BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
How About We Stand Virtuous Rather Than Virtue-Signal?
We cannot act solely based on our values in an anarchic international system, not if we expect to maintain our vital alliances and to keep our forces from fighting, three-to-four expensive wars at a time, in the middle-of-nowhere–for nothing. And, we no longer have the ability to shape the international order entirely to our desires. So, we need to do something drastic: we need to fundamentally rethink the way we operate in the world.
First, the United States needs to embrace the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s idea of becoming “a normal country in a normal time.” Toward that end, American policymakers should stop trying to keep the institutions and strategy that defined America’s “unipolar moment” intact. As I’ve shown throughout this series, that moment ended, unfortunately, long ago.
Instead, the United States must start shedding commitments; rationally fund its military (as opposed to blindly increase the defense budget without any concept of strategy); reform its overall national security apparatus to comport with the realities of the 21st century; and be willing to do business with countries that do not always share our values–including with the Russian Federation. The goal should not be global hegemony (at least not yet). Rather, America’s goal should be to further the domestic tranquility and prosperity of the American people rather than expanding the sphere of freedom to places like Ghana (especially if that mission sacrifices the core security and prosperity of the American people).
Second, the United States should not abandon its higher values in principle, but it should learn to temper its expectations–and its desire to force drastic change upon the world, just as America’s Founding Fathers did. It’s one thing to support things like Radio Free Europe and to engage in public diplomacy with the oppressed people of autocratic states, but to try and militarily impose our standards and ideals on countries with entirely different sets of values and cultures, is not only astoundingly arrogant, but it is also ignorant (and therefore dangerous) to boot. We also should be much more judicious in how we seek to utilize our covert intelligence agencies to effect direct change.
The history of American covert intervention in the form of “political action” has a deeply mixed track record. At its best, during the Cold War, American covert operations–namely those aimed at toppling anti-American/pro-Soviet regimes–did protect the national interest. Yet, the expansive nature of America’s covert action program was such that the successes were outweighed by the catastrophic failures. And, in the case of Iran, whatever short-term benefits were to be had in the context of the Cold War were overwhelmed by the long-term implications of those covert activities. Looking back at recent history, it appears that we’ve yet to learn our lesson.
Third, the United States needs to adapt itself and its institutions to a world in which, yes, the United States remains militarily the first among equals globally, but in every other measure, it must exist in a multipolar environment. America’s military must undoubtedly continue being the most fearsome and feared force on the planet. Yet, I question how either fearsome or fierce it remains (at least in the eyes of our enemies) in the aftermath of more than a decade of strategic failures (this is not a knock on the fighting men and women, this is a critique of America’s strategists, both civilian and military). In terms of strategic tempering, the United States must be ready–and able–to conduct global operations at the relative drop of a hat. But, it must forego the asinine desire to remake countries, like Afghanistan, into Arizona. Punitive expeditions, of the sort that President Thomas Jefferson engaged in when confronted with the scourge of the Barbary Coast Pirates, must always be on the table. Anything beyond that should only be entertained in the event of a catastrophic situation (like an actual world war).
Moreover, in the terrible event that the United States did have to conduct another major, long-term war, the Defense Department must actually sit down and craft what former Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters called for in 2004: an occupation doctrine.
Such a doctrine, according to Ralph Peters would lay out,
“the complexity and challenges involved prior to our move against [an autocratic] regime. Oral arguments and position papers are weak tools compared to an approved doctrinal manual, in black and white, that our uniformed leaders could lay in front of the president, his advisers and Congress to detail the probable cost to achieve our goals.”
“The absence of such doctrine grants madcap civilian theorists a license to fantasize about bloodless war followed by easy, self-financing occupations (or worse, the assumption that occupation won’t be necessary). If the Army doesn’t draw its lessons learned from Iraq (and previous occupations it conducted successfully) and forge those lessons into useful doctrine, the institution will have only itself to blame the next time we blunder headlong into a reality that doesn’t match the merry expectations of policymakers for whom our military is merely a global janitorial service.”
“Army leaders have to be hardheaded about this: Formulate realistic doctrine — neither blithely optimistic nor so pessimistic it obviously was framed to discourage occupations. While our doctrine can help politicians make wise decisions by instructing them what their visions truly involve, it’s also essential that the Army doesn’t fall into the “can’t do” trap in which it caught itself in the mid-1990s. This isn’t a matter of the Army getting to choose its missions, but of giving decision-makers a sense of reality when unavoidable missions arise.”
Finally, the upside of having engaged in torture over the last 17 years as openly as the United States did is that we are no longer (or, rather, we should not be) bound to pie-in-the-sky, plucky idealism of the Carter-Clinton-Bush ’43-Obama presidencies. After all, before the revelations of America’s torture policies in the inappropriately named “Global War on Terror,” as the current head of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani, said in 2008:
As noted above, the United States is a country that has now openly–and flagrantly–engaged in torture. In a way, this unburdens the United States a bit from having to constantly refrain from furthering its core, national interests by constantly refusing to do business with countries that also engage in torture (no, I am not pro-torture). Since we ourselves have negated our strongest human rights arguments, perhaps it’s time to focus more rigidly on what is in the best national interest, rather than constantly dinging our strategic competitors over their own inequities (particularly if we gain nothing in terms of strategic value by constantly haranguing those competitors).
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in creating a more stable relationship with the Russian Federation, for instance, resides in our unbending belief that publicly humiliating and excoriating Russian leaders for their regime’s blatant disregard for human rights will somehow engender goodwill from the Kremlin and will prevent greater levels of hostility between our two peoples. This sort of hypocrisy and naïvete can only be found among American preschoolers and the Western political elite. What’s more, constantly harping on about human rights abuses whilst remaining conspicuously silent about our own abandonment of those norms only distances the United States away from the very same people globally that we are trying to rally to our cause.
Again, the United States should take a much less literal implementation of a human rights agenda: it’s one thing to espouse our values through soft power means, like subversive radio and television broadcasts of the sort that defined America’s Cold War strategy; or to attempt direct, public diplomacy with the Russian people (particularly the youth), but it is entirely irresponsible to fund militant opposition movements–especially in major powers, like in Russia. Regarding the fight against the “Fake News” epidemic and the need to push American values globally, the founder of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., Dr. John Lenczowski, argues for something known as “Full-Spectrum Diplomacy.”
In Lenczowski’s words, full-spectrum diplomacy, like its military counterpart of “Full-Spectrum Dominance,” would merge the tools needed to influence foreign public and elite opinion–in the realm of information, disinformation, ideas, values, culture, and religion–together to ensure American interests are being defended without having to resort to the use of force. Lenczowski and my colleagues at IWP refer to this as the concept of “winning without war.” In today’s hyper-competitive and overly militarized environment, this is a unique way of moving forward (incidentally, this concept is roughly based off of Sun Tzu’s teachings, and this view is one reason for China having risen to such dominance today).
Something else that is mind-blowingly irresponsible is to do that which the United States apparently did in the run-up to the 2012 presidential “election” in Russia. At that time, according to the former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, the U.S. gave direct, financial support (on the order of $100 million) to (and even sheltered in America’s embassy) anti-Putin political groups, in what can only be described as a soft, barely-covert regime change mission.
This was not the sort of foreign policy our Founding Fathers envisaged for the United States. More importantly, this is not the kind of foreign policy that will protect America in this new-old international order of competing states with relative equality (in terms of capabilities or wealth). In fact, it will turn strategic rivals, like Russia, into enemies and it will convert enemies (like China) into fanatics.
Also, the human rights-dominated foreign policy is insanely hypocritical: we will isolate and shove Russia into a proverbial box, at the same time we will bend-over-backwards to accommodate Red China. What’s the difference between China and Russia in terms of human rights violations (in fact, I’d argue that Russia is less of a human rights violator than their totalitarian neighbor in China)? Oh, right, China is an integral part of the global economy–specifically, it is a vital economic “partner” for the United States–and Russia is not (thereby reaffirming my view that, “money talks and shit walks”).
Now, the utopians still reading this–if there are any left–might be inclined to fall back on the old Liberal Internationalist trope of relying on greater levels of global multilateral institutions, like the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, to bring world peace. Not so. The 2016 and 2017 elections throughout the West should have proven that the nation-state is still the key driver of all international politics. Even the UN, the mother-of-all multilateral global organizations, is dominated by the national interests and foreign policy proclivities of its individual members. Its long-time anti-zionist and anti-American predilections, and now the fact that the ranks of the blue-helmeted peacekeepers are being increasingly populated by Chinese forces operating in Africa, are more proof of this. Tell me, when Zimbabwe or the Sudan needs assistance, do they look to the UN? No. They look to a nation-state like China. So, the Liberal International assumption that greater levels of globalism will save us, or the neoconservative assumption that wars for ideals are somehow better than conflicts over the national interest, are both deeply flawed assertions (that we must disabuse ourselves of with due haste).
The world has fundamentally changed since the 1990s. The old assumptions of a “new world order” based on the rule of law, rather than the law of the jungle is gone. For the United States to survive and thrive in this new world, it must embrace the old concepts of geopolitics; it must pioneer the return of a new-old world order, which drops the cloying virtue-signaling of the “end of history” and restores the primacy of power to the center of American foreign policy. Only once the United States achieves this can the nation-building at home begin. And, without a strong home front, the United States will never be safe. For this reason alone we should give President Trump the benefit of the doubt and ignore some of the more egregious personality quirks of the president. He is, after all, the first one in my lifetime to attempt to create a foreign policy that relies more heavily on strict national interests as opposed to the vanity exercises of the democratic globalists.
Since taking office, the president has effectively:
- coerced North Korea to the negotiating table (however, it remains to be seen how serious this effort is on the part of the North).
- The United States has roundly defeated the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
- We are reinvigorating our alliances with the Sunni Arab states and Israel.
- Finally, Mr. Trump is considering ending our ridiculous stint in Syria (as part of a larger push to create a more stable, open relationship with nuclear-armed Russia).
- And, the United States is taking the first serious steps toward defending its economic interests in the area of trade–an area that American presidents since the 1970s have systematically surrendered to foreign countries with malign intentions.
Whether any of these policies pan out is unknown at this time. After all, America hasn’t operated in a true realpolitik manner in decades. However, the damage that has been incurred over the last four American presidential administrations has been so profound that success is not guaranteed and failure may very well be fatal (as is continuing with the status quo ex ante). As China solidifies its rise and Russia continues to complicate American global designs–and as terrorism continues to confound American policymakers along with nuclear-rogue states–it should be readily apparent to all that a fundamental reappraisal of America’s foreign policy is needed.
An embrace of realpolitik will give America the time it needs so that the Trump Administration’s economic reforms can take root, and we can once again begin the necessary task of leapfrogging our adversaries economically. But, this will only come if the investment–both with public as well as private funds–is available to generate innovation in the STEM-related fields. Further, the biggest area of research should be space, as I recently argued in Vero Beach, Fla. Just look at the spin-off innovations that all of the NASA investment created during the heyday of America’s space program. Something similar is vitally needed today. As both David Goldman and myself have argued for years, a serious investment into a Manhattan-like Project for space-based missile defense would more than pay for itself, as it would allow us to leapfrog our enemies militarily. The spin-off technology would compel an entirely new round of game-changing innovation and economic growth similar to what the United States experienced from the late 1970s until the early 1990s.
Until we achieve that kind of innovation and prosperity, then, the United States will continue to be mired in history and hegemony and unipolarity will be a thing of the past. Thus, we will be forced to operate in a balance-of-power paradigm in which the Chinese are very near-to-parity with the United States and the Russians continue nipping at our proverbial heels (despite Russia being a country in severe decline). We will live in a world in which geopolitical risk to the United States is at an all-time high, since we are unable to overcome the major threats posed by rogue states and terrorists also. However, it will take some time to generate the kind of economic boom that is needed. And, it’s not an entirely bad thing to reassess some of our preconceived notions and support for institutions that bear little relevance to this new-old world order of hard geopolitics, strict national interests, and competing spheres of influence around the world.