A friend recently told me about a book he was assigned to review and thought I should read. When he mentioned the title, Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, I ordered it immediately. Less than a chapter in, I knew I wanted to include its author in this series of Q&A exchanges.
David Hendrickson is a vigorous critic of US foreign policy—our wars of adventure and presumption of exceptionalist status, our indifference to international law, the hollow invocations of American ideals, the hypocrisy and double standards. What distinguishes Hendrickson’s thinking is the historical ballast he brings to his argument. He gives full attention to the anti-imperial tradition in US history and traces the “liberal pluralism” (his term) he favors as an alternative American stance back to Jefferson, Hamilton, and others among the “founding fathers.” In our interview, he calls for a “New Internationalism.”
Andrew Bacevich, the noted critic of American conduct abroad, first told me about Hendrickson, who teaches at Colorado College, some years ago. I quickly understood why: They both share a belief in the American past as the key to a reconstructed future; they both evidence a conservative streak open to “trans-partisan” collaborations to advance toward an alternative foreign policy both view as urgently needed. If there is a better time to hear from a writer of this perspective, I cannot think of when it might be.
In Republic in Peril , Hendrickson is stringently critical of contemporary events, which makes this the liveliest of his books. It completes a trilogy, the two previous volumes being Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (2003) and Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate Over International Relations, 1789–1941. We spoke in a mid–Manhattan office lent to us for the occasion, and then by phone. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his careful work turning the audio recording into a transcript. This version of our exchange has been edited for length; a transcript of the full interview is available at IR and All That.
Patrick Lawrence: One of the instructive features of the trilogy of books you’ve just finished is the taxonomy you provide to understand strands of American thinking on foreign policy. The important three are internationalism, imperialism, and nationalism.
Using your own nomenclature, how would you describe the Trump administration’s foreign policy? Corollary question: Do you distinguish between Trump and those around Trump? His foreign-policy minders, as I call them. I can’t place Trump.
David Hendrickson: He’s an extreme nationalist tending towards imperialism, with a preternatural aversion to anything that smacks of internationalism. Trump’s idea of internationalism is that it’s a sucker’s game. You’re always in danger of getting played. Multilateralism, which is in most contexts synonymous with internationalism, is a way the power impulse is moderated. It squints toward principle rather than power, and hence Trump prefers negotiations that occur in a bilateral setting, where the disparity in power is most likely to redound to the advantage of the hegemon. He’s pretty clearly hostile to traditional notions of internationalism.
As to Trump and his advisers, yes, one has to distinguish between them. It’s extremely disturbing that he’s appointed characters like John Bolton [national security adviser] and Mike Pompeo [secretary of state, formerly CIA director]. If there’s any figure in national-security policy that has been more dangerous in his recommendations than John Bolton, I can’t think of him. As I see the administration, you have a kind of big debate between Bolton and Pompeo on the one hand and Mattis [James Mattis, defense secretary] on the other, with Mattis representing the more cautious view with respect to the use of force. “Mad Dog” Mattis is the last hope of the peaceniks. That’s our world.
PL: Where do you place Obama’s foreign policy in the long story? You don’t make much distinction in the new book between Obama and the second Bush administration.
DH: Well, I begin the book with a long litany of the ways in which Obama represented continuity with Bush. Certainly, it is striking that he was elected on an idea that he would end the wars. I and I think many others were impressed that he, practically alone among American politicians, had been opposed to the Iraq War.
PL: They were impressed in Oslo, too. [Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.]
DH: Perhaps a bit prematurely. [Laughs] Obama emerged as a prisoner of the security consensus—“the Blob” or “the Washington Playbook,” as he called it in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg [in The Atlantic, April 2016]. Obama typically was the more moderate voice in decisions on the use of force, but he, too, appointed advisers who favored a more advanced stance, so he was frequently alone and found himself trapped.
I have a great regard for Obama. The contrast in character between him and Trump is manifest and quite dispiriting. I think Obama was pacifically inclined. But, as I argue in the book, that a fellow so pacifically inclined ended up using force as often as he did speaks to the entrenched character of the Washington consensus. I was particularly disappointed about his decisions in Libya, Syria, Ukraine. One would have thought, on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq War, that he would have opposed that strategy of overthrow, but he fell right in with it.
PL: How do you identify Obama’s primary error? To me, it has to do with means and ends. Obama tinkered with the means of foreign policy—more drones, fewer direct interventions, a glossier diplomacy, cautious engagement with adversaries, a very attenuated multipolarity—but he left the ends of policy unexamined. Method, not objective. What are your thoughts?
DH: That’s a reasonable way of putting it. Certainly, there wasn’t any great reconsideration of the ends. He has a different rationale for intervention in Libya and Syria than the Bush administration had in its invasion of Iraq, one focused on humanitarian intervention. But both sorts of intervention have catastrophically failed to consider the consequences of state overthrow and what it means for the people in those countries where the state is no more. They had this vision that something good or better would inevitably follow the overthrow of dictators, and, as we’ve seen, it’s catastrophe that follows. That’s a very lamentable failure to anticipate the obvious consequences of obliterating these states.
Parenthetically, Obama’s record in Syria is so often portrayed as “nonintervention,” but that is a total misreading of what the United States did. We facilitated the funneling of a huge amount of arms to various jihadist groups, and most of those arms ended up the hands of people in ideological complexion not that far from Al Qaeda.
PL: George W. Bush’s first term seems to me one of the most fateful in our lifetimes. What is your analysis of his administration, particularly in the context of his father’s? How does it fit in the historical frame you’ve constructed?
DH: Bush I [George H.W. Bush] was monumentally significant. He set out the basic parameters of US foreign policy and grand strategy at the end of the Cold War. The diplomacy they conducted under the leadership of [Secretary of State] James Baker, I felt, was very statesmanlike in bringing the Cold War in Europe to an end. They made a set of assurances that the United States subsequently abrogated with respect to the expansion of NATO.
The great thing that he did, though, which really did set the tone as well as establish a set of new problems for the United States, was his conduct in the first Gulf War. That was hugely significant in creating America’s terrorism problem in its modern form…. The footprint of American military power in the greater Middle East was actually quite limited during the Cold War…. It was only in 1980, with the development of the Rapid Deployment Force and the Carter Doctrine, that you first began to get a substantial military footprint, but it was primarily offshore.
To use force in so overwhelming a fashion was a catastrophe for Iraq’s civilian population—the destruction of the infrastructure, the bombing of an Arab capital, all of what attended it. I think Al Qaeda and bin Laden were a kind of logical consequence of that….
PL: And so to George W.
DH: Clearly, W. was a more dangerous character than his old man, and I think had a view of the use of force that was much more reckless…. In its strategic doctrine, the George W. Bush administration is undoubtedly much more dangerous. For the first time, we get a set of strategic doctrines that really do squint at domination of the international system: an emphatic assertion of US military supremacy that would be so great that no one would even think of contesting it; doctrines of preventive war, baldly violating the UN Charter; the imposition of democracy by force, in defiance of the traditional American doctrine; unilateralism, or indifference to the opinion of allies and of the larger world; and, finally, the vast expansion of the universal panopticon and the surveillance state.
Those five doctrines, to me, really are different from the outlook of both Bush I and Clinton. They point toward a much more revolutionary approach of the United States in the world, and were adopted in the furnace of resentment created by 9/11, which in certain respects has been revived by the Trump administration.
Obama was very reluctant to embrace those, but he was also reluctant to repudiate them entirely. He was a kind of fellow traveler with regard to those doctrines.
PL: Republic in Peril concludes a trilogy, but it seems apart from the other two at the same time. In the first, you were a constitutional historian and a political scientist; in the second, a historian writing with, as you put it, “a modicum of detachment.” There’s a lot more of you in the new one, it seems to me, which I think is a source of its exceptional power, its importance. If I have this right, what prompted the shift?
DH: Those two earlier books were written in more of an academic mode, in my dual role as historian and political scientist. I think the big thing that separates the two is that Republic in Peril is very much addressed to the present predicaments of US foreign policy. At the same time, all the central arguments in my present work are drawn from those earlier works. There’s a lot of anti-imperialism in them, but also a prolonged investigation of internationalism, showing that it’s a fraud upon the word to identify that peace-inducing philosophy with the Bush Doctrine.
In those two previous books, I was trying to diagnose the argument and help people understand what it had been. I felt that there were a lot of aspects of that traditional story that had been misunderstood or neglected, and it was important to me to speak in an historical mode and often to give voice to people with whom I might have disagreed but who stated one form of the great argument I was trying to develop.
PL: I want to put something to you about September 11, and why I feel that was a decisive moment quite beyond the tragedy of it all. It seemed to me afterward that the true, deep injury that Americans suffered was psychological. We lost our providential immunity that morning. We no longer stood outside history. In my view the American Century ended that morning. We have been in a weakened position ever since. It awakened what amounts now to an insatiable insistence on total security…. What are your thoughts in response to this framing?
DH: Well, absolutely it does. It gave a huge boost to all of these mad doctrines of domination and, as you put it, of absolute security. I’m not sure I would accept the idea that it brought the American Century to a close. In a sense, it introduces a set of doctrines and propensities that will almost certainly do that, because it gave a great boost to these ideas of domination that can only end badly, given the actual resources of the country.
So, yes, it was a decisive moment…. With the end of the Cold War, Krauthammer [the late Charles Krauthammer] wrote this essay that ended saying, If we’re looking for a new strategic doctrine, I suggest we go all the way and aim at nothing short of universal dominion. [Laughs]
PL: Put that in print, did he?
DH: Yes, he did. Those ambitions were announced the moment the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe…. The great irony of the current moment with respect to this question of security is, I think, almost invariably all of these projects put forward in the name of ensuring the security of the United States do the opposite. That’s true with respect not only to our military commitments, but I think most dramatically true with respect to these doctrines of surveillance and cyber warfare.
The United States, for several decades, took the view that if we could penetrate the systems of other states and peoples, learn everything we could about them, adopt a Stasi-like model for collecting intelligence, that we would have a great leg up on other peoples…. What we’ve had after all that is a realm in cyberspace that’s extremely vulnerable. Our attempt to penetrate others has yielded an Internet infrastructure in which everyone is vulnerable. That’s a perfect symbol for this larger phenomenon in which the search for absolute security yields its opposite.
As I say, I think that’s true with regard to our military commitments around the world. That would be true even if we had defensive doctrines, because even under those circumstances, if we position ourselves in the near-abroad of other great powers and have a military doctrine resting on military supremacy, that inevitably creates a stand-off in which one wrong, boneheaded move can lead to disaster…. When you have a strategic doctrine resting upon ideas of escalation, dominance, you’re just a few steps away from a serious disaster…. As you suggest, they’re driven by this notion that it is possible to achieve absolute security. And it’s not, the big danger being that absolute security for you means absolute insecurity for others.
PL: I was very pleased to see the lengthy concluding chapter in Republic in Peril, which you gave to an alternative foreign policy. It’s good, detailed material. Can you summarize the thesis, and especially identify what you would say is the starting point for such a project? You’re calling it a New Internationalism.
DH: Yes, a New Internationalism. I don’t think we can just withdraw from the world. Although, frankly, I do think that we need a retrenchment in our military posture and doctrines. That’s the source of a lot of our problems. At the same time, there are a wide variety of issues of a global character that we as Americans, with other nations, need to address. I take seriously the danger of climate change, what is happening to the world’s oceans, the danger of pandemics.
A theme that I didn’t elaborate as extensively as I ought to have done is that international rivalry with other powers—with Russia, with China, with Iran—actually inhibits cooperation on a lot of these problems. If you go back to 2014 and look at all of those series of projects that we had with Russia that were thrown out, canceled, eliminated, you get a sense of the price to be paid for having situations of confrontation with these other powers…. That’s especially relevant to the Russophobia now ascendant among the Democratic Party. They don’t appreciate how dangerous their rhetoric against Russia is—which I regard as just wildly exaggerated.
PL: In the books, it’s good to read the history of debates on foreign-policy choices. But put this history against Washington today: There is no debate! The Times boasts, ritualistically every year, of our great “foreign policy consensus,” the one area where Americans are in agreement. I see nothing whatsoever virtuous about such a consensus. I wonder, what is the story of our loss of serious debate? I’d love to hear you think out loud about that.
DH: Of course, there is a big debate if you read widely enough. There’s a wide range of journals, news outlets, internet sites, that prosecute the debate over American foreign policy. The difficulty is that it seems not to reach the precincts of New York and Washington, such that the major media, the Congress, all of the major institutions in American life take that consensus that you speak of for granted and really allow nothing in the way of challenges to it.
I will say there are people in Washington who have tried to break apart the consensus and who have contributed to the debate. I think of people like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul or Rand Paul or Barbara Lee or Tulsi Gabbard. There are a number of figures out there who have gone against the grain. But you don’t get much coverage of them, and you simply don’t get it on the media most people see and read. CNN thinks the only people qualified to comment on American foreign policy are retired generals or retired spies….
PL: Newspaper and broadcast editors are among the most pernicious gatekeepers in this society, in my view. It is, in some considerable measure, they who make possible the very narrow range of debate in Washington. There’s the related question of public apathy, which I find astonishing at this point.
DH: That is, of course, a very complicated thing. There’s something about living in the land of milk and honey where it is possible to simply live your life indifferent to matters of the public weal…. Questions of foreign policy seem rather remote to most people. That said, I think that there’s very considerable anxiety about our foreign entanglements and our ongoing wars. There’s the opportunity for some kind of pushback in this regard that would challenge this massive consensus that exists between the political parties on those questions.
How to bring that about? I don’t know. I’ve been speculating with the idea that people on the right and the left need to reach across the aisle and overcome some of their differences to form a peace party that would stand against both the Republicans and the Democrats with regard to the warfare state. I do think the majority of the public would actually be attracted to that.
PL: I agree. You’re talking about a “trans-partisan politics.”
Somebody else I interviewed for this series said that until we have a major crisis there is little to no prospect of serious change in the direction of American foreign policy. Do you subscribe?
DH: That’s probably true. That’s how big things change in history—in reaction to big events, major crises. Over the last 10 years, the Iraq War, though it elicited very considerable opposition from the public at the time, nevertheless did not dislodge the great consensus among the elites. It’s almost as if failure in Iraq reaffirmed the consensus for them. I find it to be quite astonishing that that should be the case. I don’t think that is the case with regard to the public, but for the elites I think that generalization does hold.
The military-industrial complex and the national-security state have been very adept at disguising the costs. The costs are disguised through debt. The costs are disguised through our way of war. So, yes, given that state of affairs it is difficult to see how major change would take place. Even if a candidate were elected and spoke for a different foreign policy, there would be hell to pay in terms of pushback from the prominent media and all of the associated interests supporting the war state.
PL: Our institutions do not seem to have the necessary dynamism, or maybe elasticity, to manage what you and I are in agreement needs to get done—your “New Internationalism.” The project seems to be, as you were saying, to distance the American public from the consequences of our behavior abroad.
Reflect back to the Nixon decision to terminate the draft. That was taken as a victory for the anti-war movement, and indeed, it was. But think about the consequences tumbling down the decades. It now seems to be a departure point in a long project to remove the American public from the conduct of American foreign policy.
DH: I agree, and I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m skeptical of the reinstitution of the draft or some form of national service. I don’t think we actually need a military establishment anywhere near the size of the one that we have…. I tend to favor education rather than infantry training as a way of producing good citizens and allowing them their own creativity.
The bigger challenge is finding opportunity for them. The society we’ve constructed and the set of incentives that are out there are uniformly deleterious to young people. Look at health care, education, the enormous increases in student debt—the society that they enter is one in which investments in their future have been kind of systematically slighted. The Greatest Generation and the boomers have done a great job looking after themselves. I see a tremendous amount of generational inequity in the way in which we do things.
PL: A Mississippi River of good intention and altruism drains away into loss every day in this country.
DH: A great instance of that is solving every riddle by adding extravagantly to the national debt, which only defers the necessary choices to a more onerous time. But the prime instance is the gargantuan cost of the security complex, which really is a threat to the general welfare.