America First, Council on Foreign Relations, establishment, Foreign Affairs, globalism, internationalism, Michael Beckley, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Trump
Here’s a blog post lede I never thought I’d write. And if you’re familiar with the ongoing but almost always blinkered way the establishment debates U.S. foreign policy, you’ll find it pretty starting, too:
An intellectually interesting article appeared in Foreign Affairs. Or maybe more accurately, an article that’s far more intellectually interesting than either its author or the magazine’s powers-that-be realized.
First, here’s why this matters. Foreign Affairs is the journal of the New York City-based Council on Foreign Relations – an organization that literally was created in the shadow of World War I by America’s then-Northeast-centric ruling classes to push the nation to abandon its domestically focused collective impulses and priorities and remain comprehensively involved in world affairs following the conflict.
The organization became so influential that in 1962, the journalist Richard Rovere published an article (which appeared in various forms, notably Esquire) arguing (in my opinion, with tongue not so firmly in cheek) that the Council and its members were pillars of a broader national establishment that not shaped decisively not only American public policy, but the definition of which viewpoints were and weren’t legitimate to air in nationally influential media. (Full disclosure: From the mid-1980s or so through the mid-1990s or so, I was a member until I decided that the dues were no longer worth the candle.)
It’s not that Foreign Affairs never runs material that challenges the orthodoxy in the field of foreign policy – which historically has been called “internationalism” and which President Trump has re-labeled “globalism.” But such articles are published so rarely that their very infrequency clearly telegraphs even to minimally perceptive readers that they’re exercises in tokenism. Another big clue along these lines – they’re given the magazine’s blessing usually only after internationalist policies lead to outright national disasters.
One leading example is this piece, which came out at the height of the Vietnam War. Much less important examples include two pieces of my own, which indicated the Council’s willingness to consider that, with the Cold War ended, America’s military reach was needlessly and dangerously exceeding its grasp; and that the standard economic theories sanctifying free trade policies weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Yet Michael Beckley’s essay in Foreign Affairs‘ November/December issue falls into a different category altogether. It not only decimates globalism’s core tenets. It does so unwittingly. And there’s no reason to suspect that the magazine’s editors or their superiors understand its profoundly subversive implications, either.
Even more startling: the author’s main arguments closely mirror those made in this 2018 article of mine (and foreshadowed in this Atlantic Monthly piece from…wait for it…nearly 30 years ago).
My own case against globalism first and foremost challenges its assumption that the United States has become exquisitely sensitive, and indeed downright vulnerable, to virtually every disturbance of a set of global circumstances whose default position is called “order” – even though the stability of the entirety of this so-called system itself in turn is considered as fragile as a pyramid of champagne glasses.
In fact, I’ve contended, because of America’s unique combination of geographic isolation, technological prowess and therefore military power, and natural wealth, it’s substantially unaffected by most outbreaks of instability overseas.
And where globalism claims that because of this vulnerability, U.S. foreign policy must engage in a ceaseless effort to create, maintain, or restore order and stability abroad, I’ve argued that because developments within the United States (including its actual or potential foreign vulnerabilities) are far easier for Americans to control than developments without, even when foreign developments threaten to impinge on its security and prosperity, the U.S. government is best advised to respond by addressing its own weaknesses and shoring up its own defenses rather than trying to fix what’s broken overseas.
There’s definitely a paradox at work here, but a paradox that makes perfect sense to the open-minded: The United States is anything but capable through its own devices of ensuring its security and prosperity by making or keeping the world safe and stable. But it’s entirely capable of ensuring through its own devices its own security and prosperity in a world that remains unsafe and unstable.
So imagine my surprise upon reading Beckley statements like:
>”By 2040, the United States will be the only country with a large, growing market and the fiscal capacity to sustain a global military presence. Meanwhile, new technologies will reduce U.S. dependence on foreign labor and resources….”
>”Remaining the most powerful country, however, is not the same thing as remaining the guarantor of a liberal international order. Somewhat paradoxically, the same trends that will reinforce U.S. economic and military might will also make it harder to play that role—and make Trump’s approach more attractive.”
>For much of its history, “The United States could afford to pursue its goals alone because it, unlike other powerful countries, was self-sufficient. By the 1880s, the United States was the world’s richest country, largest consumer market, and leading manufacturer and energy producer, with vast natural resources and no major threats. With so much going for it at home, the United States had little interest in forging alliances abroad.”
>With the passing of the Cold War-era Soviet threat that could only be adequately contained with alliances (I disagree, but that’s a separate issue) “Americans will feel less dependent on foreign partners than they have in generations.”
>”As other major economies shrivel, the United States will become even more central to global growth and even less reliant on international commerce.”
>”The United States will also have less need for staunch allies, because rapid aging will hobble the military expansion of its great-power adversaries.”
>”The United States’ task of leading the liberal world order will grow harder as nationalists gain power and raise tariffs, close borders, and abandon international institutions.”
One likely reason that neither Beckley nor the folks at Foreign Affairs or the Council understood the real importance of his article is that the author works so hard to paint such unattractive – and even ominous – picture of the rest of the world if the United States does pursue a go-it-alone strategy. Indeed, his portrayal of this kind of America (“rogue” and “illiberal”) isn’t exactly flattering, either.
Another likely reason for this obliviousness is that the second-best version of globalism that Beckley proposes as an alternative to the pre-Trump iteration isn’t so terribly different from traditional globalism.
It essentially entails a more explicit use of U.S. power and wealth to pressure current allies and neutrals into following U.S. leads in exchange for using its still (and increasingly formidable) military edge to protect them against China and Russia and other predators. But although, in Beckley’s words, this foreign policy approach would be “more stingy and uninspiring” than today’s globalism, to my eyes, it also looks comparably (and needlessly) ambitious, interventionist, and risky – especially if America’s relative military prowess doesn’t prove to be nearly as intimidating as the author expects, and the U.S. homeland remains exposed to the risk of nuclear attack from foreign aggressors.
Also crucial to remember – at this stage, even though Beckley’s views have been given something of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by the Council, his voice remains an awfully lonely one. In particlar, there is absolutely no indication yet that anyone associated with the Biden presidential campaign remotely agrees.
At the same time, changes in national strategy rarely develop through knowing adoption of the master plans laid out by policy writers like him (or me). In fact, one of my favorite lines in non-fiction has been been the Victorian era British historian J.R. Seeleye’s contention that his countrymen “seem to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”
I’m not saying I believe Seeleye entirely. But he usefully spotlights the crucial role played by the force of circumstance in producing national course changes. And that’s mainly why Beckley’s article genuinely deserves the descriptor “subversive.” It’s ably identified the many of the developments (including some I haven’t considered) that demonstrate the attractiveness of a genuinely America First-type foreign policy, and could well push the United States to adopt one whether he – or the still powerful globalist U.S. national establishment – likes it or not.