Will democratic capitalism survive?
00:40 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. Over the last three-quarters of a century, whether the White House was occupied by a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, there was one cornerstone of American foreign policy that every national leader and almost every American believed in without reservation, that the American system was the best in the world, that free elections and free enterprise as practiced in the United States demonstrated a clear path for nations all over the world to have prosperity, stability, and personal freedom. We have believed that our way, a vigorous middle ground between unfettered capitalism and state-controlled economies, summed up with the label “democratic capitalism,” was ultimately what saved the world from the Depression, defeated Nazism and reconstructed Europe, and ultimately vanquished Soviet Communism. For Americans, that wasn’t just a prescription for success. It became the heart of our national scripture. But now, something has changed. A wave of populist opposition to economic globalism helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House and has rocked elections around the world. An extreme far-right party has won seats in the German parliament for the first time since the Nazi era. President Trump is threatening to pull out of key global alliances and has embraced the motto of “America First,” a slogan with its own dark history. Is democratic capitalism in serious danger? Our guest in this episode is Mel Leffler, a professor of history here at the Miller Center and one of the preeminent scholars for many years of the history of American foreign relations. He has just published a remarkable new book examining American foreign policy and national security from the 1920s to the Barack Obama presidency. It’s called Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism. Mel, thanks for joining us.
Melvyn Leffler: Pleasure to be here.
02:30 Blackmon: So let’s start with what exactly is democratic capitalism. I tried to characterize it, but you don’t mean, uh—with that phrase, you don’t mean just free markets or a place where there are elections. You mean something more specific.
Leffler: Well, yes. I’m talking about the core values of the United States, both political values and economic values, so my emphasis or what I imply by that title, “democratic capitalism,” is a combination of both political values like representative government, personal liberty, individual freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the basic, uh, political values that we cherish in this country. At the same time, the term “capitalism” is to convey the notion of the—of primary economic principles that we care about, private property, free enterprise, a marketplace economy. And in the discussions about American foreign policy, there is much controversy. What has American foreign policy been about over the decades? Has the United States sought territorial expansion? Has it been motivated by economic imperatives, by greed? Has it been motivated alternatively by ideals or by domestic politics? And I—in my studies of American foreign policy, in many of the case examples I illuminate here, eventually I came to feel that the best way to frame broadly what American foreign policy is about has been safeguarding democratic capitalism.
04:16 Blackmon: Oftentimes when we talk about foreign policy or people are referring to that, what they’re imagining is the interaction between our country and other countries. But a core part of what you’re talking about in terms of these values and also how those values are expressed in our society is also domestic policy, the domestic security of the country, of sort of the stability of the people and the idea that foreign policy and these domestic realities are intertwined, right?
Leffler: That’s exactly the case. I mean, the best definition for the term “national security” is presented by a variety of political scientists and international relations scholars. And simply stated, a very good way to think about foreign policy is the protection of core values from external danger, protecting core values from foreign threats. So, in writing about American foreign policy and national security policy, you need to analyze both the nature of the threat or threats from abroad that are challenging—that may challenge a core value like national sovereignty or territorial integrity in the narrowest sense or that might challenge more broadly the basic concepts of democracy or capitalism that we cherish. But at the same time—and what I write a lot about in this book is that American policymakers have always understood that in order to protect core values you need to make democratic capitalism work at home as well as promoting it abroad. And the challenge of making it viable at home has been extraordinarily difficult over time, and one of the great challenges facing American officials always is how do you reconcile domestic imperatives with foreign policy goals.
Blackmon: Is it right to say that what President Trump is championing in the sort of America First sort of approach is in some respects—sounds like a concession that maybe our system wouldn’t necessarily work all around the world in his mind, so we have to pull in internally?
Leffler: Well, I don’t think he’s terribly concerned with the whole notion of whether it would or would not work abroad. He’s very fond—in fact, he insists that the major preoccupation of American foreign policy should be to pursue American interests, “interests.” He uses that term all the time, “interests.” He does not talk at all about the core values, um, of liberal capitalism. He doesn’t talk at all about the promotion of human rights. He doesn’t talk at all, really, about the promotion of democracy. If you go to the webpage of WhiteHouse.gov, uh, and look at what it says about American foreign policy, what is the America First foreign policy? It is the pursuit of American interests. Now, how does he define “interests”?
That’s the interesting question. All previous American presidents since World War II, broadly speaking, have defined interest in terms of an open world international economy where capital and trade and goods and people can move relatively freely. This is not what America First is all about. Uh, what America First is about in Donald Trump’s view is the pursuit of American interests, meaning the pursuit of economic nationalism with a relative, uh, indifference to the ramifications of this for the wellbeing of the international economy. The irony, of course, of all of this is that most economists will tell you that American prosperity and the wellbeing of American workers actually depends on the wellbeing of the international economy. You cannot separate these two things from one another. In fact, American, you know—Donald Trump always talks about, you know, improving the plight of American workers, but the wages of American workers in America’s export industries are far higher than those in other industries. So when you would imagine that other nations will begin retaliating against the United States if, in fact, the policies of America First are implemented, it will hurt our export industries, and it’s very much likely to hurt American workers.
09:10 Blackmon: And he—and relatively recently he spoke at the United Nations in, you know, his first big address to the fall assembly of the United Nations and, in that speech, talked about—defended the America First idea partly by saying, “Well, everyone should be first. Ecuador First, or, you know, Great Britain first.”
Leffler: And during the campaign, you’ll remember, he sort of implied and at times even said that it would be good if other nations developed nuclear weapons. “I mean, it’s not, you know, a terribly bad thing,” and then he was educated about it, but it is striking that on the White House website right now under “America First policy,” even in the context in which we live today with regard, uh, to North Korea, it does not say a word about America’s championing of nonproliferation, broadly defined.
Blackmon: So let’s go back in time and sort of—and talk about, as you do in the book, how we—how we came into this period, uh, where democratic capitalism was the predominant governing and, seemingly, very successful principle. But if we go back to where you were describing a moment ago, before World War II and in that interwar period where Americans are exhausted from the carnage of World War I, sort of bothered by the
aftermath of the war, highly, uh—many people very wary about the idea of more international alliances that
might pull Americans into, uh, things as ugly as what had happened. But so how did we go from this place where even FDR very close—you know, not long before Pearl Harbor was still saying, “I’m going to keep us out of this European conflict,” and I bring this up partly because it—I think it speaks to the difficulty of this balancing act even in the present, uh, or in the past decade where, on the one hand, there are these strategic interests and strategic imperatives that face the country and that national leaders must confront, but you may also have among the people a sense of exhaustion or a failure to understand exactly why these things are so important. Is there any sort of a parallel between the dichotomy of more recent times and the period that you’re talking about where the people and the leaders may not have had exactly the same understanding of all of this?
Leffler: Well, public opinion is often a constraint on policy, but leaders also have the capacity to shape, uh, public opinion. So, you know, what we now—you keep using the term that the United—that Americans were totally disillusioned with World War I and therefore didn’t want to really join the League of Nations. This was, you know, Wilson’s fant—Woodrow Wilson’s fantastic, uh, imaginary illusion that we should join this League, but the American people were against it. We didn’t have public opinion polling in those days, but, um, to the extent that we can judge public opinion by the, you know, thousands of newspapers that were very popular in those days and that, in a sense, reflected public opinion, the majority of newspapers in the country actually supported, uh, the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles. So, you know, what happened was that Republicans were elected, and Republican leaders, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover, decided that for whatever reasons—and they were complicated reasons—the United States should not join the League of Nations and should not incur the obligations, um, that inhered in—in the League of Nations. Could public opinion have, um, been shaped in an alternative direction, uh, in 1919 and 1920? I think that most observers today, most scholars today, would think that that was definitely conceivable. Now, just because the United States would have been a member of the League of Nations does not mean the whole trajectory of postwar history, uh, would have been different, but it does show that, um, different leaders could have shaped opinion in a different way. But throughout, I would say, um, policymakers have the capacity to shape public opinion.
A great example of this, a wonderful example, was after World War II in 1946 and ’47 and ’48. In 1946, the Republicans smashed the Democrats in the Congressional elections of 1946.
President Truman suffered a devastating Congressional defeat. He—it was not a presidential election year. He wasn’t running, but for the first time since the beginning of the Great Depression the Republicans took over. Republicans wanted to cut taxes. They wanted less government. They were extremely preoccupied with spiraling inflation, and in the next few months President Harry Truman introduces the most successful policy program of the entire Cold War, the European Recovery Act, what we call the Marshall Plan.
Initially, people were not supportive of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was the antithesis of what Republicans stood for. The Truman Administration went on a huge public relations campaign, a very focused campaign to try to mobilize public opinion to support the Mar—to support the Marshall Plan and the European Recovery Act. They were successful. It was an extraordinarily close vote when it actually, uh, was passed in early 1948. It shows again that public opinion is a constraint, but it can be shaped in different ways.
15:03 Blackmon: But what seems to emerge from that period is—is not just this big change of opinion, uh, or this coalescence of support around the Marshall Plan, but also a broader consensus of that this kind of activity, this kind of engagement in the world, uh, is a good idea and is part of this—this narrative that Americans really fall in love with of our role in the world and our role for good.
Blackmon: And the—but so, when we look at these recent times, and clearly the—in terms of the preemptive measures taken, uh, this long history, it does seem that the—what was seen as the narrative of the significance of this change was partly that—one, it had to do with the rise of these non-state actors and did that mean that a different set of rules applied in some fashion. I guess one way to look at it might be that where the United States had been involved in assassinations of national leaders at many points along the way and preemptive military measures at many points in the past, particularly around the assassinations of leaders or regime changes, there was at least some desire to conceal the American involvement in that. There was a sense that, uh—that that was not necessarily something that the United States should own up to. One change that did happen after 9/11 was, uh, an embrace of this idea that, “Well, of course, if we have the capacity to assassinate a leader of a terrorist organization that is—that we think might be planning to injure our interests or attack our country, it’s a justified thing for us to take this preemptive action.” But that did represent some—something of a change. I’m asking if it did. But also, I’m curious if you could talk about the Clinton, Bush, Obama comparisons where all three of them did certainly state that they—a right of preemptive action and held onto these rights and maybe tried to expand them, but then used them in somewhat different ways, where Clinton asserted the right but then did not—in the end appeared somewhat timid about whether to actually use it, to exercise those rights. Bush then exercised them very forcefully, some would say recklessly.
FACTOID: First missile-equipped U.S. drone successfully tested January 2001
Obama then struggled mightily with trying to develop a legal basis, as he would have said, for the use of those powers, uh, and restraining American intervention but then, in the end, also became very criticized for some of that restraint. But is that a—what about that distinction and how those three presidents, recent presidents, have used it?
Leffler: Well, I think when you talk about continuities or discontinuities between Clinton and Bush 43 and President Obama that, um, you need to keep in mind first of all the perception of threat from abroad. So President Clinton sort of talked about it and prepared for possible preventative action and—and certainly was on the verge of taking action at various times in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden when he was spotted there, uh, or thought to have been spotted, but then decided for very complex reasons that—probably should not undertake those actions.
Fast-forward, I mean, President Bush, after 9/11, obviously not only took action in Afghanistan but then went to war in Iraq. The perceived level of threat, the magnitude of fear, had an enormous amount to do with what policymakers decided they should accomplish. So the degree of external threat has a huge amount to do with the resources that you’re going to invest in overcoming that threat. Then, Barack Obama becomes president. Does he totally change American foreign policy? Yes. As I said before, Iraq is the bad war. We had better pull out of—we had better disengage from Iraq, and hopefully the incumbent government will be able to preserve itself. But at the same time, he, too, believed that, you know, you could not afford to allow terrorists to have—to regain a safe haven. President Obama repudiated the policies of extraterritorial rendition, of torture, etc., immediately, nonetheless he actually engaged in far more efforts to use drones to assassinate individual leaders. I mean, is using drones to—to assa—to kill, um, more reprehensible than torture? It, uh—I think reasonable people will argue about that.
19:58 Blackmon: You wrote a—had an essay recently published in Foreign Policy Magazine that—I think you didn’t write the headline, uh, but the headline said something along the lines of “The Worst First Year in Foreign Policy Ever,” uh, referring to the first year of the Trump Administration. But then, your, uh—the essay that you wrote is actually nowhere nearly as loaded as that headline would suggest. And, in fact, you say in the course of the essay that—you identify a laundry list of what could be seen as failures or not the best moves by the president, but you also hold open the possibility that he could learn from these mistakes as many presidents have early in their presidencies, and a different course could emerge. But just put—as succinctly as you can, put the Trump Administration thus far into this sequence, where you see it as either a threat to democratic capitalism or how it could be a defender of democratic capitalism and how it should turn in order to accomplish that.
Leffler: Well, I mean, the—I can be very succinct, because I don’t think that Trump—I don’t think that President Trump supports democratic capitalism. Um, I—so he is really, um, an exception. I don’t think he—you know, he would not embrace the goals of democratic capitalism. Now, some of his advisors absolutely do, and, um, so part of what I see as the tension within the administration is that you do—he has advisors around him, uh, including his Secretary of Defense, his National Security Advisor, and his Secretary of State who actually believe in the continuity of American foreign policy, who believe in the pursuit, broadly defined, of democratic capitalism and relatively open world order, the support of allies, the championing of democracy, the importance of diplomacy. Um, his adv—his key advisors, I think, support all these things to one degree or another, but it’s unclear if Donald Trump believes in these things himself. As I said much earlier, he does not seem to believe in America’s core values as we have defined them, uh, since World War II, perhaps since we—as we’ve defined them maybe since the history of the republic. Um, so it’s—it is a very big change. On the other hand, why I hated that headline that the editors just stuck on it to attract attention—it did, by the way; it attracted a lot of attention—
Blackmon: Congratulations. (laughter)
Leffler: —uh, is that, you know, Donald—truthfully, so far, in terms of foreign policy it has not been the worst first year ever. I mean, you know, John Kennedy would have told you, “I’ve just had the worst first year,” after the Bay of—after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, after the Berlin Wall went up, um, after what he regarded—wrongly, I would say, but what he regarded as his unsuccessful diplomacy at the Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev.
He regarded his first year, as my colleague Marc Silverstone has written, um, as a disaster, and it was, or think about George W. Bush and his first year, 9/11. You know, so there have been a lot worse first years, but what I’m trying to say is that many of the problem that we can see led to those disasters in 1961 with Kennedy or 2001 with George W. Bush, many of the internal funct—workings and functioning of the administration are being replicated, uh, within the Trump—in fact, they are magnified within the Trump Administration. So could one easily conceive of a disaster as great as those? Yes, I think one could, and I think we may be on the verge of seeing that materialize in terms of, you know, North Korea or perhaps over the next few months with regard to Iran. This is still the first year, and the dysfunctionality within this administration and the unique qualities of our president, which some people regard as great, 35 percent, and 65 percent are very worried about it, I mean, that the unique qualities of this president, um, cast a specter of danger over everything that this country is engaged in. So, yes, we have a lot to worry about. It could be, indeed, the worst first year even though it hasn’t been so far.
25:11 Blackmon: Well, that’s a somber note for us to end on, but I think we should. Mel Leffler, thank you so much for being here.
Blackmon: If you’d like to share a comment or ask a question about this or any other episode of American Forum, I’m easy to find on email or on Twitter. My handle is @douglasblackmon. To get more information on American Forum or just to learn something about how presidents make crucial decisions, visit us at millercenter.org. You can also watch live tapings of every episode of this program at the Miller Center Facebook page. Thanks for watching. See you next week.