Friday, June 14, 2019

Voters, David Brooks doesn't like the way you smell

David F. Brooks in the presence of someone who's not conversant with the liberal international order. Via Medium.

Shorter David Brooks, "Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!", The New York Times, 13 June 2019:
The problem with foreign policy in America nowadays is the voters, who have never heard of the phrase "maintaining the liberal international order" and are therefore hostile to it, or at any rate hostile to the thing that they actually have heard of that is more or less the same thing, or else it's because they have for some reason that escapes me lost faith in human nature and human possibility and become, especially among the young, distrustful, alienated, and unwilling to get involved in the strange, hostile, outside world.  Therefore we need a leader who can grapple with failures like Iraq, build a younger leadership class, and embody optimism. Probably he should also be a member of a minority, a senator from a state like Illinois, and a talented writer, with experience living in a foreign country not in Europe.
Just making up that last sentence, of course: the Obama nostalgia is completely subliminal here, and real Brooks would be startled to hear himself accused of it. He's never been able to grasp that Obama has any actual original foreign policy views, if only because he can't imagine the possibility that anybody could come up with original foreign policy views after Wolfowitz or maybe Clausewitz or thereabouts or let's say after he got his Chicago BA. But he seems to have a dim awareness that once there was a moment when somebody grappled with the failure of Iraq for a while, and there were a bunch of foreign policy experts under 50, and something more than lip service was given to optimism, while the Republicans grimly kept their eyes averted from the unpleasant spectacle.

The remarkably childish headline is for real. What he's depressed about today is a new survey study:

Researchers from the Center for American Progress recently completed a survey of American foreign policy views. They write: “When asked what the phrase ‘maintaining the liberal international order’ indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases … meant or implied.”
That by itself is not a problem. The liberal order was built by foreign policy elites, from George Marshall to Madeleine Albright. The problem is that voters are now actively hostile to the project. Instead of widening the circle of concern, most Americans want the U.S. to simply look after itself.
I couldn't get over that: it's not a problem that they don't know what it is, since we have elites to take care of that, but it is a problem that they don't like it.

The CAP study (which looks like a very good one, with its own set of categories derived from an intensive focus group study feeding into the quantitative part), finds something rather different, of course; Brooks has read it in Brooksian fashion, eyes flitting to the paragraphs that suggest something he's already familiar with, and missing what he isn't. The majority in the study don't want anything "simply":
American voters do not desire a full retreat from global affairs. They want to work with U.S. allies and international institutions to solve global challenges but only if the nation is also committed to putting its domestic house in order.
The picture presented by the actual breakdown shows clearly what Brooks can't see, the complexity of "both sides":
Based on responses to questions about goals, priorities, and attitudes tested throughout the survey, our project divided the electorate into four distinct groupings. One-third of American voters fall into what we label the “Trump nationalist” camp. Composed heavily but not exclusively of Republicans and regular Fox News viewers, this group is strongly in favor of prioritizing military spending and strongly against immigration and the United States acting as the world’s policeman.
Balancing this nationalist bloc are two kinds of voters more open to U.S. engagement in the world: “traditional internationalists” and “global activists.” A little less than one-fifth of the electorate, including a mix of Republican and Democratic, mostly older voters, may be described as “traditional internationalists.” These voters are the strongest believers in international engagement in a general sense and are the most committed to U.S. leadership in the world. Just less than 3 in 10 voters occupy what we call the “global activist” camp, a group that is heavily Democratic, very liberal, and well-educated. This group strongly favors diplomacy over military action and is very supportive of cooperative global actions on issues such as climate change, human rights, and poverty.
The final segment of the electorate—a little more than one-fifth—form the “foreign policy disengaged” bloc: Disproportionately younger, less educated, and less attentive to international developments, these voters lack strong opinions on most foreign policy issues and ideas.
Here, while it's true that Brooks's "liberal international order" only attracts a bit less than 20% of the respondents, that doesn't mean everybody else is an isolationist; there are also the 30% who believe in a peaceful internationalism, who are also the young and the decidedly left, the ones he's unable to see or imagine at all. Or you could divide the whole picture into two different halves by relative bloody-mindedness, old militarists (Trumpies and Brooksies) and young pacifists (lefties and the disengaged).

Brooks is right to see his own faction as dwindling, ground down by the dreadful errors of Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, but wrong to see it as giving way to isolationism; it's dividing, rather, between an older and more Republican half reverting to what Republicans became after the First World War, from Senators Lodge and Borah rejecting the Versailles Treaty down through Pat Buchanan to Trump, and a younger and more Democratic half moving forward to a better way, which is pretty much what I mean by the Obama foreign policy, which seeks to maintain an international order by pulling back from hegemony but leaning in to cooperation, "leading from behind" to build a community of nations that lead themselves, in a spirit that's as much a part of the Roosevelt-Truman spirit as the other thing is.

(And I'm of the view that Obama's foreign policy overall and particularly in Iraq was on the successful side. The fact that nobody's talking about these countries leaves most people thinking that they haven't gotten better, but it really proves that they have.)

Politically, there's a hope for Democratic coalition-building in these numbers, not that the coalition will be based on foreign policy (it never is), but you can get together a foreign policy from the Obama liberals that can please or not infuriate enough of the more liberal liberals and less nihilistic nihilists respectively to be acceptable alongside the more important social welfare and civil rights and environmental policies (the Green New Deal is the best example of a policy package that is both internationalism at its best and strongly attentive to domestic needs). No idea how good a hope it is, and don't know much of anything, come to think of it, about the foreign policy views of the dozens of Democratic presidential candidates, but it's better to be looking forward in these matters than sitting on the floor wailing with David F. Brooks over the lost days of Scoop Jackson.

Driftglass shares memories of when Brooks didn't think the Iraq War was a mistake and in fact did his best to destroy trust in our government by cheering it on in some of the most calamitously bad decisions ever made in Washington. Still waiting for an apology on that.

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