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Open or Closed

June 15, 2006


David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times [“Changing Bedfellows”] summarizes the philosophical tension he believes polarizes modern American politics. He eschews the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” believing they no longer adequately describe the emerging political landscape. On one side he places “populist nationalism” on the other “progressive globalism.” The value of Brooks’ column is that he shows the appeal of both political philosophies. It should come as no surprise to reader’s of this blog or that of Enterra’s Senior Managing Director Tom Barnett, that we fall primarily in the latter category. What struck me about the column was that Brooks felt compelled to define populist nationalism by what it is against while he was able to explain progressive globalism by what it desires to achieve. That is probably why it took him six paragraphs and 358 words to describe the former and only four paragraphs and 231 words to describe the latter.


Populist nationalists, Brooks writes, are against wasting “our precious blood and treasure on poorly planned, pie-in-the-sky wars to bring democracy to the Middle East.” They are against selling “our ports to our enemies.” They are against “terrorists and illegal immigrants who break the law, take our jobs and drive down wages.” They are against “big money interests who value their own profits more than their own countrymen, who outsource jobs to China and India, who destroy unions and control Washington.” They are against legislators who would “take away our Social Security and Medicare.”  They are against “the corporate elites and the cultural elites.” The only things that Brooks indicates populist nationalists are for are “universal health care and decent wages … [and] a government that will stand up to Internet porn and for decent family values.” Brooks concludes:

Populist nationalism of this sort would be politically potent. It would be against the war without seeming naïve and dovish. It would be against corporate power without seeming socialist. It would tap the passions aroused by immigration and outsourcing and cohere with the populist uprisings taking place in different forms around the world.

The problem, of course, is that in order to make this political philosophy look appealing, Brooks had to establish a straw man that simply doesn’t exist. The Dubai Ports World deal was with an ally not an enemy. Many illegal aliens do take jobs that Americans won’t perform. Corporations outsource jobs because U.S. consumers have proven time and again that “buy American” doesn’t trump quality and low price. Unions were on the decline long before outsourcing became an issue. Despite this straw man, who isn’t against corruption, “pie-in-the-sky” wars, and people who break the law? Who doesn’t want healthcare and a civil, law abiding society? The question is, how do populist nationalists believe they are going to achieve this?


Brooks says that progressive globalists want to exploit “the opportunities a globalizing and flattening world” offers. They “embrace technological dynamism and cultural diversity and reject beggar-thy-neighbor policies.” They understand that globalization fosters interdependence and they want to “build institutions to ensure everybody shares the new prosperity.” They want to “reform education and improve skills so that more people succeed.” Progressive globalists want “to reform entitlements so the economy can remain flexible and not buried by debt.” They want to work with other countries “to address global warming, oil dependence and protectionist barriers.” They “understand that this open, diverse world has enemies. We have to confront Islamic extremism ideologically and militarily, and battle it at its roots with democracy and freedom.” They understand that globalization’s advance requires the free flow of capital, resources, and people, which means we must “manage the movement of peoples without shutting off the flow, open up trade, not shut it down.” Brooks concludes:

Politics is becoming less about left versus right and more about open versus closed. Or, to put it in starker terms, the populists are getting more populist while the elitists are getting more elitist.

His last line surprises me. I would have thought that Brooks would conclude: populists are getting more populist while progressives are getting more progressive. I’m excited, for example, about the potential that Development-in-a-Box has for helping pull failed states into the developed world. I wouldn’t call that elitist. I don’t think that any of the NGOs, international organizations, or even conservative faith-based humanitarian groups would consider their work elitist. Brooks is correct that the debate is about whether U.S. foreign policy is going to adopt an open or closed philosophy.


Yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to a group of 12,000 delegates at a Southern Baptist Convention. She took this opportunity to try and persuade a group I believe she suspects as being mostly populist nationalists that the “closed” option is neither good for America nor the world. As reported in the Washington Post [“U.S. Must Play Role In World, Rice Says,” by Glenn Kessler], Rice made an impassioned defense of an open foreign policy:

“Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the choice before our country, before us as Americans,” Rice told the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, N.C. “Will we lead in the world or will we withdraw? Will we rise to the challenges of our time or will we shrink from them?” … Rice did not specifically refer to “isolationism,” but her inference was clear as she tried to link Southern Baptist work overseas “digging wells and building dams and strengthening communities” with the administration’s goal of promoting democracy overseas. She said the nation could not ignore tyranny and persecution overseas or else it will come back to haunt Americans. “These are tragedies, but they are also threats in the making,” Rice said. “For in today’s world, we have learned that whenever freedom and tolerance are on the march, we are secure. But when those ideals are in retreat, we are vulnerable.”

The fact that Rice’s speech was well-received (it was interrupted by frequent applause and seven standing ovations) indicates that most people believe that they support high ideals, such as the elimination of poverty, freedom, and rights. Applauding high ideals, however, does not translate into support for particular courses of action. The devil, the Southern Baptists would say, is in the details.


The details are exactly what the foreign policy debate needs to be about. The details are exactly what Development-in-a-Box is about. The course of action that leads to prosperity, freedom, human rights, and a better environment leads through the crucible of standards, because that is how one measures progress and is able to make corrections.

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