Mann on Political Parties in U.S. Foreign Policy

Anna Hansen ’12

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Last week James Mann spoke on the differences between American political parties regarding foreign policy. He began by describing his own background in journalism and how this shaped his frame of reference. His main point was that often the policies and arguments parties use switch from one situation to another.

His first example was the 1979 Irananian revolution. Republicans criticized the Carter administration for pushing for democracy, claiming that you couldn’t simply force it in a country like Iran. The Democrats’ response was that Iranians were not fundamentally different and there was no reason they were not capable of democratic governance.

Mann then compares this to the 2003 debate over Iraq. The parties essentially switched roles. This time Democrats argued that you couldn’t go in and force democratic change in Iraq, while the Bush administration claimed that Iraqis wanted and were capable of democratic governance, too.

Then Mann points out another general difference between the two parties. Republicans put a greater emphasis on, and are more willing to use military force than Democrats. Mann points out that these are merely stereotypes and that there are numerous exceptions in administrations on both sides. The constituency of the Democratic Party, however, is more consistently peaceful. The question for Republicans is one of which types of circumstances we should use force in.

Next Mann pointed out that the parties differ on how they asses American power. Republicans are more likely to believe in American exceptionalism and see our foreign policy as “inherently virtuous”. ¬†Democrats, on the other hand, acknowledge mistakes misconduct in American foreign policy.

Mann also says the two parties often disagree over whether America is in decline. This has been a recurring question since the 1940s. The two parties have both switched back and forth, but since the 1980s Republicans have been more skeptical of America’s decline.

Mann then returned to the topic of democratization. The parties have switched back and forth. At one time, they may criticize the other for supporting authoritarian regimes. At another time they will criticize the other for doing too much to pressure a country to democratize.

Another area of partisan disagreement Mann discussed was alliances. The out-of-power party often tends to criticize the administration for eroding our alliances.

Lastly, Mann discusses how each parties views America’s capacity to influence abroad. Republicans ¬†have more often underestimated U.S. abilities, as in the case of the Iraq War. Conversely, the Democrats have sometimes underestimated our power, such as before the Gulf War.

While much of Mann’s argument is hard to argue against, it was too general and safe to be that valuable. For instance, he spoke at length about how Republicans and Democrats are more likely to be hawks and doves, respectively. This is not a new observation. Nor was his point that parties often criticize each other hypocritically. Mann simplified the parties’ politics and played it safe as far as his arguments.

Mann could have talked more about the role of partisanship in the policy making process. He made generalizations about themes in each party’s foreign policy, but didn’t really discuss the formulation of foreign policy. This discussion would be more interesting and important than merely noting that each party will find a way to criticize the other. He could have discussed how changing circumstances change parties’ stances or what motivates each party’s policies.

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