Innocence Abroad: The Tea Party's Search for Foreign Policy

By O'Rourke, P. J. | World Affairs, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Innocence Abroad: The Tea Party's Search for Foreign Policy


O'Rourke, P. J., World Affairs


What is the Tea Party's foreign policy? It's a difficult question on two counts. There is no Tea Party foreign policy as far as I can tell, and, on inspection, there is no Tea Party.

There are, of course, any number of Tea Party Coalition groups across the country. But these mix and mingle, cooperate, compete, debate, merge, and overlap with countless other groups grouped together as the "Tea Party movement" in the public mind (or the public commentator mind).

Some of these organizations have staffs and salaries and offices, and some--according to the time left over for blogging after job and children--have memberships numbering between one and none. Various domestic policy foundations such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Independence Institute have had their influence, as have associations of people with a frame of mind about policy that's more antinomian, such as FedUpUSA. Then there is the 9/12 Project, promoted by Glenn Beck, which seeks a return to the best of what Americans thought and felt after 9/11 and which is more concerned with values than policy per se. A variety of social conservatives with similar concerns about values--if diverse ideas of what those values are--also have been lumped with the Tea Party movement. Sometimes they've lumped themselves.

Disaggregation and multifariousness make it hard to take any policy measure of the Tea Party. But the tougher problem is definitional. "Movement" implies a destination. When you move you're headed somewhere. Political movements have a place they want government to go. The Tea Party movement has a place it wants government to go--and rot. That's different. The Tea Party has a political attitude rather than a political ideology.

Nonetheless, every political concept has foreign policy implications. George Washington warned against foreign entanglements. But the friends, enemies, and neighbors of that new concept, the United States, soon found themselves entangled in American foreign policy, even before America knew it had one.

Specific, concrete political policy goals were disavowed by almost all of the people I talked to in the Tea Party movement (I use the term in the overly broad public commentator way). Instead, what I heard were arguments against the kind of centralized government power that concocts political policy goals--arguments of the Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman kind, that individuals are the best judges of how to employ their individual energies and resources. Whatever else the Tea Party movement believes, it espouses (and evidences) a firm belief in the self-organizing capacities of free individuals.

Unfortunately, we individuals are rarely free in the face of foreign policy. Foreign policy is highly centralized. And the political power that centralizes foreign policy is--when wielded by foreigners--outside the realm of our political influence no matter how popular the Tea Party becomes.

Nor is the past record of decentralization in foreign policy reassuring. It went well when the Soviet Union lost control of Eastern Europe's foreign policy. It did not go so well when the European colonial powers lost control of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. And total decentralization of foreign policy meant a nightmare in the former Yugoslavia.

I take the Tea Party point that, politically speaking, control is scary. Out-of-control is also scary. And what's most scary about foreign policy is how often it's simply beyond our control.

I talked to a Tea Party supporter with strong libertarian inclinations. "I'm for staying out of other people's business," she said, and told me she was surprised by Barack Obama's continuation of George W. Bush's foreign policy. I'll bet Barack Obama was surprised too.

I met the libertarian--a young mother who homeschools her three kids--at the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers (CNHT) annual picnic on July 10 in Hillsborough.

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