Party Mann: Fact Checking in Political Parties & Foreign Policy

Julianne Greco ’12

James Mann ponders deeply about the relationship between political parties and foreign policy in the U.S. Photo Courtesy of the Clarke Forum.

The journalist James Mann delivered the lecture “Political Parties and U.S. Foreign Policy” last week at Dickinson, as a part of the Clarke Forum’s speaker series. Mann has an impressive resume: he is currently in the author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, worked for the Los Angeles Times as a Washington correspondent, columnist, and Beijing bureau chief, has received acclaim for his diplomatic reporting, and has published a number of political books.

In his lecture on campus, Mann provided a range of examples from the Carter administration’s policy towards Iran during the Islamic Revolution to President George W. Bush’s to Iraq for the War on Terror to illustrate the discontinuity of both parties’ positions on foreign policy over time, paying special attention to the issue of democratization. He emphasized that neither party has shown consistent foreign policy in the oval office and at times, the parties have made a 180 degree reversal.

A major point of Mann: often presidential candidates will talk big and define their goals for office as the antithesis of the other party’s platform. Mann asserts that often, as observed in the Obama administration, there is a discrepancy between rhetoric (especially campaign rhetoric) and policy, particularly with the War on Terror and U.S.  involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mann provided a great outline of trends in political parties’ foreign policy, but offered a limited analysis of his observations. Perhaps this was due to time constraints in the lecture or maybe his background in journalism defined the nature of the lecture (though he does have experience in commentary). However, by giving a timeline of generally well-known national security and foreign policy issues and how the Democrats and Republicans have realigned over time, Mann was accomplishing an essential duty of a journalist. Mann’s lecture is about bringing attention to the critical issue—bringing attention to the issue to spark reflection, analysis, and dialogue. Mann wasn’t trying to persuade with his political views, he was trying to make his audience think. This critical issue is the necessity for historically examining political parties’ stances in terms of both rhetoric and policy—and not just looking at the current situation.

What Mann lacked in his own deep analysis, he made up for in his thought-provoking comments. Underlying Mann’s lecture was a message: check your premises. This became clear at the end of his lecture when referring to knowing the facts of the parties’ past international actions, he stated, “Hopefully we can have more realistic and less self-righteous discussions.”

For example, Mann effectively said, do not slam the Republicans as having a tradition of spreading democracy when the Democrats have one as well. Be fair and look at the records. This does not mean that the parties always flip on the big issues: “Both sides have been wrong,” he warned.

Towards the end of the lecture, Mann asked, given the varying U.S. approaches to foreign policy within each party, “How do we look at America’s power and influence overseas?” Generally, he said, Democrats worry more about “the harm U.S. power can cause overseas,” while Republicans see the United States as a force for good in the world—a notion of American exceptionalism.

Aside from exceptionalism’s relevancy to the course, Mann’s question leads into another question asked in class this week: Is there a “New Testament” of American Imperialism in U.S. diplomatic policy tradition as McDougall suggests? And is this chapter, the “worst chapter in almost any book” as James Field believes?

Field’s article “American Imperialism” actually makes a pretty similar assertion to Mann. Field criticizes historians for forcing patterns and consistent ideologies in their historical explications, when in reality, a step back and a look at the facts reveal that historians have generally strung unrelated events together in an attempt to explain them in the case of American imperialism. Field describes the fallacy of “seeing the past through the prism of the present” (Mann 645). This is one of Mann’s underlying criticisms in his lecture, though he extends his criticism to the general public, beyond just historians.

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