The Failed Attempt to Make US Foreign Policy a Kitchen Table Issue
In his famous survey of the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered what effect democratic politics might have on the new nation. Specifically, he worried about democracy’s influence on foreign affairs (3). Centuries later, it seems Tocqueville need not have worried: U.S. foreign policy isn’t made democratically. When American politicians make appeals to the public, they often do so by discussing “kitchen table” issues: the economy, healthcare, education, and jobs. Foreign policy doesn’t figure. It’s assumed that debates over the promises and perils of NATO expansion don’t transpire between requests to pass the salt. Does blame for this predicament lay at the feet of a largely apathetic American citizenry? Or perhaps with an elitist foreign policy “Establishment” (also known by its more recent moniker, “the Blob”)? Either way, the end result is the same. As David Allen contends in his new book Every Citizen a Statesman, recent American foreign policy has been made for the American people, but not by them (234).
There was, however, a moment between Tocqueville’s era and today when this was not the case. Every Citizen A Statesman explains how, in the decades between the first World War and the Cold War, a set of prominent Americans interested in foreign relations aimed to educate the American public in order to create a “public opinion” suitably equipped to guide foreign policy. This group hoped to establish something entirely new: democratic foreign policy.
Central to Allen’s story is the Foreign Policy Association, a once-powerful group whose history is hardly known (5). From the 1920s through the 1970s, the Association, as Allen calls it, was often a line item on the budgets of major philanthropies, such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. It boasted a sizable and highly influential membership. For instance, by 1945, the Association had 32 local branches, and its roll call doubled as a practical “Who’s Who” of the foreign policy community (89). However, as Allen argues, the Association’s greatest significance was not its masthead but rather the wide acceptance of its message within the foreign policy community: the belief that “the United States needed—for its own security and for the peace of the world—to create a uniquely democratic form of diplomacy in which an interested, informed public would participate actively, effectively, and meaningfully to influence basic policy” (4).
Allen’s book seeks to fill this gap in the historiography, giving a history of the attempt to make a democratic foreign policy. That history is, in his own words, “a sorry tale, a declension narrative” (242). It begins at the close of World War I with the creation of the Association. The group gamely heeded Woodrow Wilson’s call to create a new international order, rooted not in the schemes of diplomats, but rather in the opinions of a peace-loving public. The Association’s ranks brimmed with the stragglers and successors of an earlier Progressive Age, who brought their liberal faith in the transformative power of education and the perfectibility of humanity into a post-war world.
In 1918, the Association was under no illusions about the American public’s capacity to make foreign policy decisions – a snobbery Allen emphasizes. Allen shows how the Association set out to make a public they deemed worthy of possessing an opinion on foreign policy. Thus, rather than engage with the public directly, the Association of the 1920s organized speaking-engagement luncheons in New York City, featuring “a potent brew of high-society glamor and highbrow academic combat” (32). Eventually, this model would inspire groups throughout major metropolitan areas in the country. The knowledge disseminated during these events would, the Association hoped, trickle down to the public.
As it turned out, the majority of “the public” the Association attracted to these luncheons were women. That seems to have been a wrinkle that the Association’s founders didn’t contemplate. The rediscovery of the essential role played by white women in the early days of the Association is one of Every Citizen A Statemen’s most intriguing findings. Previous scholars have established that after achieving suffrage expansion, women’s groups did not dissipate, but rather turned eagerly toward the project of keeping the peace and forging an international feminist collective. Allen adds to this history and shows that these same suffrage networks retooled to serve the Association’s aims to educate the public on foreign affairs. Allen “uncovers” the presence of women scattered throughout the Association, in all the places we have learned to spot “hidden figures”: as organizers, publicists, and donors. Later they would also appear as researchers, as the Association embraced “The Fact Cult” (the title of Chapter Two) and thus moved away from hosting luncheons and toward creating authoritative foreign policy literature, popular with experts and enthusiasts alike.
Crucially, Allen moves beyond acknowledging the presence of women and argues that the visibility of white women changed the trajectory of the Association’s efforts, and correspondingly, reduced the scope for broader thinking about the role of public opinion in foreign policy. The Association had long been an elitist institution. From its outset, it excluded the opinions of Black Americans from its imagined public. But by the late 1920s, the Association considered winnowing its audience even further. It seemed to the Association that in order to reach a male audience (and thus, raise more money and garner more influence), “[n]ew and potentially more restrictive models for public opinion might be required for discussions of foreign policy to appeal more precisely to the imagined social mores of male elites” (43).
A fascinating proposal, but Allen clarifies that “potentially” was the operative word (43). While a backlash against women’s involvement in foreign policy occurred in the late 1920s, Allen suggests that the lack of a coherent American foreign policy at that time meant the conversation about women could be left on the back burner. Perhaps for this reason, in the pages that follow, Allen discusses the ways in which women’s status declined in the Association. However, he also more or less sets aside gender analysis. For instance, Allen shows how the Association’s interest in academic expertise increases over the decades. While this pivot toward expertise understandably limited the ways in which women could participate in the Association’s work, it does not show how this new academic model was any more or less “masculine” or “feminine” than the Association’s research in the 1920s. Gender analysis aside, Allen’s discussion of the Association’s backlash against women makes an important point: in the coming decades, the Association would continuously narrow its definition of whose opinions it ought to attempt to shape.
As Allen’s account moves into the 1930s, the Association and its related vision of democratic foreign policy resemble the Hapsburg Empire: slipping ever further into decline, yet remaining oddly durable. The Great Depression cut into the Association’s funding, especially from its dues-paying membership, while the apparent return to power politics led some to question the utility of democracy in general, let alone in the arena of foreign policy affairs.
But it wasn’t all bad news for those seeking to educate the public on foreign affairs in the 1930s. Allen’s case-study chapter on Newton Baker and Brooks Emeny’s Cleveland Foreign Affairs Council not only showcases how successful studies of “US and the World” can be when rooted in the localities of the United States, but also how the luncheon model of engagement gave way to adult education classes on world affairs, dinnertime events for those (men) who worked during the day, and conversation on foreign affairs that relied more heavily on the language of the social sciences. “By 1951, the Council was sponsoring more than twelve hundred community programs a year,” Allen reports, ranging from film screenings to radio shows and after-school clubs (129). Emeny, however, failed to replicate this kind of success on a national level when he left Cleveland in 1947 and became the Association’s newest president.
By 1947, the Association found itself in a difficult position. Some of the trouble, Allen shows, was beyond the association’s control. For instance, the membership of metropolitan Association branches disappeared in a wave of white flight. Similarly, the information explosion brought on by mass media, television, and radio meant the Association no longer needed to fill an information vacuum.
Yet Allen describes the Association’s wounds as largely self-inflicted. The Association initially refused to comment on whether the United States ought to enter the Second World War, insisting that taking a position was unnecessary, as the “right” decision would be obvious to the informed. As the Association placed itself above the fray, others rushed onto the field. These included the Council on Foreign Relations, another foreign policy group founded at the close of World War I. The CFR lurks in the background of Every Citizen a Statesman as the Association’s obvious foil: compared to the Association, the postwar CFR was more masculine, exclusive, secretive, and, in the postwar period, more influential. The State Department also launched its own attempt to create a democratic foreign policy, which appeared to rely less on the Association’s educational methods, and more on newfound marketing techniques. Without the Association’s largely uncontested influence, public opinion increasingly became something to mobilize, not something to develop.
In the postwar years, the idea that public opinion mattered at all to foreign policymaking faltered. Publicly, the foreign policy community toed the party line, insisting on the importance of creating policies with public opinion in mind. Within academic circles, however, Allen alleges a different tone emerged. The war had confirmed fears about the perils that “the masses” posed to democracy. Moreover, the growing popularity of polling seemed to show that few Americans knew much about foreign affairs, despite the Association’s decades-long efforts. Finally, in an atomic age, the stakes of foreign policy never felt higher.
The Association attempted to stave off rising skepticism with a new tranche of programming. Perhaps, they admitted, they could not reach all Americans, but 50% seemed achievable (184). The syndicated “Great Decisions” radio program and related resources for at-home discussions attempted to do just that. But these efforts — described by Allen as simply more of the same programming the Association had tried for years— seemed to reach only those Americans already inclined to participate in foreign affairs. The writing was on the wall.
How — and when – did the link between foreign policy and public opinion finally break? As the 1960s wore on, external factors piled up. The philanthropies that had funded the Association for so many years underwent personnel changes. As a result, these groups redirected their funds according to their new interest. Widespread faith in adult education programs shattered in the 1960s, leaving many skeptical of the Association’s program of work. Moreover, the public response to an increasingly disastrous war in Vietnam made the Association’s “belief in reasoned discussion seemed ever more antiquated” as the war continued into the late 1960s (228).
Yet the final chapters suggest another culprit in the failure to democratize foreign policy: the Association itself. Ever deferential to expertise, by the 1960s the Association’s ranks swelled with behavioral scientists who insisted that foreign affairs were too complex for the public. The Association would be better served, they insisted, by helping cultivate experts. Moreover, Allen argues that while the Association convinced the foreign policy community of the importance of public opinion, the Association failed to convince the public that their opinions mattered to the foreign policy community. Without this reassurance, many in the public walked away from the Association’s projects and foreign affairs in general.
The Association’s failure to give equal weight to the public’s feelings perhaps comes as no surprise. While Every Citizen a Statesman gives a history of an attempt to democratize foreign policy, the book’s main focus, the Association, was more liberal than democratic. To diagnose its elite liberalism as snobbish, as Allen does, is right. But that character diagnosis can paper over a serious ideological distinction between liberals, who sought to shape public opinion, and democrats, who sought to empower it. Every Citizen a Statesman offers a rise-and-fall narrative for the idea of democratic foreign relations in the twentieth century. However, it suggests an evolutionary history as well, spotted in the final chapter entitled “The Diplomatic One Percent.” After all, many members of today’s foreign policy establishment or “the Blob,” have another name for themselves: liberal internationalists.
Every Citizen a Statesman will undoubtedly prove essential reading for historians across a variety of fields. First and foremost, Allen bravely ventures into the study of public opinion itself, an oddly understudied — if not undertheorized — concept. The book successfully navigates away from questions about the existence of a relationship between public opinion (however one may define that) and policymaking and instead provides a history of how ideas around the role of “public opinion” changed over time.
Allen also contributes to ongoing conversations in the field of the United States and the World. Allen’s work adds to a growing set of literature that introduces elements of contingency into the well-worn myths about the United States’ meteoric rise to superpower status in the years surrounding World War II. Every Citizen a Statesman certainly revises the idea that the American policy community always desired to remain a cozy enclave for highly-trained specialists. But perhaps more importantly, Allen argues persuasively that the eventual creation of foreign policy free of public opinion was contested, not predetermined.
Allen’s portrait of a not-so-distant past in which foreign policy strove to become more democratic comes at an ideal time. Recent conversations about the health of democracy in the United States and abroad have collided with steadily-growing skepticism about the insulated nature of the American foreign policy community. Historians of the United States and the World in particular have become entangled in the democratization wave, producing not only histories of efforts to make global politics more democratic, but even contributing to contemporary conversations and efforts. In the book’s epilogue, Allen offers his own suggestions for crafting a more democratic foreign policy, based on lessons learned from the early decades of the Association. Highlights include more open discussions of the relationship between democracy and foreign policy, a willingness to hear the American public’s views and to incorporate them into the creation of policy, closer relationships with activist groups, and a reevaluation of the relationships between philanthropies and democratization.
In the spirit of Allen’s conclusion then, perhaps I can offer a suggestion of my own. Every Citizen a Statesman tells the history of a group that hoped to win over the minds of the American public. Yet one wonders if the Association’s goal would have been better served by attempting to win their hearts instead. To return to the metaphorical “kitchen table” of American politics, the liberal Association —at least at certain points— sought to elevate the kind of conversations taking place in some American households through educational programming and informational pamphlets. Yet peers of the Association, perhaps more enamored with moody democracy than orderly liberalism, took a different tact. These actors aimed to influence American feelings, rather than thoughts, through popular political columns and bestselling novels: in short, the kinds of things already up for discussion in American homes. These sorts of efforts fall outside the scope of Allen’s thought-provoking work, which shows how the idea of public opinion evolved within the formal foreign policy community. For those of us thinking with Allen’s suggestions on how to create a more democratic foreign policy today, however, we may need to consider even more historical models for how to make foreign policy a kitchen-table issue again.
Madelyn Lugli is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the history of twentieth-century international relations, emotions, and gender.