German Beer’s Greatness Agenda

The 70th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


“PURE SWILL,” READS the title of an article in this week’s Economist criticizing the German Reinheitsgebot on its five hundredth anniversary. (Never above spoiling a good celebration, the Economist.) The law protecting the purity of German beer is one of the most successful classic examples of the Greatness Agenda as it was found in the laws protecting the distinctive products of each region. The article? Pure swill indeed.

The arguments that the Economist‘s twentysomething writers recall from their introductory economics courses typically require all “protectionist” economic policies to be framed as ultimately anticompetitive. In a rationally functioning marketplace, every region can produce according to its strengths in order to buy what it needs. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need: was that not a capitalist nostrum?

Whether shiny new iPhones are produced in the U.S. or instead come off perfectly Taylorist factory lines elsewhere in the world hardly matters, according to the Economist. “Designed in California” is enough to make up for the fact that behind the sleek white walls of Apple’s stores flows a river of tears and blood. (The bodily fluids are copyrighted by the Pegatron Corporation, too.)

Since it doesn’t matter where anything is produced or by whom, today’s wizards suggest, it should follow that the notion of terroir is irrational. But appreciation of terroir is too much a class-status signifier to be abandoned that quickly. The appellation d’origine contrôlée has evaded attack, one suspects, because the titans who’ve enjoyed the spoils of outsourcing fill their vacant hours with wine-sampling, cheese courses and developing their sense of style by reading the WSJ “Mansion” section. Everything that they oppose in every other industry they make an exception for in wine, cheese and (excepting at the Economist) beer.

What they defend with their taste and criticize with their lips is, however, one of the most successful ideas of trade protectionism ever devised—and one that (coincidentally) contributed to the advance of civilization through the clarification of national greatness.

DUKES WILHELM IV AND LUDWIG X essentially consecrated their own Greatness Agenda to the preservation of good beer. But we can hardly expect to reestablish any distinctive products, still less their greatness, now that we have permanently idled our factories, and dispersed our supply chains and manufacturing processes through a microrationalization that takes the division of labor to an absurd conclusion.

Following the demands of maximum industrial rationalization has made it progressively more difficult to form companies whose products could even be defended in the way that German beer once was. As the aspects of technological design and production become more widely dispersed, the ability of any corporate leader to grasp the whole of his company becomes ever more difficult. Consultancy veterans know that the process of making recommendations to companies is as much of a black box as the companies themselves. No one can take ownership of a process that has neither end nor means.

The Reinheitsgebot falls exactly outside every category modern economic analysis attempts to supply for it. Being a government-mandated standard to avoid the inclusion of diluents, poisons, rendered animal parts and the like in beer, the Reinheitsgebot was hardly libertarian. Yet it was not aimed at “market-rigging and protectionism” in the pejorative way the Economist frames it.

“By excluding wheat and rye in beer,” the Economist complains, “the law aimed to keep grain prices low for bakers.” According to the usual catechism, all prices should be set by the market, and so this “market-rigging” was presumably bad. Never mind the fact that direct and indirect price-setting pervades the modern economy—from the federal funds rate, to every price connected to the federal funds rate, to every price dependent on the quantity of and velocity of money, to the price of labor. Instead, when we look down on sixteenth-century Germans, we must sneer at their effort to keep grain prices low for bakers and hence for purchasers of bread. The fact that this particular Greatness Agenda succeeded in keeping bread affordable while also setting a standard for beer production that has lasted for half a millennium is apparently to be discounted.

ALL THE ECONOMIST‘S THINKERY CAN REVEAL to us is that “[the] real victim is variety” and that “the purity law has stifled German beer innovation.” This claim is somewhat akin to asserting that Bordeaux’s appellation d’origine contrôlée has stifled the region’s attempt to produce fine Bourgogne. If only Europe were governed by rational economic law, Chablis could be produced in Champagne, and next thing you know the English will be producing porto.

In spite of the supposed irrelevance of product origin, efforts to introduce blind taste testing in the world of food and drink have only been successful on occasions such as the famous “Judgment of Paris.” Normally, people want to know who produced what. That’s why the Trans-Pacific Partnership had to limit country of origin labeling on an array of food products that one should not purchase withoutknowing the country of origin. Otherwise, people might have preferred meat from their own nation to Chinese “variety.” (How this new policy could work with region-eponymous products such as Roquefort is rather less than clear.)

“You can get a whisky and soda at every outpost of the Empire,” Chesterton once wrote, and “that is why so many Empire builders go mad. But you are not tasting or touching any environment, as in the cider of Devonshire or the grapes of the Rhine. You are not approaching Nature in one of her myriad tints of mood, as in the holy act of eating cheese.” The political control of product labeling is only an extension of the political inclination to assertion and definition, of which the bounty of one’s region is a natural part. But today’s economists have strayed so far that even the attempt to defend one’s comparative advantage—the essential contribution of one’s terroir—cannot be justified in political terms.

Though the Economist criticizes the Reinheitsgebot for its threat to product diversity, one scholar has recently noted that “the U.S. three-tier [beer-making] system may be dated in that it constrains small producer growth in favor of maintaining the dominance of the largest brewers…. [Further,] by transplanting the E.U. system, which focuses more on alcohol advertising regulation and public health initiatives, small producer growth may be further encouraged while promoting the safe consumption of alcohol.”

To encourage American greatness through the greatness of its products, we must first have products to produce and the capacity to produce them. But as long as our economists claim they’re sobering us up with their pure swill, we’ll have no choice but to keep toasting the Agenda of American Greatness.

—MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS

Still in the Bathroom

The 68th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Cato the Younger responds:

I don’t say to roll over when confronted by the red guards. What I say is don’t egg them on. In the city of Houston, the fight was forced on the people and the people acted to overrule the mayor, the city council and the business interests. The Texas legislature didn’t grandstand. That’s the way it should have worked in NC. Let the people of Charlotte act to overturn the policy now, or else let them discover over time the harm that will come from the policy (as the University of Toronto, I believe it was, recently did) and rescind the policy in the future.

Having looked into it a little, I agree that North Carolina legislature acted imprudently.  There was no crisis except the one they provoked.  Had the people of Charlotte decided they didn’t want this and been stymied by their city government, I could see a role for the state legislature.

That said, a crisis was coming—is coming.  The red guards don’t need to be egged on.  They seek crises that they can use, at every turn. They are going to force this until they have their way everywhere and then it’s on to the next cause.  What will that be?  Polygamy? Nah, too patriarchal.  “Polyamory” is more like it.  What then?

Jonathan Last is anti-Trump and we are not, yet I can’t find much to argue with in this piece.  Trump did not leave his comments at “This is a made-up crisis, now let’s get back to the real issues.”  He embraced leftist rhetoric on the subjectivity of biological sex (you are what you feel you are) and on “discrimination.”  I reiterate what I said before about his comments being the knee-jerk reaction of a Manhattan celebrity billionaire.  A Manhattan celebrity billionaire is not the ideal vehicle to push The Greatness Agenda.  Though, for now, he’s what we got, which is why we at JAG are pro-Trump, but with reservations.

We reiterate, as well, that neither the American people as whole nor—we venture to guess—Trump’s supporters want this.  Being anti-PC has worked well for Trump so far.  Why couldn’t he have maintained that theme over this issue?  What did he have to lose?  While he doesn’t appear to have lost much over the stance he did take (basically, all the TradCons who were already against him  reiterated their opposition), what did he gain, if anything?

—Decius

Brexit: the U.K.’s Greatness Agenda

The 64th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


We don’t have much to say about “Brexit” because we recognize that it’s none of our business.  However, apparently no one else in the American political or intellectual class agrees. Obama lectured the British yesterday from a podium at 10 Downing Street.  Not long before, eight former U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury did the same, but at least in writing and not from the center of British authority.

The quality of the “arguments” is poor.  But we’ll let others more qualified make that case, as they are doing.  We’re more interested in the motives.

It has long been bipartisan dogma in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to support every possible permutation of European integration as somehow vital to U.S. interests.  One could argue that this made sense during the Cold War, when any glue to help hold the Western Alliance together was welcome.  But that this premise is no longer true can be seen from a number of factors.  First and foremost, the Brussels-based E.U. bureaucracy is at the very least cool to trans-Atlantic cooperation and at worst openly anti-American.  One price of admission to the Euroclub is to agree to take foreign policy cues from Brussels—which means from the trans-European managerial elite, which is not friendly to America.  Remember Chirac’s outburst against the “not well brought-up” Eastern Europeans?  Thus, in pushing for more European integration, we push friendlier countries into the arms of an unfriendly blob, which makes those friends less friendly, while strengthening the unfriendly blob.

Granted, we deserve some of the blame for our weakened ties to Europe.  We divided the continent over the Iraq War, and then proceeded to make a hash of the whole thing.  But this larger trend began before Iraq and has continued well after.

What explains it?  The response of elite America to the possibility of “Brexit” is telling.  Aside from it being none of their (our) business, it’s hard to see the vital American national interest at stake.  And if there is one, it would seem to be better served by Brexit than by Britain staying in the E.U.  The U.K. (in spite of its experience in Iraq) remains America’s closest ally.  That has many roots.  But one, surely, is the relative distance that London maintains from Brussels and the E.U. generally, for instance in not joining the euro. Greater “Europeanization” of Britain would mean greater distance from the U.S.  Which, of course, has already been the effect of the British-E.U. integration that’s already taken place.  We’ve come a long way from the Reagan-Thatcher partnership.  Why do our grandees want to widen the distance between the two countries?

They don’t, not exactly.  But if that’s the necessary outcome of policies that tie the global elite more closely together, then they’ll gladly accept it.  Because they are not acting in the interests of America (nor, it should go without saying, of Britain) nor of any nation at all.  No, this is all about the interests of the Davoisie—of trans-nationalism in general and of one type in particular.  Resurgent nationalism in Europe—whether driven by immigration, the currency, or whatever else—shares much in common with Trumpism.  Both threaten the Davoisie’s grip on power and the economic system through which it maintains its status as the aristocracy of globalization.

American diplomats long ago perfected a short speech (and taught it to every post-Cold War president) that “explains” to any foreign government or people: “We understand your best interests perfectly.  Better than you do, even.  Do everything we say, and the outcome for you will be the best possible.”  It’s slightly subtler than that.  But not much.  Now, there is a necessary element of … misdirection in all foreign policy.  Traditionally, American diplomatic B.S. was geared toward getting good outcomes for the American people.  But for the past 20 years at least, it’s been employed to get better deals for the Davos class.  The fear that the British people may be on to the scam is what drives elite anti-Brexit lectures.

Trump is often mocked for his insistence that he can “get better deals” for America.  And the mocking is not confined to the claim the he, personally, is capable of doing it; rather, it extends to the very possibility of getting better deals and whether that would help anything anyway.  So unsophisticated!  Doesn’t that orange rube understand that the global economy is complicated, and the only possible way to do things is exactly the way we’re doing them now?

But Trump is right, at least on the second part.  It is possible to make better deals for America, just as it’s possible for the Brits to make better deals for Britain.  JAG wishes them the best.  The only advice we would venture to give is: pay no heed to any American advice.  The givers don’t have your best interests at heart.  (Except us, of course.)

—Decius

Trump’s Bathroom Break

The 61st post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


We tend to catch hell from both sides.  Some of our friends chide us for being so outré as to be able to say anything good about Trump. Others (admittedly fewer) take exception when we point out any of his shortcomings.

We’re not quite so intellectually shallow to fall back on that old chestnut “If left and right both hate me, I must be doing something right!”  Rather than seeking the middle for its own sake, we try to call things individually, as we see them.

Trump really blew it with those bathroom comments.  To paraphrase Tallyrand and Kinsley: worse than gaffe; a mistake.  There’s a much stronger case to be made for kicking Andrew Jackson off the $20—a move we nonetheless, like Trump, oppose—than there is for the lavatory revolution.  Yet here we are.

Does Trump really believe what he said?  Our guess is that he hasn’t thought it through and that, as with so many of his comments, he said what first popped into his head.  And it should not be surprising that what first popped into his head was essentially the stereotypical reaction of a Manhattan billionaire celebrity.  We’ve said all along that Trump is a flawed vehicle for Trumpism.  We mean it!

The best spin one could put on Trump’s comments is to point to his rationale that “there has been so little trouble.”  I.e., this is a ginned up controversy.  There was no need for a statewide law (yet).  There is not (yet) any obvious abuse of the law (its patent absurdity aside) nor any clamor from the people.

Fair enough.  But this view fails to take into account that the underlying issue is itself a ginned up controversy and a deliberately provocative one.  All across the country, culture warrior red guards are crusading to overturn centuries of public consensus about public accommodation, immediately, with no evident pressing need or rationale beyond their desire to lord it over ordinary people andepater les bourgeoisie.  In that sense, even if you accept this pro-Trump spin, the worst you can say about the governor and legislature of North Carolina is that they are guilty of premature anti-trannyism.  For the abuses will come, as they have already begun elsewhere.

The red guards are looking for resistance.  Going along just guarantees that the next thing they think up will be more outrageous, illogical and anti-civilizational than the last.  And the more loudly they will denounce as Hitler, and attack the livelihoods of, all who don’t get with the program instantly.

Trump does not seem to realize that his core supporters are not down for this.  They are largely live-and-let-live and very clearly lack the cultural counterrevolutionary zeal of Ted Cruz and the religious right.  (Actually, the religious right has been abysmal on these issues, but that’s for another post.)  But they are also fed up with the relentless insistence on transforming everything they hold familiar and beloved about the historic American nation, on denouncing even the (very) recent past as irredeemably racist-sexist-homoislamotransophobic, and above all the insistence that they—ordinary working people who’ve seen their standard of living and prospects in free fall for 30 years—are somehow “privileged” and the root of all problems.

The best explanation for all this appears in, of all places, Vanity Fair, where T.A. Frank writes that:

The combination of super-rich Democrats and poor Democrats would exacerbate internal party tensions, but the party would probably resort to forms of appeasement that are already in use. To their rich constituents, Democrats offer more trade, more immigration, and general globalism. To their non-rich constituents, they offer the promise of social justice, which critics might call identity politics. That’s one reason why Democrats have devoted so much attention to issues such as transgender rights, sexual assault on campus, racial disparities in criminal justice, and immigration reform. The causes may be worthy—and they attract sincere advocates—but politically they’re also useful. They don’t bother rich people.

All of that is exactly right.  He leaves out, but implies, who they do bother: the broad American middle, especially in flyover country. That’s also the point: not merely to unite the otherwise fractious Dem-left coalition but also to confuse, humiliate, and demoralize the potential opposition.

One reason Trump has succeeded so far is because he seems to (what’s left of) the core American nation to be the first national political leader, and the first super-elite zillionaire, in a generation not to look down on them or to see his life’s work as selling them out.  No, Trump probably won’t lose much support over this flap.  But he hurt himself unnecessarily because he undercut that perception—and not for the first time.

Whenever a politician demonstrates his lack of familiarity with issues or otherwise says something his supporters can’t stomach, the standard rationalization is to insist that “he has good instincts.”  We still believe that Trump “has good instincts” on immigration, trade, and foreign policy.  But overall, our doubts are growing.

That said, to all those who still dream of an America in which their daughters can go to the ladies’ room without fear of encountering penii, we have to ask: What has the Republican Party or the conservative intelligentsia done to stop this?  What has it done, effectively, to even retard, much less win, the culture war?  The right makes (or used to make) oppositional noises at every fresh leftist provocation.  But once the left succeeds in branding all opposition as bigotry (which usually takes about two weeks), the right caves in or slinks away, only to repeat the process the next time.

To stop this (if indeed it can be stopped, and we are not convinced it can, until and after the cycle has run its course), there will need to be a complete political realignment.  The right as currently constituted obviously can’t and won’t do anything.  The only hope at present for such a realignment is around Trumpism.  Trumpism’s core supporters may not be culture counterrevolutionaries for the right, but neither are they enthusiastic culture warriors for left.  If, and once, they finally have power and a new majority governing coalition is assembled, with the right leadership, they may stop this.  Not, again, out of any moral majority zeal, just out of plain exhaustion and common sense.  And from the insistence that it’s finally time to stop spending all the nation’s time and focus in the bathroom but instead to work on serious issues that demand immediate attention.

We’re not going to hold our breath.  But we’re quite certain that all the alternatives—including Ted Cruz—promise more of the dismal same, unto the final collapse.

—Decius

Free Trade Does Not Exist

The 60th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Bill Gates, not surprisingly, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, criticized the now bipartisan–and, perhaps surprisingly, increasingly international–hostility toward “free trade” and “globalization,” emphatically declaring that he is an “unabashed free trader.”  Unlike the more simplistic advocates (and opponents) of “free trade,” Gates at least tried to offer specific American and international examples to substantiate his position, while (sort of) grounding it in American interests rather than Davoisie “lifting people out of poverty” bromides.  The cases he chose, however, reveal precisely how ideologically constrained and intellectually dishonest our current debate over “free trade” is, and serve only to further expose the intellectual bankruptcy of the American elite.

Easy as it might be to criticize the political judgment of having Gates become the chief advocate of any policy in the present moment, one would expect him to be exactly the sort of business leader who could offer real insight on American economic policy.  Unlike the most recent vintage of Silicon Valley plutocrats, Gates’ generation actually did accomplish a technological revolution.  Gates at least  made his fortune by stealing products from Xerox to remarkably improve worker productivity.  He is undoubtedly an American hero compared to, say, Mark Zuckerberg–a walking justification of confiscatory socialism if ever there was one–who made his fortune stealing products from the (now defunct) Harvard Porcellian Club to create perhaps the most repulsive and dehumanizing website in history.  Thus it is all the more disappointing that Gates, rather than elevate the current debate on trade, chose instead to retreat into empty cliches.

The thrust of Gates’ argument is that the U.S. has been a net beneficiary of “free trade” and “globalization;” in fact “it’s the biggest beneficiary by far.”  Of course whether the U.S. has been a net beneficiary of free trade in recent years is a reasonable, if not entirely unquestionable, view, and one’s opinion is largely dependent upon personal circumstance–no doubt Gates has benefited tremendously.  But the claim that the U.S. has been a bigger beneficiary “by far” than, for example, China is difficult to argue by any measure, and impossible to justify on the basis of relative geo-economic or political power.

Moreover, the examples Gates employs to illustrate his point, rather than proving the argument, only demonstrate how ideological current discussions on trade have become and how little grounding they have in actual economic realities.  Gates says:

Who is the monster winner of all time in scale economic business — software, airplanes, pharmaceuticals, movies? Mmm. I wonder who that is?” he asked rhetorically.

I haven’t watched many [Nigerian] Nollywood or [Indian] Bollywood movies recently, sorry. [The big winner is] the US,” he said. “We’re the big beneficiary of globalisation … It’s the biggest beneficiary by far….

We’ve taken for granted too much that people understand that consumers being able to buy a variety of goods and having price competition on those goods and us being the big winner in these scale markets … is a huge thing,” he added.

I wish for a week that we could shut down trade and then, you know, Boeing, Microsoft, Hollywood, pharma would resize their R&D departments for a couple of weeks for fun. And then two weeks later people would go ‘Holy smokes, that was not a very good deal’.

He compared some policies advocated in the US campaign with the attempts of countries such as Nigeria and Venezuela to erect trade barriers to defend their currencies….

Most fascinating about this somewhat Trumpian stream of consciousness is that Gates, who is obviously no idiot, probably listed the worst examples imaginable of “free trade” success stories, displaying either an incredible lack of basic industry knowledge or simply showcasing the paucity of genuine positive examples.  If anything, the industries Gates mentions have been the biggest beneficiaries by far–and owe much of their success to–the very “protectionism” and mercantilist industrial policy Gates supposedly deplores.

Consider Boeing: not only is it a major supplier to the inherently “protectionist” defense industry, but it is one of the largest beneficiaries of government industrial promotion through the Export-Import Bank and other agencies.  How does Gates think Boeing’s earnings would fare if these props were taken away?  Boeing’s extensive lobbying to maintain and recently revive the ExIm Bank from Ted Cruz’s ideological overreach speaks for itself.

Pharma, similarly, is a massive beneficiary of increasingly arcane regulations limiting drug imports for various, often specious, reasons.  Does the ban on reimportation of drugs from Canada and other generics really serve any purpose other than “artificially” propping up prescription drug prices?  (Safety, indeed, yet somehow Europe manages!)  How is this a triumph of “free trade”?  Or is the real triumph simply the American government’s privileging of pharma companies in price negotiations?  (All to stimulate R&D, of course!)  A significant portion of new drugs are developed and marketed precisely to take advantage of byzantine Medicare reimbursement policies: how is this the free market in action?  Meanwhile, squeezing pharma profits is perhaps the only realistic way to control current healthcare entitlement spending.  The conflict between pharma’s profits versus free trade and consumer interests is perhaps more pronounced than any other industry.

Silicon Valley loves to talk about freedom, disruption, and all that–except when the disruption involves their intellectual property outside the U.S.  Then dragooning the U.S. government to pressure foreigners in order to preserve Microsoft’s bottom line becomes the sine qua non of free enterprise.  (In these cases, apparently, we can’t lift everyone out of poverty…) When Russia decides to force Google to host Russian data in country, increasing costs for American tech giants, then every U.S. government agency is expected to do its duty to preserve tech margins.

The libertarian pose of Peter Thiel and the tech industry more generally is laughable.  Silicon Valley was born out of government research grants and contracts decades ago and continues to be a massive beneficiary of government support, from de facto U.S. control of significant internet infrastructure to the government contracts which built Palantir.  Every one of South African stock promoter Elon Musk’s “moonshots,” for instance, involves enormous government subsidies if not outright patronage.  IBM would be bankrupt if not for its overpriced government contracts, many of which could be better served by other providers anyway, and much cheaper from Indian cloud-based solutions (or whatever).  Quite naturally, the tech industry loves outsourcing everyone except themselves, and yet is shocked when others desire the same protection.  Government intervention against, say, Chinese dumping practices is “counterproductive,” but whenever China blocks another stupid photo sharing website, the unabashed free traders of Silicon Valley expect the U.S. government to give it first priority at the next bilateral summit.

Thus aerospace, pharma, and tech have all benefited from access to more markets, without question, but they have also benefited significantly–arguably even more–from U.S. government subsidies, commercial activism, industrial promotion, and, frankly, rank mercantilism if not outright protectionism.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Promoting American businesses is exactly what the U.S. government should be doing.

What is disgusting is that, for people like Bill Gates, along with the “economic experts” of conservative think tanks, being an “unabashed free trader” today actually means supporting government intervention for tech and pharma but opposing it for everything else.  In today’s discourse, “free trade” means mercantilism for a few industries favored by the Davos zeitgeist, while any other government industrial promotion–or especially any effort to preserve livelihoods for American workers–is treated as the utmost in economic stupidity and the gravest possible betrayal of the American dream.

It really isn’t necessary to run Gates’ hypothetical experiment on what would happen to the R&D budgets of Silicon Valley and pharma patent trolls if government support (his version of “free trade”) were shut down for a week.  That experiment has been done in various manufacturing and other sectors for years, and the results are precisely what Gates would predict.  Yet somehow he is appalled that those at the wrong end of such experiments are now saying “that was not a very good deal.”

At least the magnanimous Gates mouths one concession to these “losers” of “free trade,” saying that “Maybe all of us should realize that in communities [such as in rust-belt] Ohio we didn’t do enough to address that problem.”  Somehow redistributing the benefits of free trade is always the solution in speech but never implemented in practice.  Of course the real problem is that while some transfer payments and “education” subsidies (because every unemployed worker should have a student loan to get a worthless degree) could modestly ameliorate the impact of adverse trade policies (maybe a tax credit or enterprise zone as well!), nothing can really be done for them.  The most beneficial thing that could be done for them–simply considering their interests on par with Microsoft’s in future trade policy–has already been ideologically taken off the table.

Beyond that, however, Gates, as the richest man on the planet, head of one of the world’s largest companies, and titular leader of the so-called Giving Pledge (itself a travesty–a pledge without purpose except to serve as the finish line of the new Davoisie cursus honorum), could probably do more than any individual to implement the redistribution of trade benefits he suggests.  Yet he has done absolutely nothing for rust-belt Ohio and never will–probably because he won’t get feted at international galas for helping other Americans.

As this Journal has argued many times, herein lies the root not only of American political decline but also its intellectual stagnation.  The American elite actually has no attachment to the American nation and therefore is incapable of intelligently weighing or prosecuting its interests.  The American elite indeed disdains the American people, and yet refuses to acknowledge the consequences should the American people come to disdain it.  But if the American nation is really so shameful as the elites believe–or if the only valid community is something as meaningless as “the world”–no one should be surprised that the mass of voters may one day not care whether free trade is “positive sum.”  There is no sum when there is not even an equation.

Now the [edit: pre-March 2016] #CruzCrew would doubtless object to the above on the grounds that they oppose all “corporate welfare” and want to get the jackboot of government completely off our necks, or whatever the focus-grouped slogan is now.  They are going to get rid of the ExIm Bank, repeal Obamacare, unleash the animal spirits of the economy, cut corporate subsidies, and soon we’ll have Reagan-era growth, the Constitution, mom, and apple pie.

This approach is even worse.  The problem with the current ideological hypocrisies is not the hypocrisy but the ideology.  The hypocrisies at least represent some recognition of reality.  In substituting ideological zeal for prudent considerations of American business interests, Cruz pursues a utopia with the fervor of Lenin and threatens similar economic catastrophe.  If Cruz actually worked on trade in the Bush administration, at least when not gratuitously alienating people, he did not learn very much.  In a world in which any sensible government aggressively promotes its country’s commercial interests, and in which, for the most part, the price of labor is comparatively lower than here, the cessation of U.S. industrial promotion is not “leveling the playing field” but voluntarily jumping off a cliff.

Although there are certainly tradeoffs to organizations like the ExIm Bank, the hostility of Cruz-style radicals is never based on any actual particulars but always on reflexive opposition to ideological categories like “corporate welfare.”  Opposition to American industrial policy, such as it may be, is almost always inversely correlated with experience in international business and directly correlated with partisan careerism.  It is not coincidental that the leading of opponent of the ExIm Bank, Tim Carney, who now “helps direct AEI’s Culture of Competition Project,” has never done anything but write for third-rate newspapers.  Or his colleague Jim Pethokoukis, who likewise has done nothing outside of middle tier journalism.  Both are fine human beings, no doubt, but can we find no one with actual business experience to write on trade policy?

If this Journal may be granted yet more latitude to understand Trump better than he understands himself, the underlying message of his rhetoric actually sets the discussion of trade policy on much firmer ground.  Strip away the exaggeration (we’ll bring all the jobs back!) and bombast (unilaterally imposed 45% tariffs, though in theory such threats have to be on the table), and what remains is quite sensible:

(1) The U.S. government has an important role to play in international economic competition, and ought to promote U.S. businesses and U.S. workers however and whenever possible.

(2) Instead of empty ideological categories like “free trade” and “protectionism,” U.S. policymakers should acknowledge that there is no “free trade” outside of undergraduate economics textbooks and that trade agreements exist precisely to determine the winners and losers of those zero-sum transactions inherent in any global competition.  As a result, the proper analysis of any trade agreement is simply an accurate calculation of the tangible costs and benefits, to whom and to how many (along with foreign policy considerations), over a realistic time horizon.  Furthermore, at the present time, it may be prudent to marginally favor workers and wage protection over thinly distributed profits, all else being equal.

(3) Trade policy should be guided and implemented by people with real experience in international business, not lifetime academics, journalists, or bureaucrats.

In other words, it really is as simple as “making good deals” for the American people.  It is only a detached elite that refuses to acknowledge that the American people have legitimate interests as Americans, or that trade deals are nothing more than “deals,” with winners and losers.  There will be, to be sure, many disagreements over the particulars of which American industries or workers will gain or lose from any particular agreement, and there should be.  That is precisely what should be debated in a reasonable discussion on trade, not senseless ideological slogans or whether our policy is good for the Chinese laborer.

The final example Gates brings up is Nigeria, criticizing its defense of its currency.  Like all Gates’ examples, this one offers especially compelling proof for the opposite argument.  For Nigeria defends its currency today for a simple reason: it has hardly any domestic industry.  Nigeria, lacking refining capacity, sells its crude internationally and then imports virtually all refined products.  Likewise, despite vast fertile lands, Nigerian agriculture is significantly underdeveloped.  The local economy produces very little across the board.  Thus, unlike Russia, Nigeria would hardly benefit from allowing its currency to depreciate with the price of oil.  It would not make its exports (since there are none other than oil, priced in dollars and oil workers are mostly paid in dollars) more competitive or lead to import substitution in the same way it might for more developed economies.  Nigeria’s choice is to either defend the currency and hope oil prices improve before reserves run out, or to devalue to such an extent as to effectively dollarize before reaping any competitive benefits.

Why?  As always, there is more than one cause of a country’s condition.  But one undeniable cause is the lack of trade protection that would allow for the development of domestic industry.   And Nigeria offers a simple proof of this.  The largest–and virtually only–worldclass, domestically owned business in Nigeria is Dangote Cement, founded by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, which was able to develop in large part because of aggressive tariffs on cement imports in its early years.  By contrast, Dangote’s other public businesses–started by the same entrepreneur in the same business climate–Dangote Sugar and Dangote Flour, are financial failures (even before the oil crash), precisely because the early stage local production could not compete with cheap (often dumped) imports from Brazil.  This is not to say that restrictionist trade policy or other industrial promotion is always the solution, but as Hamilton understood very well, it can be absolutely critical to developing new industry and is worth much more to entrepreneurs than sloganeering about the free market.

Gates’ other example, the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood), has conversely been able to thrive, probably because it enjoys a sort of cultural tariff.  That is, while Nigeria does not impose any duty on imported films, it would not be surprising that Nigerian filmmakers could tell some stories in ways more compelling to a Nigerian audience than Hollywood.  Gates, by the same token, has likely seen so few Nollywood films not because they are not available (they are to anyone with internet) but because he doesn’t like them–because they do not fit his own cultural proclivities–nay prejudices!–as well as American entertainment.

Ultimately, Gates reveals, yet again, that the most vociferous advocates of globalism actually know very little about their own countries and even less about any others.  Global integration is not an appreciation of foreign cultures but a hatred of all culture.

With all his traipsing around Africa and showy philanthropic initiatives, Gates no doubt relishes the dream of turning Nigeria into America someday.  But that will not happen.

For the deepest problem facing Nigeria, and many places much worse than there–which no gaudy international philanthropy can solve–is its lack of a true national culture and the consequent detachment of its elite from its people.  As a result, its government exists simply to distribute patronage among various competing tribes, from whence stems most of its notorious corruption.  Most of its business elite achieved their position by selling out their countrymen to maintain a privileged status as gas and diesel importers, and its bureaucrats seek only to secure a luxury hotel room on the next international junket.

No, globalism will not turn Nigeria into America, but it is turning America into Nigeria.

—Plautus

Liberate Max Boot

The 58th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


#NeverBoot

Casual no less than regular readers of the Journal of American Greatness know that we yield to no one in our vehement opposition to Max Boot. We suspect that there are readers, even if they share our dislike for the “democracy agenda,” of which Boot is a prominent cheerleader, who might suspect there is something gratuitous or malevolent in our anti-Boot evangelism. After all, there remain plenty of true believers in the democracy agenda out there, on the left and the right. Unlike Max Boot, some of these believers have actually served in positions of real responsibility and thus have less of an excuse for drinking the Kool-Aid. Why pick on one young-ish writer for a once-venerable magazine?

We freely grant that there might be something to this charge, though in our defense we have matched our anti-Boot efforts with vigorous anti-Kagan family efforts—not to mention the most fair-minded, and least ad-hominem, explanation you’ll find anywhere as to why America should turn the page on democracy promotion. Yet Max Boot, precisely as a young-ish true believer in a doctrine well-past its best-by date, should interest us as a case study in the failure of America to produce competent people to direct and think about our foreign policy. I have no doubt that Max Boot is personally a fine individual. He seems an irony-free patriot—if a bit too willing to subject his patriotism to some imagined, global democratic ideal. But in his shallow grasp of history, his dismal foreign policy judgment, and his total misreading of the political realities of current American life, Max Boot is, unfortunately, an example of our collective failure.

The Egypt Test

In the last few years, world affairs have offered a single easy litmus test as to whether one has any business at all writing about or practicing foreign policy—namely, how one has reacted to developments in Egypt. Now it’s obviously gratuitous to sing elegies to praetorian regime currently ensconced in Cairo. Having a bit of familiarity with Egypt, we think in fact that some conservatives have gone far too far in their praise of General Al-Sisi as a potential “great reformer” of Islam. That said, one has to say that America is simply lucky that Al-Sisi and his generals managed to prevail (for now) over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These are the only two forces that could potentially hold power in Egypt now—whatever the unorganized, inexperienced, and generally and regrettably hopeless liberal Egyptians say. At the time of Mubarak’s ousting, it may have been plausible for America to press for some favored alternative candidate. In the event we were caught flat footed, almost totally ignorant, of what was even happening in Egypt. This, combined with our relentless ideological posturing, has partially led Egypt back into the welcoming arms of the Russians. In 2016, It takes an ideologue of the highest order to argue that America must turn against or pressure the Al-Sisi regime because of its anti-democratic tendencies. Democracy, as Angelo Codevilla so well says, simply reflects the demos. And the contemporary Egyptian demos would give us back the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like Robert Kagan, Max Boot has resoundingly failed the Egypt test. In 2013, after the army regained control of the country, Boot called on the U.S. government to cut off all aid to Egypt. Support for Al-Sisi would produce a “cost in American standing” and would create “terrorist blowback” in the United States. The three years of relative quiet in Egypt—including a welcome respite for the Christian Copts after Morsi’s ruthless terror campaign of against them, and al-Sisi’s insipid but better-than-nothing campaigns against Islamic fighters—have left Boot undeterred. Max Boot has rather blamed Al-Sisi for squeezing out “anti-violent” dissent, a move that would ensure regime opposition will grow more violent. In other words, Boot continues to argue for “blowback”—a concept if not invented by the radical left at least put to the best use by the far left. “The war in Vietnam is unwinnable because of blowback, all wars are unwinnable because of blowback, etc.” Max Boot might cringe with being associated with the far left, but nothing seems to get in the way of Boot’s efforts to make us seem like we are living up to some ill-thought through democratic ideals. Just in passing, we’ll note that Boot has employed the “blowback” argument again in his anti-Trump writings. In perhaps his worst column to date, Boot argued that Donald Trump “could not possibly do more damage to our security if he were an actual ISIL agent.” I’m not sure Noam Chomsky could do much better than that one.

The Education of Max Boot

Let us leave aside the case of Trump. Max Boot’s disastrous views on Egypt should compel us to politely accord him less influence over what people believe or do in foreign policy. But the interesting question is how we’ve gotten to a point where Max Boot could both attain a position of real influence and remain in it despite his costly errors of judgment. We’ve written elsewhere, and indeed everywhere, on the problem of the entrenchment of outdated ideas and institutions in American conservatism. What I want to stress here is the failure of our education—indeed our unbelievably narrow sense of what constitutes an education in foreign policy.

As far as I can see, Max Boot has done precisely nothing in life other than write or attend university. A cognitively-intelligent, hard-working child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Boot took a BA at Berkeley and an MA in diplomatic history at Yale, where he no doubt encountered professors who combine real learning—the names of Donald Kagan, John Gaddis, and Paul Kennedy come to mind—with a firm adherence to very old orthodoxies on the conservative and liberal sides of the Cold War era. Now in a way it’s of the nature of universities, and especially contemporary universities, for old ideas to decay into ideologies. Obviously we’d prefer truly free, clear, and penetrating minds, but we don’t hold it against university professors too much that they become wedded to doctrines whose relevance has become merely historical. But it is one thing to say one was exposed to some interesting viewpoints in foreign policy class, it is quite another to believe that one is equipped for conducting the foreign relations of the United States because one was an enrolled student in a “grand strategy” seminar at Yale. I do not know Boot’s particular course history, but it seems to me that Boot fits into this category. Take a few theory-heavy courses in international relations, memorize a few arguments about the superiority of the Western to the Eastern system, and voilà: ready to start opining immediately on questions of foreign policy.

Perhaps Boot remembers some of the Russian he grew up with—perhaps he even studied it seriously or else some other languages and history. I’m willing to be corrected, but I would also be surprised. Boot’s writing surely gives little indication that he has actually mastered the history, languages or even contemporary political or business dynamics of the foreigners with whom we have to interact. At any event, Boot began to immediately write about foreign policy and military history after getting his degree. He has styled himself a “military historian” even though it’s unclear if he’s ever participated in war or even seen it up close beyond one of those U.S. military Potemkin village tours David Petraeus would give friendly foreign journalists in Iraq.

Towards Experience in Things of the World

In a way, however, even the very best university training for foreign affairs, which would include rigorous language, history, and time abroad requirements, is not enough for true foreign policy expertise. Let the obvious not be forgotten. Foreign policy is about transacting with foreigners, and one will not know what one is doing unless one actually knows these foreigners: who they are, what motivates them, what they love and hate, and how they expect to make their bottom lines both economically and politically. Some good book learning is necessary for this, but it it surely not sufficient.  A further complicating factor: what the people say they want and what the rulers want are not always the same, and in some countries the views and characters of the ruling classes are extremely opaque. A lot of imaginative thinking is required. We thus need people with actual experience in the world, doing high-level things with high-level foreigners. For all the political classes contempt for mere “businessmen,” and true but ultimately just-so political-philosophic opinion that the political art is different than the business art, engaging in high-level business with foreigners is in our day the best possible preparation for engaging in foreign affairs. Now this is not always possible. And if that’s the case, we would prefer the old American way of making sure people get some experience running or managing something at home before deigning to speak about how people do it or should do it abroad. While our ways and foreign ways are different, at least the analogue can be a fruitful source of intellectual comparison.

Not everyone is in place to get this experience, but is it too much to ask that we expect from our thought leaders at least some of it? Churchill literally spent the ages of 18-33 engaging in a vast range of different preparatory “life experiences”—in the military, technology, business, and travel—before seeking the political career and high office that he always knew he wanted. We can’t all be Churchill, but we shouldn’t just have to recite a few half-remembered lines of Churchill to consider ourselves well-qualified to exercise foreign policy judgment. We can’t all be in wars (although there are many going on right now for the enterprising who want to have a look), but can reading a few history books (some even written by foreigners: in English translation, of course) substitute for the grittiest experiences in the things of the world? Perhaps America was always naïve in what it demanded from its foreign policy elite. Surely the record of the last century is not a source of confidence.

We’ll know American foreign policy is on a better track when we have fewer Max Boots and more people who turn to foreign policy writing and thinking after serious activities in the military, business, and finance, or have demonstrated deep knowledge of foreigners through living with them. The latter path offers the danger, coeval with dealing with foreigners, of “going native” and forgetting one’s primary allegiance. But we’d gladly take that danger over our current naïve, posturing foreign policy elite of the left and right who have learned nothing and forgotten everything.

–Plautus

Against the Corrupt Bargain: a Theme for Trump

The 56th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Pat Buchanan’s most recent column compares the current shenanigans to strip Trump of his delegates to the Corrupt Bargain of 1824. Which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn’t go nearly far enough.

First, a brief refresher.  In the election of 1824, no candidate received a majority vote in the Electoral College.  Thus, per the Constitution, the election had to be decided in the House of Representatives.  Frontiersman Andrew Jackson—the first major contender not from Virginia or Massachusetts, and the first since John Adams not from the “Virginia squirearchy”—won the popular vote and was first in the Electoral College.  But Adams’ son John Quincy made a deal with Henry Clay to secure for himself the election in the House, which was still dominated by the Eastern old guard.  All quite “according to the rules.”  Sound familiar?  That deal Jackson denounced as a “corrupt bargain,” the name by which it has been known ever since.

We’re not so interested in the nuts and bolts of electoral politics here at JAG, but we think Buchanan missed an opportunity—thatTrump could seize to his advantage.

Trump may as well complain as loudly as he wants about delegate chicanery.  We don’t really see a downside as long he’s careful not to sound petulant.  Let the kidlets at NR insist—sounding like those dorks at every organization who’ve memorized Robert’s Rules of Order—that it’s all above board and by the book.  Trump can win that argument, at least on the field of public opinion.  For every 10pundits who get the vapors, hundreds of voters will side with Trump.  Whether that translates into delegates, we could not say.  That’s why Paul Manafort is being paid the big bucks.

But the deeper meaning of “corrupt bargain” has the potential to be much more useful.  In fact, it could serve as the overarching theme for both the rest of this primary campaign and—assuming Trump wins the nomination—for the general as well.  Steve Sailer touched on this a few months ago, but in his typical impressionistic way, declined to flesh it out.  So allow us.

We see two core foundations of Trump’s appeal.

First, he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first, whether in immigration policy, trade, veterans, foreign policy, etc. That’s “who we are.”  No one else in the political class will say, or even believes, that’s who we are.  The political class, their donors and the intellectuals are loyal only to abstractions.  To them, America is not a country, with a people and a territory and borders and interests, but some kind of “idea.”  That’s not to say that there is nothing to the American idea—a social compact based on consent and a government to protect natural rights.  There is.  But the compact is for the people, for the Americanpeople, and not for foreigners, immigrants (unless we choose to welcome them) or anyone else.  Trump’s supporters understand this on a gut level and love him for it.  His line “You can’t have a country without borders” cannot be repeated often enough.

Second, Trump tells the truth when no one else will.  The temporary ban on Muslim immigration is based on the fact that Muslims are coming to the U.S. and killing Americans in the name of Islam.  No other candidate in either party will say this.  He’s the only Republican who will say forthrightly that the Iraq War was a failure and a mistake.  And he’s the only one who tells the truth about our trade policy: it has harmed a lot of people.

Gut-level appeal, though, is not enough.  It’s a foundation.  Think of a candidacy like a house.  The gut level appeal is the “foundation.” Obama’s was his biography and what he represented (the longed-for bridging of the partisan and racial divide).  Next comes the “walls.”  In political terms, this is the message.  Obama’s was simple: Hope and Change.  Then the “roof”: the issues.

Trump’s core message is perfect in its simplicity: Make America Great Again.  Eventually he will need to flesh it out with issues, but we’ve got that covered.

Trump also will need a negative message.  His candidacy can’t be all hope nor all anger, but should be a shrewd mix of both.  He should offer hope but also recognize that anyone who is not angry at the current, corrupt system is either asleep or benefits from it.

The negative message is: Against the Corrupt Bargain.  The Corrupt Bargain is the Top+Bottom versus Middle economy.  The billionaire class says: We will fund your campaigns if you favor polices that enrich us, like the carried interest loophole (no taxes on hedge fund kings), parking corporate income overseas to avoid taxes, and of course open borders to drive down wages.  The Democrats support the Davos economy, against the apparent interests of their downscale voters, because they get to import ringers to build permanent electoral majorities, as they have already done in the blue states and are close to accomplishing nationally.

Why the Republicans go along is somewhat more puzzling.  Some Republicans are just stupid.  Trump should attack them for being dumb.  Losers!  They’re so dumb they don’t understand that they’re undercutting their own base’s wages.  That’s because their realbase is their donors, not the voters.  They’re so dumb they keep wanting to import more people who vote 2-1 against them.  We are governed by idiots!
But others Republican pols go along because they are paid to.  Trump’s line about Rubio being “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Senator” was great, if no longer relevant with Rubio gone.  But Zuck slammed Trump recently in a business speech.  Trump should seize the opportunity to renew the attack.  This is a gift.  Trump couldn’t ask for a more perfect foil than this smug, out-of-touch epitome of theSlave Power.

But Trump should say it about ALL of them: the entire open-border, trade sell-out, endless-war billionaire class. They are his election opponents as much as Cruz or Hillary.  Blast away.  They’re all in this together—that’s the point to hammer home.  There is a whole billionaire Republican donor class which only cares about their own narrow economic interests: open borders and no taxes on billionaires.  These are the ones funding the anti-Trump delegate chicanery.  The two senses of “corrupt bargain” are thus fundamentally linked.  At the macro-level, it’s the Slave Power funding politicians of both parties to ensure that their economic interests remain top priorities for national policy.  At the granular level, right now, it’s the backroom dealing to derail any challenge to the rule of this de jure two-party system but de facto one-party junta.

Trump should link these guys to enemy alien George Soros and the other Democratic billionaires and say there is no difference: the system is rigged and at the highest level the parties are the same.  Point out that that the vast majority of Wall Street campaign money goes to Dems.  And ALL that money goes to pols—Rep or Dem—who favor open borders, free trade, and tax breaks for finance billionaires.  Trump should campaign to take the Republican party back for the people it’s supposed to serve.

Trump should pledge to end the “corrupt bargain” and restore a real two-party system.  He should never tire of professing his love of the Republican base, the rank and file, while attacking the corrupt leadership and promising to oust them.

Of course he will be attacked as a billionaire, and hence a hypocrite.  He already has been.  He should own the insult.  Insist he’s a patriot first and anyone would have to be blind or in on the scam not to see what’s going on.  Just like FDR, Trump should say with pride that he’s a “traitor to his class,” so long as his class is corrupt and screwing over the little guy.

Also, and related, Trump’s wealth is derived from the land, from the country, not from the bips and blips of international finance.  He should say that he’s worked with banks his whole career and they are necessary instruments of economic progress.  He couldn’t have done what he did without banks.  Business couldn’t survive without banks.  But somewhere along the line, finance stopped being a service to the real economy—making and building things, like Trump does—and became the end, the purpose.  We set policy by whether it’s good for finance.  The servant has become the master.  Trump should insist he’s not a knee-jerk enemy of banking, but pledge to put the banks in their proper place.

On Hillary: She is attackable from multiple angles.  First and foremost, she is an agent of the corrupt bargain.  NAFTA.  Repeal of Glass-Stegal.  Bob Rubin ($120 million for blowing up the world).  No border enforcement whatsoever.  The list is endless.  All the things Trump is running to restore, she helped tear down.

Plus, on defense policy, she voted for the Iraq War—disaster.  She was a prime mover in the Libya war—disaster.  She presided over the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS—disasters.  She’s a naivecon.  Hawkish to the point of recklessness and no ability to see what’s really in America’s interests.

In short, she is the worst kind of hypocrite: a plutocrat whose whole political existence is to support the Corrupt Bargain but who poses as a champion of the people.

Trump may or may not be in the process of melting down.  Things aren’t looking so great right now, we’d have to admit.  Perhaps this message could revive his flagging campaign: Against the Corrupt Bargain.  Against the One Party State.  Against the Billionaire-Dem-Rep alliance.

Will this work?  If we knew, we’d be campaign consultants making $14 million per primary cycle.  Wait—you actually don’t need to know how to win to get rich as a political consultant?  Maybe there’s a future for us after all!

Even if it doesn’t work for Trump, it’s bound to work for a more serious, statesmanlike and disciplined candidate who offers a compelling message, real policy heft and stays on message.  And who also does what Trump has repeatedly said he would do but apparently hasn’t yet: hire “terrific people.”  Manafort has an impressive background, but if his greatest triumph was the 1976 convention, we have to wonder how relevant that is, literally 40 years later.  And he’s just one man.

We tend to believe that the fact that someone as undisciplined and unprepared as Trump has been able to get this far, with something sorta-kinda like this message shows that there’s something to it.  And if not, we can only repeat, What difference, at this point, does it make?

—Decius

When History Rhymes

The 55th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


One of the most famous speeches in the history of the English language is unfortunately lost.  Yet many were present to hear it and later scribbled out notes to the best of their recollections.  We refer, of course, to Cromwell’s dismissal of the “Rump” of the Long Parliament, April 20th, 1653.

Some of our favorite reconstructed lines include: “You are no Parliament.  I say you are no Parliament, and I will put an end to your sitting.”  And “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Here is a more fulsome version:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!

Wonderfully evocative, no?

—Decius

Trump as Critic: The Need for a Greatness Agenda

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:

  1. a) An American-interests based foreign policy
  1. b) An American-interests based international commercial policy
  1. c) A reworking of America’s commercial relations with China

The greatness agenda should also be against a number of things:

  1. 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.
  1. b) In economic policy it should deny that ‘free trade’ exists, and instead more honestly describe trade negotiations as a pursuit of national interests.
  1. 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.

Someone here might say: you JAGers have been biting in your critique of free trade but now you say that trade is a vital US interest.  You are contradicting yourselves!

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.

—DECIUS