The 54th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.
A case can be made that the United States has followed a fairly coherent set of economic, foreign, and domestic social policies since the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Those policies are the reduction of government involvement in the private sector economy both domestically and internationally, the rallying of an armed coalition of democracies to maintain a world that is ‘safe for democracy,’ and a rolling-back of failed Great Society-era anti-poverty measures and anti-anti-crime legal decisions. These policies and organizing ideas, which won the Cold War in the 1980s when they were employed by Reagan, defeated inflation and revived the economy when they were employed by Fed Chairman Volcker and Reagan (also in the 1980s), and cleaned up the streets of America in the 1990s when they were to some extent adopted by the administration of President Bill Clinton (and by mayors, governors, and judges around the country), were extremely successful. They addressed important challenges that the United States faced and pushed back against harmful but prevalent tendencies in all late modern and postmodern democracies. They were important in their time. But we now need something new.
This policy agenda became a victim of its own success in the 2000s, a decade during which it seemed (we now know mistakenly) that all of the important questions could be addressed by what by then had devolved into policy catechisms based on the Reagan agenda. In the 2000s, it seemed that foreign policy was as easy as ‘fighting tyrannies and promoting democracy’, that economic policy was as easy as pursuing ‘private sector solutions’ (the “ownership society”), and that all that was left to do (or that could be accomplished) in the field of social policy was the nomination of sound judges. How wrong that turned out to be. The 2000s culminated in an economic depression in 2008; the Arab Spring in 2011 proved to be the beginning of a brutal sectarian upheaval across the Middle East; and even urban crime and drug addiction appears to be on the uptick in recent years
The events of the past decade, particularly the Arab Spring (or, more accurately, Arab Thirty Years War) and the financial crisis and its aftermath, should have caused conservatives, who are the originators of and torch bearers for this set of policies, to reexamine their ideas. However, their failure to do so has led directly to their present political confusion and could very well destroy conservatism as a political force for the foreseeable future.
After all, the George W. Bush administration’s ‘democracy agenda’ in Iraq combined with the Barack Obama administration’s pursuit of its version of that agenda in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, resulted in the degeneration of the region it was supposed to reform into a barbarous civil war (identified as comparable to the Thirty Years War first by David Goldman, then Walter Russell Mead, and finally adopted as conventional wisdom by Richard Haas). No doubt the Max Boot crowd would complain that Obama has not continued the Bush policies with sufficient vigor, and that the region might be stable with more U.S. boots on the ground. While impossible to completely disprove such a hypothetical, its (thoroughly unqualified and discredited) proponents continually ignore the most important weaknesses of their argument: Namely, anyone with actual experience in Iraq and Afghanistan knows that robust U.S. involvement has accomplished very little in the way of stabilization or good governance, and that many of the U.S. policies hailed as the ‘Surge’ contributed (at least indirectly) to the rise of ISIS (significant portions of ISIS equipment is captured US materiel, among other things).
Moreover, our latter-day Wilsonians have never confronted or even grasped the Westphalian difficulties and contradictions at the heart of their position–that they are attempting to build ‘democracy’ in states that are not–and never will be–nations and among peoples that hate each other for reasons having nothing to do with parliamentary procedure. The logical extension of the ‘Max Boots on the ground’ position would have the U.S. fully occupying not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but Syria, Libya, Yemen, and probably Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and eventually everywhere else, futilely ‘building capacity’ among populations who hate us all the more for it, while doubtless suppressing the only group welcoming US involvement (the Kurds). Yet after all its failures, conservatives have offered no other policy goal than the democracy agenda, hoping only to disguise the bankruptcy of its purposes by muddying actual policy prescriptions in vague, incoherent proposals (boots on the ground but only ‘training missions’ while carpet bombing but not really, etc.).
Meanwhile, the economic policies of the George W. Bush administration were at a minimum blind to the decay and stagnation of the U.S. economy during the 2000s, culminating in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. (No, of course the financial crisis cannot be blamed solely on Bush, but his credulous cheerleading of the “Ownership Society” indicates that his administration had no clue of what was actually going on in the economy.) The continuation by Obama of the policy response to the Great Recession initiated during the Bush administration – at first fiscal ‘stimulus spending’ combined with an interest rate of zero – may have provided a palliative form of treatment to the economy but has not revived it. In many respects, the country has experienced not just a lost decade but two of them.
Instead of asking themselves ‘what went wrong?’, however, conservative political leaders, intellectuals, think tanks, academic programs, political magazines, newspaper writers, and talk radio hosts have barreled ahead unimpeded (with a few exceptions) as though the 2000s hadn’t happened – or had been a success.
Liberals have been even worse, either believing that a return to the failed policies of the 1970s would right the country’s course (this is the Obama/Krugman/Kerry/Warren/Yellen/Coates/Moveon.org/Sotomayor/Misha Brezsinksi approach, to say nothing of Bernie Sanders) or that the managerial competence of a team composed of Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, and the ghost of Richard Holbrooke channeled by Richard Haas would do a better job of implementing Reagan’s policies than George W. Bush or Barack Obama did, with the luck of Bill Clinton, inheritor of the post-Cold War dividend of the 1990s, standing as their credential.
The leaders of both the Democrat and Republican parties are in effect promoting the things that had worked for them in the past – but which stopped working by the start of the new millennium. This is true beyond their respective interests in nominating a Clinton or a Bush to run for president. Economic growth through tax reforms, infrastructure spending, a more rational and fair corporate tax code, regulatory changes that reduce healthcare costs incrementally, a more coherent Middle East policy that rebuilds fraying alliances and undoes the Obama administration’s damage there, etc.; though some of these policies might be wise or even needed, their implementation wouldn’t fundamentally change anything. The country’s economy would still be growing at its slowest rate ever. Its foreign relations would still be conducted using the paradigms that led the United States to be the only ‘unipolar’ superpower ever to exist since late Rome that couldn’t win wars. China would still be arming itself against the United States while the United States contracts out the assembly of its highest technology products to China. And, inevitably, to use a phrase that Donald Trump might favor, these economic and foreign policies would in all likelihood be conceived of in their details and implemented in practice by the same set of losers who spent the last two decades eroding America’s stature.
While we are much more circumspect about the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump than some (though not all) of the contributors, editors, contributing editors, and board members of the Journal of American Greatness, we applaud the fact that Trump’s candidacy has shown the bankruptcy of the Clinton/Bush policies and has opened up political space to perhaps set the country on a new course. Even David Brooks has figured out that the American ‘idea guys’ will need new ideas following 2016, and this will be true if Trump is denied the Republican candidacy at the Republican convention or if Trump loses a national election. (Perhaps it will be even more true under those circumstances.) For one might question Trump’s style, Trump’s motives, Trump’s record, Trump’s temperament and character, and Trump’s ‘proposals’ (to which we give quotation marks as they seem to be either off-the-cuff suggestions more than proposals or bombastically stated proposals of conventional wisdom such as the need for investment in border security or rehashings of health policy talking points generated at the AEI and Heritage Foundation). But it is much harder to criticize Trump the critic.
Trump the critic is the first presidential candidate from either party to find him or herself in a front-runner position as a result of criticizing both the foreign policy and economic policy of the post-Cold War United States. Trump’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy is probably his boldest and most original political gambit. In particular, Trump has claimed that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake and that the war was lost. It was a mistake in his telling because, to quote Trump, Saddam Hussein “was a 10 at catching terrorists.” It was lost, in Trump’s telling, because America “didn’t take the oil”. This might be an inaccurate assessment of Saddam Hussein, who didn’t himself shy away from funding terrorists and using them as tools of state and who was clearly an opportunistic enemy of America and its allies. However it speaks to a more general critique that most Americans have come to intuitively understand but which no one has dared articulate: America’s Middle East wars have not even attempted to pursue a coherent national interest, and have tended to put abstract goals which border on the fantastical, such as ‘democratizing the Middle East’, ahead of concrete goals, either economic or security-related. Trump, in claiming that America imprudently attacked the enemy of its enemy and got nothing in return, is conducting the discourse surrounding American foreign policy on an altogether different, and more solid, basis than it has been conducted at least by the last three U.S. administrations – even if he is doing so using facts and logical leaps that are sometimes suspect or wrong.
Trump has similarly said the unsayable with respect to the U.S. economy. Though much maligned for referring to the U.S. economy as “a bubble economy,” there is truth in Trump’s assessment. The past three U.S. economic expansions have featured extraordinary financial bubbles: the tech bubble of the 1990s, the housing bubble of the 2000s, the commodities bubble of more recent years, and in all likelihood, a corporate debt (or at least “buyback”) bubble at present. While financial bubbles may be a perpetual aspect of financial markets and capitalist life, the absence of much in the way of non-bubble economic activity in the U.S. over the past two decades has been alarming. The 1990s bubble at least brought with it a tremendous investment in information technology that boosted American productivity as well as introducing new and at least modestly impressive technologies into daily life. However the housing bubble of the 2000s literally bequeathed nothing to the United States (save perhaps the McMansion as an architectural style), and the commodities bubble has had little impact on the broader economy beyond cyclical natural resources investment, other than perhaps impetus to motivate the adoption of battery-powered cars.
More recently, corporate investment in machinery and equipment as well as software or other intellectual property is at all time low rates. Stock market valuations have to a surprisinglylarge extent been driven by corporations taking advantage of low interest rates not to invest but to engage in stock buybacks and other “shareholder friendly” measures. If not as dramatic as subprime lending in 2006, there remains an unmistakeably bubbly quality to the economy of 2016. The corporate debt bubble which America is likely now experiencing will have had few lasting results other than a change in the capital structures of large U.S. companies and perhaps lingering effects of underinvestment in new technology and productive assets. The net has been that the economy of the U.S. will likely soon finish its weakest expansion dating back to the Great Depression. It seems highly unlikely that this feature of the U.S. economy will be changed by way of a policy which, for instance, reduces tax rates on capital gains.
Trump suggests that the solution is trade policy, and points to the greatest blindside of both liberals and conservatives: China. China played a very significant role in fomenting the recent financial crisis. Yes, the center of the financial crisis was the American housing sector, but the Americana housing sector was inflated because global interest rates were suppressed, and global interest rates were suppressed because, among other causes, the People’s Bank of China was pegging its exchange rate to the U.S. dollar, accruing literally trillions of United States Dollars to maintain that peg, and investing those dollars in U.S. Treasury securities, thus ‘artificially’ reducing the cost of borrowing – including mortgage costs. The Republicans have simply never raised this issue – and may not be aware of it. In terms of more conventional trade policy, the Chinese government restricts access to its markets while availing itself of American and to a lesser extent European adherence to free trade principles in order to access developed markets. In its international commercial affairs, China pursues a mercantilist policy with much of the developing world, paying for its exports of finished products often with the help of aggressive government subsidized export financing or debt financing for large mergers. The American response has been to essentially ignore these developments, guided by an ideological view that the invisible hand always acts for the best, and thus, in trying to distort prevailing trade and financial patterns through the use of devices such as export financing and currency pegging, China must be costing itself something. In this way, the Republican policy regarding China amounts to rearming America against China while allowing the current one-way trade flow, whereby American technology transfers to China along with American capital, to continue unabated. The Democrats, with their ‘pivot to Asia’, want the same policy only with a cheaper investment in the military. While Trump’s remarks do not lend confidence that he has an adequate or even basic grasp of the issues surrounding the means that China has employed to achieve its economic rise, he has nonetheless (shockingly) sounded more credible than politicians of either Democrat or Republican stripe simply by raising the fact that China is “winning” in its dealings with the world and that America is thus “losing” to China.
We personally make less of Trump’s discussion of the U.S. border than do some others at the Journal of American Greatness. Yes, Trump has done well by promising to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border and by discussing South American illegal immigrants in terms that could, at their most charitable to Trump, be described as prejudicial (though we suspect much of the popularity of this prejudice is motivated less by ‘racism’ and more by the sense that people and communities are not merely undifferentiated economic units and have the right to determine whom their fellow citizens will be and how many to admit). But the fact of the matter is that aside from the bombastic way in which Trump discusses border security, most of his proposals regarding border security are similar to practices discussed and even initiated as recently as the first Obama administration. For example, there already is a wall between the U.S. and Mexico along some small length of the border. Similarly, the deportation of illegal immigrants is law – and was acted on by the relevant authorities up to the limit of the means at their disposal until the second Obama administration. Even taxing remittances is not a new or exclusively Republican plank.
If Trump is touching something fundamental in his discussion of immigration policy and border policy, it is with his clearly impossible to enact claim that he will bar Muslims who leave the United States from returning to the United States. Interestingly, this proposal speaks not to concerns about conventional immigration issues (i.e. an influx of cheap labor) but rather to the ineffectual manner in which America’s Middle East policy has been conducted and to broader concerns regarding Islamic terrorism. By naming Islam as the enemy of the United States, Trump takes a much more radical step than did say George W. Bush, for whom Islam was famously a religion of peace. The implicit criticism of current policy embedded in Trump’s proposal is that the Western countries, and at their head the United States, have been unwilling to accept that the Islamic world is at war with them.
These claims, taken together, are an attack against the orthodoxy of the United States political establishment, both Republican and Democrat, for the past 25 years. The criticism is particularly painful for conservatives. After all, what conservative would dispute that America’s policy with respect to China has been weak? What conservative would assert that America’s Middle East policy has shown adequate mettle? And what honest person can assert that the country’s economic and foreign affairs have fared well since 2000? The conservatives blame the Obama administration. They lack the intellectual honesty to also blame themselves.
And yet they should. Why would anyone believe that the Kagan family knows anything about winning wars after the experience of the last fifteen years? Why should anyone trust that Glen Hubbard knows anything about the management and direction of the U.S. economy after the experience of Hubbard’s tenure as the Chairman of the Council of Economic advisors for George W. Bush?
Examine their political ideas: the predominant foreign policy idea that conservatives currently hold remains ‘democracy promotion’ even after discovering the meaninglessness of democracy promotion in Iraq let alone Afghanistan or Libya. Yet the challenges that America faces no longer pertain to rallying democracies against a non-democracy. In the Middle East, the pursuit of an imitation of that policy has resulted in less freedom and less democracy, and the ascendency of the country in the region whose policy is most averse to American interests and safety – Iran. And yet, even now, the likes of Robert Kagan continue to agitate for America to cut off diplomatic ties and military support for Egypt due to undemocratic actions by its military government – as though a more democratic and more Muslim-Brotherhood-influenced Egypt would somehow be in America’s interest.
The best ideas that conservative economic thinkers have, to the extent that any conservatives even bother to learn math and statistics at this point, are to change tax rates modestly despite the fact that changes of that nature during the Bush administration did nothing to increase domestic rates of investment or productivity. (In fact, both are much lower now (and were much lower during the 2000s) then they were before.) In the realm of monetary policy, the few technically able Republican economists who are out there either believe that Janet Yellen is marshaling an inadequately accommodative monetary policy (i.e. they want more QE) or advocate populist anachronisms such as a return to the gold standard in order to attract grants from the less technically adept in the business community. None even bother asking fundamental questions regarding how monetary policy should respond to a global financial system that has been changed by China.
There is one school among conservatives which claims to have identified the devolution of conservative economic and social thinking into sloganeering and tropes – the so-called reform conservatives, or ‘reformicons.’ But a detailed study of their policy journals such as National Affairs yields little to no bounty. They provide a mix of technical suggestions (say a more effective way of administering student loans), back slapping (celebrations of America’s ‘oil abundance’ or critiques of liberal judges), barely-dusted-off decades-old conservative hobby horse policy remedies (for instance, replacing social security with personal investment accounts), and some saccharine liberal coating (a ‘jobs agenda’ that includes subsidies for people who need to move in order to find work). The extent to which this so-called new school of thought hews to conservative orthodoxies – and moreover, predictable orthodoxies – and finds its innovation in compromise with long-ago discredited liberal remedies is proof that there may not be very much reforming that can be done.
The poverty of the ideas that American conservatives now martial is to some extent a function of the earlier success of those same ideas. The American conservative movement’s intellectual and policy agenda was fulfilled by the late 1990s when Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform. The victory of this agenda in American life caused a herding of moneyed people towards its intellectual creators. The American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and sundry other once-sources of conservative policy ideas became too large and too interested in maintaining substantial inflows of donations to be capable of acting with intellectual daring (the curse of the so-called donor class, the members of which are often more intellectually daring then the intellectuals whom they fund).
What’s worse, a generation (or perhaps two generations by now) of strivers have arrived to try to populate these organizations, and in the process of repeating orthodoxies in order to get jobs and assume a place in this small-time money/fame machine (if Washington is Hollywood for the ugly, what are Washington think tanks?), they have eroded whatever intellectual creativity the institutions may have been capable of bringing forth. As a general rule, no think tank should be allowed to operate for more than a decade or two. And yet…
This sad state of affairs has meant that what have passed for new conservative ideas (new conservatism, that self-conscious contradiction again!) have been nothing better than at best naïve recapitulations of the principles and ideas that animated the resuscitation of America’s economic and military power in the 1980s – misapplied to the point of devolving into a parody of the original ideas.
Trump, even in his incoherence, has cast a light onto this failure. When Trump tells the New York Times that Operation Iraqi Freedom “totally destabilized the Middle East,” he is saying something that is both obvious and heresy in the Republican Party. When he tells the Washington Post that the economy is a “bubble” because a decade of low interest rates have not succeeded in motivating businesses to borrow and invest, he is contradicting what passes for mainstream economic thinking by conservative economists. His critique of America’s “strong dollar” in the same breath alienates the know-nothing gold-standard-demanding mainstream among conservatives.
The strangest aspect of Trump’s assault on the conservatives has been the conservatives’ response. Essentially the conservatives’ response to Trump has been to claim that Trump is not conservative. The limitations of this response should be obvious: Trump is gaining popularity due to his critique of what has become the ‘conservative’ policy menu. Conservatives are for free trade and Trump denies that free trade exists. Conservatives are for replacing the regime of Bashar Assad with a more humane one, fighting ISIS, and are against supporting non-democrats in Syria. Trump denies that all of these things can be accomplished at once.
There is much that is demagogic about Trump’s criticism. He seems to have stumbled upon a set of criticisms that are popular more so than having originated a set of coherent ideas with which to, as he likes to say, make America great again. His few positive claims – that he will negotiate well on behalf of America, that he will revive the economy and make America safer through these negotiations, that he will build a wall to prevent illegal immigration – can seem unlikely or uninformed. But if they are unlikely or uninformed, they only point out the even greater weakness of the ideas that they have supplanted at least during this election campaign. The fact that Trump’s candidacy appeals to so many voters despite the tenuous or provisional nature of so many of Trump’s positive claims should only further show conservatives how weak their position is.
In demonstrating the inutility of the contemporary conservative economic and foreign policy playbook, Trump’s candidacy has shown the way forward for a thorough renovation of the conservative movement – or its replacement with something else. Some here at the Journal of American Greatness have referred to this way forward using terms that invoke Trump’s name, but our personal preference is for the phrase “the greatness agenda.”
The animating idea behind the greatness agenda should be as follows: The founding principles of the United States allowed it to conquer the North American continent and become the preeminent country in the world. The United States must hew to those principles in order to retain its preeminence.
The greatness agenda should focus on a few areas:
- a) An American-interests based foreign policy
- b) An American-interests based international commercial policy
- c) A reworking of America’s commercial relations with China
The greatness agenda should also be against a number of things:
- a) In foreign policy, it should be critical of Middle East policy over the past 20 years and openly critical of the George W. Bush administration.
- b) In economic policy it should deny that ‘free trade’ exists, and instead more honestly describe trade negotiations as a pursuit of national interests.
- c) It should generally adopt a ‘telling it like it is’ mode of communication that in and of itself is critical of the categories of political discourse that are currently employed by mainstream politicians.
This should be the new policy mix for the United States, and it should fit into the Republican Party. Advancing this policy agenda may perhaps require a new figurehead for the Republican Party, one who has not been implicated in the foreign policy failures of the 2000s and who has the intellectual flexibility to go beyond the economic policy ideas of the 1980s. But what’s wrong with that? Do not all functioning republics require an ability to change their leaders, to bring in new blood? Was not our republic designed to change its President regularly just for that reason? Is that not why Americans are justifiably suspicious of the political dynasties that attempted to lay preemptive claim to Presidency in 2016?
Policies need to change to fit the times. What was good about what was called ‘conservatism’ in America in the 1980s and 1990s was not its ideological purity, but rather, the fact that it was right. However what were once original and important ideas devolved into an intellectual movement, and then conventional wisdom, and finally, as detailed above and elsewhere in the pages of the Journal of American Greatness, into a series of tropes to be mouthed by sinecure -seeking former mid-level political appointees. Whether Trump is or is not the way forward is irrelevant, as he has shown conservatives a way forward. He has also, in the process, shown them their end.
— Lucullus & Plautus
Poor, Contemptible, Dead: a Trifocal Lense for American Foreign Policy
A reader asks the following, specifically about “Enhanced Whack-A-Mole,” our proposed anti-terror strategy for Trump, and about our approach to foreign policy generally:
The American liberal international order, which largely held sway over the non-communist world during the Cold War, and which was extended to the entire world after 1989, is currently under assault—overseas by Russia, China, Iran, Sunni extremists, and others—and at home, by the Sanders left, the academic realists, libertarians, and paleocon/nationalists. As to the domestic opponents, some would do away with the American liberal international order altogether, others believe that counterproductive components (e.g., alliances, military force structure and bases, free trade) can be abandoned, while the essential structure, or at least American security, remains intact or will be enhanced. This is a serious debate. It is true that there is not a little of the Fourteen Points/New Deal/Great Society in the American liberal international order, but is there not also at least a little of strategic good sense? Another way of saying that is, Codevilla and (independently) JAG are among the staunchest critics of the bi-partisan Washington foreign policy establishment. But this establishment must have gotten something right, a lot right, over the past 70 plus years, in terms of defending American interests, no? Maybe that something needs a fundamental adjustment going forward, but if so, shouldn’t we be having a serious conversation about that? And mustn’t that conversation begin with what that something has been? Has JAG come to grips with this question?
It might be easiest to simply answer the specific questions first and then unpack the rest. So, in order: Yes, there is value and even much “strategic good sense” in the American liberal order. Yes, the foreign policy establishment—Ben Rhodes’ “Blob”—has gotten a great deal right over the years. Yes, rather than blithely discard that order, we should have a conversation about how to reform it. Which means first we have to define it. And, this may be hubris on our part, but yes, we do believe we have come to grips with this question.
As a callow graduate student, I once gave a speech to a civic club on American “grand strategy” or role in the world. While this was a silly thing for someone of my age, education and experience to do, I was asked to do it because I had just returned from observing anoverseas event of some moment. I tried to do my best. I formulated three fundamental objectives for American foreign and national security policy, and all three were phrased in the negative. Our proper objectives, I said, are to avoid becoming poor, contemptible, or dead. Or to state it in the positive, it is to pursue and promote prosperity, prestige, and peace.
While my thinking about many of the specifics of American policy and our conduct of foreign affairs has changed somewhat in the details and in a few of the broad strokes, I still find this basic formulation to be sound. When we at JAG speak of “interests-based” or “America-first” foreign policy, this is what we mean:
- Avoiding poverty and promoting prosperity: seeking to further America’s economic interests as a commercial republic, to maintain and increase the American people’s standard of living, and the American nation’s aggregate wealth, which enables us to do great things—such as build massive and complex infrastructure projects, maintain a strong and cutting-edge military, put a man on the moon, and so forth. Basically, whatever we want to do that requires wealth and that couldn’t be done without wealth.
- Avoiding contempt and pursuing prestige: maintaining our standing in the world, our alliances with friends, and the fear and respect of enemies, to make possible or at least more likely or easier whatever it is that we want to do in the world. Contempt and respect are obviously abstract and insubstantial but highly influential in pursuit of the other two goals. Avoiding poverty, getting and staying rich on the one hand, and avoiding death—deterring or, if necessary, winning wars—both require or are greatly aided by high-standing in the eyes of other nations.
- Avoiding death and maintaining peace: The first priority of every state is protect its own safety and the safety of its citizens. Traditionally or historically, this has meant preventing invasion, conquest, enslavement, even destruction, or else at a lesser level raids, sackings and so on. Today we would have to add terrorism and nuclear attack. Categories not exclusive, as terrorism could someday go nuclear and at least four hostile or adversarial states possess nuclear weapons.
Much of what follows will seem obvious. But I have found that the restatement of obvious truths, especially when discussing foreign policy, can be valuable, for two fundamental reasons. First, because ordinary Americans don’t necessarily know what our interests or strategy are and returning to the beginning is often the only way to make clear certain truths that may not possess inherent clarity, and to connect even perfectly clear truths with other, more obscure truths.
Second, foreign policy is dominated by a kind of priesthood which protects its status by muddying and obscuring the simple and clear and by pretending that the complex is clear and obvious—but only to themselves. Their condescension and arrogance can be insufferable when experienced in person. But that is a second-order effect to the real problem: the iron grip they hold on all discourse over foreign and national security policy. This is one reason I found the Ben Rhodes story so overblown. That is, I found Ben Rhodes’ own attitude toward “the Blob” overblown. Is Rhodes so out-of-it that he didn’t realize that the entire Blob has wanted an Iran deal not merely since the beginning of Obama’s Presidency, but since almost since the 1979 Iranian Revolution? I understand that he had to buffalo Jeffrey Goldberg and cow conservative Republicans. But the Blob? Really?
The Blob controls discourse in part by defining what can be discussed and dismissing everything else as “crazy.” Do just a cursory review of (say) Dan Drezner’s writings and you will find that he uses adjectives like “crazy” and “insane” and “batshit insane” with the frequency of raindrops in a summer thunderstorm. He (and we may take him as representative) does not deign to explain. The Blob never does. Once you have achieved Blob status, to disclaim and disdain is enough. The role of rest of us non-credentialed, non-Blobbers is simply to accept what the Blob says and then shut up.
We may further observe that the possible range of the Overton Window for foreign policyruns from unilateral disarmament and national dissolution at the low end (1) to full-scale nuclear attack at the high (10). The Blob typically sets the acceptable parameters for discussion between (say) 3 and 5. In times of national emergency, the Blob permits it to shift a bit, but not without a lot of handwringing and shouting. For instance, the Window moved one click up (4-6) after 9/11 and even that occasioned mass angst. The invasion of Iraq, which we at JAG regard as a mistake, the leftist and even some rightest elements of the Blob regard as a catastrophe of world-historical proportions, simply because they judged the invasion to be a 7 on the scale when 6 was the permissible upper bound the Blob could accept at that time.
Here we must clarify an important point. It’s true that many senior politicians, including many nominally on the left, “supported” the Iraq war. That is not evidence of support from the Blob. The most consistent and numerous part of the Blob—the permanent bureaucracy, the think-tankers and the professors—mostly opposed it and became vocal in their opposition after the scale of the disaster became undeniable. Politicians like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry “supported” it not because they believed in it but because they remembered 1991. In 1991, everyone with Presidential ambitions who voted against the Solarz-Michel resolution authorizing the first Gulf War saw those ambitions turn to dust. Nobody who wanted to run for President in 2004 (or later) wanted to make the same mistake twice. Joke turned out to be on them.
In any event, the point here is that returning to the beginning is essential to cutting through the Blob’s control of the discourse. They will look down on such a return as “simplistic” and sneer at it in other ways. But it’s important to understand that they will look down on any analysis—simplistic or complex, old or new, factually detailed or broad-brush—and they will dismiss these analyses in seemingly contradictory terms. This one is too detailed and “in the weeds” and misses the forest for the trees, while that one is too vague and high-level and 30,000-foot and lacks specifics. And so on and on. The only common thread is that the Blob is protecting its guild. All the sneering and condescension amounts to no more than that.
To take the three goals in reverse order: Unusually, the United States has mostly not had to face existential threats. Raids, sackings and the like were common on the frontier from Indians, but they did not propose an existential threat to the nation (though they often did to individual communities). Since expelling the British, United States territory has been invaded only once (unless, a la Michelle Malkin, you count illegal immigration), in 1814, and raided once, in 1916. Since then, we’ve suffered two mass casualty attacks on American territory: Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Not bad for a 240-year-old nation.
The reason for this impressive record is of course our enviable location: protected by two vast oceans and sharing borders with only two nations, both (mostly) peaceful (Pancho Villa aside).
It is therefore, for us Americans, a much simpler matter to avoid becoming dead than it is for most other nations. We should not be too confident on this score. Invasion by a hostile power, while extremely improbable, is not impossible. It has been contemplated and planned before. The practicality of occupying the entire country is probably out of reach of any power but of a part, perhaps not. Thankfully, we are insulated from the consequences of our folly by circumstance. China, which has a more than capable military, is far away and quite busy in its own neighborhood.
Considerations such as these are, incidentally, things the Blob does not allow to be spoken aloud. This is one, if relatively small, reason why our enemies, adversaries and competitors so often outmaneuver us. They permit themselves the luxury of thinking both speculatively and long-term, about low-probability, high-impact (i.e., “Black Swan”) events. There is nothing stopping us from doing so beyond good-natured or at any rate harmless ridicule from the likes of Dan Drezner. Why should we care?
“Death” for us, then, is far more likely to come at the hands of terrorists, a contingency we’ve already discussed at length. Well, that or nuclear attack by a foreign power, presumably the result of tensions arising from some other crisis somewhere ratcheting out of control. In what follows, we shall address this possibility.
“Contempt,” and its flipside prestige, are elusive qualities in international politics. But everyone knows them when they see them. For instance, when the Iranians recently seized ten American sailors and held them hostage for propaganda photos, they—and we—were being treated with contempt. Being insulted like this and not avenging the insult increases the contempt felt for us by other nations. This is of course a small example. Much bigger would be the contempt engendered by fighting two of the world’s weakest and poorest countries for a decade and not being able to win. Or worse, by winning and then casually throwing the victory away. Other things that increase contempt (and the causes are legion) include pointless apologies, gratuitous insults to allies and friends, not honoring commitments, and transparent groveling to enemies. Perhaps the largest contributor to contempt, however, is a general sense of decline. Nations palpably on the way down tend to earn the contempt of other nations in spades.
The opposite of contempt—prestige—is engendered by strength, wealth, a sense of being a rising (or at least stable) rather than a declining power. And, above all, victories.
Contempt matters in international politics for two chief reasons. First, being subject to it makes the other two bad outcomes—death and poverty—much more likely. A nation held in contempt will have a more difficult time making and maintaining alliances. It will be at a disadvantage in negotiations. (No doubt Trump instinctively understands this point.) it will be more likely to be probed, tested, needled, aggravated—in part because the offenders can, in part because they want to see how much they can get away with. War (death) is a possible result. Nations held in contempt are likely to have less influence in regions vital to their national and commercial interests. Which means that relationships—formal and informal—will form in indifference to or even opposition to those interests. A shrinking of that nation’s commercial prospects—making it harder to import necessary resources, and limiting its export markets—is likely to result. I.e., (relative) poverty.
The opposite accrues, across the board, for nations that are respected and (yes) even a little bit feared. As someone whose name I can’t recall put it, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Too much fear can be a problem, though. Recall Thucydides on the cause of the Peloponnesian War: “And the truest quarrel, though least in speech, I conceive to be the growth of the Athenian power; which putting the Lacedæmonians into fear necessitated the war” (I 23). A delicate balance is therefore always required, which means prudence is always required.
The second reason contempt and prestige matter has to do with the effects of patriotism and national pride on the soul. People like to be a part of something greater than themselves and this emphatically includes the nation. Patriotism is thus a natural phenomenon. It is satisfied best when people feel that their nation is strong, or at least not weak. This does not mean that satisfaction is possible only if one is a subject or citizen of a great power. It does mean that the soul suffers when one feels that one is part of a declining or benighted nation. We are reminded of the (perhaps apocryphal but nonetheless illustrative) story of Private John Moyse. Even if that story is apocryphal, it is plausible because of what we know (or think or hope we know) about 19th century Englishmen. Today, we hate to admit it, but it’s far more likely that a Chinese man would take such a prideful stand while a Western man would be more likely to beg for his life.
A related aspect of prestige is the fate and health not just of one’s nation but one’s civilization, religion or “sect” (in the Machiavellian sense of overarching cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, “civilizational” framework). Western ennui today is partly attributable to the sense that our “sect” is going down. Similarly, Muslim exuberance is partly attributable to the sense that, at long last, theirs is finally going back up.
Contempt and prestige also attach to how and how well a nation treats the other nations within its sect. Rome, for instance, lost a great deal of prestige by refusing aid to Saguntumas the city was besieged by Hannibal, which opened the Second Punic War. This was seen as a contemptible betrayal—which had repercussions far beyond the expected consequence of one ally refusing to honor its commitments to another. The effect is similar to the feeling engendered in third parties when they observe one relative or family member abandon or refuse to help another in distress. This is a big part of the reason why (for instance) the United States aided England in both World Wars, despite no near- or even immediate-term obvious threat to American interests. (It’s also a big part of the reason why the Roosevelt Administration prioritized the European theater even though we had been attacked by Japan but not by Germany.) This is hard to acknowledge today when “all men are created equal” is taken to such absurd lengths that it is considered immoral to prefer one’s own kith and kin to strangers on the exact opposite side of the world. Indeed, Steve Sailer has observed that one criteria of modern liberal “virtue” is how indifferent or even contemptuous one is of one’s own and how strongly one prefers the “other.” “Leapfrogging loyalties,” he calls it. The further your loyalties leap, the better person you are. This is not, however, the natural or “default” state of mankind but rather emerges only in prosperous, altruistic, high-trust, late stage (corrupt) democracies. Most men, most of the time favor people who are like themselves and prefer to help them when they can.
The people of a country or civilization held in contempt feel about themselves, all the more so if they know or intuit that the contempt is deserved. In feeling low, they accomplish less, their country gets kicked around more, and the whole cycle further deteriorates.
This feeling also extends to political systems, if a little less viscerally. Another reason we helped England, and not Germany—despite both being Western—was that we feel a kinship to other democratic states and a distaste (at least) for non-democratic states. We may support authoritarian regimes against a (much) worse alternative but we never feel terribly good doing so and many among us will always object.
People in other systems feel the same way. One reason China will never let North Korea go down, if it’s within China’s power to prevent such, is that Beijing never again wants to see a Communist country fail on its watch. 1989 was a near-death experience that the ChiComs do not wish to repeat. Yes, yes, 2016-China is only nominally “Communist.” But they still use the name and the rhetoric and they torture the facts of their economy and system to make it at least sound consistent with Marxism, because they feel their legitimacy is bound up with people’s perception of Communism and of the remaining nominally Communist states.
In global ideological struggles, there is a sense that your “team” either has momentum or does not. American prestige would have been damaged by standing idle as democracy was crushed in Europe (or Asia). The Chinese and the Russians today feel the same way about “authoritarianism” (or whatever you want to call the common thread running through their systems). The Muslims feel they have the best momentum they’ve had since the gates of Vienna. All of this contributes to national, civilizational, and “systemic” prestige. Which in turn encourages other powers, players and bystanders to “band-wagon”: join or at least follow what they perceive to be the winning side. Because, as noted, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
Before moving on, it’s important to address the following point. We believe that this—very real—consideration is at the heart of the most significant neocon misjudgment, viz., the possibility and desirability of democratizing the non-democratic world. If democracy is “our team” and if that team’s overall health improves when its prospects are expanding, then surely it is in our interest to democratize the world, no?
Eh, not really. That is to say: we’d likely be better off if the world were more democratic than it is, given that democracy correlates highly with friendliness or at least non-opposition to American interests whereas “authoritarianism” (oh, hell, why not just say “tyranny”) correlates highly with opposition and even hostility to American interests. But in some regions, democracy also correlates highly with instability, which breeds war and chaos that are antithetical to American interests. In others, the rhetoric and mechanism of democracy are used—one man, one vote, once—to squelch democracy and impose a tyranny worse than what preceded the “democracy.”
Sticking with the “liberal international order” context, its original (1945-1989) purpose was to preserve democracy where it already existed and was under threat, either by foreign conquest or foreign-directed internal subversion. Second, it was to restore democracy to “captive nations” whose liberty had been seized by a foreign power. Third, it was to (gradually) develop democracy in countries with substantial economies, deep reserves of human capital, and civil intuitions capable of serving as soil in which democracy could grow. Never did it mean imposition—much less imposition as a vital American interest.
Democracy is like a precarious flower. It won’t grow just anywhere. There are a great many patches of land we could easily seize that are nonetheless fit for growing only cacti, or weeds. If we see the democratic flower struggling to bloom in a place where, and at a time when, we have the capacity to water it, and it is in our interests to do so, by all means, we should consider it. But the fact that America has a “team interest” in the success or non-failure of democracy does not mean that we have an interest in trying to impose democracy in places where it is guaranteed to fail. In fact, the opposite is true, because glaring failures undermine our prestige.
If avoiding death is our most obvious national interest and avoiding contempt the least, avoiding poverty is somewhere in the middle. Yet it’s especially important for a commercial republic.
Now, without getting too into the philosophical weeds, we have to admit that prosperity is a choice. That is to say, it’s not essential that we be rich, in the same way that it’s essential not to be dead. We want to be rich. But riches are not a core vital interest of republics. Lycurgus famously banned luxury from Sparta. Early Rome was quite austere. Two millennia later, Machiavelli argued that the best republics “keep the public rich and the citizens poor” while Montesquieu made a forceful case for republican poverty. Obviously, however, this is not the path that America chose. Montesquieu also (later in the same book) makes a forceful case for commercial republicanism as a vent for men’s industry and ambition. And on this specific issue, America clearly chose the latter path. That is, we chose Athens over Sparta, Carthage over Rome, London over Geneva. Having made that choice, we elevated prosperity to a national interest. It’s built into the character of our people and there’s no turning away from it now.
Thankfully, then, in addition to being blessed by two vast oceans and two peaceful borders, America is also blessed with abundant natural resources. This is important because the two chief foreign policy interests of a commercial republic are to secure the in-flow of needed resources to fuel its economy and to secure the out-flow (exports) of excess production not absorbed domestically, so as to increase overall wealth and reap the benefits of comparative advantage. America’s abundant resources mean that we need focus comparatively less on the former task.
Contrast our situation with that of (say) Japan, a rocky archipelago that, in order to remain a manufacturing and export power, must import a great deal of the energy it needs to run its economy and the materials to build the things it sells to the world. World War II in the Pacific began largely as a war for resources: Japan intended to conquer the resource-rich areas Tokyo felt it “needed” to fuel Japan’s industrial economy. China today, despite vast land area, is similarly not blessed with the resources its ravenous (if lately slowing) economy needs and so must import them to fuel its own export economy.
Just because America doesn’t need resources on the order of these other powers, that doesn’t mean we don’t need them. The most obvious example is oil, of which we have been a net importer since the early 1970s. (There was a brief moment, before the Saudis flooded the market with cheap oil starting in late 2014, when it looked like we might once again become a net exporter. And we may still. Read on.) In very simple terms, we keep the oil flowing in three ways: by remaining on friendly terms with the powers who sell it, by preventing the domination of oil supplies by any single hostile power or coalition of powers, and by naval power to ensure that the ships carrying the oil can deliver their cargo safely (especially through the vital chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz).
The same calculus, more or less, applies to our commercial relations around the globe. When it comes to importing the things we need, we need good relations with the countries that sell them. We need to prevent the domination of those supplies, which in practice typically means the regions where those supplies sit, by a hostile power or a collection of hostile powers. We need to prevent the formation of cartels or, if and where we can’t, undermine their effectiveness. We need to make the countries who sell to us feel that it is safe to do so and that we will protect them from predatory nations who would perhaps like to buy their entire supply at a lower price.
Think of it this way. We are far away from a great many of the countries with which we do business. Suppose Nickeland, a country that sells us a great deal of nickel (which we need to make steel and batteries, among other things) is far away. Very near to Nickeland is Bigfootia, a very well-armed great power that also needs a lot of nickel. Bigfootia would be only too happy to buy Nickeland’s whole output, albeit at a lower price than we are paying. A below-market price, let us say. Nickeland would rather sell to us, or to both, at what it considers a fair price. Nickeland likes us better as a trading partner, but also wants to remain on decent terms with Bigfootia since it is so strong and so close by. If we were not in the picture at all, Nickeland would be at Bigfootia’s mercy. Our trade deals, diplomatic relations, alliances, basing arrangements, overseas military posture and so forth give Nickeland a measure of confidence that need not completely knuckle under to Bigfootia but may safely still do business with us.
This is an illustrative way that our foreign and military policy does, or should, support our commercial interests. A similar hypothetical could be adduced regarding our exports, as well. And, of course, there is the non-trivial matter of freedom of the seas (and skies, and roads). Trade doesn’t matter much if you can’t move the goods you’re trading. Piracy is one concern but the larger one is simply various economic and bureaucratic barriers that can make it very difficult and expensive to move things around the world. Again, the “liberal international order” supports the (relatively) unimpeded movement of goods.
Our knee-jerk impulse is to respond: grow up and get a brain. But in the spirit of magnanimity and open debate, we further repeat: we’re not against trade. We’re against the elevation of trade to a matter of uncompromisable principle that is disadvantageous to the economic interests of the American people. Similar to the way that Muslim interlopers and ingrates within Western societies use Western principles, in which they do not believe, as cudgels to guilt-trip Westerners into accepting things that undermine the West and further Islamist interests, so too do modern-day mercantilists use the language of “free trade” to tongue-lash us into giving away detail after vital detail that furthers their (anti-free-trade) interests at the expense of our interests. In Trumpian terms, they’re eating our lunch. Not because trade is bad per se but because our negotiators care more about trade as an abstraction than they do about its actual effects on our people.
Let us now examine the “liberal international order” through these three lenses. First, let us note that, for all our criticism of the foreign policy establishment, we’ve not specifically criticized the liberal international order or the post-WW2 security architecture that has maintained American peace, prosperity, and prestige. We’ve even (gently) suggested to Trump that his criticism of America’s alliance structure and forward basing arrangements is a bit penny-wise and pound-foolish. We’ve vigorously criticized paleo-isolationism as naïve and bad for American interests. To that extent, we may as well be CFR Fellows.
Where I think the reader misinterprets us is in his implicit conflation of neocon maximalism—which we definitely have criticized—with the liberal international order. Which is not a crazy conflation to make, precisely because the neocons have expended a lot of effort since the Cold War ended to conflate the two, beginning with the so-called “Wolfowitz Doctrine” strategy paper of 1992 and most recently with Robert Kagan’s mega-thinkpiece “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.”
Our reaction to these two documents (and the millions of words saying much the same written in the years in between, including the famous 2002 Bush National Security Strategy) is not what some of our readers might think. That is to say, we don’t recoil in horror—and we don’t necessarily disagree in toto with every line and word. And we found some of the criticism overblown. For instance, many blew their tops at the assertion that it’s a core American interest to prevent the emergence of a rival power comparable to the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Duh! Of course it is. Whether we have the means to prevent that, or whether the exercise of those means would be prudent in a given circumstance, are other matters. But the fact this is a vital national interest could hardly be in doubt.
No, our core objection to this line of thinking is that it takes sound concepts and extends them much too far.
The very phrase “liberal international order” hints at the problem. That’s at least better than “new world order.” For the simple fact is that the liberal international order has neverprevailed over the entire world and never had a chance to. That, we think, was the core mistake of the post-Cold War neocons. They thought they could take a system built for (more or less) the OECD or the Rich Nations Club and make it work everywhere. That was never possible and still isn’t. The “liberal international order” is thus better termed the “liberal rich-country order” or—if you prefer foreign policy jargon—the “liberal functioning-core order.”
Even if we were to assert that America’s national interest is to maintain a liberal order in every corner of the globe (which it isn’t), we still lack the means to do so. We have to choose. What do we choose and on what bases?
We know the bases: death/peace, contempt/prestige, poverty/prosperity. How best to stay safe, rich, and respected? I will here assert that there are three core regions of the world where America has truly vital national interests: Western Europe, especially England, France, and Germany; Northeast Asia (Japan, South Korea, coastal China); and the Middle East.
In reverse order: we would not care about the Middle East were it not for oil, Israel, and the fact that a lot of people there want to nuke Manhattan. If we could wean ourselves off the oil, that would be nice and it might even be possible in the next decade or two. Slap on some tariffs to get oil back to the $50/barrel level that makes North American shale competitive again, build the Keystone Pipeline, take some other steps, and analysts say we could be net exporters in well under a decade. Then we could perhaps begin to disentangle ourselves out of a troublesome region where our presence very much complicates our lives.
But not quickly or easily. Regarding Israel, I hate to disappoint our friends on the alt-right, who do make some good points about how foolishly we often allow ourselves to be manipulated by a country that, in the grand scheme of things, is just not that central to our interests. (For instance, if we had been in charge of turning Pollard over to Israel, it would have been in a pine box.) We read a piece recently (but cannot now find) which argued, persuasively, that when Jerusalem had reason to doubt American commitment to the alliance, it behaved much more solicitously to American interests (the USS Liberty aside). Once US support became so overwhelming Jerusalem no longer had any reason to doubt, it felt much more enabled to ignore our concerns. Perhaps a step or two back might restore that earlier, healthy dynamic.
But not abandonment. Israel is hardly irrelevant to our interests. Recall what was said about cultural and ideological affinity and prestige. Israel is, effectively, a Western nation in most respects. It’s certainly high-functioning and democratic. We would lose prestige if our abandonment either caused Israel to go down (unlikely) or run to Russia and China (quite likely).
More important, Israel is the classic case of an off-shore balancer for us. If it weren’t there, what would the Middle East look like? Well, who can say. But it’s fairly safe to say that, from our perspective, it would look worse. It would be much more likely to be dominated by a hostile power, especially in this post-Arab Spring time of instability, with all the anti-Islamist dictators either gone or on the ropes.
Which brings us to the third reason: the more resources and territory the bad guys control in the Middle East, the more likely it is that a 15kt gun assembly bomb will go boom in Midtown. Or a dirty bomb. Or another spectacular conventional attack. So we have a clear interest in not letting such a power gain such territory and resources. Hence “Enhanced Whack-A-Mole,” already explained. But which requires alliances and bases. So no bug-out just yet. Perhaps never. But a gradual reduction in our role there would be welcome, if it could be accomplished safely.
Northwest Asia is home to the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Need we say more? OK: three of our most important trading partners. Along with North American and Western Europe, one the world’s three richest, most advanced, and most industrialized regions. Also, a place where major wars tend to start unless an involved-yet-semi-disinterested party is there to maintain the balance of power and keep the peace. Since the Russo-Japanese War, that would be us. When we’ve failed at that task, the results have not been pretty.
We don’t want to go and fight there again. We also don’t want to lose access to its markets, or be placed at a significant disadvantage on either the import or the export side of our commerce. All of which could happen if we allow one power to dominate the region against our interests.
Of course, the only such power capable of doing so in China. This is the thorniest problem in American foreign policy today and has been for several decades. I will not presume to declaim on the “right” China strategy, because I am not that arrogant. I can say only what I see are the outlines of our interests with regard to China. First and foremost, we want to prevent China from becoming the sort of hegemon to East Asia that we are in the Western Hemisphere. Hypocritical? So what. For one thing, beyond the US and Canada, there is nothing like the concentration of wealth, talent, infrastructure and military might in the Western Hemisphere that there is in Northeast Asia. So the circumstances are totally different. But even if they weren’t, who cares? This is international politics. “Consistency” takes a backseat to interests.
Our interest is in not letting China become a complete hegemon because if we did, they’d rearrange trade structures to (further) screw us and benefit themselves. They’d reorient the security alliance structure in their favor. And eventually they might be so powerful in their front and back yards that they could start messing with us elsewhere. Which might further erode our trade and alliance structures in other regions and possibly lead to war. In other words: poor, contemptible, dead.
But neither do we want to be so aggressive and obnoxious in our efforts to “contain” China that we provoke a war. This is clearly a very delicate balance. The foreign policy establishment’s stated goal of “managing the rise of China” is the right one. But our view is that the establishment has, of late, been leaning too heavily toward accommodation and conflict avoidance. That is, we’ve been too lax in “getting good deals” for the American people, in reassuring our allies, and in carefully, selectively checking Chinese pushiness. Now, that’s easy for us to say, sitting at our computers. We’re not the ones who might miscalculate and start a war. Still, we think the pendulum needs to swing back the other way, and Trump thinks so too.
Returning for a moment to the neocon view of the “liberal international order,” it seems to us that they would disclaim and denounce any assertion that China has a proper role in its own region. The US has been the number one great power in NE Asia since 1945 and the neocons seems to want to keep it that way forever. That ambition strikes us as guaranteed to start a war somewhere down the line. A war at which, for many obvious reasons, we’d be at a tremendous disadvantage. This is part of what we meant when we said that “liberal international order” tends to be defined much too expansively. It would have been nice had we been able to remain preeminent in NE Asia forever. But the only way to do that now would be to fight a war with China, a war we would probably lose—which means, in effect, there is no way. The neocons and the establishment are thus at odds here, with the former too bellicose and the latter too timid. The right approach is somewhere in the middle. Trump’s pledges to be aggressive in negotiations, maintain a strong military but otherwise be non-provocative 8,000 miles from our borders are sound. With the caveat, we repeat: we think he should revisit his skepticism of our alliance structure and forward posture.
Everything above applies in spades to Western Europe, with the added imperatives of civilizational-cultural and even linguistic kinship. (Though part of our commitment to Japan and South Korea is owing to their democratic governments.) Although one important difference is that, in Europe, there is no potential hegemon on a par with China. Russia can cut off gas supplies and cause a lot of misery but it’s not going to invade the Fulda Gap. The greatest threat to Europe right now is not Russia but Europe itself. It must find the will to reject population replacement by “refugees.” There’s not much we can do there, beyond ceasing to lecture them about the joys of unfettered immigration and the evil of borders. Trump will do that, at least by example, and we hope it helps. It certainly can’t hurt.
If the ChiComs cannot afford to let North Korea go down, our interest in Western Europe—the motherland of our civilization—is about, oh, 100 orders of magnitude greater. We don’t have the power to prevent a suicide (beyond trying to talk them out of it, which we JAGers all in favor of). But we can and should do what’s in power to help them live if they want to live. That means staying engaged, for our economic interests and our prestige. The risk of war is lower but not unimaginable.
Roughly speaking, of the three regions, we may say of the Middle East, that from there the actual security (death) threat is greatest, the commercial interest next, the prestige value toward the lower end. Death from Asia would result not from terrorism but from war, which risk is lower than from the Middle East, but the possible threats to our economic interests and prestige are greater. Security concerns seem least relevant in Europe, economic concerns very important and prestige concerns of the very highest.
Beyond these core regions we might add Canada (whose fate is so tied to our own that they may as well be identical), Australia and New Zealand (though the latter’s nuclear prissiness is a problem) and perhaps Singapore, as the first-world, English-speaking business capital of South Asia. Then there is of course our own hemisphere, which matters both as a trading partner and as a region where we don’t want brush fires to eventually scorch us. The latter has been quite manageable, at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Though we would say that Obama squandered much prestige by making a “deal” with Cuba that essentially gave the Castros everything they always wanted and gained us nothing. On trade, Trump is right to seek to revisit NAFTA. And, of course, similar to Europe’s predicament, America’s foremost national interest in the hemisphere is immigration. Cue The Wall.
In sum, the “liberal international order”—while beneficial to American interests—is in practice a lot smaller than the whole world. Even when created in 1945-1950, it was never intended to encompass the globe. It was built to protect the interests of America and its non-Communist friends in Europe and Asia and (in an update to the Monroe Doctrine) keep Communism out of the Western Hemisphere. The Middle East was added later, in stages, as Anglo-French hegemony collapsed after Suez, as the original Western-friendly Arab kings fell, and as the West (and the US especially) became net oil importers. The neocon attempt, beginning in 1991-92, to extend that order over the whole world was a case of eyes being much bigger than stomachs (or mouths or teeth). That project was never necessary to core American interests—peace, prosperity, prestige—in the core regions where those interests converge: Western Europe, Northeast Asia and the Middle East.
One of the big themes that gives us hope about Trump on foreign policy, we repeat, is that he seems to understand that correcting the errors of the neo-interventionists does not require adopting the errors of the paleo-isolationists.