A Grand Strategy of Restraint Needs a ‘Counter Elite’
The American foreign policy establishment prefers meddling around the globe because it can afford to without cost or political price. What is needed is a new foreign policy establishment elite based on the principles of realism and restraint.
One particularly curious assertion came from Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the living personification of the DC foreign policy establishment, who tweeted that the “alternative to withdrawal from Afghanistan was not ‘endless occupation’ but open-ended presence. Occupation is imposed, presence invited. Unless you think we are occupying Japan, Germany, & South Korea. And yes, withdrawal was the problem.” The flaw in the argument aside—it does not consider the difference in culture, history, or American interests in Germany and Afghanistan—open-ended presence is essentially akin to an imperial-lite foreign policy. Likewise, Paul Wolfowitz wrote
...those who complain of “forever wars” seem to ignore the reason we were in Afghanistan in the first place, or they misstate it, as Mr. Biden did in this instance. We were never in Afghanistan to participate in its civil war.
Ironically, the people who most agree with the American foreign policy establishment are Chinese and Russian officials worried about a power vacuum after the American withdrawal. In the Wall Street Journal, Ma Xiaolin, an international relations scholar from China said, “the chaotic and sudden withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan is not good news for China,” adding, “China is not ready to replace the U.S. in the region.” The sentiment was echoed by Russians suddenly worried about the prospect of spending blood and treasure to defend their Central Asian backyard. Biden, it appears, was correct in his assessment. Afghanistan is a local backwater, now left to local powers, none of whom are happy about it.
The “who’s who” of George W. Bush and Barack Obama era neoliberals and neoconservatives were all over television, lamenting the loss of “credibility” and the “progress of the last two decades.” A lot was made online about Biden’s falling approval rating, arguably due to the botched evacuation, even though in the greater scheme of things it might not matter, and it did not reflect the overwhelming view of the American people, as well as American veterans who are supportive of the withdrawal and are opposed to any further future misadventures. When asked if America should withdraw or send in more troops to Afghanistan, veterans supported the withdrawal by a margin of 63-24 percent, mirroring the average registered voters, who support withdrawal by a 65-22 percent margin, even after the decline in support. A jaded marine veteran writing in a small-town newspaper about the suicide attack in the Kabul airport argued that what “happened last week was inevitable, and anyone saying differently is still lying to you,” a sentiment otherwise unrepresented in the mainstream media narrative.
WHY IS that, and what is to be done to balance this ideological superstructure? The prevalent view is that unipolarity, a unique geopolitical aberration, and American geographic security made primacy the default cost-free option. Put simply, the American foreign policy establishment prefers meddling around the globe because they can afford to without cost or political price. “Beyond lobbies and interest groups, the national-security bureaucracy tends to support primacy because it benefits their organizational health,” Justin Logan wrote. “The scale of state power in the United States, including the size of its military and the government institutions dedicated to administering its foreign policy were in categories all by themselves.” This pessimism is shared by Patrick Porter, who argued that power and habit propel the imperial foreign policy. Elsewhere, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have argued that foreign lobbies and ideological liberals with an urge to “do something” are behind this instinctive internationalism and primacy.
But there are a couple of more things that restrainers need to ponder about if they genuinely want to take advantage of the zeitgeist and shape the emerging contours of a realist American grand strategy. First, the school to military-NGO industrial pipeline that led to elite overproduction needs to be curtailed. Foreign policy realists and libertarians often do not care about what is being taught in schools and universities, but the imperial attitude of “we must do something about Afghan women” is an urge that did not develop organically. The War on Terror led to one of the largest ever explosions of grants, scholarships, schools, and departments, and saw the largest increase in America’s bureaucracy, in both the higher education sector and the national-security sector. This is not just a random correlation, there is a distinct pattern to it. Advocates of a restrained foreign policy will face an uphill struggle even if they manage to form some redoubts—they will constantly be undermined on all sides by an NGO-industrial complex that’s busy writing its brand of evangelism as constituent code into the whole liberal international order, and there are many more establishments churning out nodding-dogs for such than there are for realists. It’s not defeatism, but realism, to ponder such. The simple truth is that the over-democratization of higher education and the field of foreign policy has resulted in the explosion of a key demographic which is at ease with managerial internationalism, and which now forms the backbone of the neoliberal/neoconservative consensus. The reverse is happening with the growth of non-college-educated working-class conservatism, most of whom voted for Trump and are more nationalist and populist in temperament.
One way to look at this is that the American model of liberal democracy was an effect of the curious social conditions which reached their peak during the 1990s, and are now in decline all across the Atlantic with an older division of working-class conservatives and elite Whig-liberals coming back. The shifting social conditions are shaping newer electoral alignments, or, in fact (if you’re in Britain), moving back to a much older electoral alignment. On one hand, the former is more nationalistic and localist, and also believes in restraint, whether about domestic social engineering or in foreign policy. On the other hand, there is a more global and cosmopolitan middle class and liberal superstructure. Put another way, realism is fundamentally a narrow reactionary philosophical framework, which privileges the nation-state and national interest over any form of internationalism. Its increasing support pattern among the electorate reflects that.
The rhetoric of restraint needs to, therefore, reflect the target audience. The criticism of Biden’s rhetoric on Afghanistan was not just that he ended the war, but because it was also Trumpian. As Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid tweeted, “It’s interesting to watch leftists and progressives hail a speech where the president doubled down on his cruel, Kissingerian disregard for non-Americans. Callous, stubborn, and completely lacking in self-criticism. ‘America First’ but this time under a Democrat,” adding, “Whatever Biden is on foreign policy, it’s definitely not ‘progressive.’ It’s nationalist and Trumpian.”
A significant section of academic realists who would have otherwise joined a presidential administration refused to join Trump’s brain’s trust, partially because Trump’s character and rhetoric were toxic and uncouth. Incidentally, it was also very popular and Palmerstonian, in the sense, it was more ruthlessly honest than most politicians in the last two decades. “I am sure every Englishman who has a heart in his breast and a feeling of justice in his mind sympathizes with those unfortunate Danes,” Lord Palmerston quipped as the Germans invaded Denmark. And yet, he ended the same speech saying
...we did not think that the Danish cause would be considered as sufficiently British, and as sufficiently bearing on the interests and the security and the honour of England, as to make it justifiable to ask the country to make those exertions which such a war would render necessary.
A straightforward assessment of national interest that, one might argue, both Trump and Biden mimicked. The sentiment was heavily criticized by the respective elites of their times, but one that proved to be narrow, nationalist, realist, and very popular overall.
Restrainers will need such ruthlessly honest and populist rhetoric to sell to those people who will form the backbone of this new movement, which will sometimes test the boundaries of electoral propriety. There will be a need for a vocal defense of nationalism, the national interest, and national borders. To argue that the time is fast approaching for Europeans to grow up, accept that the fate of far-Eastern Europe has no effect on the geostrategic security of the United States, and consider that the constant growth of the European Union and NATO has jeopardized the balance of power in Europe. Other matters must be considered. That offshore balancing dictates that Taiwan and other local powers will be the frontline cannon-fodder in case there is a potential war with China, and that that has been historically the American grand strategy—and that bogging down Beijing in a bleeding insurgency is quite frankly far more favorable than thousands of Americans dying in a great power war. That American grand strategy has diminishing interest in the Middle East, and autocrats are perfectly fine, as long as they can ensure order and smooth trade. That trying to spread human rights and liberal institutions, particularly in the aforementioned region, did more harm than good, including trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost and maimed. That counterinsurgency should be done in the old-fashioned way—not by winning hearts and minds and starting schools, but by decimating the fighting male population and installing warlords to ensure order. That American grand strategy has historically been restrained unless facing an existential threat from an expansionist great power peer rival about to overwhelm all other allied great powers. It is time to heed this traditional wisdom, from George Washington to George Kennan.