The Blob Shouts Back

Should we listen?

There’s a huge debate within foreign policy circles these days. Actually, I might not even call it a debate–that would require less consensus than there is–so much as a dilemma: How to build faith in the rules-based international order with a president who doesn’t follow any rules. And more importantly, how to get the public back behind this idea (assuming they ever were).

At least this week, it seems the Brookings Institute is coordinating the counteroffensive. For those not familiar, Brookings is a century-old, highly-cited nonpartisan think tank that covers a variety of public policy issues. It tends to fall into the mainstream on foreign policy, and a number of former officials from both the Bush and Obama administrations came together to pen this report. They say it’s not a response to Trump, but these days, what is not a response to Trump?

The Brookings Institution has tackled the challenges of international order and U.S. strategy since its founding, one hundred years ago. The Institution’s history began in the shadow of the First World War that tore apart the international system of the preceding century. When the world descended into the cauldron of World War II, Brookings looked to the future. In the depths of that conflict, Arthur Millspaugh’s Peace Plans and American Choices: The Pros and Cons of World Order reflected an early effort to open the American public’s eyes to the responsibilities and burdens that the United States had to shoulder to prevent another slide into carnage…

Over a series of seven sessions between July 2015 and December 2016, these 10 members undertook a deep dive on U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Second World War, and as amended and adapted to the end of the Cold War. Assumptions underlying decades of American strategy were reassessed as the group debated the United States’ national purpose. American interests in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and elsewhere were reevaluated in light of a shifting global landscape.

That’s a tall order. “Inspired by the documents of the early Cold War that produced the strategy of containment, these four scholars embarked on a project to craft an updated national security strategy for the 45th U.S. president”–too bad he’s probably not going to listen to you. But perhaps if a revised, realistic defense is presented, there’s a chance to really sway policy in the near future.


Stay the Course? 

Times have certainly changed, and the report reflects this–sort of. Let me take on some of the more specific claims and recommendations in the report that I ran across.

Make economic diplomacy more ambitious by tackling the numerous fault-lines and problems in the global economy that directly and detrimentally impact the United States and American workers.

This feels like a late addition. Economic diplomacy prior to 2016 would have focused on opening markets to trade and capital, cutting multilateral free trade deals, establishing regulatory standards, setting currency rules–basically, in prioritizing its role as rule-keeper, America did not ensure that its people benefited. Trump’s posturing aside, this is the fundamental rule of self-care. Why would you propose to uphold the most advanced and progressive international order so far without ensuring that you could keep it up?

Unfortunately, President Trump does not have the luxury of choosing to avoid the challenge.

This challenge is U.S. engagement in the Middle East. I think the authors are on to something–that the president will have to understand the region in a more nuanced way to get what he wants.

However, none of [U.S.] interests requires the launching of another American land war in the region. For example, because of the introduction of hydraulic fracturing technology, the United States is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, which may also allow us to share the security burden in the Middle East with countries that need that oil, especially the major Asian economies.

Are you openly admitting we only invade when we want the oil? Sure, these policy documents sometimes skirt ulterior motives, but they usually give some mildly plausible (to the less cynical like me) “stabilization” or “defense” justification for intervention. If we’re being this honest, care to devote a few pages on how Iraq went a long way against our interests?

And then contributing to my cynicism:

—the United States has benefited immensely from the success of democratization and human rights in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. It is often tempting to abandon these values in a moment of convenience but this comes at a great long-term cost.

Talk of democracy and human rights doesn’t get much more space than this, as if anticipating its relative importance to the new administration. But the fact that it doesn’t get more attention than this hints at how important it might have been in the first place.

It’s as if after all this, when a populist gets elected, the curtain falls and we see the show for what it is. I do believe in a U.S.-led international order (so long as it’s the best option available), I just don’t know that what we’re articulating is the most enlightened or sustainable version of that order.


Your Pitch Needs Work

A piece in The Atlantic anticipates the report; one of the authors had this to say:

“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.”

I agree–it certainly seems successful overall if you measure the outcome in the prevention of great wars. Certainly 1947-2017 has been far better than 1877-1947 (no colonialism, no great power wars, no world wars). But it doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost our way more recently, or that previous policy wasn’t lacking.

In addition, we can’t be sure peace is attributable to the work of America’s foreign policy establishment. The Atlantic piece, for its part, expresses some disappointment:

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?

The report’s authors ground much of their work in history, in fact a specific moment in history.


In December 1947, as the scale and shape of the Cold War came into focus, then-U.S. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson remarked: “We are in a period now I think of the formulation of a mood. The country is getting serious.” Americans, he said, understand they have “a long long job” to do. “We are” he concluded, “going to understand that our functions in the world will require all of the power and all the thought and all the calmness we have at our disposal.” We are at a similar moment today. The world has not fallen apart but it has taken a turn for the worse. It has become a harder place.

It’s true, President Truman and Acheson had to sell the public on a new U.S. foreign policy framework; today’s establishment must sell the public on it as well. But they are missing a key ingredient: the presidency itself.

And in the late ’40s, Americans had faith in their government to take care of the world because it had made some effort to take care of them. It’s not a coincidence that the same pair of presidents who launched this new era of international engagement were also the New Deal and GI Bill presidents.

The government’s a little short on trust these days. The narrator, in the last sentence, doesn’t seem to realize that the world has become a harder place partly because the United States has become a harder place.

Of course, this document does not reflect the entire establishment’s view, which may emphasize different goals. It is, after all, primarily a national security brief. But if this is the view we’ve got after all this thinking, we may want to go back to the drawing board before we persuade the public that it’s better than Donald’s.

And next time, don’t write an 80-page report with no pictures. Air it on TV.




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