US Republicans challenge the foreign policy ‘blob’

In my experience, the widely quoted adage about America’s capital — “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog” — makes a fair point; imagine a city populated entirely by high school student council presidents. Nevertheless, in my glory days in D.C. I managed to buck the odds and acquire a number of great colleagues who I have remained close to over the 16 years I have run my political risk firm.

I’ve just checked in with them over a marathon week, with 16 intensive meetings in five days. This concentrated process is by far the best way to take a mental snapshot of what is really going on in what remains the most important country in the world.

There are two major political risk takeaways from the week. Point one is that the current Western unity over the Ukraine war is misleading. It was pointed out to me by many that there are three strands of Western thinking on Russia, and they do not strategically agree.

First, the Eastern Europeans and the UK (for rather odd and specific reasons) want to roll back all Russian gains at almost any cost. But it is also true that of the three strands, those advocating total rollback are geopolitically the weakest.

Second, the Biden administration finds itself in a balancing position, writing Ukraine a series of blank checks, with the US having no specific war aims of its own but working hard to limit the conflict. The Biden team have a studied aversion to the no-fly zones that Western hawks are screaming for, as they could lead to a direct confrontation between superpower America and great power Russia — a breach of the “Kennedy Rules” that nuclear powers do not ever directly fight one another.

Third, European Council on Foreign Relations polling makes clear that Western European publics increasingly favor “peace” (the war stopping now so as to stem the looming tsunami of the cost-of-living crisis and rampant inflation brought on by Europe’s feckless energy policy) over “justice” (Ukraine regaining every yard of its territory, but at great economic cost to the continent).

In other words, there is trouble ahead for the Western alliance over the war, as strategically these fundamental differences become apparent to even the dimmest analyst.

Beyond the coming possible schisms in Western unity over the war, there was a second, vastly underreported takeaway from my fascinating trip — namely the coming rejuvenation of the Republican Party in foreign policy terms.

In Washington I met with every branch of foreign policy opinion formers for the GOP. They included the Heritage Foundation, the largest think tank in the world and the most important on the right in the US; the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s own in-house think tank; the over-arching and increasingly powerful Stand Together Alliance, which unites the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian wings of the GOP around a realist orientation; and two venerable establishment pillars, the Center for the National Interest and the Atlantic Council. I also had private meetings with senior foreign policy grandees. All the above testified to the fact that there is a revolt catching fire in the party to do away with its longstanding links to the foreign policy “blob,” the disastrous, overly interventionist elite that gave us the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It is far less likely the Republican Party will remain linked to the discredited foreign policy establishment if it comes back to power in 2024, as it is embracing a new, more skeptical and realist orientation, having under Trump jettisoned from positions of power in the party the fantasist, hyper-interventionist neo-conservatives who futilely and fatally wanted to impose democracy around the world — nation building at the point of a gun.

In essence, this new realist alliance between Jeffersonians (the Stand Together Alliance) and Jacksonians (Heritage) is fused around a more realist orientation, whereby the GOP is no longer content to serve as the junior interventionist member of the Washington foreign policy establishment, in lockstep with the liberal Wilsonian hawks who perpetually dominate the Democratic Party. Instead, they believe the US should focus its strategic engagement in regions where its primary interests are at stake, as in the Indo-Pacific, the source of most of the world’s coming economic growth and much of its political risk peril.

For them, Ukraine is a sideshow, and a terribly expensive one at that — obscuring America’s necessary pivot to Asia. It should be supported, but with clear limits to that support, as the US cannot care more about European security than Europeans do. At present America is responsible for about 70 percent of the military wherewithal heading to Kyiv, while Germany does as little as possible. While Biden is spending tens of billions of dollars on secondary-interest Ukraine, what should be the obvious, overriding focus on the Indo-Pacific is being lost. What I learned in my fascinating week in D.C. is that at last the karmic wheel is turning, as the Republican Party forsakes its disastrous adherence to the foreign policy blob and rediscovers its precious realist heritage.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable (Part 2)

Yet despite the increasingly obvious inadequacies of its competitors, realism has not taken the American foreign policy community by storm. With their hopeful outlook, refusal to retreat from even the largest of world problems, and principled stand on the merits of democracy, the Democratic and Republican iterations of the ‘Wilsonian’ approach to foreign policy—be it through liberal institutionalism or through neoconservatism—are widely thought to be quintessentially American, and have prospered. It is as if people would rather be demonstrably wrong, but well-meaning, than adopt a point of view that might be right but seems cold, bloodless and plodding. By contrast, realism—with its laser-like focus on assessing power relationships and the often discomforting insights that it brings—conjures up images of Old World European cynicism. It is gloomy, unsexy—in a word, un-American. America, so the thinking goes, is not suited to playing power politics: Realpolitik is simply not in our political DNA. As a result, Wilsonian foreign policy strategies have gained a near-monopoly among the nation’s decision-makers—a monopoly that is likely to dominate the next four years (Obama’s first term) just as it did the previous eight (George W. Bush’s two terms).

This is more than unfortunate. It is dangerous. For we believe that realism has something unique to say about America’s growing predicament in world affairs—something that the other schools, for all their boundless optimism, are not equipped to provide us. Far from being an antiquated, foreign transplant, realism as a concept is in fact deeply rooted in the American national consciousness—not only at the top, but in the collective popular imagination. To specifically protect America and its people above all other considerations so they can get on with enjoying the personal benefits of liberty that come from living in a strong, prosperous, powerful country; to believe that too much power in the hands of any one group (or country) has the potential to corrupt and should therefore be balanced; to deny that any government, including our own, has all the answers for what ails the world—all are uniquely American insights that inform modern realism as well.

Instead of being foreign, realism has been a large part of the American discourse since the administration of George Washington and the signing of the Jay Treaty with our then enemy Great Britain. Washington and Alexander Hamilton made it clear that securing peace for the American people should supersede distaste for doing a deal with the formerly hated George III. This hard-headed approach set the fledgling American Republican on its way to its eventual rendezvous with destiny, as the essential modern great power confronting the horrors of both Hitler and Stalin. Contrary to the argument of realism’s foes, Americans have in many ways been realists from the founding. That has been one of the secrets of our success.

That is precisely why it is such a pity, from our point of view, that the pragmatism so inherent in both realism and in American foreign policymaking since the founding has been submerged (but not eliminated) by the recent dominance of the liberal institutionalist and neoconservative schools of thought, which start from utopian premises, not being based upon a practical assessment of the world we actually find ourselves in. The founders would know better.

But if realism’s critics are wrong in saying that it is un-American, they are right that it is unsexy. In recent years, realists have shown little interest in making their insights understandable to the American public. Too often they have glorified in their craft as if the world were merely a mathematical formula that needed working out, one that should be explained only to an inner-circle priesthood of true believers who had enough intellect and guts to see the world as it truly was. To put it mildly, such elitist nonsense is not likely to lead to political success in any democratic country. Realism has come to resemble the worst kind of Shakespearean production, glorifying in the bard’s obscurity, forgetting that the secret to his universal appeal is that he wrote the plays using themes and language that everyone of his day could entirely understand. Realism, like Shakespeare, must be for everyone.

We strongly believe that realism, beyond the usual academic cloisters, needs to reconnect with the people of the country, if it is to remain relevant. To make this point, and to convey what we believe is a message of grave importance for the future of the American Republic, we have chosen an unconventional format for this book. Precisely because the stakes for the United States are now so high and our current policymaking habits so predictably tragic, we—both of whom are prolific foreign policy analysts—believe we cannot afford to simply add another book to the growing list of foreign policy analyses that are being written to advise the next president (Obama).

Instead, we have chosen to present an allegory of American power drawn from that most American of mediums—film—and that most American of film dramas: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

The idea of using this iconic 1972 movie to explain US foreign policy was born in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, a most un-Mediterranean setting, on a November night in 2007. While we had independently realised the film’s parallels to the world of geopolitics, it was not until Wess joined John for a Hefeweizen (German wheat beer) one night at his Berlin apartment that we realised the movie’s full potential to convey the seriousness of America’s current predicament and the strategic alternatives that are available for handling it. For in his chronicling of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the Corleone Mafia empire, Coppola presents two hauntingly prophetic messages that speak directly to America today: That the fall of the powerful is inevitable; and that we have options for how we respond to this tragic truth, make the most of the hidden opportunities it presents, and chart a course to renewed strength.

The travails of the Corleone family in the anarchic and fluid world of organised crime are not unlike those America will face in the anarchic and fluid world of geopolitics. Like Coppola’s characters, America today can rest assured that adjustment will come; it is simply a question of on whose terms. And while Americans may not be a cynical people, we are—like the Corleone family—a practical people, a people who value their birthright enough to make hard decisions in hard times, outwitting intelligent foes to prosper in a world cut loose from the moorings of everything we thought—and hoped—it would be.

And so we present a parable of American statecraft, offered at a moment of unexampled danger, in the hopes that our Republic will foresee the coming earthquake, and prosper in spite of it. We present The Godfather Doctrine.

John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell, June 15, 2008.