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Cowboy Diplomacy

By: Colin Dueck
March 27, 2017

The best and brightest side of Billy’s character has been portrayed above. The shield had another side never exhibited to his best friends—the weak and helpless. His temper was fearful, and in his angry moods he was dangerous….His misfortune was, he could not and would not stay whipped.

Pat Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882)


rom Montana and the Dakotas down to the Gulf of Mexico, a wide belt of small-town and rural counties constitutes a distinct American region. Economically, it relies heavily on agriculture and extracting minerals, oil, and gas. Demographically, its population is disproportionately of English and German descent. Electorally, it leans conservative and Republican, though with an independent libertarian strain. The dominant prairie ethos really does match the stereotype: straightforward, hard-working, and unpretentious. Last November these Great Plains counties voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump for president.

Trump won most of the electoral vote in three other regions as well: greater Appalachia, the Deep South, and the interior Mountain West. Finally, he added to this normally Republican electoral base a crossover appeal in small-town Rust Belt counties near the Great Lakes, sufficient to tip key swing states into his electoral column: Ohio, where Barack Obama won twice; Pennsylvania and Michigan, which every Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1992 had carried, and Wisconsin, which every Democrat since Michael Dukakis in 1988 had carried. Trump’s Jacksonian, white working-class base provided crushing margins, central to his success.

What implications does modern Jacksonianism have for U.S. foreign policy? Jacksonians don’t want to order other people’s lives, but are determined to protect their own lives, values, traditions, and dignity, regardless of status, as well those of their family, friends, and neighbors. Loyalty moves outward from those closest to home, yet includes an intense patriotism. Insults in general, and elite pretense, cant, or pomposity in particular, are intolerable. Instead, there’s an insistence on respect and a willingness to give it, so long as it’s reciprocal. The overall mentality is well captured by the words of the Gadsden flag: “Don’t tread on me.”

During the Cold War, Jacksonians supported the anti-Soviet struggle, rightly perceiving international Communism as a threat to their country. Indeed, they supported Cold War resolve long after most liberal Democrats had abandoned it—one reason Jacksonians eventually drifted toward the GOP under leaders like Nixon and Reagan. This political reality engendered a tactical alliance with Republican internationalists, who favored: free trade; promoting democracy abroad, international organizations, including the United Nations; foreign aid; global alliances; and, eventually, openness to immigration. During those years, the Jacksonian element in Republican foreign policy often gave it a “cowboy” quality, alarming to metropolitan liberals as well as some foreign observers. But in practice it usually worked pretty well.

After 9/11, Jacksonians supported George W. Bush’s war on terror for a characteristic reason, the need to repel a deadly threat. Again, their fierce determination to punish America’s enemies gave rise to complaints of cowboy diplomacy. But Jacksonians had never been enthusiastic about the internationalist project per se, and in the face of mounting frustration during the Obama era, they finally withdrew their support from several of its various components. The result was a revolution in traditional GOP foreign policy stands, championed by Donald Trump but unexpected by most political observers.

Specifically, the conservative nationalism manifested so vigorously last year reasserted that U.S. foreign policy should prioritize America’s distinct national sovereignty, integrity, and independence. This longstanding aspect of American diplomacy had not been asserted with such force since the great debates of 1940-41. Under the very different circumstances of 2016, conservative nationalists saw illegal immigration, jihadist terrorism, and the losses derived from free trade as America’s main challenges. For Trump and his earliest supporters, these three trends represented serious threats to the lives, property, national identity, and physical security of American citizens, around the world and inside the United States. If not to secure Americans against such threats, they asked, what else could be the chief purpose of U.S. foreign policy?

To the surprise of most people whose careers and reputations depend on discerning the electorate’s changing attitudes, this emphasis on transnational challenges of trade, terrorism, and immigration turned out to be a winning platform, first in the GOP primaries and then in November. Rather than pretend to have executive-branch foreign policy experience comparable to Hillary Clinton’s, Trump criticized her for that very record. He gained electorally, especially in the Rust Belt, by hammering away at transnational threats, thereby capturing popular disgust with the establishments of both political parties. Rather than accede to the demographically inevitable “coalition of the ascendant,” Trump’s working-class supporters would not stay whipped.

Conservatives versus Political Correctness

The other factor that worked to Trump’s advantage, related to transnational policy issues such as immigration and terrorism, was liberal identity politics, also known as political correctness. Self-described liberals or progressives, less than one-third of the American public, devoted many long years to instructing their fellow citizens on the essential bigotry and wickedness of not voting Democratic. Accordingly, the only conceivable basis for opposing Hillary Clinton’s election must be sexism, racism, or stupidity. This ingenious strategy—winning votes by insulting voters—somehow failed to put Hillary over the top.

If the opening months of 2017 are any indication, progressives will intensify their commitment to this losing strategy. Contemporary progressives cannot abandon identity politics, since outraged rectitude has become central to American liberalism. As accusations of sexism and racism become increasingly frequent and strident, they eventually get irritating instead of intimidating.

Having fueled Trump’s victory and a resurgent conservative nationalism, political correctness is now encouraging another remarkable tendency: quite literally, a refusal to accept the election’s validity. No doubt Representative John Lewis of Georgia spoke for many liberal Democrats when he denied that Trump was a “legitimate president.” Whatever one thinks of Trump, his personality or policies, he did in fact win the presidential election. Yet a striking assortment of congressional Democrats, activists, judges, journalists, and career civil servants seem determined to deny his legitimacy, no matter what he says or does. Mass rallies warn us of incipient fascism. Campus counseling is offered for those too emotionally devastated to go on.

This refusal relates to the question of who gets to define conservatism. Ever since the 1950s, conservatives in America have produced foundations, think-tanks, intellectuals, publications, and donor networks to reshape the Republican Party by emphasizing free markets, social tradition, strong national defenses, and constitutionalism. Beyond that, conservatism’s precise definition has varied over time. After 9/11, it was redefined by President Bush to include democratizing the Muslim world through nation-building efforts ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan. The fight against jihadist terrorists will go on, but that particular idealistic moment in Republican foreign policy is now officially over.

Clearly, if there’s a yawning gap between Republican voters and conservative intellectuals, it isn’t the voters who will give way. There appears to be a misunderstanding as to the actual relationship between conservative voters, Republican politicians, and conservative intellectuals. The first group chooses the second, who go on to implement policy. Though it can offer useful advice from time to time, the third group is by far the least important. Now we have a situation whereby some intellectuals still believe they, not the great majority of conservative voters, define conservatism. As a class, the intellectuals have failed to listen.

Cowboy Diplomacy Redux?

The irony is that the new administration is moving toward a foreign policy consistent with traditional conservative national security hawks’ longstanding preferences. Defense spending is being significantly increased. Traditional alliances in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East are being reaffirmed. The administration is taking a relatively hard line against undue diplomatic concessions to Iran, China, or North Korea, preferring to intensify pressure instead. Constraints on counter-terror practices at both the Pentagon and CIA are being loosened. And the Secretary of Defense has been instructed to pull together more aggressive war plans against the Islamic State. These welcome changes will disappoint strict libertarians and pure non-interventionists ... but Trump never campaigned on any platform they could endorse.

Populist nationalists within the federal government, empowered by the president, will continue to press for “fair” trade practices, diplomatic outreach toward Moscow, allied burden-sharing, and a hard line against illegal immigration. More traditional conservatives—both within the administration, and in Congress—will push back against some parts of this, including free trade, alliance relationships, and our relations with Russia. The resulting synthesis may be productive.

A foreign and national security policy based on a strong U.S. international role, shorn of left-liberal assumptions, would be a new cowboy diplomacy, based upon straightforward presidential foreign policy leadership, robust deterrence, support of key U.S. allies, and the decisive use of force. It would abandon the Obama-era conceit that our national interests or world peace are well served by American military build-downs, increasing global governance, one-sided accommodations of international adversaries, or endless legalistic verbiage unsupported by force. And if the GOP’s conservative nationalists become convinced that foreign, trade, and immigration policies once again serve American citizens’ interests, then they may grasp that a forward-leaning alliance system also serves those same interests.

The key decisions, in any case, will be the president’s to make. He is central, as a matter of constitutional structure and historical practice. And it is the president—not the experts—whose name is on the ballot. We do not yet live in a system of pure technocratic rule. Rather, democratic accountability to the American public extends to foreign policy.

There does appear to have developed over the years an insular, bipartisan Beltway establishment convinced of its right to direct the nation’s affairs, regardless of popular repudiation. This elite condescension is part of what led to Trump’s win in the first place. Americans trust democratic procedures to help resolve public policy controversies. Using either the courts or the career bureaucracy to impose policy preferences that could not prevail in a free and fair election, is undemocratic—nothing less.

Because there are no kings in this country. Here, the people rule.