To continue reading this article you must become a subscriber.
On the third week of America’s quarantine against the pandemic, a new think tank in Washington had a message for the Pentagon. “The national security state, created to keep us safe and guard our freedoms, has failed,” Andrew Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told viewers on a Skype video from home, interspersed with the sounds of sirens and images of emergency rooms. While microbes from China were mutating and coming to kill us, he preached, we were wasting our time hunting terrorists and projecting military power abroad. It was a sequitur in search of a point — as if America ever faces only one danger at a time. When the black plague struck Europe and Asia in the fourteenth century, it did not mean that Mongol hordes would no longer threaten their cities. Nor does the coronavirus mean that jihadists are not plotting terror or that Russia is not threatening its neighbors or that China is not devouring Hong Kong.
His casuistry aside, Bacevich was playing to the resentments of Americans who sincerely believe that American foreign policy is driven by an addiction to war. For the first two decades of post-cold war politics, this argument was relegated to the hallucinations of the fringe. But no more. A new national consensus had started to form before the plague of 2020: that there are almost no legitimate uses for American military power abroad, that our wars have been “endless wars,” and that our “endless wars” must promptly be ended. On the subject of American interventionism, there is no polarization in this notoriously polarized country. There is a broad consensus, and it is that we should stay out and far away.
The concept of “endless wars” has its roots in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1984, most famously, George Orwell depicted a totalitarian state that invents its own history to justify perpetual war between the superpowers to keep its citizens in a state of nationalist fervor. In American political discourse, the concept of a war without end was baked into the influential notion of “the manufacture of consent,” a notion manufactured by Noam Chomsky according to which the media teaches the American people to support or acquiesce in the nefarious activities of the military-industrial complex. But the “endless wars” that so many Americans wish to end today are not like the ones that Orwell imagined. Today Americans seek to end the war on terror, which in practice means beating back insurgencies and killing terrorist leaders in large swaths of the Islamic world. Orwell’s wars were endless because none of the world’s states possessed the power to win them. The war on terror, by contrast, endures because of a persistent threat to Western security and because weaker states would collapse if American forces left. The war on terror pits the American Gulliver against fanatical bands of Lilliputians. But the asymmetry of military power does not change the magnitude — or the reality — of the carnage that “stateless actors” can wreak.
To get a feel for the new consensus on American quietism, consider some of the pre-pandemic politics surrounding the war in Afghanistan. In a debate during the presidential primaries, Elizabeth Warren insisted that “the problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military.” Her Democratic rivals on the stage agreed, including Joe Biden. This is also Donald Trump's position. As Warren was proclaiming the futility of fighting for Afghanistan’s elected government, the Trump administration was negotiating that government’s betrayal with the Taliban. (And the Taliban was ramping up its violence while we were negotiating with it.) Before the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration was spending a lot of its political capital on trying to convince skeptical Republican hawks that the planned American withdrawal would not turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists again, which of course is nonsense.
The emerging unanimity about an escape from Afghanistan reflects a wider strategic and historical exhaustion. Despite the many profound differences between Trump and Obama, both presidents have tried to pivot away from the Middle East to focus on competition with China. (Obama never quite made the pivot.) Both presidents have also mused publicly about how NATO allies are “free riders” on America’s strength. And both presidents have shown no patience with the use of American military force. In 2012, even as the world was once again becoming a ferociously Hobbesian place, the Obama administration’s national defense strategy dropped the longstanding post-cold war goal of being able to win two wars in different geographical regions at once. (The Obama Pentagon seemed to think that land wars are a thing of the past and that we can henceforth make do with drones and SEALs.) Trump’s first defense strategy in 2018 affirmed the Obama formulation.
Moreover, a majority of Americans agreed with their political leaders. A Pew Research poll in 2019 found that around sixty percent of all Americans did not believe it was worth fighting in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. That percentage is even higher among military veterans. Indeed, Pew research polling since 2013 has found that more Americans than not believe that their country should stay out of world affairs. Hal Brands and Charles Edel, in their fine book The Lessons of Tragedy, point out that majorities of Americans still agreed in the late 2010s that America should possess the world’s most powerful military, and supported alliances, and favored free trade, but they conclude that many Americans are now resistant to the “sacrifices and trade-offs necessary to preserve the country’s post-war achievements.”
All of that was before covid19 forced most of the country to “shelter in place.” In truth, sheltering-in-place has been the goal of our foreign and national security policy for most of a decade. And it will be much harder to justify a continued American presence in the Middle East, west Asia, Africa and even the Pacific after Congress borrowed trillions of necessary dollars for paycheck protection and emergency small business loans. In addition to all of the older muddled arguments for retreat, there will now be a strong economic case that the republic can no longer afford its overseas commitments, as if foreign policy and national security are ultimately about money. In other words, there are strong indications that the republic is undergoing a profound revision of its role in leading and anchoring the international order that it erected after World War II. The days of value-driven foreign policy, of military intervention on humanitarian grounds, and even of grand strategy, may be over. Should every terror haven, every failed state, every aggression against weak states, and every genocide be America’s responsibility to prevent? Of course not. But should none of them be? America increasingly seems to think so. We are witnessing the birth of American unexceptionalism, otherwise known as “responsible statecraft.”
At the end of the cold war, the spread of liberal democracy seemed inevitable. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and with it the communist governments of the Eastern European countries it dominated. China had momentously made room for a market in its communist system, a strange state-sponsored capitalism that brought hundreds of millions of people out of subsistence poverty. In the West, juntas and strongmen toppled and elected governments replaced them. In every region except for the Middle East and much of Africa, the open society was on the march.
One of the first attempts to describe the thrilling new moment was a famous, and now infamous, essay by Francis Fukuyama. In 1989, in “The End of History?,” he surveyed a generation that saw the collapse of pro-American strongmen from Spain to Chile along with the convulsions behind the Iron Curtain and concluded that the triumph of liberalism was inevitable. (He has since revised his view, which is just as well.) His ideas provided the intellectual motifs for a new era of American hegemony. “The triumph of the West, and the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to western liberalism,” Fukuyama wrote. What he meant, in his arch Hegelian way, was that the age of ideological conflict between states was over. History was teleological and it had attained its telos. Fukuyama envisioned a new era in which great power wars would be obsolete. He did not predict the end to all war, but he did predict that big wars over competing ideologies would be replaced by a more mundane and halcyon kind of competition. The principled struggles of history, he taught, “will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
Fukuyama’s predictions were exhilarating in 1989 because the consensus among most intellectuals during the Cold War had been that the Soviet Union was here to stay. Early theorists of totalitarianism such as Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich had portrayed the Soviet state as an unprecedented and impermeable juggernaut that was terrifyingly strong and durable. The hero of Orwell’s dystopia, the dissident Emmanuel Goldstein, resisted Big Brother but was never a real threat to the state. In the Brezhnev era, analysts of the Soviet Union began to notice that the juggernaut was crumbling from within and had lost the ideological allegiance of its citizens, even as its military and diplomatic adventures beyond its borders continued. Building on this increasingly realistic understanding of the failures of the communist state, Fukuyama observed that totalitarian systems were overstretched and brittle. The West could exhale.
Not everyone agreed. Samuel Huntington argued that conflict between great powers would remain because identity, not ideology, is what drives states to make war. While it was true that communism was weakening after the collapse of the Soviet Union, other illiberal forces such as religious fundamentalism and nationalism remained a threat to the American-led liberal world order. The hope that China or Iran could be persuaded to open their societies by appealing to prosperity and peace ignored that most nations were motivated not by ideals, but by a shared sense of history and culture. Leon Wieseltier similarly objected that the end of the Soviet Union and its empire would release ethnic and religious and tribal savageries, old animosities that were falsely regarded as antiquated. He also observed that the concept of an “end of history” was borrowed from the very sort of totalitarian mentality whose days Fukuyama believed were over. The worst fiends of the twentieth century justified their atrocities through appeals to history’s final phase; the zeal required for their enormous barbarities relied in part on a faith that these crimes are advancing the inevitable march of history. For Wieseltier, there is no final phase and no inevitable march, and the liberal struggle is endless. “To believe in the end of history,” he wrote, “you must believe in the end of human nature, or at least of its gift for evil.”
As international relations theories go, “The End of History” was like a medical study that found that ice cream reduced the risk of cancer. Fukayama’s optimistic historicism instructed that the easiest choice for Western leaders was also the wisest. Why devise a strategy to contain or confront Russia if it was on a glide path to democratic reform? Why resist American industrial flight to China if that investment would ultimately tame the communist regime and tempt it to embrace liberalism?
Every president until Trump believed that it was possible to lure China and Russia into the liberal international order and attempted to do so. Instead of preparing for a great power rivalry, American foreign policy sought to integrate China and Russia into global institutions that would restrain them. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush expanded NATO, but they also invited Russia into the Group of 7 industrialized nations. Clinton, Bush, and Obama — the latter liked to invoke “the rules of the road” — encouraged Chinese-American economic interdependence. Until Obama’s second term, the United States did next to nothing to stop China’s massive theft of intellectual property. Until June 2020, Chinese corporations could trade freely on U.S. stock exchanges without submitting to the basic accounting rules required of American companies. The assumption behind these Panglossian views of China and Russia was that democratic capitalism was irresistible and the end of communism marked the beginning of a new era of good feelings. (Communism never ended in China, of course.) And it was certainly true that trade with China benefitted both economies: Chinese and American corporations prospered and American consumers enjoyed cheaper consumer goods.
This is not to say that there were no bouts of dissent. In his presidential campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton attacked George H. W. Bush for his capitulation to China after the uprising at Tiananmen Square. And even though Clinton did not alter the elder Bush’s approach to China during his presidency, there was a lively debate about China’s human rights abuses in the 1990s. Clinton expanded NATO, something the elder Bush opposed, but he and later George W. Bush and Barack Obama did little to push back against Russia’s own regional adventures and aggressive behavior. Consider that no serious U.S. war plan for Europe was developed between the end of the Cold War and 2014, the same year that Russia invaded Ukraine and eventually annexed Crimea, and five years after Russia invaded and occupied the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We preferred to look away from Russia’s forward movements — with his cravenness about Syria, Obama actually opened the vacuum that Russia was happy to fill — just as we preferred to look away from the growing evidence of China’s strategic ambitions and human-rights outrages. We were reluctant to lose those good feelings so soon after we acquired them.
None of this meant that American presidents would not use force or wage war after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They did. But they did not engage in great power wars. The first Bush saved Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and saved Panama from the lesser threat of Manuel Noriega. Clinton intervened in the Balkans to stop a genocide and launched limited air strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In the aftermath of September 11, George W. Bush waged a war on terror and toppled the tyrannies that held Iraq and Afghanistan captive. Obama intervened reluctantly and modestly and ineffectively in Libya; he withdrew troops from Iraq only to send some of them back; and he presided over a “surge” in Afghanistan, even though its announcement was accompanied by a timetable for withdrawal. Trump has launched no new wars, but he has killed Iran’s most important general and the architect of its campaign for regional hegemony, and he has launched strikes on Syrian regime targets in response to its use of chemical weapons, though his strikes have not added up to a consistent policy. But even as optimism about world order has become less easy to maintain, even as the world grows more perilous in old and new ways, the American mood of retirement, the inclination to withdrawal, has persisted. Fukuyama, who acknowledged that the threat of terrorism would have to be met with force, has remarked that our task is not “to answer exhaustively the challenges to liberalism promoted by every crackpot messiah around the world.” But what about the genocides perpetrated by a crackpot messiah (or a rational autocrat)? And what about answering great power rivals? At the time, to be sure, we had no great power rivals. We were living in the fool’s paradise of a “unipolar” world.
Bill Clinton came to the presidency from Little Rock without a clear disposition on the use of military force. He was at times wary of it. He pulled American forces out of Somalia after a militia downed two American helicopters. In his first term he dithered on the Balkan wars and their atrocities, favoring a negotiation with Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic. He did nothing to stop Rwanda’s Hutu majority from slaughtering nearly a million Tutsis for three months in the spring and summer of 1994. He was more focused than any of his predecessors or successors on brokering a peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Over time, of course, he evolved, but how the world suffers for the learning curve of American presidents! Clinton punished Saddam Hussein’s defiance of U.N. weapons inspectors. He bombed suspected al Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan after the bombings of American embassies in Africa in 1998. He prevented Milosevic from cleansing Kosovo of Albanians and helped push back Serb forces from Bosnia.
Clinton was a reluctant sheriff, to borrow Richard Haass’ phrase. In his first term he was unsure about using American force abroad. By the end of his second term, he had come to terms with the responsibilities of American power. “The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread?,” Clinton asked in a speech in 1999. “We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” He was talking about transnational threats and rogue states. In his second term, Clinton took a keen interest in biological weapons and pandemics. This meant using military power to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and deter terrorists. As Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s second secretary of state, memorably put it, America was the world’s “indispensable nation.”
Yet Clinton’s activism did not extend to Russia or China. He helped to expand the NATO alliance, but also secured debt forgiveness for the Russian federation and used his personal relationship with Russian president Boris Yeltsin to reassure him that NATO’s expansion was no threat to Moscow. Clinton also reversed his campaign promise on China and granted it most favored nation status as a trading partner, paving the way for the economic interdependence that Trump may be in the process of unraveling today. At the time, Clinton explained that “this decision offers us the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human rights and for the advancement of our other interests with China.” This reflected the optimism of 1989-1991. What other model did China have to emulate, but our own? Allow it to prosper and over time it will reform.
When Clinton left office, the consensus among his party’s elites was that his foreign policy mistakes were errors of inaction and restraint. Clinton did nothing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. He waited too long to intervene in the Balkans. It seemed that Americans had gotten over their inordinate fear of interventions. Why had it taken Clinton so long? There was an activist mood in Washington before the attacks of September 11. And after hijacked commercial planes were turned into precision missiles and the towers fell, the sense that America needed to do more with its power intensified.
In the Bush years, American foreign policy fell first into the hands of neoconservatives. For their critics, they were a cabal of swaggering interlopers who twisted intelligence products and deceived a dim president into launching a disastrous war. In fact they were a group of liberals who migrated to the right and brought with them an intellectual framework and appreciation for social science that was absent from the modern conservative movement. In foreign policy they dreaded signs of American weakness or retreat, and in 1972 supported Scoop Jackson against George McGovern in the Democratic primaries. As that decade progressed, the wary and disenchanted liberals migrated to the former Democrat Ronald Reagan. In Reagan, they found a president who despised Soviet communism as much as they did.
In the 1990s, a new generation of neocons wanted to seize the opportunity of American primacy in the world after the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Irving Kristol observed, “With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.” In that spirit, the neoconservatives of the 1990s advocated an activist foreign policy. They argued that the United States should help to destabilize tyrannies and support democratic opposition movements. They were not content with letting history take its course; they wanted to push it along in the direction of freedom. Their enthusiasm for an American policy of democratization was based on both moral arguments and strategic arguments.
The focus in this period was Iraq. Neoconservatives had rallied around legislation known as the Iraq Liberation Act that would commit the American government to train and to equip a coalition of Iraqi opposition groups represented in the United States by Ahmad Chalabi, a wealthy Iraqi political figure who was trained as a mathematician in the United States. For the first half of the 1990s, the CIA funded Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, but he had a falling out with the agency. The Iraq Liberation Act was a way to save the opposition group by replacing a once covert intelligence program with one debated openly in Congress. It should be noted that Chalabi’s initial plan was not to convince America to invade Iraq, but to secure American training and equipment to build a rebel army comprised of Iraqis to topple Saddam Hussein. Clinton allowed the legislation to pass in 1997, but his government never fully implemented it.
George W. Bush ironically ran his campaign in 2000 with the promise of a humble foreign policy. Condoleezza Rice memorably declared at the Republican convention that America cannot be the world’s 911. Not long afterward, 9/11 was the event that forced Bush to renege on his promise. Three days after that attack, Congress voted to authorize what we know today as the war on terror: the “endless wars” had begun. Over the last nineteen years, that authorization has justified a global war against a wide range of targets. Bush used it as the legal basis for strikes on terrorists in south Asia. Obama used it to justify his military campaign against the Islamic State, when it was a battlefield enemy of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. And while every few years some members of Congress have proposed changes to the authorization, these efforts have yet to succeed. Today many progressives believe the war on terror deformed America into an evil empire, patrolling the skies of the Muslim world with deadly drones, blowing up wedding parties in Afghanistan, torturing suspected terrorists and aligning with brutal thugs. Even Obama has not escaped this judgment. Some of these are fair criticisms. The war on terror was indeed a war. Innocent people died. At the same time, the other side of the ledger must be counted. Since 9/11, there have been no mass-casualty attacks by foreign terrorists inside our borders. On its own terms, from the rather significant standpoint of American security, this “endless war” has produced results.
In the first years of the war on terror, the pacifist left had little influence over the national debate. A better barometer of the country’s mood was a column, published a month before the Iraq War, by Charles Krauthammer. He denounced what he said was Clinton’s “vacation from history,” and asked whether “the civilized part of humanity [will] disarm the barbarians who would use the ultimate knowledge for the ultimate destruction.” Those words, and many others like them, helped to frame the rationale for the American invasion of Iraq. Note that Krauthammer did not write that Clinton’s vacation from history was his failure to prepare for China’s rise and Russia’s decline. It was his failure to prevent the arming of smaller rogue states and terrorist groups. Krauthammer was still living in Fukuyama’s world. And so was Bush. In his first term, Bush not only failed to challenge Russia or China, he sought to make them partners in his new global war. Bush famously remarked that he had looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and found a man he could trust. (“I was able to get a sense of his soul.”) Bush’s government would also designate a Uighur separatist organization as a terrorist group, giving cover to the persecution of that minority. The world learned in 2018 that China had erected a new Gulag in western China that now imprisons at least a million Uighurs.
China and Russia did not support Bush’s Iraq war. Many Democrats did. In 2002, a slim majority of Democrats in the House opposed a resolution to authorize it, but in the Senate, 29 out of 50 Democrats voted for it. Most significant, every Democrat with presidential aspirations — from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden — voted for the war, a vote for which they would later apologize. At the time of that vote, the ambitious Democrats who supported it did not know that opposition to that war would define their party for years to come. Neither did the establishment Democrats who opposed it. Al Gore, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, explained his opposition to the war: “If we go in there and dismantle them — and they deserve to be dismantled — but then we wash our hands of it and walk away and leave it in a situation of chaos, and say, ‘That’s for y’all to decide how to put things back together now,’ that hurts us.” Gore was not concerned that America may break Iraq, he was acknowledging that it was already broken. Nor was he worried about an “exit strategy.” He worried that if America went to war in Iraq under a Republican president, the war may not be endless enough. America may leave too soon.
The Iraq war was also opposed by a group of international relations theorists who advocated for what is known as foreign policy realism. Unlike Fukuyama, the realists do not think it matters how a state chooses to organize itself. All states, according to the realists, pursue their own survival, or their national interest. Thirty-three prominent realists purchased an advertisement in the New York Times in 2002 urging Bush not to invade Iraq. They argued that the coming war would distract America from the campaign against al Qaeda and leave it in charge of a failed state with no good options to leave. It is worth noting that neither the pacifist left nor the foreign policy realists argued before the war that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, the liquidation of which was Bush’s justification for the war. Both camps warned instead that an American invasion of Iraq could prompt the tyrant to use the chemical and biological weapons that everyone agreed he was concealing. As the professors wrote in their open letter, “The United States would win a war against Iraq, but Iraq has military options — chemical and biological weapons, urban combat — that might impose significant costs on the invading forces and neighboring states.” The argument was that removing Saddam Hussein would further destabilize the Middle East.
Over the course of 2003, it became clear that the casus belli for Operation Iraqi Freedom — Saddam’s refusal to come clean on his regime’s weapons of mass destruction — was wrong. The teams of American weapons inspectors sent into the country could not find the stockpiles of chemical weapons or the mobile bio-weapons labs. The Bush administration sought to portray this error as an intelligence failure, which was largely correct. And so the war’s unanticipated consequences, some of them the result of American error, eclipsed the fact that Iraqis had drafted a constitution and were voting for their leaders. In America, a great popular anger began to form, not only against the Iraq war but more generally against American interventionism. The Democrats became increasingly eager to take political advantage of it. Talk of American hubris proliferated. Progressives were growing wary of the institutions of national security, particularly the intelligence agencies.
Republicans under Bush were also divided between an embrace of the president’s own idealism to make Iraq a democracy and the unsentimental realism of his vice president, who darkly warned after 9/11 that the war against terror would have to be fought in the shadows. Bush’s own policies were inconsistent. Sometimes he pressured dictator allies to make democratic reforms, but he also empowered those same dictators to wage war against jihadists with no mercy. In Israel, Bush supported legislative elections that resulted in empowering Hamas in Gaza. (That was in 2006, the last time Palestinians voted for their leaders.) By the end of Bush’s second term, however, great power competition had re-emerged. While America was preoccupied with the Muslim world, Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Bush did what he could. He sent humanitarian supplies to Tbilisi packed on U.S. military aircraft. He tried to rally allies to support a partial ban on weapons sales to Moscow. But Russia had the good fortune of timing its aggression just as the world’s financial markets collapsed. It was also lucky that the next American president would be Barack Obama.
Barack Obama had been a state senator in Illinois during the run up to the Iraq War, when his primary rival, Hillary Clinton, was a U.S. senator. She voted for the war. He gave a speech opposing it. At the time of the election, in a political party incensed by the Iraq war, Obama’s speech in Chicago in 2002 functioned as a shield: he may have lacked Clinton’s experience, but at least he did not support Bush’s war. Back in 2002, though, Obama’s speech was barely noticed. The Chicago Tribune news story led with Jesse Jackson’s speech and made no mention of the ambitious state senator. When Obama was at the lectern, he had two distinct themes. First, he wanted the protestors to know that he, too, understood the evil of neoconservatism. “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats,” he said. At the same time, Obama rejected the apologies for tyrants common on the hard left. Of Saddam, he said, “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” But the young Obama did not think that Saddam threatened American interests. Echoing Fukuyama’s optimism, he declared that “in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”
Obama’s patience with history, with its dustbins and its arcs, turned out to be, well, endless. His Chicago speech should have been a warning for the left wing of the Democratic Party that over time it would be disappointed by his presidency. As Obama said, he was not against war. (The tough-minded Niebuhrian speech that he delivered in Oslo when he accepted his ridiculous Nobel Prize underscored his awareness of evil in the world.) He was merely against dumb wars — or as he later put it, “stupid shit.” He had come into office when the world was growing more dangerous, and he chose to respond to these dangers with careful and scholarly vacillations. He wanted the American people to know that he was thoughtful. The most salient characteristics of his foreign policy were timidity and incoherence, and a preference for language over action.
Thus, Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq in 2011, only to send special operators back to Iraq in 2014, after the Islamic State captured the country’s second largest city. He “surged” forces in Afghanistan in his first term, but fired the general he chose to lead them, and spent most of his administration trying, and failing, to withdraw them. He spoke eloquently about the disgrace of Guantanamo, but never closed it. He declassified a series of Justice Department memos that made specious legal arguments to allow the CIA to torture detainees, but his Justice Department never prosecuted the officials responsible, as many in his base wanted. He sided with peaceful protestors in Egypt in 2011 at the dawn of the Arab Spring and urged Hosni Mubarak to step down, but after Egypt elected an Islamist president, the military toppled him in a coup thirteen months later and Obama declined to impose sanctions. He did manage to reach a narrow deal with Iran to diminish, but not demolish, its nuclear weapons program. By this time Iran was on a rampage in the Middle East, and the windfall that its economy received from the nuclear bargain would be reinvested in its own proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The deal alienated America’s traditional allies in the Middle East and brought Israel closer to its Arab rivals.
The most spectacular failure of Obama’s foreign policy, of course, was Syria. After the Arab Spring, Syrians demanded the same democratic freedoms that they saw blooming in Tunisia and briefly in Egypt. Obama supported them, at first. But the tyrant was watching: Bashar al-Assad had learned from what he considered the mistakes of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Assad was also fortunate that his patrons were Russia and Iran, who also lived in fear of popular uprisings. So began the Syrian civil war that to this day rages on. That war has flooded Europe and Turkey with refugees, with dire political consequences, and threatened for a few years in the middle of the 2010s to erase the borders established after World War I for the Middle East.
It is not the case that Obama did absolutely nothing to support the Syrian opposition. In 2012, he approved a covert program known as Timber Sycamore, in which the CIA endeavored to build up an army of “moderate rebels” against Assad. The plan was always flawed. Obama did not want American forces to fight inside Syria and risk an open clash with Iranian and Russian forces who were on the side of the Assad regime. (Obama was reluctant to offend the Russians and he was actively seeking d.tente with the Iranians.) America clung to its passivity as Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s embrace of Shiite majoritarian rule created the conditions for the emergence of the Islamic State. A few years later, Obama authorized a Pentagon program to arm and support a largely Kurdish army fighting the Islamic State. With the help of American air power, the Kurds and U.S. special forces eventually smashed the “caliphate” during Trump’s first term in office.
Artlessly and in accord with his principles, Obama painted himself into a corner. He called on Assad to leave, but he never used American power to assist with that mission. Obama also warned of consequences if Assad used chemical weapons, which he called a “red line.” In 2013, when Assad crossed this line, Obama threatened air strikes against Assad’s regime. The moment of truth— about Syria, about American interventionism — had arrived. Obama punted. He gave a bizarre speech in which he asserted that he had the constitutional prerogative to strike Syria without a resolution from Congress but was asking Congress to authorize the attack anyway. In his swooning memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes recalls that the president told him, “The thing is, if we lose this vote it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism — everyone will see they have no votes.” Never mind the heart of Bashar al Assad! Rhodes continues: “I realized then that he was comfortable with either outcome. If we won authorization, he’d be in a strong position to act in Syria. If we didn’t, then we would potentially end the cycle of American wars of regime change in the Middle East.”
The episode broaches the early roots of the bipartisan consensus against “endless war.” When the resolution came up for a vote, it barely got out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As the Senate debated, Republican hardliners began to wobble. “Military action, taken simply to save face, is not a wise use of force,” said Senator Rubio. “My advice is to either lay out a comprehensive plan using all of the tools at our disposable that stands a reasonable chance of allowing the moderate opposition to remove Assad and replace him with a stable secular government. Or, at this point, simply focus our resources on helping our allies in the region protect themselves from the threat they and we will increasingly face from an unstable Syria.” In other words, Rubio would not support a modest air strike to impose some costs on a breach of an important international norm because it did not go far enough. The result of this twisted reasoning, and of the failure of the resolution, was the emboldening of Assad. Finally, at the last minute, Obama was saved by Assad’s most important patron. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry quickly patched together a plan whereby Syria, for the first time, would declare its chemical weapons stockpiles and allow international inspectors to get them out of the country. Over time, the deal proved worthless. Assad would gas his people again and again, eroding what was once a powerful prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in the twenty-first century. But if the deal did nothing to end the misery of Syria, it did a lot to end the misery of Obama. In 2013, Obama portrayed the bargain as a triumph of diplomacy, which it was — for Putin.
One of the first foreign policy priorities for Obama after his election was to mend relations with Moscow. This was called the “reset.” Obama was most exercised by transnational threats: climate change, arms control, fighting terrorism, Ebola. He wanted Russia to be a partner. And Russia wanted recognition that it was still a great power.
After Obama folded on his “red line” in Syria, Putin made his move. Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 to stop a democratic revolution and eventually annexed Crimea. Obama imposed a series of economic sanctions on Russian industries and senior officials, but he declined to arm Ukraine’s government or consider any kind of military response. (He worried more about escalation than injustice.) His administration’s advice to Kiev was to avoid escalation. The following year Obama did not challenge Russia when it established airbases inside Syria. He still needed the Russians for the Iran nuclear deal. By 2016, when the U.S. intelligence community was gathering evidence that Russians were hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Obama’s White House waited until after the election to punish Moscow. Three weeks before the next president would take the oath of office, Obama announced the expulsion of thirty-five spies and modest sanctions on Russia’s intelligence services. It was a fine example of “responsible statecraft.”
The thoughtful incoherence of Barack Obama was succeeded by the guttural anarchy of Donald Trump. It was nearly impossible to discern from Trump’s campaign what his actual foreign policy would be if he won. His ignorance of international affairs was near total. He simultaneously pledged to pull America out of the Middle East and to bomb ISIS indiscriminately. He could sound like Michael Moore one minute, thundering that George W. Bush lied America into the Iraq War, and in the next minute like a Stephen Colbert imitation of a right-wing neanderthal, claiming that Mexico was deliberately sending its rapists into our country. And yet there was a theme in Trump’s hectoring confusion. He hearkened back to a very old strain of American politics. One could see it in his slogan “America First,” a throwback to the isolationism of Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s. When Trump asked mockingly what America was getting from its interventions in the Middle East or the protection its troops provided Europe through the NATO alliance, he was unknowingly channeling Senator Robert Taft and his opposition to the Marshall Plan. Past presidents, Republicans and Democrats, understood that the small upfront cost of stationing troops overseas in places such as Korea or Bahrain paid much greater dividends by deterring rivals and maintaining stability. Military and economic aid was a small price to pay for trade routes and open markets. But Trump rejected all of this.
As president, Trump’s foreign policy has not been altogether catastrophic. (That is faint praise, I know.) He has used force in constructive flashes, such as the drone strike that killed Qassem Suleimani or the air strikes against Syrian landing strips after the regime gassed civilians. He never pulled America out of NATO as he said he would, though he declined to say publicly that America would honor the mutual defense commitments in the treaty’s charter. He pulled out of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a deal whose merits were always a matter of controversy. He began to reverse the spending caps imposed during Obama’s presidency on the Pentagon’s budget. On China, the Trump administration has begun aggressively to target Beijing’s thievery and espionage and takeover of international institutions.
Most consistently, Trump’s foreign policy has been marked by an amoral transactionalism. Modern presidents of both parties have made bargains with tyrants, but they did so sheepishly, and often they appended talk of human rights to their strategic accommodations. Trump was different. He went out of his way to pay rhetorical tribute to despots and authoritarians who flattered him — Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro. When Trump’s presidency began, senior advisers such as General James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster tried to soften, and at times to undermine, his appetite to renounce American leadership in the world. McMaster made the president sit through a power-point presentation about life in Afghanistan before the Taliban to persuade him of the need for a small military surge there. After Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of the small number of American forces in Syria, his advisers persuaded him that some should stay in order to protect the oil fields. And so it went until most of the first cabinet was pushed out in 2018 and 2019. The new team was more malleable to Trump’s instincts. Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, empowered an envoy to negotiate an American withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban, without including the Afghan government, our ally, in the talks. Instead of undermining Trump’s push to leave the Iran nuclear deal, as James Mattis and Rex Tillerson had done, the president’s new team kept escalating sanctions.
Trump was erratic. Never has foreign policy been so confusing to anyone outside (and to some inside) the White House. Trump would impetuously agree with heads of state to major policy changes before the rest of his government could advise him of his options. Since Trump shares his internal monologue with the world on twitter, these lunges became policies, until he would later reverse them just as fitfully. To take one example: the sequence of tweets that announced Trump’s deal in 2019 with Turkey to pull American support for its Kurdish allies in Syria had real consequences, even though Trump would later reverse himself. As the Turkish military prepared to enter an autonomous Kurdish region of Turkey, the Kurdish fighters who had bled to defeat ISIS were forced to seek protection from Russia, Iran, and Bashar al Assad.
During that crisis, Trump tweeted about one of his favorite themes: “The endless wars must end.” For the first fifteen years of the post-9/11 era, that kind of talk would have been heresy for Republicans. Despite a few outliers inside the party like Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the party of Bush and Reagan supported what it called a “long war,” a multi-generational campaign to build up allies so they could defeat terrorists without American support. Until very recently, Republicans understood that as frustrating as training local police in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism commandos in Iraq often can be, the alternative was far worse, both strategically and morally. The same was true of American deployments during the Cold War. To this day there are American troops in South Korea and Germany, in part because their very presence deterred adversaries from acting on their own aggressive or mischievous impulses. But Trump disagreed. And he echoed a growing consensus. “No more endless wars” is the new conventional wisdom.
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft was founded in 2019 as a convergence of opposites, with money from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the Koch brothers. There was one thing about which the opposites agree, and that is the end of American primacy, and consequent activism, in the world. The new think tank hopes to mold the wide but inchoate opposition to “endless wars” into a coherent national strategy.
On the surface, the Quincy Institute presents itself in fairly platitudinous terms. “The United States should respect established international laws and norms, discourage irresponsible and destabilizing actions by others, and seek to coexist with competitors,” its website says. “The United States need not seek military supremacy in all places, at all costs, for all time.” That boilerplate sounds like the kind of thing one would hear in the 2000s from what were then known as the netroots: wars of choice are bad, international law is good. But there is an important distinction. The progressives who obsessed over the neoconservatives in the Bush years argued the ship of state had been hijacked. The Quincy Institute is arguing that the institutions it once sought to protect from those ideological interlopers were themselves in on the heist. The problem is not the distortion of our foreign policy by foreign interests. The problem is the system that created our foreign policy in the first place.
Consider this passage by Daniel Bessner on Quincy’s website: “While there are national security think tanks that lean right and lean left, almost all of them share a bipartisan commitment to U.S. ‘primacy’ — the notion that world peace (or at least the fulfillment of the “national interest”) depends on the United States asserting preponderant military, political, economic, and cultural power. Think tanks, in other words, have historically served as the handmaidens of empire.” Bessner is echoing an idea from Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor who is also a fellow at the institute. At the end of The Hell of Good Intentions, which appeared in 2018, Walt called for a “fairer fight within the system,” and recommended establishing a broader political movement and the creation of new institutions — a think tank? — to challenge what he perceives as the consensus among foreign policy elites to favor a strategy of liberal hegemony. American primacy in the world he deemed to be bad for America and bad for the world.
The Quincy Institute hired the perfect president for such a program. A retired Army colonel and military historian who lost his son in the Iraq War, Andrew Bacevich has emerged as a more literate and less sinister version of Smedley Butler. That name is largely forgotten today, but Butler was a prominent figure in the 1930s: a retired Major General who, after his service to the country, declared that “war is a racket” and that his career as a Marine amounted to being a “gangster for capitalism.” Butler later admitted that he was approached by a cabal to lead a military coup against President Roosevelt, but he remains to this day a hero of the anti-war movement. In 2013, in Breach of Trust, Bacevich presented Butler as a kind of dissident: “He commits a kind of treason in the second degree, not by betraying his country but calling into question officially sanctioned truths.” In this respect, Butler is the model for other retired military officers who dare to challenge official lies. Not surprisingly, Breach of Trust reads like the military history that Howard Zinn never wrote. It is a chronicle of atrocities, corruption, and government lies. Like Bacevich’s other writings, it is a masterpiece of tendentiousness.
More recently, Bacevich has sought to recast the history of the movement to prevent Roosevelt from entering World War II, known as America First. He has acknowledged that America was correct to go to war against the Nazis, but still he believes that the America Firsters have gotten a bad rap. Until Donald Trump, the America First movement was seen as a cautionary tale and a third rail. When Pat Buchanan tried to revive the term in the 1980s and 1990s, there was bipartisan outrage. After all, America First was led by Charles Lindbergh, an anti-Semite and an admirer of the Third Reich. Bacevich acknowledges this ugly provenance. And yet he chafes at Roosevelt’s judgment that Lindbergh’s movement was promoting fascism. “Roosevelt painted anti-interventionism as anti-American, and the smear stuck,” Bacevich wrote in 2017 in an essay in Foreign Affairs charmingly called “Saving America First.”
Bacevich imparts a grain of truth. The America First movement was largely a response to the unprecedented horrors of World War I, in which armies stupidly slaughtered each other and chemical weapons were used on a mass scale. And the war was sparked by miscalculations and secret alliances between empires and smaller states in Europe: it lacked the moral and strategic purpose of defeating the Nazis and the Japanese fascists. It is quite understandable that two decades after World War I ended, many Americans would be reluctant to fight its sequel. But Bacevich goes a bit further. In his Foreign Affairs essay, he instructed that “the America First Movement did not oppose Jews; it opposed wars that its members deemed needless, costly, and counterproductive. That was its purpose, which was an honorable one.” But was it honorable? While it is true that in the 1930s major newspapers did a terrible job in covering the Third Reich’s campaign against Jews and other minorities, those persecutions were hardly a secret. Nazi propaganda in the United States was openly anti-Semitic. The war weariness of post-World War I America does not confer nobility on America First’s cause. In a recent interview Bacevich became testy when asked about that remark. “Come on now,” he said. “I think that the anti-interventionist case was understandable given the outcome of the First World War. They had reason to oppose U.S. intervention. And, again, let me emphasize, their calculation was wrong. It’s good that they lost their argument. I do not wish to be put into a position where I’m going to make myself some kind of a defender for the people who didn’t want to intervene against Nazi Germany.” Good for him.
That exchange tells us a lot about the Quincy Institute. The think tank’s foreign policy agenda and arguments echo the anti-interventionism of the 1930s. Most of its scholars are more worried about the exaggeration of threats posed by America’s adversaries than the actual regimes doing the actual threatening. In May, for example, Rachel Esplin Odell, a Quincy fellow, complained that Senator Romney was overstating the threat of China’s military expansion and unfairly blaming the state for the outbreak of the coronavirus: “The great irony of China’s military modernization is that it was in large part a response to America’s own grand strategy of military domination after the Cold War.” In this, of course, it resembled most everything else.
The institute has hired staff that come out of the anti-neoconservative movement of the 2000s. Here we come to a delicate matter. The anti-neoconservatives of that era flirted with and at times embraced an IR sort of anti-Semitism: the obsession with Israel and its influence on American statecraft. Like the America Firsters, the anti-neoconservatives worry about the power of a special interest — the Jewish one — dragging the country into another war. A few examples will suffice. In 2018, Eli Clifton, the director of Quincy’s “democratizing foreign policy” program, wrote a post for the blog of Jim Lobe, the editor of the institute’s journal Responsible Statecraft, that three Jewish billionaires — Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus, and Paul Singer — “paved the way” for Trump’s decision to withdraw from Obama’s Iran nuclear deal through their generous political donations. It is certainly fair to report on the influence of money in politics, but given Trump’s well-known contempt for the Iran deal, Clifton’s formulation had an odor of something darker.
Then there is Trita Parsi, the institute’s Swedish-Iranian vice president, who is best known as the founder of the National Iranian American Council, a group that purports to be a non-partisan advocacy group for Iranian-Americans but has largely focused on softening American policy towards Iran. In 2015, as the Obama administration was rushing to finish the nuclear deal with Iran, his organization took out an ad in the New York Times that asked, “Will Congress side with our president or a foreign leader?” a reference to an upcoming speech before Congress by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The National Iranian American Council’s foray into the dual loyalty canard is ironic considering that Parsi himself has been a go-between for journalists and members of Congress who seek access to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister.
This obsession with Israeli influence in American foreign policy is a long-standing concern for a segment of foreign policy realists, who believe that states get into trouble when the national interest is distorted by domestic politics — an affliction that is particularly acute in democratic societies which respect the rights of citizens to make their arguments to the public and to petition the government and to form lobbies. The most controversial of the realists’ scapegoating of the domestic determinants of foreign policy was an essay by Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer (both Quincy fellows) that appeared in the London Review of Books in 2005. It argued that American foreign policy in the Middle East has been essentially captured by groups that seek to advance Israel’s national interest at the expense of America’s. “The thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby,’” they wrote. “Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country — in this case, Israel — are essentially identical.”
Walt and Mearsheimer backed away from the most toxic elements of their essay in a subsequent book. The essay sought to explain the Iraq War as an outgrowth of the Israel lobby’s distortion of American foreign policy. The book made a more modest claim about the role it plays in increasing the annual military subsidy to Israel and stoking American bellicosity to Israel’s rivals like Iran. They also took pains to denounce anti-Semitism and acknowledge how Jewish Americans are particularly sensitive to arguments that present their organized political activity as undermining the national interest. Good for them. But the really important point is that events have discredited their claims. The all-powerful “Israel Lobby” was unable to wield its political influence to win the fight against Obama’s Iran deal. It was not able to stop Obama’s public pressuring of Israel to accept a settlement freeze. Decades earlier, it had not been able to thwart Reagan’s sale of AWACs to the Saudis. Anyone who believes in an omnipotent AIPAC is looking for conspiracies.
Walt himself, and the Quincy Institute, now has a much more ambitious target: the entire foreign policy establishment. This is the central thesis of The Hell of Good Intentions — that the machinery of American foreign policy is rigged. It will always favor a more activist foreign policy, a more dominant military and liberal hegemony. All the pundits, generals, diplomats and think tank scholars in Washington are just too chummy with one another. A kind of groupthink sets in. (This never happens at the Quincy Institute.) The terms of foreign policy debate are narrowed. And analysts who seek an American retrenchment from the world are shunted aside.
To prove this point, Walt spends several pages observing how former government officials land jobs at prestigious think tanks and get invited to speak at fancy dinners. The result is that no one is ever held to account for their mistakes, while the courageous truth-tellers are ignored and isolated. (At times the book reads like a very long letter by a spurned friend asking why he never got an invitation to last month’s retreat at Aspen.)
To illustrate this desperate problem, Walt turns to the annual conference for the World Affairs Councils of America. He ticks off speakers from past years—Susan Glasser, Vali Nasr, Paula Dobriansky — and observes, “These (and other) speakers are all dedicated internationalists, which is why they were invited.” So whom does Walt want the World Affairs Councils of America to invite? “Experts with a more critical view of U.S. foreign policy, such as Andrew Bacevich, Peter Van Buren, Medea Benjamin, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Patrick Buchanan, John Mueller, Jesselyn Radack, or anyone remotely like them.”
There is so much to be said about all of these figures. Patrick Buchanan’s ugly isolationist record is well known. But consider, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, Medea Benjamin. She is the founder of an organization called Code Pink, known mostly for disrupting public meetings, which last year briefly took control of the Venezuelan embassy in Georgetown to prevent representatives of the country’s internationally recognized interim anti-Maduro government from taking over. A group of American anti-imperialists were defending the prerogatives of a dictator who had sold off his country’s resources to China and Russia while his people starved. People like Benjamin are not dissidents. They are stooges.
In this way the hard-nosed centrist post-Iraq realists converge with the radicals of the left even as they converge with the radicals of the right. This is realism in the style not of Henry Kissinger but of Noam Chomsky. As in Chomsky, the aggression of America’s adversaries is explained away as responses to American power. And as in Chomsky, the explanation often veers into apologies for monsters. Consider “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” an essay by Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs in 2014. There he argues that the expansion of NATO and the European Union, along with American democracy-promotion, created the conditions for which the Kremlin correctly assessed that its strategic interests were threatened in Ukraine. And after street demonstrations in Kiev resulted in the flight of the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to Russia, Putin had little choice but to snatch Crimea from his neighbor. “For Putin,” the realist writes, “the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president — which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’ — was the final straw.” Of course the heroic agitation of the Maidan was about as much of a coup as the Paris commune of 1871. But like Putin, Mearsheimer argues that this “coup” in Ukraine was supported by Washington. His evidence here is that the late Senator John McCain and former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland “participated in antigovernment demonstrations,” and that an intercepted phone call broadcast by Russia’s propaganda network RT found that Nuland supported Arseniy Yatsenyuk for prime minister and was positive about regime change. “No Russian leader would tolerate a military alliance that was Moscow’s mortal enemy until recently moving into Ukraine,” Mearsheimer writes. “Nor would any Russian leader stand idly by while the West helped install a government there that was determined to integrate Ukraine into the West.”
What Mearsheimer leaves out of his essay is that Yanukovych campaigned for the presidency of Ukraine on a promise to integrate his country into the European Union, an entirely worthy goal. But he violated his pledge with no warning, and under Russian pressure; and his citizens became enraged. Nor does Mearsheimer tell his readers about the profound corruption discovered after Yanukovych fled. Ukrainians did not rise up because of the imperialist adventures of Victoria Nuland or the National Endowment for Democracy. They rose up because their elected president tried to bamboozle them by promising to join Europe only to join Russia. Mearsheimer also makes no mention of the Budapest memorandum of 1994, in which Russia, America, and the United Kingdom gave security assurances to Ukraine to protect its territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. The fact that Putin would so casually violate Russia’s prior commitments should give fair-minded observers reason to fear what else he has planned. But Mearsheimer is not bothered by Putin’s predations. Putin, Mearsheimer writes, knows that “trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine. His response to events there has been defensive, not offensive.”
Mearsheimer’s excuses for Putin and his failure to grasp the meaning of Ukraine’s democratic uprising in 2014 illuminate a weakness in his broader theory of international relations. In Mearsheimer’s telling, the only meaningful distinction between states is the amount of power they wield. States, he writes in his book The Great Delusion, “are like balls on a billiard table, though of varying size.” He goes on to say that “realists maintain that international politics is a dangerous business and that states compete for power because the more power a state has, the more likely it is to survive. Sometimes that competition becomes so intense that war breaks out. The driving force behind this aggression is the structure of the international system, which gives states little choice but to pursue power at each other’s expense.” This is not a novel idea. Thucydides relates what the Athenians told the Melians: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” For Mearsheimer, it does not matter that twenty years before its invasions of Crimea and Ukraine Russia had pledged to respect and protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia was strong and Ukraine was weak. Russia’s perception of the threat of an enlarged European Union mattered, whereas the democratic choice of Ukrainians did not. Realists are not moved by democratic aspirations, which are usually domestic annoyances to high strategy. Nor are they bothered by the amorality of their analysis of history.
As for American behavior around the world, the Thucydidean framework describes it, but — unlike Russian behavior — does not extenuate it. For the Quincy intellectuals, there is no significant difference between America and other empires. America is not exceptional. It is only a larger billiard ball. It stands, and has stood, for nothing more than its own interests. But this equivalence is nonsense. Important distinctions must be made. When France booted NATO’s headquarters out of Paris in the middle of the Cold War, Lyndon Johnson did not order an army division to march on Paris. Trump’s occasional outbursts aside, America does not ask countries that host military bases to pay tribute. After toppling Saddam Hussein, America did not seize Iraq’s oil. Compare this to the Soviet Union’s response to a dockworkers’ strike in Poland, or for that matter to the Dutch East India Company. These realists do not acknowledge the value of preserving the system of alliances and world institutions that comprise the American-led world order, or the fact that they have often enriched and secured Americaʼs allies, and at times even its adversaries. In this respect they are not only anti-interventionist, they are also isolationists, in that they believe that the United States, like all other states, naturally and in its own best interest stands alone.
All of this is emphatically not to say that the American superpower has always acted with prudence, morality, and benevolence. There have been crimes, mistakes, and failures. There have also been national reckonings with those crimes, mistakes, and failures. No nation state has ever not abused its power. But behind these reckonings lies a larger historical question. Has America largely used its power for good? A great deal depends on the answer to that question. And the answers must be given not only by Americans but also by peoples around the world with whom we have (or have not) engaged. The valiant people on the streets of Tehran in 2009 who risked their lives to protest theocratic fascist rule shouted Obama’s name — were they wrong? About Obama they were certainly wrong: while they were imploring him for help he was brooding about American guilt toward Mossadegh. But were they wrong about America? And the Ukrainians in the Maidan, and the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, and the Kurds, and the women of Afghanistan, and the masses in Hong Kong, and the Guaido movement in Venezuela, and the Uighurs in their lagers — why have they all sought American assistance and intervention? Perhaps it is because they know that the American republic was founded on a sincere belief that the freedom enjoyed by its citizens is owed to all men and women. Perhaps it is because they have heard that the United States created, and stood at the helm, of a world order that has brought prosperity to its allies and its rivals, and even sometimes came to the rescue of the oppressed and the helpless. The case can certainly be made that America in its interventions damaged the world — the anti-interventionists make it all the time — but the contrary case is the stronger one. And contrary to the anti-interventionists, there are many ways to use American power wisely and decisively: the choice is not between quietism and shock and awe. No, the people around the world who look to us are not deluded about our history. They are deluded only about our present.
American exceptionalism was not hubris. It was a statement of values and a willingness to take on historical responsibility. Nor was it in contradiction to our interests, though there have been circumstances when we acted out of moral considerations alone. It goes against the mood of the day to say so, but we must recover the grand tradition of our modern foreign policy. It is not remotely obsolete. Reflecting on the pandemic last spring, Ben Rhodes declared in The Atlantic, very much in the spirit of his boss, that the crisis created an opportunity to reorient America’s grand strategy: “This is not simply a matter of winding down the remaining 9/11 wars — we need a transformation of what has been our whole way of looking at the world since 9/11.” Rhodes said that he still wants America to remain a superpower. He proposed new national projects to fight right-wing nationalism, climate change, and future pandemics — all excellent objectives. He also questioned why America’s military budget is several times larger than its budget for pandemic preparedness or international aid. But what if the world has not entirely changed, pandemic and all? What if the world that awaits us will be characterized by great power rivalry and persistent atrocities? What if corona does not retire Westphalia?
If you seek to know what the world would look like in the absence of American primacy, look at the world now. Hal Brands and Charles Edel make this point well in The Lessons of Tragedy: “It is alluring to think that progress can be self-sustaining, and that liberal principles can triumph even if liberal actors are no longer preeminent. To do so, however, is to fall prey to the same ahistorical mindset that so predictably precedes the fall.” And so the first task of those seeking to counter American unexceptionalism is to resist the urge to believe that the past is entirely over, and to reject wholesale the old ends and the old means, and therefore to scale back America’s commitments to allies and to decrease the military budget. Even when we are isolationist we are not isolated. There are threats and there are evils, and whatever should be done about them it cannot be that we should do little or nothing about them. We need to become strategically serious.
It was as recently as 2014 that Obama dismissed ISIS as a junior varsity team, and even he was forced to reconsider his narrative that the killing of Osama bin Laden was the epitaph for the 9/11 wars, when a more virulent strain of Islamic fascism emerged in the Levant. In the summer of 2014, he sent special operation forces back to Iraq and began the air power campaign against ISIS that continued through 2019. Would ISIS have come into being if America had kept a small force inside of Iraq after 2011 and continued to work quietly with Iraq’s government to temper its sectarian instincts against the Sunni minority? It is impossible to know. What is known, though, is that in 2011 American officers and diplomats on the ground who had worked with Iraq’s security forces warned that without some American presence in the country, there was a risk that the army would collapse; and it did. This same cautionary lesson also applies to Afghanistan. No serious person should trust the Taliban’s promise that it will fight against al Qaeda if it were to take back power. And while it is true that the Afghan government is corrupt and often hapless, foreign policy consists in weighing bad and worse options. The worse option for Afghanistan is a withdrawal that leaves al Qaeda’s longstanding ally a fighting chance to consolidate power and turn the country again into a safe haven of international terrorism and again oppress its people. This is not idle speculation.
The continuing battle against terrorism, which is a continuing threat, must not blind us, as it did George W. Bush, to the new era of great power rivalry. Americans must surrender the pleasant delusion that China and Russia will mature into responsible global stakeholders, or that outreach to Iran will temper its regional ambitions. In this respect Fukuyama was wrong and Huntington and Wieseltier were right. The pandemic has shown how China hollows out the institutions of the world order that so many had hoped would constrain and tame them. After prior pandemics, the United States invested more in its partnership with China and the World Health Organization, reasoning that as China industri alized it needed assistance to track new diseases before they were unleashed on the rest of the world. That system failed in late 2019 and 2020 not because China lacked the public health infrastructure to surveil the coronavirus. It failed because China is a corrupt authoritarian state that lied about the threat and punished the journalists, doctors, and nurses who tried to warn the world about it. This suppression of the truth cost the rest of the world precious time to prepare for what was coming. It turns out that states are not just billiard balls of varying sizes. If China were an open society, it would not have been able to conceal the early warnings. The nature of its regime is an important reason why covid19 was able to mutate into a global pandemic.
As former Soviet dissidents or Serbian student activists can attest, tyrannies appear invincible right up to the moment they topple. This does not mean that America should always use its power to speed this process along. Nor does this mean that America should lead more regime change wars like Iraq. The best outcome for countries such as Iran, China, and Russia is for its own citizens to reclaim their historical agency and take back their societies and their governments from their oppressors. But when moments arise that reveal fissures and weaknesses in the tyrant’s regime, when there are indigenous democratic forces that are gaining ground, America must intensify and assist them. This is a matter of both strategy — the friendship of peoples is always better than the friendship of regimes — and morality. When opportunities for democratic change emerge in the world, the wiser strategy is to support the transition and not save the dictator. Again, this is not a license to invade countries or foment military coups. It is rather a recognition that any arrangements America makes with despots will at best be temporary. America’s true friends are the states that share its values. But the triumph of the open society is not at all preordained. It requires historical action, a rejection of narcissistic passivity, in an enduring struggle. This historical action can take many forms, and it is not imperialism. It is the core of the republic’s historical identity. It is responsible statecraft.