By James Carden* – The Nation
Three new books make the case against a failed grand strategy
In the nearly two years since President Donald J. Trump took office there has been an outpouring of commentary decrying the end of an era, now just past, when the United States could be counted on to proudly carry aloft the flag of what is commonly referred to as the liberal, rules-based international order. These op-eds, essays, and articles, usually authored by former Obama and Clinton administration officials and other members-in-good-standing of the US foreign-policy establishment, often strike an elegiac tone, mourning a time when the US served as a beacon of liberal values, confidently (though of course in close consultation of various “friends and allies”) carrying on its self-ordained, but necessary, mission to remake the world in America’s image.
And for nearly 30 years, US foreign policy has been oriented around the idea, known as liberal hegemony, that it is in America’s interest to turn as many countries as possible into liberal democracies, and to spread, in the words of Max Boot, “the rule of law, property rights and other guarantees, at gunpoint if need be.”
And if one did not know any better, one would come away with the impression left by foreign-policy elites in both parties—from Democrats such as former Obama national-security adviser Susan Rice to former Bush administration officials like Richard Haass—that liberal hegemony has been an unabashed success, unfairly and shortsightedly sidelined by the arrival of the untutored, unsophisticated, and unworldly Mr. Trump.
But that impression, which a bipartisan cast of establishment figures has labored so hard to give, would be badly mistaken.
The record speaks for itself. As John J. Mearsheimer documents in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been at war 2 out of every 3 years. Indeed, the frequency of US military deployments has been six times greater in the period between 1990 and 2017 than in the 200 years spanning 1789 and 1989.
The seven wars initiated by the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have, in Mearsheimer’s telling, “failed to achieve any meaningful success.” Still worse, the costs have been immense. Brown University’s Cost of War project puts the price tag for America’s post-9/11 wars at roughly $5.6 trillion, in addition to an estimated 370,000 civilians and combatants killed.
Yet the Trump-era establishment narrative ignores the fact that, despite his campaign rhetoric (“our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster”; “we’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own”), the current president has not veered very far from the playbook of the bipartisan foreign-policy elite. Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy helps explains why.
Trump, in Walt’s telling, has, like his immediate predecessor Barack Obama, become captive to “the Blob”—a moniker bestowed upon the foreign-policy establishment by former Obama aide Ben Rhodes.
As Walt portrays it, this establishment, wedded to the tenets of liberal hegemony, is made up of members of the government, academy, various left- and right-leaning think tanks, the media, and well-funded foreign lobbies that reenforce what Walt identifies as an “activist bias” within US foreign-policy institutions and gives rise to a stifling conformity when it comes to issues involving US foreign policy.
The incentives for US foreign-policy elites to conform and stay within the confines of the prevailing consensus are many. As Walt points out, “To be a respected and well-connected member of the broader foreign-policy community opens doors, confers status, creates lucrative opportunities, and feeds one’s ego and sense of self-worth.”
But as the legendary journalist Walter Lippmann once observed, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Walt’s portrait of the Blob and those who inhabit it is nothing short of damning, all the more so because the author readily concedes that many who work on foreign-policy issues are, in his words, “dedicated public servants who genuinely believe that US dominance is good for the United States and good for the world.” Yet this elite has done considerable harm “with the best of intentions.”
But the foreign-policy establishment is also marked by an utter lack of accountability: The Blob protects its own. To be a member of the club means never having to own up to a mistake and never wanting for new and ever more lucrative opportunities.
For proof, Walt looks at the career of Elliott Abrams. While hardly a household name, Abrams has been a member of the US foreign-policy elite for nearly four decades.
During this time, Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran/Contra probe, a crime for which he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. A decade later, he was appointed to senior positions on the National Security Council by Bush fils where, according to reports, he approved a failed US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002 and then went on, according to Walt, to help “foment an abortive armed coup in Gaza” in order to overturn the results of a democratically held election that brought Hamas to power in 2006. The latter coup attempt also failed. More recently, Abrams led a smear campaign against former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, accusing him, without evidence, of being an anti-Semite who “seems to have some kind of problem with Jews” in order to derail Hagel’s nomination to lead the Pentagon.
And yet, despite his record, Abrams has gone from strength to strength, landing a senior fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, an endowed professorship at Georgetown, and nearly becoming—had the bumbling Rex Tillerson had his way—deputy secretary of state.
Contrast, as Walt does, the trajectory of Abrams’s career with that of patriotic whistle-blowers and contrarians like US Army veteran Paul Yingling, Marine Corps veteran and former State department official Matthew Hoh, career Foreign Service officer Peter van Buren, and Middle East scholars like Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, and it is nearly impossible not to agree with The Nation’s Eric Alterman that “The course of Abrams’s failing-upward career reveals the moral rot at the heart of our political establishment.”
But even if establishment elites didn’t protect and promote the likes of Abrams, a fundamental problem would remain: the establishment’s fidelity to the strategy of liberal hegemony.
Stephen Walt’s sometime collaborator, John Mearsheimer, observes that foreign-policy elites “are so invested in pursuing liberal hegemony” that they have “constructed a comprehensive narrative outlining its purported benefits which they disseminate through think tank reports, public speeches, op-eds, and other forms of mass outreach.”
It is a mission, writes Mearsheimer, “they fervently believe in.”
But Mearsheimer’s book is not so much an excoriation of the Blob as a painstaking examination of the premises that lay behind the thinking of Walt’s elites.
The problem, according to Mearsheimer, is that elite thinking on foreign affairs is marked by a sincere belief in universal rights and in various “liberal theories of peace” that posit, among other things, that democracies don’t fight wars against each other and that increased economic intercourse between states will make conflict between them less likely.
But at the core of the problem is what the philosopher Reinhold Niehbur saw as America’s “extravagant emphasis” on individual liberty, which, when applied to foreign policy, turns out to be, as Mearsheimer puts it, “a source of endless trouble.”
According to Mearsheimer, because liberalism is based on the concept of universal and inalienable rights, a “universalist logic” takes hold and leads American policy-makers “to think of every area of the world as a potential battlefield, because they are committed to protecting human rights everywhere and spreading liberal democracy far and wide.”
And while Mearsheimer believes that “liberalism is a genuine force for good” with “numerous virtues as a political system,” the pursuit of a foreign policy based on it is doomed to fail when it runs up against the realities of the international system.
Still worse, according to Mearsheimer, a foreign policy of liberal hegemony tends to foster illiberalism at home.
A quick inventory of what the series of post–Cold War wars has wrought include: an erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches and seizures, a program of secret detentio (rendition), and an “off the books” assassination program, among other niceties.
As it turns out, by pursuing wars of choice that are designed to spread “our values,” the US executive branch has often succumbed to authoritarian temptations. Take, for instance, the government’s fetishizing of secrecy.
During that brief, relatively quiescent period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, the late senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded the alarm over the danger posed by too much government secrecy.
“Secrecy,” he wrote, with his usual prescience, “can confer a form of power without responsibility, about which democratic societies must be vigilant.”
The senator also warned that “secrecy can be a source of dangerous ignorance.” And naturally, Moynihan was right. But he never lived to see the worst of it: He died the same week George W. Bush launched his ill-starred invasion of Iraq.
And in the years since, government secrecy, and its handmaiden, deception, have become all too commonplace. As Mearsheimer observes: “militarized liberal states must rely on secrecy and must even deceive their own people when the country’s interest require it, which turns out to be surprisingly often…”
And it is from these secrets that flow the lies that are used to sell America’s endless military interventions to the American people.
If liberal hegemony can fairly be said to have given rise to the malignancies of the national-security state, all the while proving to be a poor strategy with which to navigate the shoals of international politics, its record can hardly be said to be any better with regard to the American economy.
Over the past 30 years, successive US administrations have vigorously pursued policies that promote globalization in the expectation that tearing down national barriers to the movement of labor, capital, and goods would result in a more peaceful and more prosperous world. As one of globalization’s chief advocates, Bill Clinton remarked upon signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA): “I believe that NAFTA will create a million jobs in the first five years of its impact, and I believe that that is many more jobs than will be lost.”
But such rosy predictions didn’t pan out. Far from it. As Walt observes, “Globalization may have been good for highly educated elites and especially Wall Street, but middle-class incomes were stagnating, blue-collar manufacturing jobs were disappearing, and the re-education and retraining programs that Washington was providing were far from adequate.” Still more, the elimination of barriers to capital movement help cause, and then exacerbate, the severe global financial crises of 1997 and 2008.
For the American working- and middle-classes, the benefits of globalization simply never materialized, and, as Walt points out, by 2016 “produced a strong domestic backlash” that “fueled Donald Trump’s surprising electoral triumph.”
In his new collection, Twilight of the American Century, Andrew Bacevich reminds us that the historian Carl Becker once observed that a professor “is a man who thinks otherwise.”
Like both Walt and Mearsheimer, when it comes to the received wisdom of the American foreign-policy establishment, Bacevich “thinks otherwise.”
But what sets Bacevich apart is that he seems to see the source of the problem not so much in our stars (or, in the parlance of international relations scholars, in the “anarchic international system”) as in ourselves.
In Twilight, Bacevich, an unsurpassed chronicler of America’s misadventures in the Middle East, turns his eye to Washington’s self-anointed elite. Recalling his attendance, in the mid-1990s, at a conclave of DC foreign-policy experts presided over by former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, he writes: “I drew one conclusion: people said to be smart—the ones with the fancy résumés who get their op-eds published in the New York Times and appear on TV—really aren’t. They excel mostly in recycling bromides. When it came to the sustenance, the sandwiches were superior to the chitchat.”
He does not suffer fools gladly, though they populate his book: Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan, David Brooks, Douglas Feith, Tom Clancy, and Donald Rumsfeld all come in for withering criticism. Even an eminence like George F. Kennan, whom few have taken for a fool, doesn’t merit Bacevich’s mercy. His review of The Kennan Diaries opens with the injunction to “Pity the man’s poor wife.” It gets rougher from there.
Bacevich is resolutely anti-elitist. Where Walt expresses some measure of sympathy with those who comprise the Blob, acevich shows none. Recalling William F. Buckley’s declaration that he’d “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University,” Bacevich asks:
Do four star generals, high-ranking government officials, insider journalists, corporate executives, and Wall Street financiers possess a demonstrably superior understanding of the way the world works? Are they any smarter, more sophisticated, or better intentioned than your Aunt Betty or Uncle Lou?
Bacevich is at his best when he focuses on how America sees itself and how that distorted self-image affects its relations with the rest of the world. Recalling his post-military career in academia, Bacevich writes that he “developed an abiding interest in understanding why the United States does what it does in the world and concluded that the answers were to be found by looking within rather than abroad.”
Of Bacevich’s litany of American pathologies—from the sacralizing of iPhones to the bumptious militarism that marks every major American sporting event—perhaps the most troubling to him is the growing disconnect between the members of the military and the public at large.
“Roughly 1 percent of the population bears the burden of actually fighting our wars,” writes Bacevich. “A country that styles itself a democracy should find this troubling.” Having elsewhere warned of the dangers of praetorianism, Bacevich proposes a reset in civil-military relations, writing that Americans need to start acknowledging “their own accountability for what American soldiers are sent to do and for all that occurs as a consequence.”
Meanwhile, the post-9/11 forever wars go on and on. Which brings us to the age old question: What is to be done?
On a strategic level, all three authors seem to be on the same page. Walt and Mearsheimer’s preferred alternative grand strategy, “offshore balancing,” would also fit the requirements that Bacevich sets out, namely, that the US should pursue a policy of “containment” when it comes to Islamist extremism, and forswear regime-change wars and liberal crusades that only end in occupation and quagmire.
Anyone who thinks US elites have learned the lessons of Iraq are mistaken. Consider these comments made in October by Defense Secretary James Mattis at a conference in Bahrain:
…we will not stand idly by any attempt by the Iranian regime to pursue a nuclear weapon…. the Iranian regime does not speak for the Iranian people, who have a right to live and prosper in a safe, secure and peaceful region…. An Iranian regime that ignores the needs of citizens feels free to escalate and initiate costly conflicts that serve no one’s interests.
We have we heard this kind of rationale for regime change wars before.
A change in grand strategy must also be accompanied by the emergence of a new generation of foreign-policy thinkers who are not in thrall to the damaging bipartisan consensus, one which understands that liberal hegemony has failed, does not further US national interests, and ultimately erodes the public’s faith in American institutions.
Walt and Mearsheimer both urge the creation of a new cohort of foreign-policy thinkers and practitioners who will challenge and eventually upend the current consensus. As Mearsheimer observes, “The best way to undermine liberal hegemony is to build a counter-elite that can make the case for a realist grand strategy.” What is needed then, Walt argues, is “a countervailing set of organizations and institutions that can do battle in the marketplace of ideas.”
If and when this new generation should emerge, they will find, in the three books here under review, the intellectual foundations upon which to chart a new course.
*James W. Carden served as an adviser on Russia policy at the US State Department. A contributing writer at The Nation, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Quartz, The American Conservative and The National Interest. He is executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. He serves on the Board of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy.