P.J. O'Rourke asks this question in a well-reported, thoughtful piece in this month's World Affairs Journal. It is not, alas, particularly funny, which I know we all expect from him, but it's good journalism and it raises interesting questions:
Specific, concrete political policy goals were disavowed by almost all of the people I talked to in the Tea Party movement (I use the term in the overly broad public commentator way). Instead, what I heard were arguments against the kind of centralized government power that concocts political policy goals—arguments of the Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman kind, that individuals are the best judges of how to employ their individual energies and resources. Whatever else the Tea Party movement believes, it espouses (and evidences) a firm belief in the self-organizing capacities of free individuals.
Unfortunately, we individuals are rarely free in the face of foreign policy. Foreign policy is highly centralized. And the political power that centralizes foreign policy is—when wielded by foreigners—outside the realm of our political influence no matter how popular the Tea Party becomes.
Nor is the past record of decentralization in foreign policy reassuring. It went well when the Soviet Union lost control of Eastern Europe’s foreign policy. It did not go so well when the European colonial powers lost control of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. And total decentralization of foreign policy meant a nightmare in the former Yugoslavia.
I'm extremely sympathetic to a point raised by one of his interview subjects:
“We have a long way to go,” said the blogger. “Until we can fix the problems in our own backyard we can’t fix things over the pond. How can we have a foreign policy when we don’t have a policy that works for ourselves? It’s not going to happen in one election. It’s not going to happen in two elections. We’re looking at a hundred-year project. It’s going to take fifty years to get back to Reagan.”
I fear he may be right. But the world does not precisely look poised to slumber peaceably and patiently for the next fifty years now, does it?