This year’s anti-establishment presidential candidates, notably Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, are spouting policy ideas that are, if anything, impractical. Conventional norms of rationality have become nearly irrelevant, showing an underlying distrust of the political classes. This is what has gelled into the insurgent candidacies. The fact that such sentiments have found such strong voices testifies to America’s democracy. The current political process, however, will not dispel the growing distrust American people have in their government. No matter who becomes president, the coming four years hold the prospect of festering frustration.
Regular Americans properly define public priorities. The only cure for the wariness that defines this year’s election is for Americans to find common ground, not so much among political operatives of left and right, but rather between those who govern and the general population. The political insiders and experts need to convince the rest of us that we’re on the same boat. The frustration that feeds protest candidates such as Sanders and Trump will only abate when the average citizen has reason to feel that those who shape policy also share his or her concerns.
In foreign policy, the experts are nowhere near consensus on America’s basic purpose. Most experts’ expertise is specialized in subtopics of international relations, such as China, development, Latin America, and so on. There is a lack of expertise in domestic general interest. So, the question of the role of U.S. power and purpose, the key to our foreign policy, is capitalized on by partisan politics.
Because of this disconnect between expertise and politics, it is hard for average Americans to even identify our national motives. This opens the door for interpretation of what America stands for in the foreign arena, letting outsiders paint America to fit their local narrative or agenda, and even for enemies to recruit terrorists and incite civilians against us.
Experts generally feel specially qualified to address esoteric topics within foreign policy. But regular citizens also care deeply about what our actions, even in the most remote places, say about America. With the political process broken, experts need to find new common ground with the public opinion upon which to build a nonpartisan sense of national interest.
The fundamental core of America’s national interest lies in plain sight. The nation was created by declaring independence. The Declaration of Independence defines American nationality by principle, without reference to ethnicity or ancient tradition; the signers were simply Englishmen renouncing British nationality. The principle of individual rights is the primary value in the Declaration, not a good society or a strong country. The only limitation to this right is the expectation of mutual respect between individuals. At heart, American nationality resides in the right to live as you choose. The core of America’s national interest is to validate this creed.
Building a public consensus around this core requires clarity on a number of nuances. To enumerate the important ones – first, a nation in the real world has tangible needs. Even with our ideals we cannot ignore realities, but principle must shape how we pursue them. Second, because the Declaration commits us to an abstract principle, our national identity can accommodate numerous interpretations and political views. It is bigger than partisan views, so long as we remember it. Third, freedom always reaches to new social and material horizons as the world develops. And so fourth, freedom brings turbulence; one test of free society is whether it continues to grow through difficult times, or gets derailed. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is simpler in foreign policy to oppose an adversary than to embody, project, facilitate, and sometimes explain exceptions, to an abstract creed.
Experts will be needed to properly address all the nuances that make up American power. But those experts, policy thinkers, and operatives need to make the Declaration’s principles their primary commitment. If the public perceives politicians as serving the fundamental national interest, it will develop a stronger sense of unity. Although it will be difficult to steer institutional vehicles in this direction, it will become possible with a conception of common interest. Policy, and our own policy, will become more successful. We need this reorientation to begin right away.