Our historically literate founding statesmen elaborated a foreign policy to shield Americans’ exceptional way of life in a hostile world through the timeless principles of statecraft. For more than a century, their successors held to the Founders’ purpose and to those principles. America grew great. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, a new generation of statesmen, consciously abandoning the Founders’ way of thinking, has turned U.S. foreign policy from shielding the American people against danger to improving or otherwise leading the rest of mankind. Imagining that everyone, everywhere shares their good intentions, they have conducted America’s international affairs without connecting the ends they seek with the means they use.
Americans have not been pleased with the results. President Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world “safe for democracy” by turning Europe’s war into the “war to end all wars” spawned totalitarianism, World War II, and the Cold War. These divided us among ourselves and united us only in disillusionment with our government.
Since Korea, America’s wars have produced stalemate or defeat, and more wars. Within living memory, our ventures in foreign affairs have brought less respect for and more hostility toward Americans from more and more of mankind. Most recently, the U.S. government’s attempts to cope with terrorism further endangered the United States while changing it for the worse. Disheartened but sobered, a majority of Americans now ask whether perhaps U.S. foreign policy should be redirected to its original end of securing our way of life, and be run according to statecraft’s classical principles.
Restoring American foreign policy in this way faces intellectual and social hurdles at home. Abroad, shifting from the premises and practices of current U.S. policy to statecraft’s timeless principles would require overcoming that policy’s legacies.
Identity and Duty
Four generations of statesmen have habituated to regarding themselves as the world’s leaders, and adopted some version of Wilson’s claim that, since America’s “reason for being” is to be “champions of humanity,” to “stand for the rights of men,” the American statesman’s job is to cast the American people’s weight onto the scales of foreigners’ affairs the better to secure human progress and human rights. Doing so fulfills America’s essential purpose and makes the world more congenial to her. In short, the business of American statesmen is to mind the world’s business.
In the 21st century, America needs new statesmen—statesmen who take seriously their one and only oath of office, to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”—and who regard themselves as the American people’s fiduciary representatives, entrusted with the sacred trust of shielding the peaceful conduct of American life. Such statesmen would recognize that their job is to guard America’s peace and win America’s wars – that their paramount objective is to preserve the American people’s cultural and political capacity to remain its exceptional self. That preservation is foreign policy’s primordial business.
Minding America’s business is no demotion from the rank of global leader. Insofar as it is possible for the statesmen of any country to induce those of other countries to follow, that leadership can stem only from the statesman’s fulfillment of his own duty toward his own people.
Fulfillment of that duty requires earning foreigners’ respect. In international affairs as in all human relationships, what earns respect is never letting favors go unrewarded or offenses unpunished or commitments unfulfilled. Nothing is harder to gain or easier to squander than respect. The statesmen America needs must know that it can neither be bought nor called forth by pretense. Rather, it comes from asking or expecting less from others than one has the power to compel; from making commitments smaller than the power and will to redeem them; from speaking more softly than the size of one’s stick might warrant; from a hard-won reputation for reliability; for matching words with deeds. That is, from behaving honorably, as adults.
America had earned respect, as John Quincy Adams said in 1821, because she had
proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government” while at the same time she had “invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity . . . without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others . . .
At the same time, like Themistocles’ Athenians, Americans had turned a small power into a great one. That America had evoked admiration; its growing power, fear. America’s 20th century statesmen squandered respect by making promises none could fulfill, by meddling in others’ business while failing to accomplish America’s own—all with pretense.
Mine and Thine
The first truth of foreign affairs is that it involves dealing with foreigners—people who are not part of our body politic, who have cultures unlike ours and are moved by ideas different from ours, whose priorities are beyond our control, whose business is not our business. Taking these differences seriously is prerequisite to serious foreign policy.
Distinguishing between America’s business and that of other nations is fundamental. The (unintentionally ironic) concept of “diversity” is emblematic of our ruling class’s belief that “multiculturalism”—an insistence on all cultures’ essential equality—allows them to understand all cultures and, in a way, subsume all into their own, which they consequently suppose to be universal. Negating the plurality of cultures has led U.S. officials from Vietnam in the 1960s to Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with foreign realities as if they were amenable to “nation-building,” as if their business were ours and ours theirs. In these and other countries, as local factions pursued their priorities forcefully, U.S. officials worked to imagine that America’s business lay somewhere between theirs.
Lest America’s recommitment to minding its own business be seen as diminishing in any way our commitment to our interest or honor, or to governments or peoples important to either, it is essential that we define what we deem our business, and that this be accompanied by such re-focusing of American military power on that business as will leave no doubt that the American eagle is not turning into an ostrich; that its eyes and its talons are sharper than ever.
What is closest to us, and is most obviously our business, is our identity. Nothing influences it so directly than the kinds of people we choose to add to our population. The Immigration Act of 1924 sought to maintain our identity by setting quotas for all nations to match our ethnic mix as of that date. Though better means might have been chosen, the Act worked as intended. By contrast, current law, established in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, functioned as intended to change America’s cultural-political identity by privileging immigration from Third World countries. The category “refugee” is emblematic of that law and of how it has been used.
President Obama, for example, directed U.S. diplomats to seek out the several varieties of homosexuals for admission to the United States; since they face potential persecution, they qualify as refugees. But the world is full of refugees, actual or potential, of all kinds. The last of the Middle East’s Christians are being killed or chased out of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and other places. Why not privilege their entry? Obama also invited persons who seem to be clients of governmental services. But why not invite engineers or farm workers? The point is that the U.S. government, like every other, may set precise standards for admission. Tests for intelligence, for skills, for political attitude, or for any other qualities, are a fit subject for political debate.
Any and all threats to our safety are our business. Foreign potentates who incite or sponsor incitement to murder Americans make themselves our business. There is every reason to respond to any and all such incitement as acts of war as we may find convenient. A fortiori, there is no justification for the U.S. government to continue financing the Palestinian Authority, whose school curriculum teaches murderous hate of “the Jews” and of the Americans who stand with them. Such potentates may exhibit any number of other nasty characteristics. But their relevance to the safety of Americans is what should matter. Plenty of reasons existed for undoing the regimes of Saddam Hussein and of the Assad family. Their brutality toward their peoples was not among them.
Since threats to safety often arise as a consequence of our own commitments abroad, it is essential that these be limited, and that military preparations exist only for protecting the American people from what foreign powers whom we displease might do to us. China’s confidence that the United States would not put the city of Los Angeles at risk for the sake of Taipei’s independence was well founded: America having no means of protecting against Chinese missiles, any threat to protect Taiwan by war is necessarily empty. Any commitments that might provoke a nuclear power had better be backed by a serious missile defense.
Geography weighs heavy in distinguishing our interests from those of others. What is nearest is dearest by nature. Thus, other things being equal, what happens in Mexico is likelier to be our business than what happens in Thailand. Latin America’s roughly 575 million people are of disproportionate importance to us because they are our relatives as well as our neighbors, and because most are connected to us by land. The Monroe Doctrine had it right: preventing enemies of the United States (one might add, enmity to the United States) from taking hold in our hemisphere is next in importance to what happens among us.
Our geopolitical interests in the rest of the world are to be weighed against our capacity to assert them. Preventing Europe or East Asia from being controlled by single powers, especially if these are hostile to the United States, has ever been and ever shall be our interest. Effecting this interest, however, has never been and will never be in our power alone. Although America’s role in thwarting Germany’s bid for hegemony in Eurasia during World War II was important, that role was conceivable only in cooperation with Britain and the USSR. By the same token, during the Cold War, alliance with Western Europe’s internally weak states would probably not have sufficed to stop a determined Soviet thrust to the Atlantic.
In our time, whether Russia succeeds in reabsorbing Ukraine into its orbit will determine whether Russia can become a hegemon once again. America’s military capacity to influence events between the rivers Don and Volga is nil. While our economic leverage on Russia is substantial, Western Europe hampers our exercise of it. That leverage will not hinder the rise of Russia or of any other enemy. A militarily powerful and morally reinvigorated Europe is out of the question. In short, since allies sometimes defeat the purpose of alliances, we must calculate what it is possible and worthwhile for us to do in Europe by ourselves, in our own interests.
In East Asia, China’s bid for hegemony is stimulating Japan (and possibly South Korea) to consider becoming a nuclear power. This, along with the region’s enduring racial animosities, will likely pose the biggest challenge to America’s geopolitical interests. The thinning out of America’s military forces in the region since the 1980s and the U.S. government’s trust in China’s peaceful rise have led just about everyone else in the region to begin to discount a future reliance on America. Reversing or just arresting this would require more than a military build-up. It would require reestablishing the sort of relationship with Japan, Korea, and the Philippines that existed a generation ago. For this to be feasible, these countries would have to see an America as solid at home as it once was. That is the problem. As regards Taiwan, almost certainly nothing less than the stationing of substantial U.S. military forces on the island would restore its confidence in the Pax Americana.
Absent that, there is no limit to the possible challenges to U.S. interests. China’s maneuvers vis a vis Korea may culminate in an exchange of its North Korean pawn for an anti-Japanese alliance with a unified Korea led by Seoul. How might a nuclear Japan, thus cornered, respond? At what point might China decide forcefully to push Taiwan over the edge from voluntary cooperation to involuntary? Residual U.S. forces in the region—principally in Guam and Yokosuka Japan, as well as carriers out of the U.S. West Coast—will be operating in coastal waters increasingly dominated by Chinese shore-based sea control systems. What are we willing and able to do to defeat them? America’s economic symbiosis with China is a two-edged sword. To what extent is the U.S. political system capable of using it?
All of this is to say that, arguably, U.S. foreign policy’s most perilous priority is constantly to recalibrate what measures we might take to maintain what desired degree of influence over the Western Pacific.
Grasping the Instruments
By and by during the past century, American statesmen addled their understanding of the instruments of their craft: diplomacy, economic suasion, subversion, and war. A new generation must regain a sound grip on them.
The contrast between diplomacy as it is being practiced and as it should be practiced may be seen in the U.S. embassy buildings in Baghdad and in London. The latter adjusts our business with that of the government to which it is accredited and which protects it. The former is a fortress where personnel from every U.S. government department live self-contained lives, scarcely leaving the grounds without military escort as they superintend every facet of Iraq’s government and society via the dispensation of money. It is all about interference in Iraq’s affairs. Its employees have to behave as enemy aliens, sometime allies of shifting factions, because that is what they are.
The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya and its CIA annex, represented an even less sustainable perversion of diplomacy: Their main business seemed to be the transfer of arms to Syrian rebels. That was an act of war against many in Libya, throughout the Middle East, and against Russia as well (if indeed Russians were on the scene trying to shut down that transfer of arms in protection of their ally, Bashar al Assad). But because the U.S. government, to preserve secrecy vis a vis the American people about a war it was waging contrary to its own stated policy, did not secure the consulate or annex against the targets of that war, those targets struck back and eliminated these “diplomatic posts” on the night of September 11, 2012.
In short, a new generation of statesmen must relearn how to draw the distinction between genuine diplomacy—meaning the peaceable, reciprocal representation of responsible governments for the negotiation of matters of mutual interest—and the use of diplomatic means for ends that are intrusive or otherwise hostile.
Economic suasion has occupied an outsized space in American statesmen’s toolkit because of the American penchant for believing that money is man’s prime motivator. But in fact, money does not make power. Rather, power makes money. Hence, though it is easy enough to buy the favors of foreigners, it is impossible to compel the performance of the favors thus bought. That is because the people who matter most in this world value power, prestige, and life itself more than they do wealth.
Money does not even necessarily make wealth. The postwar Marshal Plan, chief exhibit for the proposition that American economic statecraft has done great things, actually points in the opposite direction: of all the Plan’s recipients, Germany, which got the least, performed best while Britain, which got the most, performed worst of all. Germany had good economic policy despite U.S. advice, while Britain had terrible policy consistent with that advice.
More important, events after World War II confirm the old truth that the imposition of economic pain, as well as the giving of economic advantage, is a blunt and uncertain instrument. While total economic embargoes and blockades are as deadly as atom bombs, ordinary “economic sanctions” do not cause states to abandon their vital interests. Sanctions that impose pain inferior in size to the benefit which the governments being sanctioned expect from their activities tend to convince such governments that the imposer of the sanctions is not serious of purpose. Such sanctions signal misunderstanding and weakness rather than moral clarity and strength. Moreover, since economic sanctions necessarily inconvenience domestic constituencies, they guarantee pressure to lessen their intensity.
Hence effective statesmen will use economic suasion conscious that serious economic measures are not cheap, that cheap ones are not serious, and that, while they may be useful to policy, none can carry any policy’s load by itself.
The history of American attempts at subversion should instruct a new generation of statesmen to think of this tool in terms of overall foreign policy rather than as the CIA’s “covert action.” The standard U.S. description is “something between a diplomatic protest and sending the Marines.” But making secret acts bear the weight of policy merely guarantees failure. Elaborating them at CIA decreases the chances that the government will understand their consequences. The point of subversion is to energize influential people to exercise influence in the direction you desire. But agents of influence are allies. Good ones cannot be bought. Subversion, like seduction, is all about finding a willing partner.
The history of U.S. covert action is substantially one of sorcerers’ apprentices stirring up and financing individuals and groups in the four corners of the world, who promptly went their own way. In the Middle East, U.S. covert action brought forth Egypt’s Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. It paved the way for the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba and of Salvador Allende in Chile—men who chose to be enemies of the United States. In Asia, first it foisted Sukarno onto Indonesia, and then helped his bloody overthrow. During the Vietnam war, the CIA more or less covertly managed the country’s political and social factions as, a half century later, it did in Iraq and Afghanistan with equally squalid results: mutual abandonment.
That history should warn the new generation of statesmen that subversion is no trick, that power is the great agent of subversion because it inspires both hope and fear. Nothing is as subversive as a cause on the verge of triumph or an army whose enemies lie prostrate. Success seals seduction and resolves conflicts between agendas because it is the proof of power and the hope of what it might bring.
Mismanagement of war has been our foreign policy establishment’s defining characteristic. America’s military wins the battles, the foreign policy establishment loses the peace. Although the policymakers have been willing enough to commit military forces, they have not done so with reasonable expectation that the success of the operations they order would produce peace. Military operations, regardless of size or casualties, amount to war only if they serve reasonable plans for achieving a country’s preferred state of peace. Statesmen worthy of their offices go to war clear in their minds about the peace at which they aim; about who or what stands in the way of that peace; and about their own ability to carry operations to success. Having lacked that, our statesmen have dallied with violence.
A new generation of statesmen must understand war as the dictionary and as history have defined it: a struggle unto death for a better peace. The word “war” is not to be used lightly, nor is any hostile act to be undertaken without firm knowledge of the fact that there is no such thing as a small war any more than a small pregnancy; that any and all wars raise the most fundamental questions about any regime’s allegiances and hence about its very survival; that the enemy might rally massive forces, subduing which might require killing on a scale not imagined previously; that our regime might falter before the challenge. They must be willing to kill as necessary. They must know that war, once begun, narrows the possible outcomes to two: victory or defeat.
Foreign Policy, Shield of the Republic
The American people, as the world’s most productive, are present in the world’s remotest corners. Innumerable governments, factions, and interests seek to bring the influence of the Americans to bear on their conflicts. They are rich, and envied. Some aspects of their culture attract while others repel millions. But most Americans are congenitally focused on church, barbecues, and PTA meetings—the pursuits of peace. For a hundred years, our statesmen have sought ways to use our people’s physical and moral substance as some kind of sword. The American people have a right to demand statesmen who have instead absorbed the thought of John Quincy Adams:
Nor even is [America’s] purpose the glory of Roman ambition; nor “tu regere imperio populosa” her memento to her sons. Her glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of mind. She has a spear and a shield; but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace.
Angelo Codevilla has been a legend in our house since the 1980s when my wife and I first encountered this Renaissance force of nature radiating virtú. Somehow Angelo manages a vineyard in California, a horse ranch in Wyoming, a large, loving family, a prolific academic career, and world travel without strain, indeed with unfailing ebullience.…
Angelo Codevilla’s analysis of the many problems associated with U.S. foreign policy provides an abundance of important insights. He is devastatingly on the mark when he contends that since the beginning of the 20th century, U.S. officials have transformed the Founders’ emphasis on shielding the American people against external dangers into an arrogant, unattainable objective…
There is much with which to agree in Angelo Codevilla’s thoughtful essay. To the extent that he and I differ, it is with regard to means and not ends. We both agree that U.S. foreign policy is in shambles, characterized by drift and incoherence. It is at best a-strategic at worst anti-strategic, lacking any concept…
Walter McDougall writes: “Congress and the American people…want to believe their ‘indispensable nation’ can be a ‘benevolent hegemon’ doing good on the cheap and doing well by doing good.” As a description of how Americans view our role among nations, this is arguable. But it is a fair summation of our foreign policy establishment‘s view…