Appearing before the senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966, George Kennan, the legendary Cold War diplomat often called “the father of containment,” criticized the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The United States, he said, should not “jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse.”
Kennan’s metaphor of the frightened elephant is a strangely apt one for the situation in which we find ourselves nearly half a century later. In the GOP primary, the candidates are calling for a foreign policy defined by fearmongering and senseless aggression. Their agenda includes plans to reverse President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran; abandon renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba; escalate tensions with Russia; and deploy US troops to Syria. Much like Kennan’s agitated elephant, the Republican candidates see challenges posed by Iran, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the Islamic State and other extremist groups that are far out of proportion to any real harm they could ever inflict on US interests. They are so out of touch with reality that even admitting the folly of the Iraq War is seen by them as a sign of weakness. The far greater danger is the combination of paranoia and hubris that characterizes the foreign policies of the Republican candidates, who would lead us into still more self-inflicted disasters. They would have us rush to embrace unnecessarily militaristic responses to otherwise manageable challenges, bringing yet more chaos to the Middle East and Eastern Europe while costing the nation even more in lives and treasure.
In the latest issue of The National Interest, Richard Burt and Dimitri Simes provide a corrective to this foreign-policy recklessness. “The debate over international affairs is now badly debased,” they declare in the lead editorial, titled “Foreign Policy by Bumper Sticker.” “The quality of America’s foreign-policy discussion has demonstrably deteriorated over the last thirty years.” Remarking on the GOP primary in particular, the authors note that “the very warrior intellectuals who were directly responsible for today’s state of affairs” in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East “dominate the foreign-policy advisory groups of nearly all the Republican candidates.”
Founded in 1985 by the late Irving Kristol, one of the original leaders in neoconservative thinking, The National Interest served as a forum for vigorous debate among conservative intellectuals and policymakers until the George W. Bush administration, when editorials critical of the Iraq War led to the departure of several of the magazine’s most prominent neoconservative voices. Today, the journal is one of the last bastions of “realist” foreign-policy thinking, or the belief that vital US interests should trump ideology, that humility rather than hubris should define our approach to international affairs.
Meanwhile, three decades after the magazine’s inception, the assumptions governing foreign policy are the antithesis of sensible realism. With few exceptions, the political and media elite have accepted as a given the principle that the United States has both the right and the responsibility to police the world—to make and enforce the rules by which other nations must abide, even if we don’t. In the words of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, “We are the indispensable nation.”
As Burt and Simes write, “America’s new foreign-policy establishment has adopted a simplistic, moralistic and triumphalist mind-set.” And while Democratic leaders in some cases have embraced diplomacy as an alternative to military force and intimidation—namely regarding Cuba and Iran—the party remains dominated by liberal interventionists who share the neocon penchant for triumphalism, as evidenced by much of the party’s misguided positions on Ukraine and Syria and support for the military intervention in Libya.
In 2010, for example, Hillary Clinton delivered what The New York Times described as “an unalloyed statement of American might.” Pronouncing the arrival of a “new American moment,” Clinton declared, “Let me say it clearly: The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.” More recently, a group of Senate Democrats led by Chris Murphy outlined their vision for a progressive approach to foreign policy—and while their statement included some useful markers, they took a similar view of America’s global role. “The new world order demands that the United States think anew about the tools that it will use to lead the world,” they argued.
Reconsidering the tools at America’s disposal, and ensuring that military action is used only as a last resort, is a welcome start. However, our public discourse should also include a robust debate about not just the means but also the ends of our foreign policy. What should be our goals and priorities—and how do we reconcile those goals and priorities with those of other powers? How do we steer between isolationism—impossible in an increasingly interconnected world—and the recklessness of interventionism, whether of the liberal or neocon variety? How can we best work cooperatively with other nations—even including, when possible, rival powers—to constructively address great crises? As author James Mann wrote last year, “We seem unable to acknowledge to ourselves that other nations of the world do not always need us as a leader in exactly the same way they did in 1945 or 1989. Moreover, in resolving international crises, other nations have become indispensable to the United States, too—far more than they were in the recent past.” The Iran nuclear deal—a diplomatic achievement that would not have been possible without the cooperation of Russia and China—perfectly illustrates Mann’s point.
But if they don’t face meaningful consequences for reckless triumphalism, politicians have little incentive to break with the prevailing orthodoxy, especially when questioning America’s “indispensable” role inevitably results in attacks on their patriotism. The unfortunate reality, as Burt and Simes observe, is that many “accept this form of intimidation by interventionists who substitute chest-thumping for coherent and serious, historically grounded arguments,” while much of the media simply “lacks the interest and the expertise” to present alternative views.
As editor of The Nation, a magazine with a long history of adopting alternative views and unpopular stances on foreign policy (ones that were later regarded as common sense), I appreciate the importance of challenging the conventional wisdom. I’m also acutely aware of how difficult it has become in today’s toxic media environment to speak out on certain issues. As Burt and Simes note, “prominent voices dismiss those raising” concerns about “costly international interventions when vital national interests are not at stake” as “cynical realists, isolationists or, more recently, unpatriotic Putin apologists.” This is a form of neo- McCarthyism that deforms our discourse.
So it’s heartening to hear an establishment figure such as Robert Legvold, former director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, assert that “degrading the discourse in the United States and coarsening the way the discussion is conducted are clearly not in the country’s interest. One would hope,” he adds, that “responsible parts of the media will begin speaking out against these trends.”
There are indeed challenges that require US action. From chaos in the Middle East to a new Cold War to the great transformation that is happening in China, the world is only getting more complicated. But we need to separate the mice from the elephants, the difficult but manageable issues from those rare crises that pose a direct threat to the United States. This requires a more thoughtful discourse. In 2016, and beyond, we need a foreign-policy discussion as serious as the challenges we face, not as agitated as the crises we have helped manufacture.