Finding Fault in Our National Insecurity

Angelo Codevilla has been a legend in our house since the 1980s when my wife and I first encountered this Renaissance force of nature radiating virtú. Somehow Angelo manages a vineyard in California, a horse ranch in Wyoming, a large, loving family, a prolific academic career, and world travel without strain, indeed with unfailing ebullience. We always joked that if he were attending a Hawaiian luau, Angelo would insist on donning a feathered loincloth and spearing the wild boar himself. He is now 71, but age has not slowed him down in the least. Nor have two heart transplant operations. Forza! In his public life as an interpreter of U.S. foreign, defense, and intelligence policy Codevilla has deep experience as a practitioner, professor, and philosopher. When he sounds an alarm, as he does in this essay, it behooves us to pay close attention. But alas, I suspect there will be no audience whatsoever for this sober sermon, for reasons I shall explain below.

George F. Kennan famously observed, in the foreword to his 1950 Walgreen Lectures, that the power of the United States grew to immense proportions in the previous half-century, yet its security suffered a tremendous decline. He wrote:

A country which in 1900 had no thought that its prosperity and way of life could be in any way threatened by the outside world had arrived in 1950 at a point where it seemed to be able to think of little else but this danger. What was the explanation for this? To what extent was it the fault of American diplomacy?

If one were to summarize Angelo Codevilla’s career in one sentence, that sentence would answer Kennan’s questions. Beginning in the Progressive era (the 1898 war with Spain is the usual benchmark) the United States quit minding its own business in foreign affairs and began minding the business of others. The usual justifications were that freedom had become indivisible (hence the United States needed to defend the freedom of all other countries) and only the United States possessed the idealism, the right, the power, and the ability to realize the freedom of others.

We can argue over the historical details but that Progressive, aggressive mantra was the thread that connected U.S. foreign policy from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan (in fact, all the Cold War presidents) to George W. Bush. Throughout two world wars, the Cold War, and the Global War on Terror, the United States inflicted enormous pain on its enemies and emerged the sole superpower. But superpower assertions in the hope of fixing the world have, especially since 1945, also inflicted injury and enormous costs on the United States itself. In our day they have simply become unsustainable even as the world flies more and more out of control instead of under control. U.S. foreign and defense policy thus resembles federal programs for education: the more dollars the government spends, the worse the results it achieves.

Codevilla’s answer to Kennan suggests that American diplomacy has indeed been largely to blame for our national insecurity. Congress has not declared a war since 1941, yet the nation is almost constantly fighting wars it cannot or dare not win. The sorcerer’s apprentices in the Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council (those whom Derek Leebaert has dubbed “the emergency men”), backed by the nation’s economic and intellectual elites, have forgotten how to define, much less use, the tools of diplomacy, economic sanctions, subversion, and war such that U.S. strategy is either nonexistent or self-defeating in crises all over the world. We provide billions in foreign aid to countries and non-state actors who gleefully undermine American goals. We engage in covert operations whose unintended consequences not only defeat our purposes but provoke “blowback” assaults on our allies and homeland.  We have military bases in some 60 foreign countries and spend more on defense than the next dozen countries combined, yet the headlines tell us the threats to our security are worse now than during the Cold War.

Despite this record of failure, the executive branch has, since the late 1940s, managed to make dead letters of nearly all the checks and balances and enumerated powers over defense and foreign policy enshrined in the Constitution. Congress has abdicated, content to leave management of the world to the President so long as it reserves the right to turn on him when adventures turn sour.

To incompetence add willful stupidity. Codevilla is too polite to say so in this piece, but elsewhere he has eloquently critiqued the discourses that pass for expert analysis of world politics and American policy. The truth is that many of our foreign policy pundits are not deep thinkers, but propagandists for special interests promoted by journals, think tanks, and media juggernauts bankrolled in turn by individual and corporate billionaires. Their tiresome (because predictable) diagnoses and prescriptions on world politics often prove terribly wrong. But since their donors and interests operate outside and indeed above the political process, there is no accountability. The pundits simply flush their past failures down the memory hole and move on.

Many more presumed experts are academics belonging to one of the competing schools of thought on international relations. Liberal internationalists, neoconservatives, and realists certainly see the world differently, but in one way they are the same: they all have a theory.

Liberal internationalists want to believe that the globalized world is flat, hence the role of America is to encourage all nations to flatten themselves into transparent market democracies. (These people are really not liberal or internationalist, but levelers.) Neoconservatives want to believe that all human beings crave freedom (whatever that means), hence America’s role is to bash tyranny in the world. (These people are really not new or conservative, but Jacobin.) Realists want to believe that all states seek to advance their national interests through the maximization of power, hence America ought to broker compromises and balance power.  (These people are not really realist because they ignore the fact that many states are neither national nor rational, but factional, ideological, or religious.) Robert Kaplan likens their common fallacy to making foreign policy from a jet at 35,000 feet rather than bothering to understand the subtle complexities of the foreign cultures down on the ground.

Codevilla, by contrast, is hors de catégorie. He is guided by classical principles and is a creature of no special interest or school.

Study the books he has written over the past 30 years, and you will discover an unusual mind focused on common sense, ends and means, character, and a morality based on results rather than motives.[1] One of Codevilla’s recurring themes is that U.S. foreign and defense policy has been chronically unserious. Our Presidents make lofty pronouncements and sober threats, but their actions cry out that they don’t really mean it, and the rest of the world knows it.

Barack Obama has been notorious for drawing red lines he does not intend to enforce, but George W. Bush was even more unserious because his professed goals were so extreme. The latter’s second inaugural address violated Walter Lippmann’s rule about the equation between ends and means even more egregiously than the Truman Doctrine or Woodrow Wilson’s War Message. The rest of the world—enemies, allies, and neutrals alike—scoff at the latest bombast from Washington. Only Congress and the American people are fooled since they want to believe their “indispensable nation” can be a “benevolent hegemon” doing good on the cheap and doing well by doing good. Hence another of Codevilla’s recurring themes is the pervasive pretense in American politics (which I like to think my own books helped to inspire).[2]

A third theme is the abuse of history by the elites that have directed U.S. foreign policy ever since Wilson claimed that “the idea of America is to serve humanity.” Americans have been indoctrinated for a century that global humanitarianism is hard-wired in the national DNA, or else became their default mode when at last they shucked off a crabbed isolationism. Most people, especially our youth, have never been taught the wisdom, prudence, and principles of George Washington, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, or Grover Cleveland.[3]

Codevilla, by contrast, wrenches us back to bedrock when he declares that the stated purpose of foreign policy in our republic is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” to promote peace and commerce with all nations, and to enjoy real peace, “our peace” grounded in legitimate national interests. Those interests include the defense of national sovereignty and the security of American citizens and property. They include the defense of our national identity as defined by population, institutions, and cultural values. They include expecting and commanding respect from other sovereign states.

But every one of those interests comes with a responsibility. If the United States is prepared to defend its sovereignty and security—with arms as well as rhetoric—then the U.S. government must recognize the right of other sovereign states, however repulsive, to exercise the same right. If the United States claims the right to defend its identity—by controlling its borders, for instance—then it must recognize the right of other sovereign states to do likewise. If the United States means to command the respect of other nations, it must be prepared to respect them in turn. All the Founding Fathers stressed reciprocity as an indispensable principle of U.S. foreign relations. But how long has it been since U.S. foreign policy either seriously minded the nation’s business or seriously respected the rights of others to mind their business?

Contrary to myth, the United States has never been isolationist and Codevilla is certainly no isolationist. In fact, his essay states bluntly that it has always been a vital geopolitical interest to prevent Europe or East Asia from being controlled by a single power.  In our day, the “most perilous priority” of U.S. foreign policy is therefore adjusting to the rise of China without provoking war or simply abandoning our allies in the region. That will mean constant recalibration of the military, economic, and diplomatic measures at our disposal to sustain a desirable degree of influence in the Western Pacific. What evidence is there that the Bush and Obama administrations have gotten serious about that “most perilous priority”? None: the vaunted “pivot to Asia” is mere pretense.

Why, then, do I suspect there will be no audience for this prophetic warning?

First, Codevilla engages in wishful thinking when he writes: “a majority of Americans now ask whether perhaps U.S. foreign policy should be redirected to its original end . . . and be run according to statecraft’s classical principles.” No, they don’t. The majority of Americans are utterly ignorant of the Founding Fathers’ original ends and classical principles. They may be exhausted and disgusted with the blunders of Bush and Obama, but most Americans lost long ago, if they ever had, the rudimentary historical knowledge and common sense needed to reason like John Quincy Adams.

Second, Codevilla forgets in this essay what he has deftly analyzed elsewhere: the hegemonic power of America’s “ruling classes.” The globalized economic elites who determine the parameters of acceptable debate in foreign relations would either “spike” this essay or assign their pundits to heap scorn upon it. Why, if we followed Codevilla’s advice, the United States would become even lonelier and the world even more out of control!

Third, Codevilla is wildly optimistic (in my judgment) to think that “a new generation of statesmen” devoted to sound principles can reform U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. The State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies, not to mention the NGO’s, IO’s, big foundations, most think tanks, and multinational banks and corporations have long since embraced or succumbed to a Progressive, multicultural, globalized ethos that is overtly hostile toward nation-state thinking. Global governance is the spirit of the age.

Fourth, the critical mass of young people from whom Codevilla hopes to raise up the new statesmen simply do not exist. The students I meet in the classroom, drawn from the generations coming of age since the end of the Cold War, do not think anymore in terms of national states competing on the world stage. They do not even think of themselves as first and foremost Americans, but rather as citizens of a thoroughly wired globe. An ever higher percentage of those enrolled in our elite universities are international students and even those born in the United States compete for careers in a global marketplace. They may be curious to learn about statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, but to most students his nationalism is as foreign as Jonathan Edwards’s theology.

Let us conclude with a thought experiment. Imagine Rand Paul is elected president in 2016 (as Angelo did in a recent column). He abolishes the National Security Council and even makes Codevilla Secretary of State. They pledge that henceforth the United States will mind its own business in pursuit of its “Freedom, Independence, Peace.” How many months would transpire before neoconservatives and liberal humanitarians alike called for impeachment?

[1] Codevilla’s major publications include While Others Build: The Commonsense Approach to the Strategic Defense Initiative (New York: Free Press, 1988); War: Ends and Means with Paul Seabury (Basic Books, 1989); Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century (Free Press, 1992); The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, ed. and trans. (Yale University, 1997); The Character of Nations: How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility (Basic Books, 1997); Between the Alps and a Hard Place: Switzerland in World War II and Moral Blackmail Today (Regnery, 2000); No Victory, No Peace (Rowman and Littlefield,  2005); Advice to War Presidents: A Remedial Course in Statecraft (Basic Books, 2009); To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations (SHoover Institution Press, 2014).

[2] Especially Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997); Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 (HarperCollins, 2004); Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877 (HarperCollins, 2008).

[3] Two recent examples of such “useful history” are Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (Knopf, 2006), which tried to argue that neoconservatism has guided U.S. foreign policy since the beginning, and Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, American Umpire (Harvard University, 2013), which tried to argue that liberal internationalism has guided U.S. foreign policy from the beginning.