James Mann on the Parties & Foreign Policies

James Mann gave a good lecture on the two political parties, and their views towards foreign policy. Overall, he was a very good speaker, and very concise. I guess that comes from years in the newspaper business.

James Mann poses for a book cover shot

Largely, I think what he said needs to be taken with a bit of perspective. If one was to quote him, it would be easy to take other things he has said as a counter-example to his own argument. Having said that, it doesn’t mean he was talking in circles.

He started with the example of democracy promotion, a Middle East country in revolt, and a president unsure what to do with a close ally who was just barely clinging to power. The Republicans absolutely hammered Jimmy Carter in the next election, claiming that you can’t push Iran towards democracy, and that only when it is ready will it become democratic. Of course, twenty years later, these arguments would be reversed, as Bush 43 prepared to enter Iraq.

One of Mr. Mann’s main point was that democracy promotion, and the idea of alliances (specifically, strengthening them) are ideas that the two parties seem to favor, but never at the same time. And so, they switch depending on the election cycle and a calculation as to whether this will win them an advantage. It was his own view that the parties very rarely ever follow their rhetoric with well rationalized principles and a strong conviction in their cause. In short, its politicking.

Mr. Mann also said that it is not easy to stereotype the parties, at least on the foreign policy record. He says that if one is going to, they better understand the parties’ positions on issues throughout the modern era. However after he says this, he does make some stereotypes. I happen to agree with him on most of these points. It is interesting however, to see him say it, because most mildly objective observers would agree with him, and yet it greatly undermines his arguments about stereotyping. He defends himself on that charge, saying in 2005 to a UCBerkely student blog that “Irony is very important to me. From my own experience, I think you can’t go through life without a sense of irony, without running into it. In covering day-to-day events or writing books, if you step back from any particular moment, you often find reason to laugh at the turnabouts that all sides make.”

Both parties pledge significant rhetorical support to the military. I think it would be frivolous to say anyone but the government actually SUPPORTS the military though. The Democrats routinely question the use of force, or at least the necessity of it, in some conflicts. That is because their base likes war less than the Republican base. Republicans largely don’t like military cuts, but whether this is due to a routinely impassioned defense of core values, or seeking constituents’ support at the local gun factory is a matter of some debate. Democrats routinely worry about American power as a force for good, and as a justification for action. Republicans usually have no such qualms. They tend to minimize abuses within our ‘perfect’ system, abuses that tend to have a much longer effect on the US than our media cycles do. Democrats largely seek more questions and answers about the world around them, while Republicans seek more questions and answers about the US around the world.

Mr. Mann answers questions for the media

I enjoyed James Mann’s lecture because as both a Washington insider, and a journalist, you know there is considerable experience behind his thoughts. As a journalist, he represents (in this country at least) a modicum of objectivity, which one can barely find in Washington. If I had one criticism it was that he did not criticize both parties enough. If he was running a marathon, he only ran 26 miles. I will finish the last .2 for him.

He asserts that the parties change policies often enough that one can’t characterize or stereotype them in any meaningful way. I was hoping for more criticism on his part, of the so-often knee-jerk reactions developments in the world have. Republicans immediately tee off on Democrats, and Democrats immediately dismiss Republicans, and it would appear to me that it is all based on party lines. There doesn’t seem to be any sober analysis of any issues, except the domestic political calculation. How much does this hurt us? We can keep lurching two steps forward, one step back…but if need be, will we be able to  break into a sprint to get away from China, or the EU?

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One Response to James Mann on the Parties & Foreign Policies

  1. sternbar says:

    For an insightful analysis of the domestic politics of foreign policy, check out Jacob Heilbrunn’s essay at Foreign Policy:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/12/twilight_of_the_wise_man_republican?page=0,0

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