George, American Realism, and Me

Though I an unable to find the footage today, I have a very distinct memory of being in early high school right at the dawn of the disastrous George W Bush administration. He was speaking at some event in a historical library about the first President, George Washington. He ended on the note ‘George Washington…or as his friends knew him by, ‘George W.’ Heh. Heh.’

It seemed emblematic for how lame George Washington was. The guy on all the dollar bills who we were collectively shoe horned into liking via the educational system. Of course, my first (kid level) study of the Revolutionary War had convinced me that the guy was overrated as a general and a pampered failson in youth so naturally my contrarian nature made me a decidedly strong critic to show my independently thinking chops. This wasn’t wrong. Public education lies about a lot of things and this instinct largely has served me extremely well.

But its also a bit too easy and obvious to crap on an entire generation of (quite innovative) leadership because many of those people owned slaves or were involved in mass land theft. In an era which had yet to see the rise of a meaningful abolitionist movement anywhere outside congregations of Quakers, and where the economy had already turned into land expropriation as default generations before, it seems an act of pointless moralism to just write off everyone and everything by the standards of today. At least back then no one was knowingly barreling towards planet wide environmental disaster and refusing to do anything meaningful about it. Compared to the supposedly enlightened present, the 1776 generation will date extremely well despite its many faults.

After a decade of basically ignoring and avoiding American history to focus on my true Central and Eastern Asian fixations, I began to come back with my first (non-retail) job, at a library and archive dedicated to the American Revolution. Native American history had ended up becoming my capstone college topic (it remains among my very top interests to this day) and was pushing me, geographically, back to North America. It was here I realized that Washington’s war leadership was certainly still flawed at the tactical level, but was exactly the correct thing needed at the strategic level. He played a long game where using space, keeping his army intact, and dealing ruthlessly with the less than stellar subordinates would eventually increase the odds of decisive French intervention in the war, and thus ultimate victory.

As someone who almost certainly would have been a member of the Federalist Party in those early days, its hardly worth mentioning that my reconciliation with Washington’s legacy was easiest on the domestic politics front. But what made me go from hostile to fully approving of his term in office came as I studied his personal letters, diplomatic correspondence, and general foreign policy views. This is something I often come back to and reference today.

Washington, despite his lionization of today being so thoroughly connected to exceptionalists and chauvinists, was neither. The first country the U.S. had official relations with was Morocco, not France. And it was Washington (and others) who stressed in their correspondence with the king there going for years that their political experiment was meant for North America and not for export. Washington himself disavowed not only any messianic liberal project in foreign relations, but also that the new country was in any way a Christian state. It thus would not be committed to spreading any religion abroad nor would it have any trouble having full normalized relations with states of different religions (like so many European states had). It was for reasons like this, rooted as they were in geographic conceptions of sovereignty, that many historical figures of left wing disposition would come to admire him in future centuries.

These were not just statements meant to secure good relations, as they were diplomatic principles Washington would adhere to throughout his tenure in office. The ultra-pragmatic Jay Treaty being the emblematic manifestation of this world view. It was also the primary focus of his famous Farewell Address, as a small and weak nation looked with concern across an Ocean as Europe once again descended into one of its periodic bouts of warfare:

In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

There is a lot there that runs in direct opposition to the assumptions of so many of the people who sing Washington’s praises today and view themselves his successors. Especially for those inclined to indulge in overly ideological and sentimental conceptions of diplomacy. But also for the entire military industrial complex which insists on a maximum number of permanent alliances in order to create perpetual markets (which in turn create perpetual lobbyists in DC).

So, it is worth thinking that in this presentist time of mass-cancelling the past that sometimes even the most worn out and overly-lauded figures can still have constructive legacies to present us with.

The Present Necessity of a Left-Right Foreign Policy Alliance

In a few days 9/11 turns 19. Old enough to fight in Afghanistan were it a person. Old enough to fight in a war began before its birth.

In recent years, all the traditional bipartisan norms are often assumed to be entering a state of re-alignment. This is most apparent in the field of foreign policy. There may be little difference between the republican aligned hawks and neoconservatives in the mold of George W Bush and Tom Cotton when put up besides the Samantha Powers and Michelle Flournoys of the ‘muscular liberalism’ and humanitarian interventionist crowd. There is, however, a growing disconnect between such people in both parties and the vast majority of everyone else in the American body politic. Especially in the wake of Trump’s failure to govern in ways contrary to the foreign policy positions he ran against in his primary and the Democrat’s continuous turn to shore up a Beltway Blob dominated array of bipartisan advisors. ‘Horseshoe Theory’ may be the rejected detritus of political science undergrad in love with their own rote-indoctrinated received wisdom, but the clear fear of this largely nonexistent entity by the national security state mandarins implies that were someone to even partially invoke it, it might catch the establishment off balance and make real gains before it inevitably collapses. Nixon goes to China, but for domestic lobbying. To see the effectiveness of that event all you have to do is dig into the history of Moscow’s flailing reactions to it. Seizing the initiative to do something unexpected is often a strategic principle that pays out more than the initial investment.

Stolen from this hilarious parody article.

Sensing the tides shifting against them, a coordinated effort has been made to merge the consensus of endless imperium into one cohesive bloc that can seize as many levers of power while the window of opportunity is still open. If this process is completed it will lock in another decade of endless war and regime change into the American foreign policy establishment as well as hasten our domestic decline by diverting money and effort into the Beltway’s perpetual growth industry of exporting conflict abroad. It is justified by invoking existential bugbears, training the body politic to believe that every great power rivalry is a battle for the soul of the world. But the fact is while the 1930s and 40s might be the model for our propaganda, but they were a freakish outlier. Almost all such rivalries are regional, non-ideological, and bear little consequence for the average citizen unless they turn hot. Even the Cold War, outside of those countries unfortunate enough to be caught in the proxy conflicts, cannot be viewed as an ideological struggle that it was sold was as by both sides but rather simply the largest scale bipolar power rivalry yet to occur in history. Change the governing systems of either the United States or the Soviet Union, and the most important detail still leads to a similar rivalry: two massive power poles with no other truly threatening competitors outside of each other. Already, the process is underway to begin again but this time with the Chinese. The Chinese, however, are (so far) smart enough not to couch their precautions as anything but safeguarding their national interests and autonomy of action. A ‘New Cold War’ could remain relatively lukewarm if the United States followed suit. Instead, and knowing the heyday of its focus on the Middle East may be closing, the U.S. seems to again be gearing up its Christian-dominionist-inherited (and now thoroughly liberal and bipartisan establishment) cultural complex to advocate for values-based conflict along Manichean ends. It begins again, this time against a foe likely not foolish enough to fall into the trap of competing with Washington for the ‘soul of the world.’

For American strategists with a sense of deep history (sadly, a rarity) it is obvious that the country risks over-expansion and that over-expansion risks the entire enterprise coming apart due to lack of strength in the core. The costs balloon, the deployments expand, but each commitment is less solid than the last. Presence everywhere is weakness across the globe, not strength in a specific region. The more money that gets diverted away from internal science and technology, infrastructure, logistics, and adapting to climate change, the more this world empire rots into something like 18th Century Spain or 17th century Ming China…an outwardly impressive edifice just waiting for someone to kick in the door that then takes with it the walls and roof attached to it when it falls. The right does not want this because American power will end in humiliation. The left should not want it because humiliation breeds reaction, retrenchment, and xenophobia. And this is to say nothing of the immense human costs abroad. People in neither camp should want the sudden power vacuum that will set off a succession of sequel conflicts. I do not want it for all of these reasons combined. On this issue they share a common enemy more than happy to divide them with cultural issues. It is time to see past this division and forge the necessary links to lobby for a negotiated and sustainable reduction in U.S. global commitments so that over-expansion can be halted and the danger of a major world spanning conflict or sudden power vacuum occur.

There is clearly a market for featuring anti-establishment commentary from left, right, and elsewhere which is united in its opposition to the post-Cold War consensus. Already, the Quincy Institute has made waves in discussion outsized to its newborn and comparatively small status. But to be a truly impactful force there must be a left-right anti-establishment alliance on foreign policy issues that grows to the level of significant and fearsome lobby up on Capitol Hill. The kind of coalition that can give the defense contractors and the well-paid friends of Saudi Arabia and Israel a true run for their money at shaping the discourse of war and peace. This is only the first step of course, but here we are not even having taken them yet.

In order for this to work certain agreements have to be made to overcome the differences in left- and right-wing approaches to conceptualizing foreign policy. The first thing to understand is that most meaningful differences between the two wings are on domestic policy. Domestic policy, however, operates under a much different framework than foreign policy does. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ itself is a terminology that comes from the seating arrangements of the French revolutionary government and implies an internally deliberative body. Today it barely even makes much sense as a political label on anything that is not economics or determining who is a citizen. Even if one does find the label useful, it is an appeal to a greater authority of a single community for how a state should be structured. In international relations, however, anarchy reigns above the level of sovereign states. There is no powerful entity capable of restraining the ambitions and foibles or large states. Bilateral relations and exclusionary alliances reign supreme. Universalism in intent or purpose does not exist in the inter-state system.

Whatever cultural or budgetary disagreements held by left and right can therefore be separated from foreign policy convergence against militarism, endless war, and a truly disproportionate defense budget. I know many more inclined to be on the left (including myself, if unconventionally) who think the coverage of foreign policy issues in The American Conservative is among the best around today. I know many on the right who look at issues-based alliances between Rand Paul with Tulsi Gabbard and ‘Ro Khanna on foreign affairs with a point of pride. These are pretty mainstream examples, but there is where the discussion should start in terms of accessibility. The point is to win over as much of the public as possible when you want to change policy, even if before that point all unpopular or unrepresented causes must inevitably and probably preferably begin in some level of esotericism.

In order to overcome any reticence on either side, a few points of divergence have to be overcome first when discussing foreign policy. To do this the left must concede to the idea of state sovereignty as an absolute bulwark of international affairs, and the right must concede that American Exceptionalism is nothing but a vehicle of jingoistic chauvinism. While not all actors in either camp are beholden to these ideologies, both are quite common and present the largest stumbling block towards coming together.

The importance of sovereignty as an upholder of stable diplomatic relations means both liberals and leftists must de-emphasize universal internationalism as an ideology guiding their world view. This would also be wise because most international institutions in the present era are heavily infiltrated by people who support American actions at spreading invasive and messianic economic and political interventionism to developing countries. There is no point in an internationalism that must play second fiddle to the currently declining neoliberal project in the first place. With this also comes dropping any kind of narrative of universal human progress. International relations are an exercise in crisis management and not social engineering. Besides, as I wrote recently for The Hill, there are many strategic and stabilizing benefits for the general public to adopting such a doctrine.

On the other side, the right must give up the siren song of exceptionalism and the Reagan derived ‘shining city on a hill’ vision of the United States as a uniquely virtuous actor. Nationalism cannot blind advocates of restraint from the cold realities of geopolitics, where self-interested actors exploit circumstantial advantages in a setting where no greater authority regulates state behavior. Either no countries are uniquely virtuous or all of them are virtuous in different ways-which is effectively the same thing. There are no such things as exceptionalism in international politics save more effective and less effective strategies. If individuals should not be special snowflakes, neither should states. We can even call this new stance ‘The Hadrian Doctrine’ to appeal to that common conservative love of the classics.

If these points can be agreed upon by both wings- even in a broad way-then the overall project of building a large movement ready to take on the endless war lobby can go ahead. Military force as a last rather than first option, diplomacy that benefits the citizen rather a few centrist ideologues and defense contractors, and a general commitment to avoiding further expansion of an already unsustainably large overseas empire. This needs to be something actively worked on to be grown into a ‘Restraint Lobby’ that wields coordinated power in DC. Such an attempt must be made before the consolidation of the center around a bipartisan neoconservatism (or the attempts of a desperate and incompetent president) returns to plunge us into another era of imperial calamity.

Perhaps a first small-scale test case is needed where I specific policy can be targeted. Knowing how many on both the left and right feel about Syria, I would recommend starting to make the case there. And in my own way, I already have. I hope others join me and we can grow this into something bigger and more coordinated.