A populist foreign policy for ‘Defending the West’?


Does a “clash between internationalists urging the traditional US leadership role in the world and advocates of an ‘America First’ approach” reported by Reuters presage an impending foreign policy crisis?

The threat of jihadist terror on a mass scale, the growing danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of radical regimes, the possibility of debilitating cyberwarfare, the economic and political challenge posed by a rising China, the impact of globalization on American jobs—these are widely shared concerns for millions of Americans, argues Walter Russell Mead, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Even in our current moment of populist retreat, such fears, together with abiding popular attachment to trusted allies such as the U.K. and Israel, are strong enough and real enough to serve as the political foundation for a new wave of American global engagement.

“The same cannot be said, however, for a cause dear to many in the foreign-policy establishment: There is today very little popular support for the Wilsonian belief that the spread of democracy can solve America’s most urgent foreign-policy problems,” he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Promoting our values abroad remains important to many Americans, and our foreign policy cannot succeed in the long run without a clear moral basis, but the serious, recurring failures of this project since the end of the Cold War have gravely damaged its credibility. ….The disasters that have unfolded in recent years have driven home the idea, for many Americans, that foreign-policy experts have no idea what they are doing. It is useful, in this regard, to acknowledge that it’s not just populists who sometimes get foreign policy wrong.

Leaving aside whether even the most ardent Wilsonian or neo-conservative believes advancing democracy is a panacea for America’s most urgent foreign policy problems, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens is more worried about “the shift from internationalism to transactionalism; from a values-based foreign policy rooted in Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of ‘self-interest, rightly understood.’”

‘Neo-conservative’ shift?

“At a moment when the international order is under severe strain, power is fragmenting and great-power rivalry has returned, the values and purpose at the core of the American idea matter more than ever,” according to Carnegie Endowment president William Burns, expressing concern at foreign policy comprising “a nasty brew of mercantilism, unilateralism and unreconstructed nationalism.”

“Against this backdrop, acting in defense of a critical international norm in Syria is reassuring; going mute on human rights issues in dealing with authoritarian leaders is not,” adds Burns, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

But Cambridge University historian Stephen Wertheim detects a shift to a ‘neo-conservative’ foreign policy doctrine based on ‘Defending the West’ in recent references to shared values and committing to global alliances.

There are dangers, however, in a foreign policy based on “an apocalyptic foreboding about the fate of the West,” a vision “heavily influenced by Julius Evola, an Italian writer, whose Revolt Against the Modern World (1934) influenced Benito Mussolini [and] translated into Russian by Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologist,” argues,” writes the FT”s Edward Luce. This approach seeks to focus on defending the “Judeo-Christian West” than the liberal values associated with the liberal order, he contends.

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