By Corinne Waite
While I had really been looking forward to hearing James Mann speak on “Political Parties and US Foreign Policy,” I was disappointed by the lecture overall (a description of the event can be found here). I thought the use of more examples, a greater focus on history, and a discussion of the practical, current applications of his points might have been beneficial.
I agreed with Mann’s central point that the foreign policies of the Republican and Democratic parties have not been as different historically as we often suppose, and that the opposition we create between them is therefore a false one. His comparison of the conservatives’ policy towards Iran during the 1970s versus their policy towards Iraq today was an excellent way to lead into this discussion. Beyond this point, however, his examples were very common ones – for example, his assertion that both Democrats and Republicans historically have approved of the use of US military force when necessary is one that has been made countless times before (although given how often this seems to be forgotten, perhaps repeating it a few more times doesn’t hurt). I also don’t think he delved deep enough into evidence for the ways in which the two parties have exhibited certain consistent differences over time. Particularly undeveloped was his claim that the Democrats have overall been more concerned than Republicans about America’s potential ability to do damage in the world. While it is easy to point to recent military abuses in the Middle East as failure on the part of Republicans to take American power seriously, a look over the past few decades provides many instances of damage done by Democrats as well. In order to argue for a significant difference in the paradigms of these two parties in this area, then, Mann would have had to provide a more well-developed reasoning for this distinction.
Also, there were few links in this lecture to the history of US diplomacy as a whole. I think at least a brief focus on this deeper background actually would have been a beneficial addition to the discussion. Even in understanding how the platforms of the Democratic and Republican Parties have changed over the past 40 years, it seems worth noting that the parties themselves have grown only recently out of many greater shifts in political beliefs since the nation was founded.
Given Mann’s focus on recent events, I was surprised that he offered little in his lecture as to how all of this matters in the present. Can there still exist a distinction between the foreign policies of the Democratic and Republican Parties in light of their entwined pasts? If not, does this leave American voters with only one option for foreign policy when choosing political candidates? Is there hope for a solution to this problem? (In an article written for American Prospect, Mann seems to argue that each party does have the ability to shape a distinct foreign policy, at least in a rhetorical sense). If Mann had tackled these questions, in addition to including more evidence and perhaps a broader approach to the history of US foreign policy, this could have made for a more engaging lecture.