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.