Elitism - From reaganism to clintonism and back to bushism

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and particularly the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of that year brought the U.S. government suddenly back to geostrategic thinking and produced a shift in elites. The holding of U.S. embassy personnel as hostages by young Islamic militants in Tehran seemed to immobilize the Carter administration. Carter's defeat in the election of 1980 by the conservative former Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, replaced talk of "interdependence" with assertions of "strength," a readiness to defend U.S. interests around the world—unilaterally, if necessary. The relevant elites for Reagan were not international bankers in New York, Frankfurt, or Tokyo but the very rich businessmen in California who, remaining behind the scenes (as his "kitchen cabinet"), had long financed and in other ways facilitated the actor-politician's career. This West Coast elite expected, and got, a resolute defense of the Free World against Soviet-supported insurgencies and a worrisome Soviet arms buildup. In the important field of economic policy, the ideology of the "magic of the marketplace" replaced technocratic discussion of international "policy coordination."

Within the broader American Establishment, there was considerable repositioning, not just between coasts. Long-established organizations of business leaders like the Conference Board and the Business Roundtable gained in influence. Among the policy-oriented research institutes, those like Brookings, being moderately liberal, were overshadowed somewhat by the newer and highly energized conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation. The Hoover Institution, situated on the campus of Stanford University, also gained in status and influence. While not dominant in the actual policymaking process, within government itself, these conservative think tanks assisted the Reagan administration by providing informed, articulate commentary useful in the national debate over foreign policy, defense strategy, and economic philosophy. President Reagan, the "great communicator," was able through his skillful use of the media to express much of his message to the American public directly. It was simplified but well crafted for mass effect.

The "CNN factor"—twenty-four-hour-a-day worldwide cable TV—emerged as an actual historical force during the subsequent presidency of George H. W. Bush. When the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait, when anarchy broke out in Somalia, and when internecine violence began in Yugoslavia, CNN was there, and its reports commanded American and worldwide attention. There was speculation, exaggerated but perhaps having an element of truth, that media moguls such as CNN's owner, Ted Turner, were capable of setting the agenda of American foreign policy, presumably to improve their outlets' ratings and increase their profits. Although assimilable to the general idea of corporate capitalism, the notion of a distinct "media elite" emerged to compete with old theories about the influence of traditional establishments in America.

The rise in importance of the media—particularly "new news" sources including talk radio, cable TV, and the fledgling Internet—did create a new competitiveness among would-be opinion leaders within the government or outside it. Even the dignified Council on Foreign Relations was prompted to engage in public "outreach," in the form of traveling panels and radio programs. It also gave its journal, Foreign Affairs, a more polished look. The council had been startled when, as he began his run for the presidency, George Bush resigned his council membership. He also ceased participating in the Trilateral Commission. Having formerly been U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office (ambassador) in Beijing, and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, these were natural affiliations for him to have. But it was no longer clear that such connections were needed by political aspirants, or even advantageous for them.

The emergence of Bill Clinton, from Hope, Arkansas, was further evidence of uncertainty and flux among American elites. He himself was a mixture of backgrounds and influences. A man of modest beginnings but prodigious energy and ability, he graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, interned there in the office of Senator William Fulbright, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and completed his education at Yale Law School. He then returned to Arkansas and rose smoothly to its governorship. Except for longtime "Friends of Bill" (many of them fellow lawyers by training), new acquaintances made in Hollywood and in salons in Georgetown, and comradely relations with his fellow governors, he was relatively independent of powerful interest groups and even the national Democratic Party.

His administration, in its composition, was intended to "look like America" and, owing to the large number in it of women, African-Americans, and Hispanics, it did somewhat. The impression it gave of diversity was reduced, however, by the reality that many of its inner figures had received their educations at the same few institutions, principally Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Like President Clinton himself, nearly all were government-focused. As Thomas R. Dye observed in Who's Running America? The Clinton Years (1995), "Almost all top Clinton officials are lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and bureaucrats; very few have any background in business, banking, the media, or the military."

The Clinton administration at the outset emphasized the essential connectedness—the "inextricable intertwining," in a phrase used by Secretary of State Warren Christopher—of foreign affairs and domestic affairs. The main practical effect of this doctrine, which seemed to reject the idea that foreign policy required specialized geopolitical understanding, was aggressive trade promotion. This effort was led by Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, who went abroad with retinues of American business leaders, and by President Clinton himself, who pressed for the negotiation of multilateral trade accords including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) arrangement, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and, prospectively, a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The increasing stake of the United States in large overseas markets and investment outlets powerfully conditioned the Clinton administration's policy. In dealing with the People's Republic of China, for instance, President Clinton ultimately "de-linked" the issue of human rights and that of the extension of most-favored-nation trading rights, which were made permanent. This surely reflected the ever-enlarging American economic interest specifically in China but, more generally, a globalizing world economy. Many elite interests were subsumed in this Open Door–like expansionism.

The administration of Texas governor George W. Bush, the first son of a former president to become president himself since John Quincy Adams followed John Adams and a reminder of the curious "dynastic" factor in America's open and democratic politics, was even more conspicuously committed to the defense of America's business interests. A businessman himself, President Bush had only limited personal experience in foreign affairs except with bordering Mexico. In Texas it was said that his worldview was formed by the Midland Petroleum Club, though the example of his father's rich international involvement must have somewhat informed it too. A kind of political throwback, he surrounded himself with (or was surrounded by) many of his father's former advisers. The person he selected as vice president, Richard Cheney, formerly a White House chief of staff and also secretary of defense, was chairman of the Halliburton Corporation, a Houston-based oil-equipment firm. Cheney was a proponent of an energy policy that emphasized increasing supply rather than energy conservation or environmental protection, and no doubt influenced the president's quickly made decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. President Bush's remark, "We will not do anything that harms our economy because first things first are the people in America," somewhat masked his solicitude for corporate interests. So, too, did his blunt denunciation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, though negotiated by a Republican administration, as "a relic of the past." He surely was reinforced in his suspicion of the restrictive ABM Treaty by the man he appointed as secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, another corporate CEO who had been White House chief of staff and secretary of defense. Most pertinently, as chairman of a bipartisan commission that in 1998 had produced the Rumsfeld Report, the new secretary was a strong advocate of building a national missile defense (NMD) system, if necessary with the United States doing so alone.

Environmentalist associations and arms control groups at home and abroad weighed in heavily against what seemed a hard-right political turn, which the uncertain outcome of the November 2000 U.S. presidential election did not seem to warrant. The popular majority, which the Democratic candidate Al Gore had won, clearly had not chosen such a radical departure. The president seemed to be a captive of his Texas cowboy persona, perhaps of defensive feelings about having been established in office by the U.S. Supreme Court and of the interested elites in the Bush camp.

Viewed from many perspectives, especially from outside the country, the younger Bush was initially perceived as the most divisive president of the United States since Ronald Reagan. Foreign opinion, including the influence of European and other elites, had an impact on U.S. decision making. Not merely President Bush's trip to Europe in June 2001 to meet his counterparts in NATO and the European Union but also the media-reported popular reactions abroad to the stark positions he had taken brought about immediate adjustments in at least the presentation of his policies.

This responsiveness was something new. In Galtung's transnational scheme of analysis, the "center" in America was being harmonized with, and to some extent by, "centers" of influence within Europe. The intra-institutional processes of the NATO alliance and also of the increasingly structured U.S.–European Union relationship described by Éric Philippart and Pascaline Winand as an "Ever Closer Partnership" (2001), as well as the interpersonal chemistry of relations at the leadership level, made the new president, and administration, much more sensitive to foreign, particularly European, opinion. This was evident not just with regard to foreign and security policy matters, including global warming and military defense, but also cultural and moral matters, such as the death penalty.

For elite theory, as applied to international relations, this pattern of development is instructive. The intellectual and social division over policy issues may increasingly become cross-national, with elites in one country joining with elites in other countries to influence the publics, as well as the governments, within. The American "foreign policy elite" has always been internationally minded to a degree, though actual contact with its counterparts elsewhere has been limited. In an age of nearly instant global communication, with travel and networking made easier than ever before, it is likely to become more even globalist in outlook. In the process of globalization, the elite itself may be globalized.

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