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Tocqueville for the Twenty-First Century

By: Joan OBryan
April 17, 2017

olumnist Harvey Mackay once noted, “everyone is in sales.” And he meant everyone. From pauper to president, Americans spend their days selling their fellow citizens on their next big idea. Lemonade stands, start-ups, politics and policy: we all seek to convince others to invest their time and energy in our company, opinions, or dreams. And there’s no better way to sell someone on something than with a clever catchphrase. Americans want pithy slogans, just the right size to fit on a bumper sticker. “Honk!” if you agree.

Paul Miller, following in George F. Kennan’s footsteps, would sit in the driver’s seat in dignified silence. Miller’s American Power & Liberal Order: A Conservative Internationalist Grand Strategy (2016), is his antidote to the consumerist influence on American foreign policy. Miller, a national security scholar at the University of Texas, criticizes easily distilled “bumper sticker” grand strategies, such as “selective engagement,” “responsible sovereignty,” or “restrainment.” If his contempt of “sloganeering” doesn’t alert you, his book’s title might: Miller is not a pithy writer.

But his argument is worthwhile. For Miller, understanding American grand strategy requires acknowledging our national character. US foreign policy’s remarkable consistency across presidential administrations stems from the unique relationship between American power and ideology. Presidents tend to respond to crises with variants on a single grand strategic philosophy. Despite differences in party and tactics, they “typically turned to promoting democracy as the best long-term solution for safeguarding American interests.”

This Tocquevillian foreign policy doctrine hinges on “self-interest rightly understood.” Liberty abroad promotes safety and prosperity at home. This truth, however, doesn’t guarantee that we are safer or more prosperous when we force liberty on the unwilling. Each crisis presents an opportunity to tilt the world order in our favor, while also turning it towards justice.

Miller wields Tocquevillian foreign policy to undercut “spectrum-based” theories. Liberal internationalists desire increased engagement with the entire world’s ills and injustices, while on the spectrum’s other end, libertarian “restraint”-ists demand turtle-shell withdrawal. For Miller, neither “more” nor “less” international engagement necessarily promotes American security. By identifying interests and taking advantage of rising opportunities, restraint and engagement are used as means to an end.

Finding America’s interest in a diverse, threatening world necessitates discrete regional strategies. In South Asia, for example, America’s interest might require increased engagement, while in the Middle East, restraint is desirable. Miller’s reversal of the common understanding of the importance of these two regions to American interests is the most enjoyable intellectual exercise of the book.

American Power & Liberal Order was written before Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. Reading Miller’s policy recommendations in light of this surprising development does not undermine their value, but does provoke sympathetic wincing. Miller advocates for increasing civilian institutions’ role in foreign policy engagement. He wants a bigger State Department, believing the Foreign Service to be “shockingly small” and “poorly trained.” The “strategic investment” in foreign aid ought to be increased. Most importantly, America needs a “standing, deployable, expeditionary civilian instrument for reconstruction, stabilization, and government assistance.” As convincingly articulated as these proposals are, they’re dead on arrival; President Trump’s first budget proposal slashed State Department funding by nearly a third.

American Power and Liberal Order is a welcome framework for addressing 21st-century foreign policy’s hard questions. Its chief weakness is the occasional conflation of democracy and liberalism. Miller’s argument rests on the premise that because democracies do not start wars with one another, spreading democracy is vital to our security. While it’s true that liberal democracies are natural allies, illiberal countries remain a threat to the United States, regardless of whether they hold elections. Pakistan just held its first successful transfer of power between elected governments. In Russia, popular support of Putin is seemingly genuine.

Miller understands this, and makes repeated references to the importance of culture and ideology, but in American Power and Liberal Order he sloppily uses democracy and liberalism interchangeably. As the world reels from economic globalization and populist backlash, it’s essential that we clearly differentiate our allies from our adversaries. Western liberal democracies are unlikely to spark conflict with us, but the rising illiberal democracies of Eastern Europe may destructively shift the regional balance.

Overall, however, American Power & Liberal Order offers a subtle and complex approach to grand strategy. Even if the implementation of his policy recommendations has become less likely since the book was published, they can still spark productive debates in Washington. And vigorous debate, of course, is better than any bumper sticker slogan.