The bipartisan foreign-policy consensus that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War and ossified into something akin to a religious orthodoxy was perhaps first articulated by the late neoconservative polemicist Charles Krauthammer in an essay in Foreign Affairs in 1991.
In “The Unipolar Moment,” Krauthammer laid out the case for a world shaped by American military, political, and economic hegemony that was, in his view, now made possible by the end of the great power bipolarity that shaped the 40-year Cold War.
According to Krauthammer, the assumption that “the old bipolar world would beget a multipolar world…[is] mistaken. The immediate post–Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies.”
Revisiting his essay a dozen years later (and finding much to admire), Krauthammer added in a pitch for democratic peace theory, which has become a core element of the orthodox faith.
“The promotion of democracy,” wrote Krauthammer,
multiplies the number of nations likely to be friendly to the United States, and regional equilibria produce stability that benefits a commercial republic like the United States. America’s (intended) exertions on behalf of pre-emptive non-proliferation, too, are clearly in the interest of both the United States and the international system as a whole.
The assumption of a permanent state of post–Cold War unipolarity bred hegemonic fantasies that led to the ruinous American interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen, and will lead perhaps soon to similar debacles in Venezuela and Iran.
Yet, three decades and countless US military adventures later, there are signs that the consensus is fraying.
This is particularly true on Capitol Hill, where a small but vigorous minority of pro-peace members include Democrats such as Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, and Marc Pocan, and Republicans like Rand Paul, Ken Buck Thomas Massie, and Justin Amash.
The growing congressional pro-peace movement made its presence felt this Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where the trans-partisan Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy hosted a conference, co-sponsored by The Nation, The American Conservative, and The National Interest, that brought together lawmakers, journalists, and analysts to discuss what a foreign policy of realism and restraint might look like.
Featured panelist Robert Borosage, a longtime Nation contributing editor, described the American foreign-policy establishment as “insular, self-perpetuating and utterly unaccountable for a series of foreign-policy failures.” Borosage told me that the timing of the event, just as campaign season is getting underway, is propitious because “foreign policy will get much more attention in the Democratic primary than it did when Hillary Clinton ran against Sanders, since Sanders was reluctant to criticize President Obama, and thus Clinton, his secretary of state. This time around, both Sanders and Warren have put forth strong foreign-policy postures, while Gabbard is running as an anti-war veteran.”
Keynote speakers Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democrat Tom Udall recently co-sponsored a bill, the American Forces Going Home After Noble Service Act, that would put an end to the 18-year-long Afghan war. At the conference, Paul said his “personal belief is we’ve been at war too long and in too many places.”
After the event I talked with retired Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a 21-year Army veteran, who is currently a senior fellow at Defense Priorities. Davis, who served two combat tours in Afghanistan, told me, “The original mission in Afghanistan was to decimate Al Qaeda and the Taliban who harbored them, and that was both right and successful. When that initial military mission was complete, however, Washington extended the mission, without authorization, and has remained in constant combat for 17 years with no clear explanation of our security interest in the region.”
“All of these missions,” said Davis, “have been strategic failures. Our men and women in uniform are killed [6,989] and wounded [52,799], and we perpetually spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on missions that don’t make us safer and actually undermine America’s national security.”
The challenge is to break the consensus. According to Davis, “There is a broad consensus in Washington that supports our current grand strategy of spreading democracy by force, but the American people rightfully support more productive engagement in the world. A growing consensus around this realistic, restrained alternative is emerging because of Washington’s repeated, high-cost failures.”
Perhaps Tuesday’s conference in Washington is a harbinger of change.