Reviving Rationality

Stefan Halper diagnosed the ills of America’s public discourse in an address at The Nixon Center Thursday night.

Manifest Destiny, Imperialism of Righteousness, the Indispensable Nation, Freedom on the March-these are just some of the framing concepts that dot the landscape of American history. Stefan Halper's new book The Silence of the Rational Center, co-authored with Jonathan Clarke, argues that, far from simple rhetorical slogans, these big ideas are dangerous for the United States and the world.

"This book is about the failure of American foreign policy", said Halper, senior fellow at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, speaking Thursday night at The Nixon Center. "There has been an institutional failure."

The institutions in question are, most prominently, think tanks and the media, which advance "form over substance, celebrity over ideas."

This plagued the public discourse leading up to America's invasion of Iraq in 2003, Halper said. He specifically cited the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations for their shortcomings in challenging the Bush Administration's rationale for the Iraq War in the months approaching the invasion.

The media, seeking access to the White House, also failed in its obligation to ask tough questions. Congress behaved similarly, outsourcing its responsibility for declaring war and failing to meet its oversight responsibilities.

According to Halper, this has been a recurring theme in American history. During the early Cold War period, many perceived communism as monolithic. During the Vietnam War, the Domino Theory dominated the public discourse. These big ideas effectively silence debate.

Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes moderated a question-and-answer session following Halper's address, which focused on how to get the country back on track.           

"Reality is a very harsh teacher", he concluded.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.