For most of our history, Americans didn't care much about foreign policy. We were protected by two oceans, and the idea of American exceptionalism suggested that we were exempt from the ancient enmities of the Old World. Even in the years leading up to World Wars I and II, voters were far more interested in staying out of foreign wars than in understanding what those fights were all about. For the past 30 years, Americans have clearly preferred Governors in the White House--four of the past five Presidents had been state chief executives--and Governors tend to be thin on foreign policy experience. Presidential candidates have needed detailed policies on taxes and welfare and social security. So what if they didn't know the name of the Prime Minister of Malaysia?
All that changed on 9/11, which served as a wake-up call in a thousand different ways. But there is one thing we have not done that is crucial to our future: we still have not engaged in a true national dialogue about what our foreign policy should be and what constitutes our national interests and values. That is an issue of national security no less vital than protecting our ports or airlines. Throughout our history there has always been a kind of unspoken presumption that foreign policy was outside the purview of the people, that it needed to be in the hands of specialists and policy mandarins and that ordinary Americans were just not equipped to make decisions about such highfalutin matters. That is a mistake we can no longer afford. American citizens pay taxes to support our policies overseas and send their sons and daughters to fight for the nation, which means they should be damn well able to pass judgment on what our foreign policy ought to be. Participatory democracy doesn't stop at the water's edge. As we move toward the 2008 presidential election, it's critical that candidates sketch out their worldview, their ideas about the Middle East and China, with all the detail and practicality that we expect of their health-care plans.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have attended a small lunch for General Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush. General Scowcroft described the two broad historic themes of American foreign policy--call them traditionalism vs. transformationalism, or the realists vs. the idealists. The twin poles are represented by John Quincy Adams, who famously said the U.S. "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy," and Woodrow Wilson, who believed that America was a shining city on a hill and that it was our national destiny to be evangelists for democracy. While that is an oversimplified schema, it does suggest an initial outline for a national dialogue. What ideals are we willing to fight for? What are the practical dividends we seek from our multilateral relationships? How do we balance idealism vs. realism? No one who participates in this conversation should be branded as disloyal or a traitor. This is not a debate about left vs. right, blue vs. red--it is a discussion that should transcend political divides because it is about shared values. We can disagree about tactics, but we need to find some consensus about our basic values and interests.