Democratizing U.S. Foreign Policy

Bringing Experts and the Public Back Together

The U.S. Capitol behind a chain-link fence, September 2013.  Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In August 2016, 50 Republican U.S. national security officials published a letter opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. This group, which included such well-known experts as Aaron Friedberg, Dov Zakheim, and Philip Zelikow, declared in no uncertain terms that, if elected, Trump “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

The letter sank without a trace within days of its release. The public had no desire to heed the so-called experts. On the Fox News website, where one might expect Republicans to receive a fair hearing, commentators lambasted the signatories as members of a disgraced “establishment” in which they had no trust.

Such vitriol affirms what Tom Nichols recently argued in these pages—that Americans have “lost faith in expertise”—and suggests that foreign policy expertise is facing particular discredit. This diagnosis raises two critical questions. Why has the public spurned the experts when it comes to foreign affairs? And how can experts restore the public’s trust?


The most important reason that foreign policy experts have lost legitimacy is their support for the Iraq war, in which the United States suffered tens of thousands of casualties and spent trillions of dollars in pursuit of aggressive and unattainable aims. During his primary campaign, Trump stood out from a crowded Republican field by excoriating the war, and he repeated his criticism in every general-election debate. Then, as president-elect, he discredited the expertise of U.S. intelligence agencies by stating, “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.” Trump realized, more acutely than the experts who pronounced him unfit for office, that the American public has neither forgiven nor forgotten experts’ role in initiating one of the longest and most fruitless wars in U.S. history.

But another source of the present legitimacy crisis has been overlooked. For too long, foreign policy experts have isolated themselves from the public. Confined to the coastal cities, experts have failed to engage citizens where they live

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