Bridging America’s Foreign Policy Elite-Main Street Divide


In late summer 2013, the Washington, D.C. foreign policy establishment was caught like a deer in the headlights when the American people put their collective foot down and said “no” to yet another military intervention — rising in opposition to planned attacks on the Syrian government that had just used poison gas on civilians.  Regardless of policy merits, the American public was in firm opposition to another war of choice in the Middle East.  At the same time, government planners were deeply disconnected from the mood of the country.  Today, this sense of disconnect between average Americans and their government has led to a national crisis that is being exploited by Donald Trump, who claims to be the voice of those who have felt ignored by Washington for too long.  Donald Trump campaigns for president as the “law and order” candidate single-handedly fighting “death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness.” Trump is exploiting fears of uncertainty and offers a nativism that risks doing lasting damage to America’s key role in promoting a peaceful and secure world. As unacceptable as Donald Trump is, he is also revealing the dangers of the chasm that has grown between the Washington elite and Main Street. The danger is not only that the Republican Party might lose a generation of national security expertise but rather that this “elite-Main Street divide” will deepen, thus increasing dysfunction in Washington and creating new windows for adversaries to take advantage of America’s polarization.

At War on the Rocks, Russell Wald has identified the threat of a looming “brain drain” facing the Republicans, who would be left with a very thin bench on foreign and defense policy should either candidate prevail in November. If Wald is correct, then the Republican Party will have much rebuilding to do, not only with their foreign policy stable but more broadly with th American public. At the same time, even a successful Clinton campaign will have to find a way to work effectively with Congress.  Moreover, any president would have to mobilize and sustain sufficient popular will behind major policies to include interventions and even long-term strategic competition.  Yet the gulf between middle America and foreign policy elites has grown too wide, and both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted this chasm in their different ways.  This article is meant to provoke further thinking about democracy-building at home, especially in the aftermath of one of the most divisive elections in recent memory.  It will take leadership, smart policy, and sincere bipartisanship.  But it will also take a reaffirming of bipartisan foreign policy principles, a more educated and better informed work force and populace, and a style of decision-making that takes heed of Main Street.

A Widening Chasm

There are two elements of disconnect between America’s foreign policy establishment and the American public.  At one level, the public has been far ahead of their representatives in government — a trend growing now for some time.  This dynamic has been growing for some time, for example, by 2012, the American public overwhelmingly favored diplomatic engagement with adversaries — i.e., 73 percent favoring diplomacy with Cuba, 69 percent with North Korea, and 67 percent with Iran.  Other than North Korea, where Pyongyang resisted meaningful dialogue, the Obama administration did carry out these kinds of initiatives, albeit well behind the public sentiment favoring engagement.  Evidence also shows the public was also on the right track favoring diplomacy:  diplomacy on Syria at the time resulted in a U.N. deal removing all declared chemical weapons — which military action would not have achieved — and the nuclear deal between Iran and five major powers, involving most intrusive arms reduction verification regimes ever, has held so far.  One can argue whether Syria has repeatedly crossed red lines on the use of chemical weapons such as chlorine gas on rebels and civilians, but the point is that military intervention is not more likely to achieve U.S. ends at acceptable costs, and muscular diplomacy remains the best realistic course of action.  Regarding Iran, ironically, had the United States been willing to talk even sooner under the George W. Bush administration, an even greater reduction in nuclear capacity might have been achievable.  Thus, the American public was well ahead of their representatives.

On a second level, however, the complexity of world affairs and the devastating failures of the Iraq war have left Americans in a non-interventionist mood trending towards isolationism.   This aversion to the use force contradicts a loose consensus of liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party and neoconservatives in the Republican Party.  The cost of endless efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan and dramatic failure in Libya has exacerbated this inward-looking sentiment.  Thus by 2012, the number of Americans who wanted to “stay out” of world affairs grew from 25 percent in 2002 to 38 percent in 2012 — the highest measure of isolationism in any recorded survey since 1947.  America’s founders created a representative democracy so that decision-makers could advance the public good and not be diverted by the whims of momentary public sentiment.  Now, however, on issues from NATO to trade policy — which increasingly is seen as benefiting wealthy elites rather than the American middle class, that public sentiment has been exploited by Donald Trump. Trump is preying on voters’ fears while promising to overhaul America’s place in the world, raising alarm among America’s most important allies.

What drives this growing gap between the public and their representatives in government?  One analysis contends that the new populist wave — Trump’s “America First” approach — is fueled by a “globalist” foreign policy agenda that is perceived to privilege elites over average Americans.  The implications are considerable.  For example, there is a broad sense among the foreign policy establishment that NATO is a net benefit for the United States.  However, when allies are presented in terms of burden-sharing and free-riding, average Americans understandably question why they should be subsidizing the security of wealthy European countries, especially with the Cold War long past.  However, in attacking NATO and suggesting America’s role might be limited to protecting allies that have paid for it, Donald Trump opened up a national sentiment which risked undermining global stability.  This same approach is being used to undermine trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership in Asia.  Should this fail, it would risk ceding the future of regional trade to China.

The disconnect between the public and their representatives is real and can create dangerous vulnerabilities. Enemies from Mao to Ho Chi Minh to Kim Il Sung to Osama bin Laden to Vladimir Putin have long aimed at undermining U.S. political will at home.  But the American public also has a right to be concerned about the world and America’s role in it.  Therein lies the challenge — to identify common-sense solutions to problems that engage the public in their foreign policy.  Public opinion may be erratic but it can be engaged and led.  Striking this balance well in advance is key both to preventing a demagogue like Trump to go like a bull in a China shop into the world and to ensuring an effective American global role in the 21st century. Bluster and bullying will not help the United States compete with a rising Asia, where nuanced engagement backed by comprehensive strength are required to seize the opportunities and preserve a stable, rules-based order.

The need to more fully engage civil society in discussions of foreign policy is urgent.  Democracies of course may be the best form of government, but they have fault lines of their own — or as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Doubts about American leadership do not stop at the water’s edge.  When U.S. politics move from dysfunction to disconnect, the rest of the world takes notice — for example when in 2011, the United States nearly defaulted on its existing debt over inability to agree on a key budget deal due largely to Tea Party-backed anti-government obstruction.  This is particularly true at a time when the world itself appears to be experiencing mounting turmoil.

A new era of foreign policy restraint is in order — both given the failures of recent military interventions and continued slow economic growth at home.  If, however, a need for American restraint were to turn into American retrenchment as Trumpism would necessitate, then this system of international order risks incipient collapse, albeit without a suitable alternative in view.

What is to be done?  America needs experienced leadership to both inform and be informed by the citizenry.  In particular, while corporate and moneyed special interests have captured much of Washington, America’s leaders need to be much more linked to Main Street and not just Wall Street.  That means a leader who is willing to call for a dialogue of ideas with ordinary Americans, rather than to denigrate people who are outside the Washington consensus.  All too often, those who question the better judgement of Washington, of both parties, are labeled as isolationists or appeasers.  Shutting people outside discussions rather than getting more ideas to help build a new and sustainable consensus over America’s place in the world will only create a wider gulf between the decision-makers and the citizenry of the United States.

Six Ways to Bridge the Gap

This is not a hopeless situation.  As a nation, we can do much more than wait for new leadership and a new national dialogue about America’s future in the world.

What would an architecture that builds a bridge between the American people and their nation’s place in the world include?  Here are six potential bridges to start building or expanding.

Education:  After the 1957 Sputnik crisis, in which the Soviet Union tested an orbital satellite, indicating it had the capacity to target the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles, the Eisenhower administration responded with massive investments in education in the form of the 1958 National Defense Education Act.  As President Eisenhower said, America needed a citizenry that would keep their heads in a crisis and be part of the solution:  “In short, we will need not only Einsteins and Steinmetzes, but Washingtons and Emersons. Educating a generation of technical, scientific, and cultural expertise was essential to ending the Cold War.  Today, America has been unilaterally disarming one of its great relative advantages — its higher education system.  China, for example, is in the midst of a $250 billion, five-year investment in higher education.  China significantly lags in terms of quality but is on pace to make rapid advancements in research and development.  The United States, meanwhile, is crushing its young adults with massive college loan debt, hindering both their economic prospects as well as America’s economic future.  Increasingly, professional programs in higher education have their place, but so do the liberal arts — educating people about history, languages, culture, citizenship, and international affairs must be a national priority.

Media:  The media in America plays a vital role in informing Americans. Yet, polls consistently show that Americans are generally not well informed about international issues.  In an era of costly wars, terrorism, global financial upset, and challenges like climate change, the media will have to assume greater responsibility for getting vital issues in front of the American people. A consortium of the nation’s top journalism colleges, backed by a public-private partnership, could take the lead in setting new voluntary standards and championing more inter-disciplinary education for global issues and public policy.  The public, however, has a responsibility here too, in particular to challenge themselves.  Social media feeds and politically slanted cable news networks are prescriptions for reinforcing existing views, not for learning about the realities of the challenges facing the nation.  Too often now, media profit appears to drive content, but it will be the responsibility of engaged citizens to vote with their remote and demand more from their providers.  Information is abundant, but consumers have to demand that they get the information they need to be informed citizens.  And, they need to challenge locked-in assumptions as part of responsible citizenship – and, thus at the same time demonstrate a strong demand for quality information from mass media.

The Private and Non-Profit Sectors:  The private sector and non-profits have taken a lead on educating about major global issues and advancing progress, via leaders such as Richard Branson as well as Bill and Melinda Gates.  However, the private sector is not a substitute for good strategy.  In the past, government investments and private sector cooperation has led to incredible achievements — from NASA to the Internet.  Ultimately, the government and the private sector are going to require much greater strategic engagement.  At the same time, as the Democratic and Republican presidential nomination contests have shown, many in the public feel left behind by the existing government and commercial ties which often appear to favor the interests of large corporations over those of the middle class.  Finding innovative ways to make trade, in particular, more impactful for middle class Americans needs to be a major national priority so that the benefits of trade can continue while the concerns of the middle class are addressed at the same time.

Campaign Finance Reform:  Both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump drew considerable political support over their exposing the pervasive influence of money in politics.  It is clear that the American public has grown increasingly concerned that today’s American political system favors the wealthy and connected.  Foreign policy can be skewed, as Eisenhower also warned in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, by the impact of defense industrial interests, which lobby for government contracts and give plentifully to Congressional campaigns.  While industrial concerns are part of national strategy, for confidence to be restored in Washington, their influence in Congress should not be any more than that of voters.  By restoring influence primarily to the public rather than large industry, elected officials will have little choice but to more directly engage their constituents and be held accountable for their actions — or inaction — while in Washington.

Citizen Cabinets:  Finding ways to get a nation of 322 million people to more robustly engage in thinking about American foreign policy is no small challenge.  Ultimately, the divide between the foreign policy establishment in Washington, and the rest of the country requires more exposure by decision-makers to new ideas that challenge existing assumptions.  This means, in effect, getting out of the Beltway much more – with senior government officials making themselves available for local town halls and other discussion formats.  As a conduit between the public and their government, the next administration should consider appointment of a bipartisan, and diverse in worldview and make up, team of respected foreign policy experts, non-profit representatives, educators, and business people who would regularly travel the United States to explain challenges to the public.  They would then relate the public’s concerns and ideas directly back to the White House and Congress in a way similar to how the National Intelligence Council advises on international trends. Meanwhile, a new Congressionally funded program to bring citizens who represent local communities to Washington to participate in governmental conferences, think tank meetings, and other formats for education and discussion would bring more Americans into the Washington processes.  Meanwhile, local communities could be provided funding to host Washington policy experts for extended visits to local forums, high schools, and universities. If we are going to break down the barriers and angst that voters have towards Washington then we must return Washington to the people via exposure and involvement in these processes.  At the same time, these people will bring their experiences and life expertise from across the nation more directly into the thoughts of decision-makers.  Meanwhile, funding for existing programs like the Defense Department’s Minerva initiative, State Department visit programs, think tank outreach forums, and other means which would bring citizens into the policy environment should be quintupled in size.  Additionally, providing grants so that every school that wanted to can host a “great decisions” lecture series for their students and local community would expand the influence of that important citizen engagement program.

Political Leadership:  It is a truism, but only committed, bipartisan leadership can really bridge this crisis of dissonance between elites and the public on foreign policy.  To date, the 2016 election has not given reason for optimism on this front.  However, responsible leadership would move quickly to convene a bipartisan study of how to implement a new strategy of investment in the human capital that the American public possesses and to fast track legislation to fund a new series of programs enhancing citizen engagement.  There is incredible talent and expertise in this nation that is ultimately the key foundation of American power.  A wise president will seek to unleash this power by investing in new channels for citizen engagement — and shared responsibility for the nation’s future choices.

Washington needs a more dynamic, inclusive, and inviting culture.  It has again become too comfortable, too insular, and, at times, too condescending.  Civil society can now help pave the way for greater understanding and pluralistic policy debate in the United States.  We are not saying that amateurs should be appointed into cabinet positions.  Rather, we suggest that there be a sea change in the elite foreign policy culture so that government, think tanks, universities, and media outlets purposefully offer more opportunities for better preparing and engaging average citizens in serious discussions of the world and America’s place in it.  In effect, greater citizen involvement can ripple out in their local communities.  At the same time, it can also serve to allow the public to insist on greater transparency and accountability when interacting with their representatives.  Professor Steve Kull at the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation analyzed the value of educating groups of ordinary citizens to help them better measure what elite policymakers are truly forsaking among the middle class when they propose international policies.  That degree of engagement enhances democracy by increasing transparency and accountability in Washington. It is no accident that our Constitution begins with the phrase, “We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union….”  In the end, the American people are the key foundation of the nation’s power — and their role will be essential to successful navigation of the increasingly chaotic waters that lie ahead.


Dr. Sean Kay is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University.  Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  This essay represents the personal views of the authors and not any institutions with which they are affiliated.

Image: UpstateNYer, CC