America's Darwinian Nationalism

Veterans attend Memorial day services at the World War II Memorial in Washington, U.S., November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

While other states have survived and even prospered by a ruthless realpolitik of sorts, America, because it was born as a geographic bounty and also as an ideal, is nothing without both.

September-October 2017

THE UNITED STATES, Russia and China are all losing, or have lost, their ideological and spiritual purpose. This is clear in the case of the Russian and Chinese regimes, which no longer possess their communist ethos and whose legitimacy is based on ethnocentrism and anxious economic pacts with their own people. But even the United States has less of a moral purpose. It is questionable whether Americans are willing to continue to provide upkeep for a liberal order in Europe and Asia, as they did for over seventy years. While American democracy thrived and was a shining example to the world in the print-and-typewriter age, it is uncertain whether that will continue in the digital-and-video era. Indeed, of late, American democracy has been less an inspiration than a tawdry spectacle. Congress has seen a degree of partisan dysfunction unknown since nineteenth-century frontier days. The president, by any account, simply lacks the decorum of all former modern presidents. The monied classes essentially run Washington, a process that has been maturing and abundantly commented upon for decades. Despite the quiet dedication of an often-maligned, policy-driven bureaucratic elite, America is less and less the “city upon a hill.” In all of this, keep in mind that it is less important how Americans see themselves than how others see them.

Comparison is the beginning of all serious scholarship, and it is obvious that the differences between the United States, Russia and China are less ideologically and philosophically stark than during the Cold War. We are certainly not becoming alike. That there is still a vast difference between the legal constraints on presidential power in the United States and the unbridled thuggery of the Russian regime (or the way the Chinese regime treats its dissidents) almost goes without saying. But none of the three major powers are as motivated by great and clashing ideals as they once were. The gulf is no longer existential. This is demonstrated by the peculiar sympathy for the Russian regime among certain elements of the political class in America, the United Kingdom and Europe.

All three states are, step by step, being ground down to their civilizational basics. Their nationalisms are merely an expression of their cultural strengths and weaknesses, little more. China’s enlightened authoritarianism depends in part upon the respect for order and hierarchy inherent in the serenity of its Confucian ethos. Westerners may actually wait in vain for the Chinese people to demand democracy. Throughout history, Russia’s cold climate, incomparable vastness and lack of defensible borders have made both autocracy and incipient chaos more natural to it than liberal democracy—so that through Russian eyes, as Joseph Conrad wrote, freedom itself can look like “a form of debauch.” Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s was as much an experiment in quasi-anarchy as in democracy. As for the United States, it has rediscovered the Jacksonian frontier bedrock buried for decades beneath the Wilsonian urges of its urban elites. Americans will fight and kill if they feel themselves directly threatened or insulted, but preserving democratic orders across oceans might eventually become too much of an abstract and costly enterprise for them.

Presidents come and go. Had an exceedingly small number of votes been redistributed differently among three states, Donald Trump would not be president. Yet it is clear that after fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s quasi-imperial project, built on high-minded goals, has ended. This became apparent years before the November 2016 election, when President Barack Obama, a cosmopolitan idealist by some measure, nevertheless refused to intervene in Syria and intervened only from the air in Libya. Syria in 2011 ended a post–Cold War interventionist streak that began with Panama in 1989 and ran through the Middle East and the Balkans. So while Trump is certainly unique, he is also part of a continuum.

No longer the city upon a hill to the extent that they used to be, nor even perhaps the free world’s 911 force, Americans have become increasingly themselves, in a parallel fashion to the Russians and Chinese. American idealism, one should admit, was originally a gift of geographic space, which because of technology is now an increasingly shrinking resource. The late British military historian John Keegan wrote that Great Britain and America could champion freedom only because, as effectively island nations, the seas protected them “from the landbound enemies of liberty.” But the smaller the world gets, the more dangerous it becomes, and thus the more ruthlessly pragmatic the American public becomes, too. Of course, the twenty-first-century world of video and social media is also a more intimate world, so that a humanitarian outrage abroad can ignite an impulsive military reaction in a way it didn’t before. But henceforth, major interventions may only occur when naked national interest can be communicated in a television sound bite. This is why the human-rights community and its friends in the media will always fondly remember the American-led interventions in the former Yugoslavia, which were quite significant in scale yet relatively untainted by what in their eyes were the cynical interests of state—for they know that such a thing may never happen again.

Ironically, the human-rights community understands a basic truth about the American historical and spiritual condition that too few others do—which is that while other states have survived and even prospered by a ruthless realpolitik of sorts, America, because it was born as a geographic bounty and also as an ideal, is nothing without both. Other nations may only represent themselves. But America must, to a certain reasonable extent, represent humanity—or at least aspire to. There have been periods where America has not done so, and there have been periods where it has tried too hard to do so. But what counts is the preservation of the tension between those two extremes. If the United States ever truly decided that its own good was no longer bound up anymore with the good of the world, then America’s reputation for power would begin to disintegrate in a way that it would not for another country. This is why the liberal world order that the United States has built in Europe and Asia since the Second World War signifies the culmination of the American experience. Though extending that world order much further might be beyond the capacity of the United States, simply retreating from it must lead to American decline. For while the interests of state, properly defined, lead to peace by respecting the interests of other states, alliances are much harder to maintain without declared values, and thus our values themselves are part of our strategic advantage.

This will all have profound implications for defense policy. By the standards of world history, what is happening now is sadly quite normal. Most of history has witnessed unprincipled power struggles, even if the last three-quarters of a century have been an aberration in this regard. Now we are back to the state of nature, in which war and the amoral fight over territory are inherent in the human DNA. Indeed, the United States itself is beginning to dispense with its own values (which are, in fact, universal). This puts it at a distinct disadvantage compared to other major states that, because of very different historical and geographical experiences, have never advanced such values in the first place.

In the state of nature, according to Hobbes, violence is the norm and life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” The late English historian A. J. P. Taylor notes that, though people never actually lived in such a state of nature, “the Great Powers of Europe have always done so.” To the extent that Europe has known significant periods of peace, Taylor continues, was “owed” entirely to the “Balance of Power.” In short, there is only the balance of power or the state of nature; no other palpable choice exists for a world being shorn of its principles. And this world without principles defines us more and more: movements either utopian or idealistic (Leninism and Wilsonianism) have either proven failures or are in the process of being disavowed. In America, Wilsonianism has been part of an elite culture so refined and rarified that the barbarians, in a manner of speaking, have at last marched in and broken the china—eerily replicating the late-fourteenth-century Ibn Khaldun’s theory of how advanced and sedentary civilizations were replaced over and over again by uncouth tribal ones, which then went on to become advanced and sedentary in their own right. And yet, while our elite may have failed us, no state—democratic or not—is possible to maintain without an elite. With all its faults, the American elite, precisely because of its Wilsonian values, still has more to offer the world than any other.

Whether or not the American elite can recover from the disaster of the 2016 election, the fact remains that, due to the collapse of distance effected by military and communications technology, the rivalry between the United States, Russia and China is coming to resemble the contest for dominance within Europe during early modern and modern history, when peace—to the degree that it existed—was due solely to the maintenance of a balance of power within a confined, claustrophobic and landbound space. Geography is double edged in this regard. Geography is still sufficiently relevant to help define the historic personalities of each of the great powers, even as the distance that separates them is now contracting, so that the best comparison for the global power struggle of today is with Europe during previous centuries—before the emergence of communism, liberalism and other “isms.”


EARLY MODERN Europe’s greatest political earthquake was the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48. In proportion to Europe’s population at the time, the war’s death toll surpassed the fifty million of World War II. As Yale’s Charles Hill writes, the determination not to repeat the Thirty Years’ War led to a consensus about the need for a balance of power, in which secular self-interest would replace the medieval struggle for religious perfection. In other words, peace in such a confined and landbound space became a matter of losing one’s ideals in exchange for a ruthless pragmatism, which was associated with the interests of the new bureaucratic states and their growing military power. It was a world without ideology. Perhaps no one signified this phenomenon better than Cardinal Richelieu, who aligned Catholic France with the Protestant north of Europe against the fellow-Catholic and Habsburg south, all for reasons of state over those of morality. Still, this amoral balance of power worked imperfectly, to say the least. Other ages followed, with different power alignments, and wars went on. In the mid-eighteenth century, Bourbon France and Habsburg Austria combined against Prussia and Great Britain, with the consequence being the Seven Years’ War. It was during this period that Russia truly developed as a force in the continent’s military struggles. In the mid-nineteenth century, France and a German federation used Austria to block Russia. In the early twentieth, it was France, Britain and Russia against Germany and Austria. And so it continued until Hitler authored his personal Wagnerian apocalypse in 1945. Only empire writ large was able to keep the peace thereafter.

Empire arrived quickly in the form of American and Soviet hegemony, whose missionary world systems built on high-minded ideals (at least in their eyes) were, as the Oxford scholar John Darwin writes, “imperial in all but name.” Western hegemony was buttressed by European economic integration, which would culminate in another empire of sorts, the European Union. Despite its flaws, the EU now remains the only system capable of integrating and stabilizing central and eastern Europe, especially the still-troubled Balkans. In other words, with the singular exception of empire—of which Wilsonianism is a benign variant—the only alternative to war and general instability remains the balance of power. And the balance of power is built on amoral state interests, not on moral principles.

Early modernism, remember, culminated in the Congress of Vienna, a system of amoral power arrangements agreed upon after the defeat of Napoleon, which would more or less keep the peace on the continent for a century until the outbreak of World War I—a stunning achievement. Thus, the balance of power does not, in and of itself, constitute cynicism; rather, it is quite principled, without being exalted. This is something to keep in mind now that European history, enabled by technology, is repeating itself on a global scale.


HOW DO we envision war and conflict in an age in which Washington and Beijing—or Washington and Moscow—are closer in real time than were London and Paris during the Seven Years’ War? More importantly, how do we envision restraint in such an age? For the more that technology shrinks distance, the more that territory actually matters and the territorial impulse dominates thinking.

Consider the Israelis, and how obsessed they are with retaining the West Bank and Golan Heights. The Israelis face a crisis of room. And though the trend is insidious, so will we, living as we do in a world of intercontinental missiles, cyber warfare and long-range precision strikes before a global audience inflamed by video and social media. The effect will be almost physiological, like that of suffocation. The next Seven Years’ War, like the one in the mid-eighteenth century, will be global. But there will be much less of a sense of separate geographical theaters—each one a vast distance from the other.

Rather, in the twenty-first century, cyber and information attacks on the homeland may intersect with attacks on battle networks in the South China Sea or with special-operations forces’ incursions into Russian minority regions of the Baltic states. There will be a degree of speed and simultaneity that can be theoretically imagined by war planners but which, nevertheless, may be hard to psychologically process. The sense of tension and even paranoia in the Pentagon during such a war will correspond to that experienced by the Israelis in the moments prior to the Six-Day War, when the Israelis palpably feared being devoured by several Arab armies.

Thus, imagine conflicts that, owing to the collapse of distance, feel much like those for sheer survival, yet are also marked by intimacy, choreography and permanence, much like the dynastic struggles of previous centuries in Europe. Those struggles were not ideological, and neither will be those of the great powers in the twenty-first century. Instead, they will be cultural, something that hides in plain sight behind the face of nationalism. Victory will go to the culture that has evolved best for executing fast, total war at the state level. This process will be Darwinian. And because these conflicts could truly be terrible, the key issue remains how to prevent them. We can best prevent them by recovering our ideals, on which our freedom is substantially built.

A foreign policy with no high principles is a foreign policy with no direction, guidance or purpose, and therefore with no grand strategy. What should be our principles, then? They can be nothing other than those of a liberal state with modest Wilsonian aspirations—modest in the sense of wanting to promote, wherever practical, the advance of civil society abroad. Civil society usually means democracy, but not always. It can mean working with an enlightened autocrat because the alternative might be worse. Recall that Woodrow Wilson himself was often cautious—a gradualist, who well understood the difficulties of imposing our values abroad—unlike the ideological Wilsonians of recent decades. Wilson represented America’s naive coming of age in the modern world. Nevertheless, he managed to find his way to intuiting a grand strategy that, over time, would culminate in NATO and the American transformation of postwar Japan and Germany, according to the Tufts University historian Tony Smith. I say this as a moderate conservative realist who understands that the essence of conservatism is to conserve a liberal order—through the acceptance of a world in conflict where security is not a given. In this regard, conservatism is both a principle and a technique to provide for a better world. This is not a contradiction, but the very essence of conservatism, as adumbrated in the early works of Samuel Huntington and Henry Kissinger.

But a foreign policy that is merely transactional is not conservative at all, since it has no goals and therefore obeys no limits. It can do anything, including sell out allies, and engage not only in negotiations but in dangerous tit-for-tat military exchanges. In other words, transactionalism can actually be more adventurous than a moderate Wilsonian foreign policy. Remember that conservatism emphasizes interests. But interests can only be defined as such when there is a direction that broadly configures with a state’s goals and values. Interests, goals, values: all these things, by requiring a road map, manifest a degree of long-range thinking. A purely transactional foreign policy is absent of long-range thinking, since all that exists is the deal presently in front of your eyes; therefore it is like a child living purely in the passions of the moment. This makes it hard for practitioners of such an approach to think two or three steps ahead as they should. In a world increasingly characterized by a crisis of room, where great armies, navies and air forces will increasingly operate in a confined space, transactionalism actually carries much greater risks than a tempered Wilsonianism.

Precisely because the string of American large-scale military interventions that began in Panama has ended in Syria, Wilsonianism can now more easily recover its original sensibility, associated with America’s twenty-eighth president—that of maintaining lofty ideals, modestly applied, in an intractable world. Indeed, without some degree of Wilsonianism, albeit restrained, what else is there? For realism, without at least some idealistic element, is reduced to cynicism and thus becomes unrealistic.

To lose any and all degree of Wilsonianism is to lose our international identity. We are not like the Chinese and Russians, who are secure in their international identities, which are in fact based on imperial dynasties that have sought over time to protect each of them from invasions by land. Historically speaking, China and Russia are continental land powers, which, if they do not project power through zones of imperial-style influence—in Central Asia in China’s case, and in central and eastern Europe in Russia’s—risk their very survival. But the United States is a virtual island nation, without such geographic vulnerabilities. So for it to act in the world at all requires ideals, unlike the other major powers. Thus, a transactional foreign policy is inherently isolationist. Transactionalism ultimately leads to defeat, in other words.


WARFARE IS inherent to the human condition. Postmodern war—combining conventional, cyber, informational and perhaps even advanced, low-fallout nuclear weapons—will not be confined to where and what we want it to be. Connectivity will allow regional conflicts to quickly migrate. The realm of cyberwar—from hacking to ransomware to large-scale document theft—shows that rather than having evolved, human nature is as perverse, aggressive and malicious as ever. The very lack of face-to-face interaction intensifies cruelty. One no longer has to be brave or even face consequences to inflict pain on others. Future war will have the ability to demoralize us without physically killing us. Such is war in a confined space, where even countries the size of continents will soon face a crisis of room.

But we face another crisis: what is it, exactly, that we will fight for? This may seem like a preposterous question. After all, we are Americans. We have a homeland and a storied geography. But as technology shrinks distance, and our airports become mere bus stations, fewer and fewer Americans are aware of this geography. Moreover, Wilsonianism has been a purely elite project at a time when elites’ political prestige is under great stress. In the meantime, the professionalization of the military goes on, creating a soldiery that has an esprit de corps increasingly removed from the citizenry itself. The crises around the world that daily obsess the Pentagon and policy elites have little resonance beyond certain zip codes, until violence of some form knocks at our door.

What this all means is that Trump’s America First strategy, if it does not evolve in the direction of Wilsonianism, actually represents the swan song of American nationalism and foreign policy, rather than their renewal, and that what follows could be further division, not unity.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a senior adviser at Eurasia Group. He is the author of The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, to be published next year.

Image: Veterans attend Memorial day services at the World War II Memorial in Washington, U.S., November 11, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts