Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
“We have large problems of perception,” Kagan continued, in reference to the establishment. “Trump says this, but he’s not the only one: ‘The last 30 years have been a disaster in American foreign policy.’ And my answer to that is: Really? Compared to which 30 years? ... Would you like the 30 years prior to World War I? Would you like the 30 years from World War I through World War II? Would you even like the 30 years following World War II, with the Cold War and [the wars in] Vietnam and Korea? Actually, the last 30 years have been pretty good in historical terms. And I think that what has been the American foreign-policy establishment’s bipartisan foreign policy since World War II has actually been one of the most successful foreign policies in history.”
“For all the flaws, for all the mistakes ... if you compare the last 70 years to the 70 years before that, I think you could say: If this was the foreign-policy establishment’s foreign policy, they did pretty damn good,” Kagan argued. “So yeah, I would say: Let’s not get run out of town because people have decided that everything’s been a disaster when in fact it hasn’t been a disaster.” Trump has highlighted the failures of foreign-policy experts to discredit their expertise, but Kagan’s message is different: Don’t overlook our successes.
Faced with a U.S. president who is uncommonly critical of conventional expertise and many components of the U.S.-led international order, who communicates in tweets and consumes information via one-pagers and maps, Brookings has reacted in Blob-ian fashion: with a 63-page defense of traditional U.S. foreign policy that contains exactly 37 footnotes and exactly zero maps.
This week, Brookings is releasing a strategy document for the 45th president authored by former high-ranking officials in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—Eric Edelman, Stephen Hadley, and Kristen Silverberg on the Republican side, and Derek Chollet, Michèle Flournoy, and Jake Sullivan on the Democratic side—along with Kagan and fellow Brookings scholars Martin Indyk, Bruce Jones, and Thomas Wright. (Kagan and Wright told me that the document—which has been in the works since the summer of 2015, when a Trump presidency was considered a pipe dream—was modified in light of Trump’s election, but that they do not consider it a response to Trump in particular.)
“The question that confronts us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” the report’s authors write. “Should the United States adopt a new grand strategy that no longer prioritizes securing and sustaining a U.S.-led liberal international order and instead pursues a narrower, more nationalist approach to foreign policy?”
That Republican and Democratic experts have signed off on a single articulation of U.S. strategy is notable. But more remarkable is what that says about the plasticity of the political spectrum in Trump-era Washington. On foreign affairs, the ideological distance between Hadley, who served as Bush’s national-security adviser, and Sullivan, who would likely have served as Hillary Clinton’s national-security adviser, seems far narrower than the distance separating establishment internationalists from the iconoclastic nationalist currently occupying the White House. (Some members of Trump’s team appear more supportive of standard U.S. foreign policy than the president; the vice president, secretary of defense, and secretary of state have spent the past few weeks flying around the world to reassure jittery allies.)
In undertaking the exercise, Brookings returned to a subject that it first studied in the midst of the Second World War, when the former State Department official Arthur Millspaugh investigated various ways to apply U.S. power “for the purpose of maintaining world order.” The options did not include “absolute isolation,” Millspaugh emphasized. “[N]o one has ever proposed that the United States build a Chinese Wall around itself,” he wrote.
Many Americans are now attracted to isolationism, according to the new Brookings report. “When isolationist sentiment last appeared in the early-to-mid-1990s, it was because some people believed the world was safe and could take care of itself without much management,” the authors write. “Today, they worry that it is a dangerous place—not just with regard to ... security but also economically—and they want to wall themselves off.” The popularity of Obama’s focus on “nation-building at home” and Trump’s pledge to put “America first,” they note, demonstrates that a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate does not believe the international order is benefitting them or U.S. interests, in some cases—as with manufacturing workers harmed by globalization—for good reason.
“Why should the U.S. government not define America’s interests like other nations do, in narrow terms—territorial defense, the security of our citizens, and a healthy national economy—instead of maintaining something that sounds abstract—international order—and promoting stability, prosperity, and human rights across the globe?” they ask, echoing Trump’s reasoning. After all, what the United States has been doing since World War II is rather exceptional:
No country in history has ever played the role that the United States has played over the past 70 years. There is no comparable analogy; even the British Empire, which is often mentioned as comparable, was an extractive and exploitative enterprise that sought to remain aloof from the balance of power in continental Europe, which is precisely the opposite of what the United States sought to accomplish after 1945. It is therefore impressive that there was overwhelming support for this most unusual of grand strategies for so long. It is perhaps best explained by the sense of “greatness” this higher purpose bestowed on Americans, that we were pursuing something more than our narrow interests that benefited a significant proportion of humankind.
Yet America and Americans do profit from the international order in fundamental but often underappreciated ways, the authors contend. As champions of the status quo tend to do, they argue that the consequences of breaking with longstanding practice would be dire, diminishing U.S. power, enfeebling the U.S. economy, and making it harder for the United States to collaborate with other countries on global issues that affect U.S. citizens such as terrorism, climate change, and the spread of nuclear weapons. “The last time an unraveling of an existing international order occurred was in the 1930s, and the result was depression and world war,” they observe.
Of course, there is no better way to win an argument than to suggest that losing it means the next Hitler or Great Depression. The world hasn’t exactly been serene under the current international order—recent years have brought not just the Iraq War, but the global financial crisis—and it might not devolve into chaos if that order changed or collapsed. But the authors ground their warnings in concrete successes of the international system, including:
the transformation of Germany and Japan into peaceful democracies and economic powerhouses; the containment of the Soviet Union and communism; treaties, institutions, and rules to tackle global threats and challenges; unprecedented levels of economic growth, both in the United States and globally; a system of alliances that helped to achieve a prolonged period of great power peace; and the legitimation of American global leadership across multiple regions and issue areas.
Despite the achievements that the authors attribute to the American-led international system, it has not solved a problem Americans view with serious concern: terrorism, which has flourished alongside great-power peace. Here, the experts part ways with public opinion. Terrorism, while a direct, immediate threat to the United States that must be neutralized, is not the most significant challenge in international affairs at the moment, they suggest.
“The biggest new thing is an old thing: [the] return of nationalism in geopolitics,” Wright told me. Fierce competition between major powers—especially China, Russia, and the United States—has returned after a rare period in the 1990s and 2000s when the world’s leading powers largely cooperated.
China has benefitted from economic aspects of the international order, including free trade and globalization, the authors note. But Chinese leaders are unhappy with U.S. alliances in their neighborhood of East Asia and with certain international rules for how countries should conduct themselves. In the authors’ estimation, the Chinese government wants to increase China’s influence in the current order rather than overturn it or construct a parallel system.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, wants to undermine the U.S.-led system, according to the report. He “believes that the existing order is a façade,” one “shrouded in the language of universal values and global institutions” but “actually designed to promote American dominance,” the authors write. Putin seems to desire a world in which his country is preeminent in its region and has as much say on global issues as other world powers, just like Russia does as a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council.
The “emerging strategic competition between the United States, Russia, and China is over two competing visions: the American postwar international order and an authoritarian vision of a spheres of influence system” in which “China dominates much of East Asia, Russia dominates much of Eastern and Central Europe, and the United States is preeminent in its own hemisphere and possibly Western Europe,” the authors argue. The Brookings report comes just days after Russia’s foreign minister spoke of a “post-West world order” and China’s president called for his country to help guide a “new world order.”
A world organized around “spheres of influence” is “inherently unstable,” the authors add, because the boundaries of those spheres tend to be hotly contested. “It is a configuration prone to great power conflict,” of the kind that raged before the U.S.-led order came into existence.
Isn’t Trump’s America-First nationalism a recognition of this moment of renewed geopolitical competition? I asked Kagan and Wright.
Kagan agreed, but he argued that Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy could turn the United States into a “rogue superpower.” Trump’s mentality is “if China’s screwing us, we screw China. If Russia’s screwing us, we screw Russia. If somebody hits us, we hit them back. Which is a different approach than [taking the position that] the way you deal with China [and Russia] is by having strong alliances in the region, by setting up a pro-democratic, pro-free market system, by having trade agreements, by having American forces in Japan and similarly in Europe [where] you have NATO, you have the EU. [That] has been the traditional way.”
The Brookings report gently suggests that European countries spend more on their own defense. It urges U.S. leaders to counter systemic threats to the international order (the use of force by a rival power, for instance) while being flexible about more benign challenges (as an example, the authors argue that the Obama administration shouldn’t have reflexively opposed China’s creation of a World Bank-like institution, since the organization won’t destabilize the system). “If other countries want to change the system by persuading other nations and people that it is not in their interests, then they are free to do so,” the authors write.
Beyond that, however, there are few concessions to those who want to substantially rethink America’s role in the world. The report’s recommendations aren’t especially novel or provocative, but then sober-minded proposals rarely are. Trump would likely be skeptical of some of the ideas, from unequivocally supporting NATO and the European Union to reestablishing checks on aggressive Russian behavior before seeking better relations with Moscow. But he might welcome others, including ending cuts to the U.S. military budget and taking tough measures short of war to restrict China’s control of the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and Iran’s clout in the Middle East.
Asked about this uncompromising stance on the international order, Kagan responded, “There [is] not an unlimited number of options for how to uphold it. You have to have American forces in Asia, you have to have American forces in Europe, you have to support this alliance system, you have to support this global economy. You’re not going to have a massive deviation if you think the order that was created in a certain way needs to be sustained.”
But if that’s the case, will reports like this one help resolve the perception problem Kagan identified? In defending a set of policies they acknowledge are unpopular at the moment, the authors are suggesting that many Americans’ assumptions about U.S. foreign policy, while understandable, are ultimately misguided. Yet they don’t devote much space in the report to interrogating their own assumptions. If World War III has not erupted in the last seven decades, is that really because of the international order, as the authors argue? Or is it the result of other factors, like the chilling effect that nuclear weapons have had on great-power conflict? Is the endurance of NATO more a cause or a symptom of peace in Europe?
As for how he and his co-authors hope to influence the policies of the Trump administration, Kagan said, “You try to say the right thing and hope that eventually people will come around to seeing what you think is the right thing. It isn’t like you’re going to walk into [Trump Chief Strategist Steve] Bannon’s office and say, ‘I think you really should do this!’” Perhaps the president will eventually come around to their arguments. Or he won’t, and in four years we’ll have a better sense of who was right: Trump or the establishment.
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