As I observe the silence about foreign affairs among Democrats seeking to be president, I am reminded of the heartfelt plea of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, to the recalcitrant Scots: “Gentlemen, I beseech thee: in the bowls of Christ, consider that ye may be mistaken!”
Under our Constitution, only the president has a special duty to care for the nation’s welfare in world affairs. Domestic issues — Green New Deals, Medicare for All, forgiveness of student debt, a living wage, etc. — are assigned to Congress. The judiciary has special competence to keep privilege and politics out of our laws.
No one should run for president without having mature and responsible views about our place in the world. The consequences of White House incompetence in foreign affairs — from little Denmark to mighty China — are readily on view in Washington these days. (Amy Klobuchar: I hope you’re reading this.)
Without help, the international community never has been, is not now, and, most likely, never will be an affirming safe space.
We Americans have tried to be helpful — to protect ourselves and to make common cause with others. First under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, again under Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, and then most successfully under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.
Once communist China abandoned Maoism and the Soviet Union collapsed, the international order that we built with help from allies near and far enabled humanity to prosper economically and politically as never before in history. Good norms and just institutions, in the main, provided for economic growth and effective checks and balances that contained autocrats and fanatics.
Now, however, our once more-hopeful world is falling apart as it did in the 1930s, and for similar reasons of identity politics.
Religious wars go on and on in the Middle East. Nuclear powers Pakistan and India edge closer to war out of respective dedication to their mutually incompatible religious identities. As long as the Chinese people stick with their ancient imperial system, China will demand global pre-eminence. Japan and South Korea are pulling apart as North Korea retains its nuclear weapons. Russia is partly in Europe but not yet happy to be a part of it. The English seek solace in isolationism. Hard, uncompromising men are in power in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam.
With such turmoil all around us, why aren’t the Democratic candidates for president speaking up? Don’t they know what is going on? Don’t they care? Or are they without ideas?
Maybe it’s because they are mimicking our president in parochialism. Maybe they are fixated on their own rival vision of how domestically to “Make American Great Again.” Maybe like the “deplorables” they find repugnant, they are bogged down in the slough of despondence that is today’s America, a people petulantly sulking in an identity crisis like a spoiled preteen.
I have yet to understand clearly why this sad state has come upon us, but I suspect its roots lie in fear. Fear of others, loss of faith in ourselves, fear of the future and anger at the past. Whatever the reason, the result is psychosocial and generic across age, gender, religions and ethnicity. We have made ourselves small-minded, shortsighted and inwardly focused. A neurotic affliction any way you think about it.
Just consider for a moment rates of opioid addiction, alcoholism, suicides, nastiness to others, family breakups, dysfunctional use of social media, mass shootings, living alone, and other pathologies: All are up with no sign of any remedial change in slope of the curves. I just read that 85% of college students — our future leaders — described themselves as feeling “overwhelmed,” with 51% reported feeling that “things are hopeless.”
What, you might ask, does this have to do with foreign policy? For one thing, it creates a culture in which people just don’t care about what is far away or people who look different or speak a different language. And, with our modern politics, our would-be leaders are just followers pandering to their respective “bases.” If the “base” doesn’t care about something, why should they?
Democratic candidates, along with their advisers and financial backers, who all closely study the polls and scrutinize the thinking of focus groups, see no advantage in speaking out about foreign affairs. They all have an “ostrich with its head in the sand” sense of self or else the self-assurance of the fat turkey that hasn’t figured out that Thanksgiving is just around the corner.
Perhaps Democratic candidates are reticent to speak out on foreign policy for another reason as well. We have suffered from elite failure in foreign policy as we have in finance and education. Our most highly educated and highly paid investment bankers, lawyers and fund managers gave us the collapse of credit markets in 2008. Our professionally trained educators can’t overcome the achievement gap.
What can we praise in a foreign-policy elite that has been unable to defeat insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, overcome terrorism in the Muslim world, prevent China from militarizing the South China Sea, bring peace to Syria, or help the people of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras prosper in their own homes?
Obama’s closest foreign-policy adviser, Ben Rhodes, referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as “the Blob.” According to Rhodes, “the Blob” included Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who are little more than “whiners.”
Anyone with sense for realism in human affairs who reads the journals Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, so central to our discussions of foreign policy, or attends conferences hosted by Washington think tanks, finds the articles and presentations self-referential, academic, and only for insiders. Standoffish intellectualism has made the “Blob” so compact and irrelevant.
The “Blob” is a club for pontificators, those who disdain those with personal resolve and determination to act, who eschew risk, and who close the door on those who thrive on action. As with the rest of our elite, prestigious academic credentials are the key card for social acceptance. The “Blob” has culturally intimidated those who are not among its members into renouncing all claim to speaking out on foreign affairs.
The power of the “Blob” has been fertilized and nourished by the rise of the media commentariat holding forth on television and in op-eds and blogs. Any political candidate assumes great risks of being criticized and marginalized if he or she takes on the “Blob” with strong foreign-policy views or different ways of talking about what we should do in the world.
When I served in Vietnam in rural pacification, I had my issues with those older than me and more important to our military, foreign service, CIA, and Agency for International Development. Impetuous and frustrated, I too easily looked down on their skills and commitment. Back then we had a tough war to win, and I didn’t think many of them were up to the job.
But over the last 30 years as I have traveled around the world or pressed government officials to do something sound and substantial overseas, I have come to rethink my youthful disdain for those who also served in Vietnam. They were so much more concerned, practical, can-do and able to work with others than the “Blob” will tolerate these days.
We are institutionally weak in foreign affairs, and the Democratic presidential candidates have an obligation to do something about it. But what?
First: Start with great moral principles fit for this republic. I recommend these words of George Washington: “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Then I would commend Lincoln’s extension of this vision: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us … do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Second, Democrats seeking to be our president could build on their party’s heritage in foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson took the side of the rational Enlightenment as expressed in the French Revolution against the monarchical norms of Great Britain. James Monroe followed with a warning to European powers to keep their distance from newly independent countries in Central and South America.
Then, Woodrow Wilson again picked up the banner of good governance in the world when he argued for our participation in a “war to save democracy.” He tried prematurely but failed to establish norms and institutions for a peaceful and tolerant world. Franklin Roosevelt profoundly understood what was at stake in World War II and led a global coalition against the horrific Nazi regime and the cruel arrogance of Japanese militarists.
After the war, his successor and my hero, Harry Truman, a modest man from Kansas City, took on the world without a second thought, magnanimously reaching out to former enemies in Germany and Japan and assuming the risks of confrontation with Stalin and Mao to protect peoples around the world from tyranny and moral degradation.
Next, the young John Kennedy, told us that: “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’— a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
To me, a noble step was then taken by Lyndon Johnson in July 1965 when at great risk he accepted responsibility for the military defense of Vietnamese nationalists against communist conquest and oppression. Johnson said: “We did not choose to be the guardians of the gate, but there is no one else.”
But after communism collapsed in 1989, Democrats seemed to lose their way in foreign affairs. The “Blob” came to life (Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry). To help the “Blob” grow in power and prestige, Joseph Nye of Harvard invented “soft” power so that we would not have to assume the burdens and risks that come with using “hard” power. The world, said Nye, would come our way because foreign peoples “shared our values.” It hasn’t worked out as he predicted.
The Democratic candidates on the leaderboard will debate on Thursday. They should then speak up on foreign affairs. They have a high duty to show us their respective plans to use American power and influence skillfully in partnership with others to subdue sovereign arrogance and transform it into trusteeships seeking the common good of humanity.
As they prepare their thoughts, let them remember the advice given to Brutus by Shakespeare’s Cassius: “Till then, think of the world.”
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.