The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy

October 9, 2011

The Pew Research Center just released a report detailing the foreign policy views of democrats, republicans, and tea partiers.  Much of it is what you would expect.  For tea partiers the U.S. needs to be strong on defense and Israel, tough on China, say no to illegal immigration (94% support the Arizona immigration law!).  Non-tea party republicans share similar views, though tempered a bit on most issues.  For democrats, it is a relatively simple equation: one minus the percentage of tea party republicans who support an issue equals the percentage of democrats who support an issue.

Foreign policy views never seem to change much on party lines.  But something interesting is happening today.  The defense hawks used to enjoy a disproportionate influence on shaping the foreign policy views of the GOP.  But with the country preoccupied with the debt ceiling and domestic spending and the rising influence of Tea Party, foreign policy has become as much a question of economics as it has of international relations.  The question is no longer should we do it, but rather can we afford it.  From the Washington Post:

With the exception of Israel’s security, the blank check of Republican support once afforded U.S. military operations, freer international trade and the spread of global democracy are facing the constraints of limited spending power and an overwhelming pressure among voters to refocus America’s energy at home.

Aside from the fact that most foreign policy decisions based on economic concerns tend to lead down a road that is bad for everyone.  It leads to isolationism and protectionism – two things an increasingly flat world does not need right now.  And in this question, the distinction between the Tea Party the rest of the GOP (like my old man) becomes apparent.  Because the Tea Party is, at its core, more rooted in populism than it is conservative economic theory, you can see opinions that are fundamentally at odds.

The first question in the Pew survey asks for the best way to ensure peace.  60% of the Tea Partiers say military strength, rather than good diplomacy, compared with only 38% of the non-Tea Party Republicans.  Among Democrats, 20% cite military strength.  This really cuts to the philosophical core of all the other debates – peace through strength, rather than peace through a combination of defense, diplomacy, and development.  And, most interestingly, the gap between the typical Republican and the typical Tea Partier is larger than the gap between the Republican and the Democrat.

This theme appears through the survey.  For example, more than two-thirds of the Tea Party believes we need to get tougher with China.  I assume that means trade barriers, sanctions for keeping their currency artificially low, etc.  In comparison, only 42% of other Republicans and 32% of Democrats hold this view.  A remarkable 68% of Tea Partiers believe Obama favors Palestine too much, compared with 23% among other Republicans and 8% among Democrats.  This, in spite of the fact that Obama is going to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

This is what a populist foreign policy platform among an easily manipulated group looks like.  A disparate set of whimsical, contradictory, and often counterproductive views that reflect a concern over outsourcing, immigration, and broadly what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest.”

I call these views counterproductive because the policy prescriptions literally do more harm than good.  Georgia just passed a law mandating that all businesses with more than 10 employees must demand to see indentification to prove that the workers are not here illegally.  So what happened?  All the illegal immigrants who used to be the backbone of the agriculture sector simply moved elsewhere, leaving farmers without laborers to harvest their crops.  Here is the New York Times:

The simple-sounding plan that resulted — hire more local people and fewer foreign workers — left Mr. Harold and others who took a similar path adrift in a predicament worthy of Kafka.

The more they tried to do something concrete to address immigration and joblessness, the worse off they found themselves.

“It is not an easy job,” said Kerry Mattics, 49, another H-2A farmer here in Olathe, who brought in only a third of his usual Mexican crew of 12 workers for his 50-acre fruit and vegetable farm, then struggled to make it through the season. “It’s outside, so if it’s wet, you’re wet, and if it’s hot you’re hot,” he said.

Still, Mr. Mattics said, he can’t help feeling that people have gotten soft.

“People have gotten soft.”  Ironically, the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, has been lambasted for suggesting the same thing.  Yet anyone who honestly thought that laid-off American workers were going to jump at the opportunity to work 12 hours a day picking onions in the burning sun were out of their minds.

In terms of defense, it is even more backwards.  At the same time we seek to alienate our economic allies, there is a belief that the brute show of force that toppled the Soviet Union more than two decades ago is still somehow relevant in today’s globalized world.   Honestly – who are we going to fight?  The wars that we are engaged in right now are effectively guerrilla battles with insurgents, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Yemen and Somalia.  We deposed a dictator in Libya without a troop on the ground.  Are we going to really going to attack Iran or Syria?  But despite all this, when the time comes to cut defense spending, you can guarantee that foreign aid and diplomacy are going to be the hardest hit if a Tea Party Republican is elected to office.  And that – just like draconian immigration policies, tariffs that almost certainly will lead to a  trade war with China, and supporting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank – would be a mistake:

For the sake of national security, this country cannot afford to retreat from the world. Its investment in the State Department and foreign aid helps advance peace and stability by feeding starving people, providing access to doctors and medicines, opening new markets, promoting democracy, curbing nuclear arms and strengthening allies with military and economic assistance. It also gives Washington leverage.

Savings squeezed from the State Department and foreign aid — which together are less than a tenth of the basic Pentagon budget — would be a tiny share of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Yet the effects would be hugely damaging to American foreign policy. Washington needs resources to support new democracy movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This is also a critical time in Iraq and Afghanistan, where demands for diplomatic resources are growing. National security has always depended on more than military strength. We need diplomats to anticipate problems and find nonmilitary solutions. The drive to cut diplomatic resources and foreign aid seriously harms our ability to do just that.

The partisan gridlock that makes government seem so ineffective right now is due to the fact that the Tea Party – an outlier faction within its own party – has such radically different views than alienate even people like my dad, a card-carrying Reagan-ite who is secretly praying that tornado will carry all of the Republican candidates right now, leaving only Jon Huntsman behind.

Constructive feedback

A healthy political debate in America looks like the two rightmost columns in each of these survey tables.  The Tea Party represents a minority – 40% of Republicans and right-leaning independents.  Yet their views define the debate.  Of course, the voter turnout among self-identified Tea Partiers is probably orders of magnitude larger than other groups, which is why these foreign policy views seem to dominate.  The idea that a xenophobic and isolationist leanings of a small minority of the country could potentially come to dictate our foreign policy in 2012 is a scary one indeed.

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