The Impact of the New Populism

Apart perhaps from reinforcing the widespread impression of President Bill Clinton’s ineptitude, foreign policy issues played only a marginal role in determining the outcome of last November’s midterm elections. Yet the political realignment set in motion on November 8, 1994, will have substantial implications for future American diplomacy. Hardly had the polls closed than analysts began pronouncing the election a watershed in the history of American politics. In retrospect, we may well conclude that the 1994 elections also prefigured an equally profound realignment of U.S. foreign policy.

Post-election commentary by foreign policy experts provided scant evidence to support expectations that any such shift is in the offing. On the contrary, statements by government officials and reporting in the mainstream media consisted chiefly of reassurances as to the essential continuity and bipartisan character of American diplomacy, typically couched in terms of support for “engagement,” a neologism subsuming a hodgepodge of assumptions and structures of the postwar era. Such confidence in the durability of the status quo is misplaced and stems directly from a fundamental misreading of the shift in political attitudes now under way.

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