Many pundits blame President Clinton’s inexperience or indecision for the current crisis in American foreign policy. But the roots of the dilemma lie far deeper. They run to the collapse of America’s postwar policy making system--a collapse that not even the most sage and resolute leadership or the discovery of some new strategic formula could have averted. The problem, and the answer, is that the American people are in the process of reclaiming foreign policy from the "Wise Men" who have so assiduously guarded it for the past 50 years.

Over the last half–century America has undergone a technological and demographic transformation. Increased mobility has forged new centers of culture, fashion, wealth and power. A communications revolution has rewired the nation’s nerve system with computers, faxes and fiber–optic cables. Immigration approaches levels not seen since the turn of the century, and Americans travel and live abroad in numbers scarcely imaginable years ago. Such changes integrate Americans in new ways, with each other as well as with the rest of the world. But they also diversify and divide us as they slowly erode the lingering vestiges of our Mayflower roots.

This globalization of American society has made the idea of national interest more elusive. While America’s politics has always intruded on its foreign policy, today a fresh constellation of domestic forces creates its own global policy. Making sense of American foreign policy requires a fuller understanding of the new domestic politics that now shapes America’s relations abroad. Foremost among these pressures are the regionalization of global policy making, the impact of ethnicity on American foreign policy and the rise of powerful global issue groups


For nearly five decades the complexion and outlook of American foreign policy makers remained constant. In the view of the small, cohesive club of academics, diplomats, financiers, lawyers and politicians that ascended to power during World War II--men such as Dean Acheson, Clark Clifford, George Kennan, John McCloy and Paul Nitze--this was as it should be. National security and the national interest, they argued, must transcend the special interests and passions of the people who make up America. They believed that domestic politics should stop at the water’s edge and that foreign policy should be guided by bipartisan consensus. This separation of policy into foreign and domestic spheres rationalized and legitimized the emergence of the close community of experts that shepherded American foreign policy throughout the Cold War years.

After 1941 the Northeast played a dominant role in shaping foreign policy. But this was not always the case. For most of our nation’s history the influence of the more industrial and Anglophile Northeast was counterbalanced by other regions. In the controversy surrounding the French revolution, for example, opposition to the antirevolutionary views of Eastern opinion leaders such as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris came from Thomas Jefferson and the South’s other agrarian populists. Likewise, in the great debates over war and neutrality in the first half of this century, opposition to Eastern internationalist calls issued mostly from isolationists and populists from the Midwest and West.

How was this small band of Atlantic–minded internationalists able to triumph? What enabled them in the postwar period to subdue the isolationist impulses of the hinterland and turn the nation of "no entangling alliances" into both the world’s policeman and its banker?

For the most part, the answer is twofold: fear and prosperity. The dangers of the postwar world--the threat of Soviet expansion and the haunting memory of global depression--convinced the public that it was necessary for the United States to assume the mantle of world leadership, and the rapid growth and productivity of America’s postwar economy convinced them that they could. It also helped that Eastern internationalists had gained great authority once it was clear that they were right about America’s need to enter the Second World War. In contrast, many of the most prominent Midwestern opinion leaders on international affairs--such as Senators William Borah of Idaho and Gerald Nye of North Dakota--were discredited. By taking the lead both in mobilizing the nation for war and in preparing it for the peace that followed, the Eastern internationalists were able to shape and staff the burgeoning foreign policy institutions created in the late 1940s. Most important, this newly ascendant coterie fashioned the overarching consensus on containment and free trade that emerged as America’s guiding international outlook.

The preeminence of the East was reinforced by other postwar developments. The New York Times and, to a lesser extent, Time magazine emerged as the leading national sources of news and commentary on international affairs. The original big three national television networks all chose New York as the site of their headquarters, and hence their evening news shows. A small number of well endowed foundations and influential foreign policy institutes were also based in New York and Washington. And a handful of Eastern seaboard universities played a critical role in training and employing America’s new foreign policy cadres.

Together, these developments meant that the most reliable, the fastest and often the only way to become a player in the national foreign policy debate was to locate oneself along the Harvard–Manhattan–Foggy Bottom corridor. This reality greatly contributed to the homogeneity of discourse on international issues that characterized the Cold War years.

As long as the Cold War endured and nuclear Armageddon seemed only a missile away, the public was willing to tolerate such an undemocratic foreign policy making system. But in the eyes of most Americans the world is no longer so menacing--messy, bloody and sometimes shockingly brutal, yes, but a threat to our security and peace, no. With the Soviet Union residing in the dustbin of history and the United States reigning as the world’s largest debtor, the twin logic of national security and the national interest is neither clear nor compelling. Without a clear and present danger, the public is no longer willing to trust the experts to make the right decisions when it comes to the lives of their sons and daughters, especially when the experts themselves are so deeply divided.

The result is that the wall separating foreign affairs from domestic influences has come crumbling down. The old foreign policy establishment, already weakened and divided by its defeat in Vietnam, is losing both its bearings and its sway. And the old foreign policy making system, no longer insulated by fear and prosperity, is more susceptible than ever to societal pressures. As the muddled debate over intervention in Bosnia and Somalia attests, this rupture has left the ship of state dangerously adrift in a sea of geopolitical confusion. The idea of a separation between domestic and foreign affairs has become untenable.


The globalization of American society has greatly increased the incentives for individuals in all parts of the country as well as local, state and regional institutions to become more involved in world affairs. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, developments abroad matter more for local communities. War in Central America causes greater burdens on southern California’s social services; drug feuds in Columbia lead to assassinations in New York; unrest in Russia affects port traffic in Seattle; and economic development in Mexico throws Americans out of work in Detroit.

At the same time, opportunities for local, state and regional actors to influence global policy have also grown. Many state and local institutions are establishing direct links with counterparts around the world through technical assistance and exchange programs. Foundations and entrepreneurs are creating new regionally based foreign policy communities to provide the kind of leadership in world affairs that the Eastern establishment once monopolized. Almost every major university in the country now has some kind of international affairs degree program. The news media are also more diverse; CNN is based in Atlanta, and plans for new cable channels are being hatched across the country.

The East’s privileged place in foreign affairs has eroded. New York no longer dominates the nation’s economic relationships with the rest of the world, and the share of trade that flows through Eastern seaboard ports has shrunk dramatically. From southern California to the Great Lakes, and from the Pacific Northwest to the Texas border and southern Florida, regions are developing their own economic interests and orientations, and creating the trade offices and other institutions necessary to pursue them. In short, regionalization has not only lessened Eastern influence over the foreign policy making process but also helped spawn a new process of global policy making with sources of power far beyond the Washington beltway.


As America becomes more diverse, the economic, social and political incentives for individuals to emphasize their ethnic identities are increasing. In the 1980s, for example, African–Americans, motivated in part by the model of Jewish American support for Israel, largely succeeded in laying claim to U.S. policy toward Africa, especially toward South Africa. More recently, Mexican–American groups have begun to play a critical part in the NAFTA debate and in the formulation of U.S. policy toward Mexico generally. Similarly, a growing Chinese–American community has played an increasingly significant role in policy toward China, and the American cousins of embattled East European nationalities have begun to mobilize as well.

This trend is reinforced by the economic advantages that can accrue to ethnic groups who serve as a bridgehead for potentially prosperous countries such as China and Mexico. More and more foreign countries are beginning to see their ethnic brethren in the United States as natural allies in campaigns to develop more favorable bilateral relationships. This web of societal ties linking American ethnic communities with their homelands is certain to thicken as the information revolution increases the ease and affordability of reaching out and touching previously distant kith and kin.

Concentration of ethnic groups in particular geographic areas heightens the impact of the regionalization of foreign affairs. For example, Asian–Americans constitute roughly three percent of the U.S. population but nearly 10 percent of the population of southern California and 15 percent of the San Francisco Bay area. Similarly, Hispanics account for roughly nine percent of the national population, but they comprise one–third of southern Californians, one–third of South Floridians and one–quarter of Texans. The more localized foreign policy becomes, the more likely that ethnic ties will influence the debate, especially as more blacks, Hispanics and Asians are elected to local and state political offices.

The results are likely to vary. In some foreign policy areas, such as Africa, ethnic and racial considerations are likely to play a dominant role as long as high costs or risks are not involved. In most other areas, they will be increasingly important factors in a complex and changing equation, one in which ethnic organizations may not only attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy but also to develop their own global policies. If the United States today had a set of broadly recognized "national" interests and a clear global strategy, the impact of ethnicity on foreign policy would be less significant. At present, however, there is little prospect of either anytime soon.


The final factor contributing to the breakdown of the old foreign policy consensus is the emergence of powerful, activist groups organized around individual issues such as human rights, the environment, humanitarian relief and women’s rights. These global issue groups differ from traditional national interest groups in that their principal goal is to change policies and living conditions beyond our borders rather than to promote and protect the economic interests or welfare of their American members. In most other respects, including origins, scope, size, resources, effectiveness and commitment, they vary widely.

Once again, this phenomenon is not entirely new. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the peace movement and the international women’s movement date back to the turn of the century. Beyond the peace movement, however, the number and influence of foreign policy issue groups in America had been limited. The turning point occurred in the 1970s with the creation in Washington of a number of well–staffed offices focused on particular issues. Today, these groups are increasingly attracting the best and brightest of the young college graduates interested in world affairs.

During the Cold War, most of these issue groups were, by necessity, oppositional. Since there was little chance that the foreign policy establishment would give their objectives equal weight with the need to contain communism, they focused on exposing the effects of Washington’s policies and, wherever possible, limiting governmental prerogatives. But government has begun to embrace many of the goals these groups have long sought to promote, thus presenting their leaders with a dramatically different set of strategic choices.

Their most important new challenge is to find ways to merge myriad single issue pressures into a coherent whole and to do so in an environment of shrinking resources. The trade–offs involved no longer pit geopolitics against human rights or development. Instead, they pit environment vs. development vs. humanitarian relief vs. democratization vs. economic reform, etc. Many participants in this emerging debate have sought to mute these conflicts by embracing concepts, such as sustainable development, that suggest that everything good can go together--and it may, but only in the long run. But for now, easy compromises and easy money are scarce. Moreover, it is very difficult, both intellectually and politically, for single issue groups to adjust their rhetoric in the ways necessary for a grand synthesis to emerge. One of the greatest strengths of the leadership of these groups has been their ability to persuade both funders and constituents that their particular issue deserves priority. Softening such claims could mean losing support.

The issue–group picture is also growing more complex. At first it was dominated by a few national organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In the 1980s, however, grass–roots organizations sprang up across the country. Today, groups of varying size and character literally number in the hundreds. In addition, more and more groups are de–emphasizing foreign policy advocacy and concentrating on their own global policy initiatives. This shift is most evident in areas such as South Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the reasons to lobby Washington are rapidly declining and the opportunities for direct action abroad are rapidly increasing. The result is a whole new set of cleavages and complications.


The breakdown of the old foreign policy system extends beyond the security realm to economics. Protectionism is nothing new. What is new is that environmentalists, human rights activists, labor and regional political leaders seem to be merging in a popular coalition that rejects free trade as the organizing principle of the global economy. This development is amply demonstrated by the stalled Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, as well as the long NAFTA debate. When the economy was growing and good jobs at rising wages were plentiful, such criticism fell on deaf ears. But what is true in good times is often false in bad, and for many Americans the good times seem over.

A new and highly uncertain era has begun. It is possible that the heirs of the Wise Men will succeed in diversifying the foreign policy establishment and in enlisting these new forces under the banner of a new grand strategy such as "enlargement." But that is unlikely. The latest generation of Wise Men does not have enough public authority or institutional clout to forge a new consensus from the top down without a threat as clear and compelling as the Red menace. Nor are its leaders sufficiently nimble or creative to put out the prairie fire of independent global policy making that is raging across the country.

These new domestic forces could well lead to the balkanization of the foreign policy making process, with different communities and groups seeking to control different issues and policies. At best, such a development would create a system of separate policy making domains organized around an implicit set of rules for resource allocation and conflict resolution between them. More likely, balkanization would cause a bitter and prolonged domestic struggle over America’s role in the world, undermining its ability to lead in the era now dawning.

Only a radically redesigned foreign policy making system, one fashioned to meet the global challenges of the 21st century in the same way that the national security apparatus was created to face the Cold War, would make a synthesis of these competing interests possible. Only an open, decentralized and collaborative system, which encouraged the initiatives of regional actors, ethnic groups and global issue groups, would restore public confidence that Americans’ involvement in world affairs is still consistent with their own values and would improve the security and welfare of all.

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  • Michael Clough is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Co-chairman of the Stanley Foundation‘s New American Global Dialogue.
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