On May 26 the Progressive Studies Program’s Progressive Authors Series held an event to feature Arsenal of Democracy, a book by Princeton historian Julian Zelizer on the implications of American domestic politics on our foreign policy. Zelizer examines the presidential campaigns from 1946 to the modern era, outlining how Democratic and Republican nominees have always had to take into account public perceptions of foreign policy decisions. For him, politics in America has never stopped at the water’s edge.
Zelizer argues that there are four primary conflicts that shape political discussions about national security: the balance between executive and congressional authority on national security, partisan advantage, the size of government, and unilateralism.
Zelizer outlines how, contrary to modern popular opinion on the relative hawkishness of the major political parties, the Democrats were the ones perceived to be tough on defense after World War II since a large number of Republicans stubbornly opposed intervention in the war throughout the 40s. Nixon, however, pushed for a fundamental new approach for Republicans in the realm of foreign policy in 1952 with his strong anticommunist rhetoric during his campaign for vice president on the Eisenhower ticket.
Zelizer also points out the significant influence Congress has on foreign policy decisions, often through strong-arming political games, such as the threat of appropriations manipulation or hearings. Congress has thus caused some presidents to become more hawkish than they would have otherwise chosen to be, according to Zelizer.
Some social movements in U.S. history have had implications for presidential foreign policy decisions, as well. Zelizer points, for example, to how the nuclear freeze movement pressured President Ronald Reagan to come up with “Star Wars,” the project to create a space-based antimissile system.
Zelizer sees, in many ways, a continuation of the usual politics that have existed since the 40s and 50s in the contemporary foreign policy decisions that stemmed from the tragedy of September 11, 2001. But he also sees significant differences. Conservatives have “come to [see] executive power as a central part of American strategy,” he says, which is at odds with much of conservative political history.
President Barack Obama, on the other hand, seems to be attempting to inhabit the multilateral internationalist philosophy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet President Obama, unlike FDR, has not called on the nation to sacrifice for the war effort. This absence of sacrifice, according to Zelizer, has perhaps led to the feelings of disconnectedness that many Americans feel from the two wars we are fighting in distant lands.
Julian Zelizer, Author, Arsenal of Democracy; Professor of History and Public Affairs, Princeton University
John Halpin, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Ruy Teixeira, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress