“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.)