A More Democratic Foreign Policy Is Possible
A review of David Allen, “Every Citizen a Statesman: The Dream of a Democratic Foreign Policy in the American Century” (Harvard University Press, 2023).
Sometimes it takes a moment of mass hysteria or a touch of surrealism for people to question the status quo. Or sometimes it just takes a balloon. “Is anyone else alarmed that the military is just shooting down objects over our skies in peacetime without providing any meaningful and substantial explanation as to what exactly is happening or what it is shooting at?” tweeted MSNBC anchor Ayman Mohyeldin in February. “Are we just going to be numb to it?”
It’s a fair question. Although Mohyeldin’s tweet was aimed at the recent balloon mania that dominated the news cycle, he was raising fundamental questions about American democracy and foreign policy. What explanation does the U.S. government owe the public on matters of national security? How much should public opinion bear on foreign policy decisions? Does the public even care about foreign policy, and who is the public anyway?
In his recent book, “Every Citizen a Statesman: The Dream of a Democratic Foreign Policy in the American Century,” historian David Allen shows that these fair questions aren’t new. As Allen, who also moonlights as classical music critic at the New York Times, writes, “Debates about which Americans should be entrusted with diplomacy, and to whom they should be accountable and how, had run through the earliest years of the republic.” These old questions also may already seem settled, especially to anyone familiar with the terms “foreign policy elite” or “the Blob,” which conjure images of smoke-filled rooms in which powerful figures make decisions on behalf of millions. “Foreign policy in the United States is like polo: almost entirely an elite sport,” Justin Logan of the Cato Institute wrote recently. But in “Every Citizen a Statesman,” Allen vindicates Mohyeldin and anyone trying to relitigate these old, seemingly resolved debates.
At the heart of the book is the story of the Foreign Policy Association and its pursuit of a democratic foreign policy, a dream to make “every citizen a statesman,” in the words of one of the organization’s more visionary leaders. (The group, founded in 1918 as the League of Free Nations Association, changed its name only three years after its founding, to avoid accusations of an alliance with “the Sinn Feiners, the Bolsheviks,” and the like.) As Allen makes plain, “the story of the Foreign Policy Association”—and its dream—“is the story of failure.” Yet despite this failure, Allen implicitly makes the case that a more democratic foreign policy is still possible.
First, how did we get here? Like all good histories, “Every Citizen a Statesman” abstains from the temptation of monocausal explanations and historical inevitability. Allen offers a number of reasons why the dream of a democratic foreign policy never became a reality: paternalistic distrust of the masses, racism, and class politics to name a few. “None of those explanations would be wrong,” Allen writes of his own list. “But what must be resisted is the suggestion that the ideal was deficient per se—the conviction that foreign policy is simply, inevitably not susceptible to democratic control.” When it comes to the prospect of a U.S. foreign policy guided by the public, the past is not necessarily prologue.
To make this case, Allen shows what efforts to achieve a more democratic foreign policy looked like at the Foreign Policy Association, and what the opposite looked like at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which Allen sets up as the former’s foil. Over the course of the 20th century, CFR ultimately won out in influence and staying power, but Allen argues that this outcome was far from predestined. Founded in 1921, CFR first espoused a vision of foreign policy articulated by Elihu Root, perhaps the most prominent statesman of his time and the council’s founding chairman. “If the ignorant masses were inevitably to have their say, Root thought, disaster could be averted only if the many felt the sure hand of an enlightened few, of public-spirited men who possessed such Victorian virtues as ‘politeness,’ ‘restraint,’ and ‘responsibility,’” Allen writes. Democratic diplomacy to Root was quite narrow—reserved for only a small club of elite white men. Though not every member of CFR shared Root’s politics, which were considered retrograde even at the time (Root’s vocal opposition to the 19th Amendment, for example, led one critic to call him an “ancient cave man”), the council’s early activities reflected this more elitist, sexist ethos.
Today, CFR and its history are held up as the central—albeit imperfect—effort to bring foreign policy into the public sphere. For Allen, this is a mistake: “Putting the Council at the heart of the story of democratic control would merely replicate its exclusionary vision.” To be sure, the CFR of today has made important strides in diversity and inclusion, efforts that would probably scandalize Root. But Allen’s recovery of the Foreign Policy Association’s history suggests that a more democratic foreign policy than CFR’s is possible, or at least worth striving for. Though it failed, the Foreign Policy Association showed a more promising road map for democratically minded, aspiring citizen-statesmen (and women) of the early 20th century. This vision included voluntary associations, grassroots education for men and women alike, and spirited luncheons of foreign policy debate broadcast to thousands on the new mass medium of radio.
If nothing else, membership in the Foreign Policy Association looked a helluva lot more fun. Allen describes the association’s luncheons as raucous affairs, with diverse crowds and speakers, as opposed to the stuffy, genteel meetings of CFR:
The luncheons physically staged the deliberation that Wilsonian progressives hoped would transform domestic and international politics alike. Education was the name of the game—maps, reading lists, and even treaty texts were set out on the tables for references—but drama was the weapon of choice. “I understand that the exigencies of budget require that these discussions become intellectual battles,” Edwin Borchard of Yale told one luncheon in 1928, “and that people do not feel they have been a success unless there has been a very sharp and acrimonious, if not bloody, contest.”
Though civil these convenings often were not, the association seemed to understand that democracy done well could be a messy enterprise.
In practice and membership, the Foreign Policy Association aspired to be more democratic than CFR (a simple data point is that CFR sought to exclude half the voting population by refusing women admission), but there were limitations to these aspirations. The association did not embrace a populist foreign policy driven by the masses but, rather, a Progressive Era, technocratic “trickle-down diplomacy.” And despite a few speakers of color, the association more or less abided by the racism of the color line. The most basic consensus among progressives at the time, Allen argues, was that “while the unfiltered will of the people could not be trusted, susceptible as it was to nationalism and militarism, the collective intelligence of some of them could, if properly instructed.” These limitations didn’t sit well with all of the association’s membership. As its first chairman, Paul Underwood Kellogg, said of the murky link between the luncheon debates, public opinion, and policy, “You can’t lunch your way into either the Kingdom of Heaven or a world safe for democracy.”
Despite these limitations, the Foreign Policy Association challenged the longstanding tradition of insulating foreign policymaking from the public, even in a democracy. Allen traces strains of this tradition in John Jay, who wrote in 1788 that “the power of making treaties should be committed to able and honest men” insulated from electoral politics, and Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in the early 19th century that diplomacy “requires virtually none of the distinctive virtues of democracy but does demand the development of nearly all that it lacks.” But the association’s early leaders recognized that foreign policy is poorly situated within a system of representative democracy because it is unusually concentrated within the executive, something many people don't see and thus don't understand. Representative democracy could work in the realm of foreign policy only with a well-informed public.
Though it asks the important questions, “Every Citizen a Statesman” doesn’t always answer them. Allen’s book falls short of articulating what an engaged citizen-statesman would actually look like today. Citizens across the world are attempting daring experiments in mass democracy, from participatory budgeting in Boston and Barcelona to crowdsourcing national legislation in Taiwan. Yet despite promising results, and President Biden’s pursuit of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” U.S. foreign policy’s democracy deficit persists. The questions raised by early members of the Foreign Policy Association and the ideals to which it aspired illustrate just how closed off the debate over democratic control of U.S. foreign policy has become.
It would be a stretch to say that a foreign policy guided by mass opinion would necessarily bend toward peace and prosperity. But as the past two decades of foreign policy blunders illustrate, a foreign policy guarded by a precious, elite few doesn’t necessarily bend that direction either. “Every Citizen a Statesman” demonstrates that perennial questions about democracy and foreign policy are still worth asking, even if the answers remain out of reach.