Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy

Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy

Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy

Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy


Journalist and historian Eric Alterman argues that the vast majority of Americans have virtually no voice in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. With policymakers answerable only to a small coterie of self-appointed experts, corporate lobbyists, self-interested parties, and the elite media, the U.S. foreign policy operates not as the instrument of a democracy, but of a "pseudo-democracy": a political system with the trappings of democratic checks and balances but with little of their content. This failure of American democracy is all the more troubling, Alterman charges, now that the Cold War is over and the era of global capital has replaced it. Americans' stake in so-called foreign policy issues from trade to global warming is greater than ever. Yet the current system serves to mute their voices and ignore their concerns.

Experts have long insisted that the public is too ignorant to contribute to the creation of successful foreign policy. But over the course of two hundred years, as Alterman makes clear, the American people have shown an impressive consistency in their ideals and values. The problem for any elite, the author explains, is that Americans often define their interests quite differently than those who would speak in their name. The American public's values are, ironically, much closer to the "liberal republican" philosophy of our founders than to those of our most powerful elites.

Alterman concludes with a series of challenging proposals for reforms designed to create a truly democratic U.S. foreign policy.


Public opinion is the voice of the devil.

--Theodore Roosevelt

During the first half of the twentieth century, the forces that had combined to weaken the bonds between the leaders and the led in the nation's first century spawned new and more challenging barriers to a foreign policy process based on democratic rule and republican principle. War, industrialization, immigration, class conflict, and the acquisition of empire frequently overwhelmed the American political system to the point where democracy often appeared an afterthought when it appeared at all.

Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson may not have agreed on much, but both men held a profoundly expansive view of presidential power. Each man continued to enlarge the foreign policy prerogatives of his office. Neither president believed his responsibilities to voters included an honest accounting of the nation's foreign and military alternatives. Wilson's decision to enter into World War I, moreover, resulted in a number of temporary curtailments of Americans' rights of free speech. Franklin Roosevelt built on this legacy, making permanent many of the limits on public discussion and knowledge his predecessors had instituted on a temporary basis. the failure of the public to master the intricacies of public policy -- and its apparent disinclination even to try -- led America's most influential intellectuals to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Progressivism, the twentieth century's response to the liberal republican dilemma in the context of a capitalist economy and a growing American empire, became, in some instances, antidemocratic. the net result of these trends would prepare the groundwork for a con-

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