Americans live in a very limited democracy. I don’t tell the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates; I don’t decide where the government puts my money; and I sure as hell didn’t vote to go to war in Iraq. Many of the most consequential decisions lie outside the purview of ordinary Americans, who have few means by which to make their voices heard in the corridors of power. This is by design. As numerous historians have shown, in the twentieth century’s second half U.S. elites constructed a state that intentionally restricts the ability of ordinary people to shape policy. Though they might disagree about a lot, the powerful in both political parties agree that, on most things, the public cannot be trusted.
This attitude is especially entrenched when it comes to foreign policy. Since World War II, elites have insisted that U.S. foreign affairs are simply too complex, and the public too volatile and too ignorant, for average Americans to have a say in its formation. As political scientist Gabriel Almond declared in 1950, “the gravest general problem confronting policy-makers is that of the instability of mass moods,” which made it very difficult to promote a stable foreign policy. Moreover, as Almond clarified several years later, when it came to world affairs “often the public is apathetic when it should be concerned, and panicky when it should be calm.” For Almond and many who came after him, a public-directed foreign policy was guaranteed to be a foolish and ineffective one.
Today, one rarely hears members of the foreign policy establishment discuss the idea that ordinary Americans should have a significant say in the U.S. role in the world. A major reason for this is that Almond’s generation institutionalized a system that ensured ordinary people were kept far away from foreign policy. It’s not for nothing that the National Security Act of 1947, which created the modern U.S. security state, established government bodies like the National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency, both of which have no connection to public opinion. And beyond the official organs of state, after World War II think tanks like the RAND Corporation, which oftentimes operate outside public view, began to exert significant influence on U.S. foreign affairs. When foreign policy is made and they disagree with it, the best Americans can do is participate in mass protests, like those that erupted during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Even Congress hasn’t declared war since 1942.
According to those who run the U.S. national security state, foreign policy must be an elite, expert-driven affair. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early twentieth century, some Americans sought to establish a system that would give the American public a say in foreign policy decision-making. In his revelatory Every Citizen a Statesman: The Dream of a Democratic Foreign Policy in the American Century, historian David Allen tells the story of the Foreign Policy Association (FPA), the most important group to attempt to develop a public ready and able to make foreign policy.
The FPA’s story allows readers to return to a moment very unlike our own, when some elites sought to reconcile democracy with expertise. It brings us back to an era when certain well-heeled Americans, less alienated from their fellow citizens, believed that public discussion could shape how decision-makers made policy. And it enables us to trace past efforts to educate an inchoate public and make it a crucial actor in U.S. policymaking.
But most important, if most depressing, the FPA’s total failure to accomplish any of its goals highlights the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of creating a democratic foreign policy in a country whose rulers are fundamentally skeptical of the public they deign to rule.
The contemporary story of democratic foreign policy in the United States begins in World War I, when the nation, bucking centuries of tradition, resolutely entered a European conflict. With this decision, President Woodrow Wilson made clear that the United States would no longer stand apart from the Old World but would instead take its place among the nations as a so-called great power. This new global role raised a novel question Americans had mostly ignored since their nation’s founding: Who decides how the United States acts in the world?
For many Progressive Americans who took an interest in foreign affairs—journalists like Herbert Croly and Frank U. Kellogg, academics like Charles Beard, Stephen Duggan, and Alvin Johnson, philanthropists like Florence Lamont and Dorothy Payne Whitney—the answer was clear: the “public” should determine U.S. foreign policy. But when these Progressives employed the term “public,” they had a specific definition in mind; they were never referring, Allen notes, to “the unfiltered will of the people,” as they believed the actually existing demos was not yet mature or educated enough to make wise foreign policy choices. Instead, democratic-minded Progressives insisted, only a “properly instructed” public could ever gain the capacity to make U.S. foreign policy. For these Progressive elites, a period of tutelage was necessary before the reins of policymaking could be handed over to the hoi polloi.
The question, then, was how to educate a “mass public” that only recently emerged as a political force. The very notion of “mass politics” was an artifact of the fin de siècle, when urbanization combined with cheap print media to bring something called the “mass public” into being. In the 1920s, the impact and import of the so-called masses remained open questions. Should the masses be ignored, or should they become a core element of politics and policymaking? Democratic-minded Progressives insisted that politics had to be organized around a mass public whose energies were channeled, through education, toward productive goals (which were, of course, defined by the Progressive elite).
But how best to educate the masses? Luckily for democratic-minded Progressives, there was an obvious institutional means to accomplish this task: the voluntary association. In the period after World War I, Americans spent a significant portion of their time hanging out with each other at a diversity of civic organizations, from churches to Elks lodges, from VFWs to women’s clubs. As political scientists Gerald Gamm and Robert D. Putnam have shown, during the Jazz Age there were about four such associations for every 1,000 Americans. In this climate, Progressive elites concluded that the best way to educate the public about foreign policy was to form a voluntary association charged with doing so.
In March 1921 a number of Progressives founded the FPA out of the extant League of Free Nations Association. The group included the history professor-turned-bureaucrat James G. McDonald (the FPA’s first head), the Christian ecumenicist Robert H. Gardiner (its first treasurer), and the suffragette Christina Merriman (its first secretary). For the next fifty years, the FPA would serve as the single most important institution dedicated to producing an informed public able to guide the United States as it rose to global hegemony.
Headquartered in New York City, the FPA started out as bog-standard Progressive: its members desired for the United States to join the League of Nations, supported general disarmament, and harshly criticized imperialism. From the beginning, the tension between the association’s interest in educating a mass public and its actual practice was evident; throughout its first years, the group focused primarily on hosting luncheons during which experts would give a talk and then be subject to audience questioning. While these events were often compelling and dynamic, only the well-to-do had the time and money to attend them. In effect, the FPA’s luncheons functioned as high-society gatherings, where interested parties from the upper classes—many of them women—came to learn about global affairs and give an expert or two a piece of their mind.
The FPA was remarkably successful; in the Great War’s aftermath, Americans, especially elites, had started to care about the world. By 1928, the New York headquarters oversaw fourteen branches located in cities across the country, including Cincinnati, Columbus, Hartford, Philadelphia, Providence, Rochester, and Springfield. The group’s success was embodied in the fact that, in 1930, about 37,000 people attended an FPA-associated meeting. While those who participated in the FPA were hardly the unwashed masses, they did embody a group that had previously been disconnected from international affairs.
Besides educating a bourgeois elite, the FPA also devoted itself to producing Foreign Policy Reports whose most important readers worked at the State Department. Indeed, the early FPA’s influence in the corridors of power highlights the relatively small size of the U.S. state before World War II, including its foreign policy apparatus. In 1920, the State Department employed a paltry 1,222 people; in 1930 that number had risen to only 1,347. There was simply not enough staff at State to manage the United States’ ever increasing international interests, let alone to research all the information officials needed to make foreign policy. The FPA, in effect, served as State’s research department, which provided the group with a direct line to power and foreshadowed the types of “public-private” partnerships that would come to characterize U.S. foreign policymaking for the twentieth century’s remainder.
In fact, to solidify its relationship with Washington, D.C., Allen highlights how the FPA founded a “liaison office” in the capital and appointed the journalist William T. Stone to lead it. Stone rapidly became a resource for both State Department officials and congressmen, who at the time, Allen notes, “lacked significant personal or committee staffs.” As early as the 1920s and 1930s, then, the peculiar nature of the national security state, which outsources many functions that one might consider properly governmental, from research to warfighting, was already evident. The line between public and private was blurry at best.
Despite its growing influence in Washington, the FPA retained its commitment to public education. In the 1930s, this commitment was embodied primarily in two forms: the discussion group and mass media, both of which attempted to expand beyond the high-society set the group had focused on in its first decade.
In the period between the two world wars, “discussion theory” swept the Progressive imagination. This theory, Allen highlights, was premised on the Deweyan idea that knowledge needed to be “democratized rather than merely popularized.” The best way to democratize knowledge, adult education specialists insisted, was in “discussion groups”: expert-led, small-group discussions in which a leader taught a group but also imbibed its participants’ ideas. For example, a discussion leader might ask participants to debate whether the United States should join the League of Nations. The leader was then responsible, Allen describes, for “ensuring the facts were kept to, challenging prejudices but not taking sides, and insisting that no participant dominate while not talking too much themselves.” Beyond this, leaders were also required to consider seriously the participants’ “experience as a contribution to their expertise.”
The hope was that participating in discussions would accomplish two things: instill in ordinary Americans “the skills and confidence to do more than shop among products of expertise” and remind experts themselves that citizens were the source of their power and potentially founts of good ideas. In this way, Progressive education theorists intended to reconcile democracy with expertise. The FPA, for its part, enthusiastically supported discussion theory and created programs that attempted, as Allen puts it, “to inculcate discussion techniques among teachers, clubwomen, and students.”
In addition to the discussion group, the FPA also started to try to speak directly to the mass public it had come into being to educate. To do so, the group published a series of easily readable and cheap “Headline Books” with titles like Billions for Defense, The Puzzle of Palestine, Shadow over Europe, and Battles without Bullets, which sought to educate ordinary people about a diversity of foreign policy and security issues. Furthermore, the association partnered with NBC to broadcast a radio show titled America Looks Abroad that provided fifteen minutes of current events analysis every week and whose slogan—“foreign affairs are your affairs”—embodied the FPA’s mission.
In these ways, the FPA became the most important group to attempt to resolve the tensions between mass democracy and elite expertise, even if, as Allen underlines, it was not clear whether the association’s experiments in mass education were “genuinely reaching a different kind of American or just expanding its reach to the same sorts of people in new areas of the country.” Still, at the least the FPA tried.
Beyond its educational efforts, by the late 1930s the group had successfully developed a working relationship with the federal government. The FPA, in fact, was as, if not more, influential than its better-known competitor, the Council on Foreign Relations, whose members insisted that an expert elite alone should guide U.S. foreign affairs. The FPA was ascendant, even though it had not yet established the educated mass public it imagined.
Unfortunately for the association, World War II would change all that.
In July 1939 Major General Frank R. McCoy, a protégé of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, became the FPA’s president, and under him the organization abandoned the commitment to foreign policy debate displayed in its luncheons and discussion groups; instead it began parroting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration’s view that the United States needed to become involved in World War II (which erupted in September). From this moment on, the FPA would, in effect, promote U.S. “primacy”—the notion that both American and global peace and prosperity depended on the United States becoming the world’s military and economic hegemon.
Yet even this alignment with the state would not ensure the FPA’s lasting influence. Most immediately, throughout the war the U.S. state poached many members of the FPA and its branches. More important, though, was the fact that the war and its aftermath transformed the ideology and structure of the U.S. state. In terms of ideology, most policy elites emerged from the war convinced that it demonstrated that the very idea of a public-directed foreign policy was not only chimerical but dangerous, especially because the advent of nuclear weapons made the stakes of foreign policy literally existential. Hans Speier, an influential sociologist and member of the RAND Corporation, crystallized this view in 1950 when he affirmed:
Since the end of the first World War . . . the faith in the power of public opinion to render world politics reasonable has been shaken. There are many events which contributed to this demoralization: the failure of the League of Nations; disillusionment concerning the lofty war aims of the Allies and the general distrust of propaganda which spread between the two world wars; the rise of fascism and national socialism in countries of old civilization and with no lack of liberal traditions; the absence of inspiring peace aims during the second World War; the sterility of the resistance movements in the realm of political ideas; the use of weapons of mass destruction in the attainment of victory; and the quick transformation of the wartime coalition into intense hostility between its main partners even before peace was formally established.
“Do we still maintain,” Speier asked rhetorically, “the belief in the perfectability [sic] of man, faced, as we are, with the overwhelming experiences of the twentieth century . . . and with the advances in both the technology of destruction and moral apathy?”
A more damning indictment of the FPA’s raison d’être could hardly be imagined.
But more significant than any individual’s perspective was the fact that Speier’s criticism of public opinion was institutionalized in the emergent national security state. To ensure that ordinary people had no say in the corridors of power, elites within and outside government created novel institutions that insulated foreign policymaking from the public. Among them was the National Security Council, which centralized decision-making in the White House; the Central Intelligence Agency, which mostly operated in secret; and the RAND Corporation, which, like the FPA before it, served as an unofficial but influential research arm of the government. Beyond this process of state-making, the administration of Harry Truman instituted a byzantine program for classifying information that made it ever harder for the public, or even Congress, to know what the national security state was up to.
These efforts, in turn, were bolstered by research that appeared to demonstrate that the very idea of an informed public opinion was ridiculous. Allen reports how in the winter of 1946–47 the American Association for the United Nations and the United Nations Association of Cincinnati initiated “a six-month blitz of 2,800 speeches, the printing of 59,588 pieces of literature, and the placement of ads” about international relations with the intent of demonstrating that average Americans could be made interested in foreign affairs. But as Allen relays, the National Opinion Research Center found that at the end of this study the groups discovered that their effort “did not stir the interest of those who were not interested in the first place.” Moreover, in the early Cold War social scientific analyses by thinkers like Speier and Gabriel Almond seemed to confirm that it was very difficult, if not impossible, to educate the public about international relations. By the 1950s, most foreign policy elites had concluded that the project to create an interested foreign policy public was a relic of a more naïve moment that needed to be abandoned.
After World War II, then, the FPA and its mission were clearly out of step with the times. In 1950, the Rockefeller Foundation—the FPA’s longtime benefactor—stopped funding the group, having determined, Allen recounts, that what the United States needed was “expert knowledge to lead a world that even the most educated Americans knew little about.” The FPA went into decline; sales of its publications fell as its membership sank and some branches closed. Whereas FPA leaders used to be welcome in the corridors of power, they now found themselves on the outside, looking in. In 1951, the group’s board even considered liquidating it.
The FPA would have likely shuttered were it not for the Ford Foundation, which in the late 1940s emerged as the nation’s wealthiest philanthropy. In 1949, the foundation released a report that identified five “program areas” it would heavily invest in: “The Establishment of Peace,” “The Strengthening of Democracy,” “The Strengthening of the Economy,” “Education in a Democratic Society,” and “Individual Behavior and Human Relations.” The FPA’s work fit into several of these program areas, and the group quickly established connections with the foundation, which became its primary funder.
The most important and long-lasting innovation to emerge as the result of the Ford Foundation’s support was the “Great Decisions” program. Created in Oregon in early 1955, the program, Allen explains, “claimed to offer Portlanders a chance to lead the world from their living rooms.” Great Decisions was a significant effort, consisting of “eighty to ninety discussion groups of a dozen or so men and women [who met] in living rooms, school halls, and public libraries for about three to four hours a week” to discuss questions like “does U.S. security, prosperity, and freedom depend on the rest of the world?” and “how shall we deal with the U.S.S.R.?” Though similar in some ways to the earlier discussion groups, Great Decisions differed in that it expected more from its participants. As Allen notes, those who took part in sessions were “supposed to have either tuned in to a dedicated radio or television program before attending their discussion group or, preferably, to have read one of the fact sheets the Association wrote to give the minimum necessary to contribute.” Instead of the average American, Great Decisions implicitly targeted itself to those already concerned with world affairs. In this way, the FPA attempted to fit in with the anti-mass public tenor of the era.
The FPA used Great Decisions to promote U.S. primacy. For instance, Allen observes that “the fact sheet for the [program’s] session dealing with the U.S.S.R.” announced that all the United States was doing in the Cold War was giving “assistance to Western European countries where economic instability and Communist tactics threatened democratic governments.” The Soviet Union, in contrast, was described as engaging in “constantly shifting attacks on Europe and Asia” that were defined by “subversion, propaganda, trickery, obstruction, sabotage, and plotting through communist cells.” Such “facts” did not exactly set the stage for a balanced debate of the type the early FPA would have endorsed.
Though Great Decisions was a smashing success and rapidly spread across the country, it had little impact on the FPA’s overall trajectory. Things came to a head in the 1960s, when Samuel P. Hayes, Jr., a social psychologist who agreed with the critics of public opinion, took over the organization. Hayes insisted that the FPA should focus its efforts solely on the Americans whom it determined could actually be educated about U.S. foreign affairs—citing social scientific research, Hayes concluded that this was only about 12 million people. But even this narrowing couldn’t save the association. By the late 1960s, many nonprofits had begun to refocus their attention on domestic issues, and the Ford Foundation was no different. Under its new leader McGeorge Bundy, a prominent foreign policymaker in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, the foundation, Allen notes, dedicated itself to addressing “racial justice and the urban crisis.” Bundy, perhaps guilty about his involvement in the disastrous Vietnam War, had little interest in either foreign policy or the FPA, and eliminated all of the foundation’s support for the latter.
The FPA thus continued its long decline, cutting programs, publications, and regional offices. Today, it survives as a rump organization that concentrates primarily on Great Decisions, which remains its most popular offering.
The FPA failed to achieve its major goals: create an educated public able to help guide U.S. foreign affairs and develop mechanisms through which that public (when it came into existence) would be heard by policy elites. After the 1960s, as Allen rightly emphasizes, “the idea that foreign policy could be forged in popular participation . . . disappeared; there would be attempts to remake the ‘establishment,’ but little more.”
The de-democratization of U.S. foreign policy was rapidly followed by the de-massification of U.S. war. Specifically, the Vietnam War and the backlash it engendered impelled a broader shift in U.S. warfighting away from a citizens’ military and toward an “all-volunteer force,” which emerged when the draft ended in 1973. Since then, most Americans have not directly felt the consequences of their nation’s wars.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, the intertwined processes of de-democratization and de-massification led policy- and war-making to become entirely elite affairs, ruled over by an establishment whose members hailed from an ever-narrower subset of the meritocratic elite. This establishment pursued a variety of wars with only tangential connections to any possible construal of the “national interest,” from the Gulf War to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the interventions in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Despite periodic outbursts of mass protests, especially in the run-up to the second war in Iraq, the U.S. public has been quiescent, allowing its elites to basically do what they wanted. The FPA and its dream of creating a democratic foreign policy are today nothing but a memory, and a fading one at that.
Though Allen spells out numerous proximate causes of the FPA’s decline, its failure was overdetermined, the result of problems endemic to liberal democracy itself. Since liberalism’s advent in the French Revolution’s aftermath, liberal elites have been fundamentally skeptical of the public and its opinion. While this skepticism has waxed and waned over time, it became especially strong—and, more important, was institutionalized—during the early Cold War, when nervous liberals concluded that ordinary Americans could not be trusted with the responsibilities of foreign policymaking. Once this anti-public opinion became a structural feature of the U.S. state, it became very difficult for the public to shape international affairs. Simply put, any attempt to create a democratic foreign policy faces two significant obstacles: an ideological distrust of ordinary people and a state designed to ensure they have little impact on foreign relations.
What, then, is to be done?
The answer is old and unsatisfying: build public power through organizing and transform (maybe even transcend) the anti-democratic liberalism that has defined U.S. governance since World War II. This is the only way that Americans can begin to democratize their foreign policy.
But not every story has a happy ending, and I doubt this one will. While there have been a variety of recent proposals to re-democratize U.S. political life, it is difficult to imagine a world in which these efforts succeed. Most Americans don’t fight and die in our nation’s wars and, beyond this, many have rightly concluded that they can’t affect policy, so why try. Moreover, the material degradations of the last two generations have made it so that Americans simply don’t have the time or capacity to focus on making foreign policy more democratic. Without massive transformations in the U.S. state, economy, and society, there is little to be done.
Allen’s book might therefore be best interpreted as a message in a bottle, waiting to be picked up in a generation or two by people who hopefully live in a less undemocratic and unequal world. It will be up to them to begin the process of taking control of the state as they attempt to realize one of democracy’s highest aims: a policy by the people, not merely just for them.
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Daniel Bessner is Associate Professor at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and cohost of the podcast American Prestige.
Reprinted with permission from the Boston Review. Support the Boston Review.