with the military. That's reasonable advice, as far as it goes. But there is a difference between getting along with the military and supporting the unjustified use of force, particularly in an era of preventive war. Indeed, the principal distinguishing characteristic of Bush and his advisers (the “Vulcans”) has been their belief in the centrality of military power as America's principal tool in dealing with the world. The Democrats don't have to say “me, too” to that. Questioning the necessity and the costs of a Pentagon-based approach to the world should, in fact, be one core element in the vision the Democrats try to develop over the coming years.

It took the conservatives a long time to develop their views on foreign policy. After Barry Goldwater's defeat, more than a decade passed before Ronald Reagan, with his challenge to détente with the Soviet Union, began to make political headway in the 1976 primaries. The following year, conservative Richard Allen confessed to an interviewer that while he thought Reagan should be president, the chances of the conservatives gaining control of the White House were so remote he didn't even think about it. Four years later, Reagan was in the White House and Allen his national-security adviser.

The conservatives succeeded by settling on a few key themes and then continuing to refine them: that America should respond to the defeat in Vietnam by rebuilding its military might; that America should not seek accommodations with other powers; that America was not in decline, but in fact more powerful than its critics believed.

Even after the Soviet collapse, the hawks updated this vision for a new era. In 1992, then–Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and his undersecretary, Paul Wolfowitz, set down the guiding principles for U.S. foreign policy after the end of the Cold War: The United States should continue to build up its military power and technology to such an extent that no country could even think of competing with it.

This is the post–Cold War view of the world that has guided the Bush administration over the past four years and for which the Democrats need to offer an alternative. Kerry kept saying he had a specific “plan” for Iraq. In future elections, the Democrats need a deeper, more sweeping critique of the Vulcans' vision.

James Mann is the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. He is author-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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