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The Ethics of the "Doorstep"

September 24, 2018

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.  

Asha Castleberry raised a great point in her discussion with Ali Wyne (the panel on "Making Foreign Policy Relevant Again") at the Carnegie Council: connecting the broad swath of national security matters to the "doorstep" (a formulation that participant Simran Maker amplified) of the American voter. In other words, the "doorstep test" requires the policymaker to be able to articulate how, and to what degree, something happening in the world connect to or impacts the day-to-day experience, needs, and interests of the citizenry. I might add that the doorstep test also requires honesty–as not every issue in the world immediately impacts someone at home, and we need to guard against the "reduction ad Hitlerum"–where any matter in the world is raised to apocalyptic levels so as to generate domestic support

A focus on doorstep issues, however, does serve to remind us that domestic and foreign policy ought to be linked. A foreign policy decision to deploy U.S. forces, for instance, has domestic costs (diversion of funds, the issues of reintegration of soldiers back into civilian life, costs associated with caring for the wounded, etc.) Domestic issues may have direct spillover into U.S. foreign policy. Increasingly, as Devin Stewart's conversation with Zach Dorfman notes, the sharp divide we sometimes maintain between "foreign" and "domestic" affairs can break down, even in questions of espionage

The importance of connecting domestic concerns with how America postures itself in the world is being recognized by the U.S. foreign policy community as they grapple with the realization, as Robert Kagan admits in The New York Times, that the "old consensus about America's role as upholder of global security has collapsed in both parties." Ethical claims about what the U.S. ought to be doing overseas are running up against ethical claims to do more for the domestic constituencies of the country. For those who continue to insist that this is just a phenomenon of Donald Trump's own personality, and that after the next set of elections, the United States will get "back on its old path," Kagan says, "they may have to start facing the fact that what we're seeing today is not a spasm but a new direction in American foreign policy.

This brings me to the podcast I recorded immediately after the "Making Foreign Policy Relevant Again" event. Many of the rising younger politicians are arguing for making more changes in U.S. domestic policy. Yet how will that impact their positions on foreign policy–and the tradeoffs they may need to be consider in order to advance their domestic agendas? I appreciated Professor Daniel Bessner's thoughtful comments on my analysis. I was also fascinated by Eric Levitz's New York magazine discussion that progressive candidates who do not focus a great deal on foreign policy–and who may be inclined, per my own discussion, to simply accept the consensus opinion of the mainstream Democratic foreign policy establishment, will have to wrestle with where and when to cut back on American global involvement. He points out that moving the U.S. in the direction of European-style social democracy would require grappling with a shift in U.S. geopolitical approaches away from robust interventionism towards more indirect methods of influence, which he provocatively labels getting "soft" on defense.

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