Angelo M. Codevilla
October 18, 2016
t the 2016 elections our bipartisan foreign policy class is near-unanimous, not so much behind Hillary Clinton nor even against Donald Trump. Rather, it circles its wagons around its own identities, ideas, practices, and, yes, livelihoods. Clinton represents the ruling class’s people and priorities in foreign affairs as in domestic ones, though she seems to care even less about the former’s substance. Trump, a stranger to most of the foreign policy class (though not to its current epitome, Henry Kissinger) has voiced views on foreign affairs that are within the establishment’s variances in substance if not in tone. Chastise and threaten NATO for its lack of contributions? Senate majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) offered an amendment to that effect in 1970. Cozy up to Putin? Hillary Clinton brought him a bright red “reset” button in 2009.
Nevertheless, the foreign policy class does not merely reject Trump; it detests him. Why? Because Trump, in tone even more than substance, expresses the subversive thought that U.S. foreign policy has failed to “put America first,” causing the nation to suffer defeat after defeat. Hence, the entire foreign policy class—in the bureaucracies, think tanks, academe, and the media—are a bunch of losers. Millions of Americans consider these two thoughts to be common sense. But the above-mentioned class takes the first as the root of heresies, and the second as a demagogic insult. Consequently, the 2016 election is not so much about any particular plank in any foreign policy platform. It is about who defines and what constitutes common sense.
Who and what
Why the fuss? Obviously, foreign policy’s formulators and executors are their country’s fiduciaries. Though it follows logically that they should mind no interest before their country’s, nevertheless our foreign policy class’s defining characteristic for a hundred years has been to subsume America’s interest into considerations they deem worthier. The following is our foreign policy class’s common sense, which it hopes the 2016 elections will affirm.
Since Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Democratic and Republican statesmen have confused America’s interest with mankind’s. In practice, they have taken upon themselves the role of mankind’s stewards (or sheriffs, leaders, pillars of order, or whatever) and acted as if, in Wilson’s words, America has “no reason for being” except to “stand for the right of men,” to be “champions of humanity.” Accordingly, a series of statesmen has forsaken war and diplomacy for strictly American ends and with means adequate to achieve them, and adopted foredoomed schemes pursued halfheartedly—Charles Evans Hughes (commitment to China’s integrity and renunciation of the means to uphold it), Franklin Roosevelt (seeking world co-domination with Stalin and the U.N. to banish “ancient evils, ancient ills”), Harry Truman (pursuing peace through no-win war in Korea), Nixon/Kissinger (scuttling Vietnam to help entice the Soviets into a grand detente), George W. Bush (democratizing the Middle East because America can’t be free unless and until the whole world is free).
Instead of Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” these Progressives’ maxim seems to have been: speak grandly while brandishing twigs. The pattern has been consistent: Think global order, make political-military commitments if not in secret then certainly without the American people’s affirmative consent, commit military forces while avoiding declarations of war or specifying how success is to be achieved, and refuse to calibrate American military commitments to what opponents might do to thwart our forces. Then, when the enterprise falls apart, seek scapegoats.
For most of a century, persons of both parties but the same basic proclivities have handed to one another the conduct of America’s international relations. Elihu Root, secretary of state from 1905 to 1909 and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1912, begat Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war from 1911 to 1913, secretary of state from 1929 to 1933, and secretary of war in 1945. Stimson begat McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser from 1961 to 1965, who begat Anthony Lake, national security adviser from 1993 to 1997, and foreign policy adviser to the campaign of President Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 2009. Beginning in the mid-1960s Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state from 1969 to 1977 and Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1973, was adopted into this family and shared Anthony Lake’s paternity. His progeny, Brent Scowcroft and then Condoleezza Rice, practiced what one might call the same common sense. Want to know what America’s interest is? Ask what kind of world order such statesmen prefer, and then work backward. Hence, U.S. foreign policy’s bipartisan consistency for the past hundred years: grandiose commitments, then war, followed by no peace, prizes and honors for all.
Only President Ronald Reagan and, to a lesser extent, Dwight Eisenhower appointed a few people who looked at foreign affairs from a very different perspective, the common sense that had dominated American statecraft from George Washington’s time to the 20th century. The founders recognized that no other people had ever organized themselves around the proposition that “all men are created equal,” making the Republic’s moral and political character unique. Because maintaining such a Republic would be difficult, it is and should be the American people’s paramount occupation. As students of history, they knew that international affairs hold out temptations to meddle in others’ affairs, to invite others to meddle in ours, and to foster strife among ourselves. And so the common sense of the men on Mount Rushmore—Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—was as John Quincy Adams synthesized it: America first. Interfere in nobody’s affairs and suffer no interference in ours. Don’t go looking for monsters to destroy, but make war on whoever troubles our peace.
This is what the American people want and have always wanted. From earliest times to our own, people have come to America to live in peace as Americans, shedding ancestral interests, allegiances, and quarrels. (Recent immigrants from the Middle East excepted, many of whom nurse ancestral identities to the point of enmity to America.) Because America’s 19th-century statesmen shared the people’s peaceful America First perspective, they built this country into the world’s mightiest. George Kennan’s history of American diplomacy begins with the observation that by 1905 Americans could not imagine any harm coming to them from abroad.
Kennan writes that by 1950, however, Americans could hardly think of anything except the prospect of disaster being inflicted from abroad, despite an enormous increase in America’s military power and diplomatic reach. This turnabout happened because what had been a surplus of power over commitments had been replaced by an even greater surplus of commitments over power. That, in turn, happened because Woodrow Wilson and his successors committed the United States to unachievable objectives, sought in concert with peoples either indifferent to them or outright enemies of America. Having sought to mind others’ business, America’s statesmen forgot to mind America’s.
Participation in the Great War for the purpose of ending war forever left 117,000 Americans dead, thousands more wounded, and millions bitterly disillusioned. Then Democrats and Republicans competed in making moral commitments against war while cutting America’s armed forces. When war came, they blamed it on the unenlightened people’s isolationism and, once again, used the commitment to remaking the world to evade responsibility for matching Americans’ sacrifices to America’s interests in postwar peace. That, compounded by blind faith in Stalin and Mao, resulted in more than half of the globe under Soviet and Chinese communist tyrants intent on finishing off America. The American people were angry, and had every right to be angrier.
Ah, but after all, didn’t today’s bipartisan foreign policy class prove its worth by winning the Cold War? Nothing could be further from the truth. The Soviet collapse resulted from Mikhail Gorbachev’s politically disastrous decisions—fatal errors, forced neither by external events nor economic circumstances. Conservatives wrongly credit Reagan for the collapse, but the foreign policy establishmentarians who believe their steady application of “containment” or their own artful negotiations ended the Cold War, know that the opposite is true.
In fact, the foreign policy class had evolved rather quickly away from the objective of ending, or even diminishing, the Communist empires. By the mid 1950s, America’s Progressives effectively reduced foreign policy to avoiding war with Russia and China. They did this by limiting U.S. resistance to Communist advances and by seeking unenforceable arms control agreements that were, in fact, unilateral limitations on U.S. military power. By the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations, and flowering fully in the Nixon/Kissinger/Ford ones, the foreign policy class’s “strategic” objective had come around to the very opposite of “Containment”—namely to integrate first the Soviets and then the Chinese into the world community. The foreign policy class considered these empires eternal and deemed it madness to suggest otherwise.
That, of course, is precisely what Ronald Reagan was about. But when, in 1983, Reagan said that the Soviet Union was a “sad chapter in mankind’s history whose last pages are even now being written,” Strobe Talbot (later Clinton’s deputy secretary of state) wrote in Time magazine that this was only Reagan’s personal view, and contrary to U.S. policy. Talbot was correct.
The U.S. government and the rest of the foreign policy class was on autopilot. On the basis of its own common sense and agenda, it counted Reagan an interloper and thwarted his proposals at almost every turn. Notably, it prevented his main departure from settled national security policy—Reagan, unlike the presidents who came before him and after him, wanted to defend America against ballistic missiles—from bearing fruit. The Soviets feared this most, and the U.S foreign policy class worked hand in glove with them to thwart Reagan. Moreover, by the end of the Reagan Administration the U.S. government was extending and facilitating untied loans to the Soviet government to keep it alive, a policy accelerated under George H.W. Bush. None should forget that, on August 1, 1991, as the Soviet monster was croaking, Bush read to an incredulous crowd in Kiev a speech drafted by Condoleezza Rice advising Ukrainians to be content as Soviet citizens. The foreign policy class and Ronald Reagan were from different planets.
The language of “policy-speak” obscures the fundamental differences. Since Reagan took a big hand in the word’s affairs he was “an internationalist,” wasn’t he? He supported anti-communist forces around the world, did he not? In this way, was he not in the grand Wilsonian tradition? To the contrary: speaking this way confuses means with ends, which Reagan never did. His primordial objective in foreign policy was to safeguard America from Communists. To this end he deployed every means at his command. Yes, he liked the Poles. What’s not to like? But he supported their push for independence, to which previous administrations had been deaf, because doing so weakened the Soviet empire. He supported democratic rebels in Nicaragua. Whatever benefits he expected democracy to bring that country, the reason for his support was the need to excise the Communist cancer from central America.
Ronald Reagan reveled in 600 U.S. Navy ships dominating the world’s oceans, and in military bases around the globe. But his heart and mind, like those of his Washingtonian predecessors, was in the peaceful, decent, American domesticity that all this power was defending. That defense aimed at defeating the Soviet Union. His common sense about the Cold War was, “we win, they lose.”
The Reality of War
By the 1980s, the U.S. foreign policy class, having adopted the opposite common sense, was comfortable waging no-win wars. At the same time, its members were jetting between five-star conferences and enjoying deference as if exercising some sort of hegemony, dispensing billions of dollars in aid money plus various forms of access to America. Imperial Pashas in all but name, they identified with a process that was rewarding in and of itself and which they imagined could last indefinitely. But the reality of war has shown the unreality of what they have been about.
The bipartisan 1945 campaign to convince Americans that the U.N. was indispensable to protecting the American republic's way of life had followed from the Progressive premise that there exists an “international community” of nations who want essentially the same things and adhere to the same standards of behavior. By organizing this community for action, Americans would sacrifice nothing while gaining allies to safeguard their peace. By 1950 things had turned out differently, and shown that “international community” is a hallucinogenic pipe dream.
In June of that year one of the U.N.’s leading members, the Soviet Union, sponsored North Korea’s invasion of the South, which killed American soldiers as it attacked the very basis of U.S. containment policy. By December, after the U.S. armed forces under General Douglas MacArthur had established military dominance over the Korean peninsula, the U.S. foreign policy class concluded that, because using that dominance to win the war would jeopardize America’s standing with its allies and might provoke the Soviets to fight us elsewhere, the U.S. armed forces should kill and die there without trying to win until such time as the Soviets and their clients decided to stop. They stopped after having killed some 50,000 Americans, and only after President Eisenhower seemed ready to use the atom bombs that his predecessor had denied to MacArthur.
The Korean War is essential to understanding how our foreign policy class has handled conflict ever since. Containment’s premise was that since any gain from the communist empires’ attempts at expansion would be incentives for them to aggress again, the United States and allies could secure peace and foreclose their expansion by making any aggression’s costs greater than its benefits. Korea reversed that premise. To this day, China celebrates what it justly calls its victory over America in Korea as an affirmation of its ruling class’s wisdom. With help from the Soviet Union and U.S. allies, it proved able convince the U.S. foreign policy class to accept losses in unsustainable no-win wars. Since then, America’s acceptance of loss after loss has torn at our domestic fiber and international standing.
The Soviet-Chinese axis quickly adapted the Korea pattern to Vietnam, with even more profound results. As the U.S. foreign policy class fought Communist aggression there, it never even considered the option of destroying North Vietnam’s regime. Openly mocking the very notion of victory and accusing those Americans who advocated victory of being enemies of peace, our establishmentarians placed forlorn hope in the notion of “nation building,” as if anyone possessed the secret for organizing any small country’s citizens for self-defense against a military attack endlessly supplied by major powers. Consequently, for a dozen years, another 50,000 Americans died in Vietnam in planned military futility as the republic was roiled by a socio-political revolution that undermined all manner of authority, shifted the ruling class’s composition, and has not yet run its course.
Perhaps the disaster’s most remarkable feature is that it empowered precisely the Progressives who had been most responsible for the war’s prosecution and dishonorable conclusion. This meant, on the level of operations, the Vietnam syndrome’s canonization throughout the foreign policy class, including the military. All but one of the U.S. government’s military ventures ever since have more or less copied the Vietnam paradigm, complete with “nation building” and “rules of engagement” that protect enemy “sanctuaries”—but above all without plans for victory. One will search fruitlessly for differences between the contemporary U.S. manual of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the work of General David Petraeus, and the Vietnam era’s manuals. But on the level of conception, our Progressive foreign policy class has strengthened its hold on the bureaucracies, academe, think tanks, and press during the 40 years since Vietnam, as if that disaster had been a rousing success.
Third World, Terror, and Default
Our Progressive foreign policy class has continued to prosper because its unanimity about fundamental assumptions has throttled critiques from within and scorned any from outside. The prevailing view that the foreign policy class consists of three competing intellectual currents—Liberal Internationalists, Realists, and Neoconservatives—neglects the fact that all proceed from Progressivism’s assumptions that all nations want for themselves what each of these American factions wants for them. As a result, the differences end up having little practical meaning. Liberal Internationalists, regarding themselves as harbingers of secular, technocratic progress, see foreigners as interested in the same things, thereby willing to modify their behavior to attain America’s help. Realists, seeing themselves as dispassionate technicians of power for the sake of international order, think foreigners are similarly amenable to the steps needed to achieve peaceful international equilibria. Neoconservatives, believing that foreigners are eager for democracy’s blessings, are eager to help foreigners to attain them.
In sum, today’s foreign policy class, no less than its forbears of a century ago, see themselves as mankind’s seniors, teachers, and benefactors. They expect to be treated as such. But as they have dealt with the world, they have sown disrespect for themselves and for our America.
Americans are genetically opposed to empires and favorable to republics. But the Men On Mount Rushmore knew that their right and duty in regard to popular government stops at the U.S. borders, that the rest of the world’s many peoples have an equal, inalienable right to govern themselves as they may, and that U.S. foreign policy’s duty is to deal with each and all as best serves the American people. Progressives, by contrast, have pursued anti-imperialism to the point of practicing something like an imperialism of their own. Beginning in the Wilson administration, they ran a foreign policy actively hostile to the empires of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, etc. They promoted their colonies’ independence and expected to reap the newly independent nations’ gratitude. While rejecting the suggestion that they were substituting American for European imperialism, they worked hard to increase all manner of influence in what came to be known as the “Third World.”
As U.S. diplomats, and especially the CIA, competed with Communists for influence within the European colonies’ independence movements after WWII, many identified with those movements politically and ideologically. They also sponsored and raised up many of their leaders, imagining that these leaders reciprocated the affection. So close have been these patron-client relationships that, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke to the director of central intelligence, his brother Allen, he referred to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as “your colonel.” So much American money and influence went into the politics of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that a good case can be made that American progressives invented the Third World. They were surprised when their creation turned on America.
Whether because our foreign policy class has chosen clients badly, or simply because it neglected the inherent difference between others’ interests and America’s, it helped bring to power persons who made careers by making major trouble for America. Sukarno, the Ba’ath Party (Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad), Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, are just the most recognizable. Trying to curry favor with such, but also out of ideological solidarity, the U.S. government supported, among others, Franz Fanon, author of Wretched of The Earth, and the inspiration for countless anti-American terrorists. But our foreign policy class also made trouble for America by turning on compliant clients, such as the Shah of Iran, who were succeeded by outright enemies of America, or by overthrowing recalcitrant but effective clients like South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dihn Diem, who were then replaced by incompetent puppets. Consequently, as our experts tried to remedy the consequences of their choices, they resembled nothing so much as sorcerers’ apprentices chasing after the products of their incompetent concoctions.
“It is no coincidence,” as the Soviets used to say, that as America’s no-win policy in Vietnam was becoming undeniable and America’s third world creatures were reverting to type, growing disrespect for America burst into terrorism in the mid-1960s—tentatively at first, but growing in self-assurance and quantity as the U.S. reaction encouraged it. In December 1965 the Soviet Union gathered terrorist groups small and large in Havana for the Tricontinental Conference, whose symbol was a globe resting on crossed submachine guns and whose working groups examined techniques for terrorizing Americans. Terrorists from around the world exchanged best practices through World Marxist Review, published in Prague. Castro was the first to encourage would be revolutionaries to hijack airplanes to Cuba. Our foreign policy class refused to countenance responding forcefully to this act of war. Instead, it persuaded President Nixon to ban guns on commercial aircraft. The FAA also required passengers not to resist hijackers, a regulation that made 9/11 possible.
By the time the Soviet Union passed away, the U.S. government had accepted all manner of terrorism against America with such equanimity that terrorists no longer required a powerful patron. Consider Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In 1973 it assassinated U.S. ambassador Cleo Noel. In 1985, having hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, it rolled overboard a wheelchair bound American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer. And much more. Nevertheless, the CIA continued to fund the PLO and was instrumental in giving it near-state status. In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini, having overthrown Iran’s Shah with U.S. help, seized the U.S. embassy and held its diplomats hostage for over a year, a textbook casus belli not answered in kind. In 1985 the Ayatollah’s Hezbollah agents hijacked TWA flight 847 and murdered U.S sailor Robert Stethem. But the U.S. government did not crush terrorist organizations or their sponsors.
By the 1990s, respect for America had fallen so low in the minds of so many that any and all reasons sufficed to accelerate anti-American terrorism. Following Iran’s unpunished capture of American diplomats in the name of Islam, all manner of Muslim radicals conducted anti-American terrorism. Terrorists who had served the Soviets, such as the PLO, started operating under Islamic pretenses. Terrorists who had been practicing their craft in the service of such regimes as Saddam Hussein's and Hafez Assad’s, also flew the Islamic flag. The U.S. government, which had rationalized treating terrorism as mere criminality in order to avoid confronting the Soviet Union, started rationalizing that same reticence by citing reluctance to wage a war of religion against Islam.
Consequently, whereas once upon a time the only people who would slaughter Americans were ones deeply in ideology’s grip, whether Communist or Islamic, in our time a superficial conversion is enough for the world’s restless and resentful, Americans included, to spill American blood. “No people was so small or weak that it could not do them harm,” Montesquieu wrote of what befell third-century Romans. By the 21st century, the failure of American foreign policy had thus come home to the average American.
Clinton or Trump?
By 2016, America’s foreign policy class looked out from its privileged places and saw citizens whose long simmering dissatisfaction with their works had boiled over into disrespect. Correctly, this class sees the election as the validation or rejection of what they are all about. But whether electing Clinton would or could confirm their hold on the machinery of policy, or how long a respite from their detractors might endure, is by no means clear. That is because Clinton’s election would perpetuate and strengthen the foreign policy trends that have led both the establishment and the government to lose credit at home and abroad. Electing Clinton would neither restore lost respect nor induce the foreign policy class to seriously consider what they have been doing wrong all these years. Because this class’s contempt for its domestic opponents continues to push the current course of action to its logical conclusions, it virtually ensures grave unintended consequences.
Thus, Progressives have touted disarmament, arms control, or reduction of armaments, as a matter of principle for a hundred years. Progressives have seen military weakness as an enabler of peace, an enhancement of “soft power,” and yet as no barrier at all to involvement in the word’s quarrels. In the nuclear age, they have been the primary proponents of what used to be called “minimum deterrence”—the theory that possessing a small, invulnerable stock of nuclear weapons designed to devastate cities is enough to deter attack even from governments whose nuclear forces are designed to fight, survive, and win nuclear war. It is an article of faith for this class that, because those invulnerable “second strike” weapons would avenge America’s defeat, the attacker would never inflict it. But one can find few members of that class who, themselves, would be willing to commit such senseless vengeance.
The foreign policy class has also recognized that supporting allies with some degree of credibility against nuclear powers requires the capacity and willingness to use nuclear weapons militarily. Nevertheless, over the years, the foreign policy class’s resistance to enacting the militarily senseless theory of Minimum Deterrence has weakened. President Obama’s plans for U.S. nuclear forces now put them on course to minimum deterrence. A recent article by William Perry, Bill Clinton’s former secretary of defense and a close adviser to Hillary, advocates it explicitly. As that change in America’s nuclear status takes hold, members of the foreign policy class should not be surprised to find their foreign hosts less accommodating to them and more to whoever wants to hurt America. Power, like water and much else, flows downhill.
The foreign policy class’s objection to the very notion of “America First” is that it deprives America of allies. This neglects the truth that allies, like bank loans, are available in inverse proportion to the need for them. To have allies one must first have the power to achieve one’s own objectives, and enough left over to help the allies along. The most prominent and authoritative book on Progressive foreign policy, Restraint (2014) by Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, prescribes just the opposite. Progressive “multilateral” foreign policy consists of asking potential allies to sign on to schemes that the U.S. foreign policy class is considering, but whose adoption is conditional on the allies signing on. Any alliance formed on that basis is as fraudulent as the offer of alliance itself—today’s NATO being a good example. By the same token, Ukrainians would more likely put faith in an America that was pursuing policy toward Russia that was clear and forceful because it put America first than an alliance that supports its armed forces with American Meals Ready to Eat. Similarly, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia would be more reassured by knowing what America is going to do in its own interest about China’s appropriation of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, than by a “pivot” of U.S. forces that combines reassertion of U.S. commitments with a steadily decreasing inventory of ships and airplanes. Where does anyone think that such policies will lead America over the next decade?
Inexorably, Progressive foreign policy is gravitating in the direction of foreign Progressive forces. For Progressives, the benevolence of “the Arab Street” and even of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood is an article of faith. From government, the media, and the universities, Progressives indict as racists anyone who imputes responsibility for terrorism to Arabs, Muslims, or Islam. America’s Muslims vote Democrat. Any Progressive president would find it hard to depart from this part of his tribal identity, least of all Hillary Clinton, whose top aide, Huma Abedin, is deeply connected to the Muslim world. The Democratic Party, along with its bench in academe, has identified increasingly with Israel’s enemies as fellow Progressives. Surely and not so slowly, our foreign policy class has acted more and more as if Israel’s refusal to accede to Arab demands were the chief cause of the Middle East’s troubles.
Imagine, then, what effects the intensification of U.S. foreign policy’s trends would produce in the not so distant future. Then, considering how these effects would manifest themselves on America’s streets, ask how the American people are likely to react.
The 2016 election is about whether that pattern should change. How much, if at all, it would change under Trump matters much less than the mere possibility it might change. Trump’s virtue in foreign policy lies in having voiced this simple, vital thought: U.S. foreign policy must put America first, and deliver victories rather than defeats. Whether Trump really believes that, whether he would act on it, or even whether he understands past mistakes, is secondary.