Talking with the Tea Party

I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney’s KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I’m most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney's KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I'm most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the "Tea Party" movement. If you're interested, you can get a link to the entire broadcast here.

The main topic of discussion was whether efforts at deficit reduction are going to include taking a major whack at defense spending. The general view on the panel was that you can't make serious efforts at deficit reduction without cutting DOD, if only because it occupies such a large percentage (i.e., more than half) of federal discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion then focused on what the new Congress would actually do and why there is still such resistance to trimming America's very large defense outlays.

For me, however, the most interesting part was listening to the Tea Party representative, Chris Littleton. His views were easily the most extreme of the group and bordered on what would normally be disparaged as "isolationism." He articulated this view very well, I thought, and was particularly good at countering the claim that such views are unpatriotic. He also acknowledged that Tea Partiers are far from unified on this issue: Some favor more hawkish defense policies while others believe the United States is badly overextended, should get out of the business of policing the world, and sharply cut back defense spending as part of an overall effort to shrink the size of government. (He would obviously place himself in the latter group).

I spent a half-hour yesterday on Warren Olney’s KCRW radio show To the Point, discussing defense spending and deficit reduction. The other participants were Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker (the political writer I’m most jealous of because he writes so damn well), William Hartung of the New America Foundation, and Chris Littleton, co-founder of the Ohio Liberty Council and a committed member of the "Tea Party" movement. If you’re interested, you can get a link to the entire broadcast here.

The main topic of discussion was whether efforts at deficit reduction are going to include taking a major whack at defense spending. The general view on the panel was that you can’t make serious efforts at deficit reduction without cutting DOD, if only because it occupies such a large percentage (i.e., more than half) of federal discretionary spending. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion then focused on what the new Congress would actually do and why there is still such resistance to trimming America’s very large defense outlays.

For me, however, the most interesting part was listening to the Tea Party representative, Chris Littleton. His views were easily the most extreme of the group and bordered on what would normally be disparaged as "isolationism." He articulated this view very well, I thought, and was particularly good at countering the claim that such views are unpatriotic. He also acknowledged that Tea Partiers are far from unified on this issue: Some favor more hawkish defense policies while others believe the United States is badly overextended, should get out of the business of policing the world, and sharply cut back defense spending as part of an overall effort to shrink the size of government. (He would obviously place himself in the latter group).

As readers of this blog probably know, I also think U.S. defense spending is excessive and that our foreign policy should be more restrained. I don’t go nearly as far as Littleton did, however, and I think the Tea Party’s basic idea that the United States should drastically shrink the public sector is a Very Bad Idea. If we followed its prescriptions, we would quickly learn that all sorts of public services (good public schools, museums, snow removal, safety nets, police and fire, etc.) make life a lot better for all of us and that life without them would be pretty grim indeed.  

But I came away from the conversation with a new appreciation for what the Tea Party may — repeat, may — bring to the national debate on foreign policy. Right now, there is still an overwhelming consensus inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment for continuing to run the world, a consensus that includes liberal interventionists of the Madeleine ("Indispensable Nation") Albright variety and virtually all neoconservatives. And as I’ve noted before, there is significant imbalance of power inside Washington, generally favoring those who want to do more overseas. The result is that the United States tries to do more than it should, finds it much harder to set clear priorities, and tends to miss opportunities to "pass the buck" to others. If the rise of the Tea Party creates some significant domestic opposition to that tendency and helps generate a more lively public debate on fundamental issues of grand strategy, the country as a whole may end up with policies that make a lot more sense in the long run. It won’t be Mr. Littleton’s agenda, but it also won’t be the outdated strategy we’ve been following since the end of the Cold War.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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