Here Comes Fortress America?
Should Washington intervene abroad to promote liberty and prosperity—or look inward?
IN HIS inaugural address, Donald Trump vowed to shun globalism and follow a policy of America First. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” Trump said, “but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”
His statement captured the division over American foreign policy since the founding of the republic, though it may be wondered whether Trump himself is closely acquainted with this divide. He has, after all, declared his unfamiliarity with the tenebrous origins of America First, which was once the rallying cry of a motley crew of isolationists and anti-Semites who opposed American entry into World War II. Trump’s embrace of the slogan, however, has revived a fundamental question that Americans have confronted since the founding. Should the United States intervene abroad to promote liberty and prosperity? Or should it look inward, focusing on rebuilding at home?
Despite its aversion to becoming entangled in European affairs, the republic, for much of its early history, largely adhered to Talleyrand’s famous maxim pas trop de zèle—not too much zeal. While many contemporary neocons might like to bid farewell to Washington’s Farewell Address, it had a lasting impact. Thus, in 1821, when Greek revolutionaries sought to overthrow Ottoman rule, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned against American intervention. He admonished that America should not go
in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
Over a century later, Walter Lippmann, who had drafted the Fourteen Points for Woodrow Wilson, sounded a sober note in his 1943 book U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic that was far removed from his youthful Wilsonianism:
We must consider first and last the American national interest. If we do not, if we construct our foreign policy on some kind of abstract theory of rights and duties, we shall build castles in the air. We shall formulate policies which in fact the nation will not support with its blood, its sweat, and its tears.
For all the talk of crusades during the Cold War, it was, by and large, a pragmatic realpolitik that prevailed, leavened by periodic calls for democracy and human rights abroad. There was no rollback of Communism. Instead, a de facto sphere of influence obtained in both Europe and Asia. Germany and Korea were each divided. The sixteenth-century European dictum—Cuius regio, eius religio—prevailed. Confrontations with the Soviet Union were mostly indirect and confined to the Third World, where the United States, more often than not, backed ideological freebooters and launched coups, whether in the Middle East, Africa or Central America. The essential mantra of the Cold War, for both superpowers, was stability, even as they sought to nudge the correlation of forces in their own favor.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, however, a triumphalist narrative emerged in Washington in which any caution about the deployment of American power was cast aside. Stability was out. Revolution was in. The controversy about America’s destiny was really initiated by Francis Fukuyama, whose essay “The End of History?”—the question mark is often forgotten—appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of the National Interest. Owen Harries, TNI’s founding editor, and himself a realist thinker, used Fukuyama’s essay to jump-start the magazine, though he, like Irving Kristol, the publisher, can scarcely have agreed with it. Harries went on to commission a series of lively essays from prominent intellectuals and journalists, ranging from Irving Kristol to Charles Krauthammer, from Nathan Glazer to Patrick J. Buchanan, about America’s purpose in the world. After appearing in the magazine, the essays were collected and published in 1991 in a book called America’s Purpose. The clash between realism and neoconservatism was clearly illuminated. But in retrospect, it is abundantly clear that the neocons won the war almost without firing a shot.
Emboldened by the unexpected demise of the Soviet Union, neoconservatives and liberal-internationalist hawks made common cause, first over war in the Balkans, then in Iraq. This consolidation of neocons and liberal hawks had been foreshadowed in a 1990 essay by Charles Krauthammer in the National Interest called “Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World.” In it, Krauthammer said that America’s purpose was obvious. He called for a confederated West that would inexorably spread its values around the world. Krauthammer wrote that its creation would require “the conscious depreciation not only of American sovereignty, but of the notion of sovereignty in general.”
Even more expansive were the claims of liberal internationalists such as Thomas Friedman who saw a new age of globalization dawning—and ignored the fact that Europe had never been more unified than on the eve of World War I. Their catechisms about globalization carried echoes of the Communist Manifesto:
National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.
In many ways, the beliefs expressed by Friedman and others in the beneficent effects of globalization are part of the DNA of modern liberalism. John Stuart Mill, for example, believed that global trade would not only suppress the inclination to war, but also elevate humanity. He wrote,
It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. . . . It is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which are in natural opposition to it.
The belief in the obsolescence of war was disseminated by Friedman and others. Even as the latest proponents of globalization touted its benefits, however, there were dissenting voices. One of the earliest was Samuel Huntington in the National Interest in 2004. Huntington decried the rise of the cosmopolitan Davos Man. The very word Davos should have set off alarm bells among the international elites who traveled there to mingle and feel good about themselves. Davos was, of course, the Alpine retreat where Thomas Mann based his famous 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, presenting what might be called the first Davos Man. In his novel, Mann mocks the humanist Lodovico Settembrini, who beguiles the protagonist Hans Castorp with visions of a League of International Justice for Progress that is supposed to banish all of mankind’s afflictions. The Magic Mountain concludes with Castorp about to die in combat in World War I. That era’s authors harbored none of the illusions about the universality of mankind that have periodically afflicted the great and mighty: Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, which was published just one year before The Magic Mountain, in 1923, has the affable Zeno watching in bewilderment, towards the conclusion, as he gets caught up in the fighting in Trieste, on the border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.
Huntington did not allude to Mann, but he assailed the “gold-collar workers” who scorned the nation-state and traditional communities. He depicted them as a gilded cohort that “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.”
Then there is Patrick J. Buchanan. In many ways, Buchanan set the stage for Trump, both in tone and policy. When he ran for president in 1992, in the Republican primary against establishment scion George H. W. Bush, he denounced him for permitting a trade deficit to grow and for “groveling” to China. If Washington elites wanted to defend a border, he said, “why don’t they try defending the southern border of the United States of America!” Writing in the National Interest in 1990, Buchanan adumbrated these themes. He directly attacked Charles Krauthammer’s unipolar-world essay. He attacked the notion that American sovereignty should be diffused into a Western confederation.
Instead, he called for a policy of “America first—and second, and third.” Buchanan was aghast at the idea that the United States should subordinate its sovereignty to global organizations. According to Buchanan, “We cannot forever defend wealthy nations that refuse to defend themselves; we cannot permit endless transfusions of the life blood of American capitalism into the mendicant countries and economic corpses of socialism without bleeding to death.” Prefiguring his opposition to the second Iraq War, Buchanan added,
We should look, too, with a cold eye on the internationalist set, never at a loss for new ideas to divert U.S. wealth and power into crusades and causes having little or nothing to do with the true national interest of the United States.
THAT IS what four important new books about globalization and American foreign policy do. Walter McDougall, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute; Tony Smith, a political scientist at Tufts University; and Pankaj Mishra, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, are the authors, respectively, of The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy, The True Flag, Why Wilson Matters and Age of Anger. They provide valuable insights into the debates currently unfolding about globalization and America’s purpose. All were, of course, written long before Trump’s victory, but they offer a broader context for the events that are currently taking place, both in America and the wider world. All are, in their own way, skeptical of efforts to reshape the world in America’s image.
McDougall, whose title is reminiscent of William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, argues that the belief that “God is on our side” has inspired American foreign policy since the founding. He argues that religious rhetoric has prompted a secular republic to aspire to a global destiny that, more often than not, has brought it to grief. He draws on Robert Bellah’s influential identification of an American civil religion to trace its various stages in foreign policy over the centuries. McDougall believes it mutated, over the centuries, from what he calls a classical ACR to a millenarian version. He notes that up to Benjamin Harrison, who said that “we Americans have no commission from God to police the world,” the United States adhered to a restrained foreign policy. William McKinley, the last Civil War veteran to become president, wanted to follow one, but ultimately couldn’t resist the missionary impulse and the temptation to empire. Then came Woodrow Wilson. “He recast the ACR as a fighting faith and hurled the nation into a war among European civil religions,” writes McDougall, “in order to prove, like a pagan priest-king, that his tribal gods were mightier than theirs.” McDougall’s conclusion could hardly be bleaker. He suggests that a global civil religion will emerge in which the national-security state will be presented as the culmination of liberal, progressive ideals: “It will pose as friendly fascism, compassionate conservatism, socialism with a human face.”
Though McDougall only alludes to Robert Kagan a few times, he is essentially conducting a running war with the neoconservative version of history propagated by his book Dangerous Nation. In it, Kagan depicted the United States as uniquely virtuous, while other powers operated on the basis of venal motives. Even the Spanish-American War was transmuted by Kagan into one waged by a liberty-loving America:
Too few have seen or perhaps have wanted to see how the war was the product of deeply ingrained American attitudes toward the nation’s place in the world. It was the product of a universalist ideology as articulated in the declaration of independence.
Kinzer, like McDougall, will have none of this. He focuses on the late nineteenth century as the turning point in American history. He examines the debates between imperialists and anti-imperialists, arguing that many of the ills that afflict American foreign policy can be traced to the Gilded Age, when the McKinley administration, impelled by a mix of pecuniary, strategic and racial motives, went to war to supplant the infirm Spanish Empire by annexing Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. That era’s neoconservatives included Theodore Roosevelt, who was secretary of the navy; Alfred Thayer Mahan, the naval guru; and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, who promoted what he called a “large policy.”
One of the presidents that Kinzer rescues from obscurity is Grover Cleveland, who vigorously decried the turn to imperialism. Cleveland had refused to annex Hawaii when he was president. In 1898, he attacked what he called the “Hawaiian monstrosity” and “schemes of imperialism” that constituted “dangerous perversions of our national mission.” Kinzer doesn’t mention it, but Cleveland’s opposition to foreign conquest prompted H. L. Mencken to hail him as “the last of the Romans. If pedagogy were anything save the puerile racket that it is he would loom large in the schoolbooks.”
Tony Smith offers a searing appraisal of American liberal internationalism. According to Smith, “After triumphs over international fascism and communism for which the nation can justly be proud, America’s worst enemy over the past quarter century . . . has ironically (or better, tragically) turned out to be none other than itself.” Mishra takes a more synoptic approach, examining the rise of nationalism not only in America but also western Europe. He traces much of the current ferment back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Mishra’s view, his
obsessive concern with the freedom and moral integrity of individuals, combined with an extreme loathing for inequality and change, makes for a perpetually renewable challenge to contemporary political and economic arrangements—and certainly it chimes perfectly with the present clamor against globalization and its beneficiaries.
He predicts that there will be plenty more dangerous men with longing for radical equality in Africa and Asia, either succumbing to or promoting the illusion that they can return to a mythical past when spiritual unity existed. For Mishra, there is a symbiotic relationship between the illusions of the Third World and those of contemporary Western nationalists, who believe that their countries can return to a mythical past by rejecting the present.
He assails the fanciful idea that capitalism could be easily (and quickly) exported abroad without ensuing violence. He points to the Spanish American writer George Santayana, who was convinced that post–Civil War America had abandoned its restraint for dreams of universal Americanization. Discredited universalist philosophies of history and progress—what later became the Whig interpretation of history—made a comeback in postwar America. It was a coterie of warrior intellectuals who touted the new teleology. They sought to abridge the long and sanguinary path that Western nations had themselves followed to modernity. “In a strange twist of history,” Mishra notes, “the fantasy of disseminating Anglo-American ideals and institutions worldwide was revived after 1945 and made central to political and economic thinking by Britain’s successor, the United States.” Indeed, as Smith sees it, the problem rested in the hubris that came to define the American foreign-policy elite, in which a soft Wilsonianism congealed into a hard ideology. Notions of “democratic peace theory,” “democratic transition theory” and “the responsibility to protect” indicated that the impulse to spread American values had been converted into a quasiscientific doctrine that sanctioned the use of American firepower, whenever and wherever Washington elites decided it was a neat idea.
Now that Trump has been elected, however, the arrangements that were constructed after World War II to help assure American global dominance are being questioned. Davos Man is reeling from the upsurge in nationalist sentiment, from Britain to Germany, from America to China. At Davos, it was Chinese president and nominal Marxist Xi Jinping, of all people, who presented himself as the champion of free markets, pledging that China “will not shut the door to the outside world but will open it even wider.” Meanwhile, neoconservatism and liberal internationalism have retreated into a form of internal exile in Washington, at least for now. So far, the precise path that Trump will follow on everything from American alliances to trade arrangements remains unclear. Will he plunge the world into a trade war that leads to a global recession, or even depression? Or will he bolster the American economy? Will he strengthen American alliances, or throw them overboard as so much useless ballast to create a Fortress America? So far, it seems pretty clear that Trump seeks to upend the postwar international order. The impassioned debate that Trump is triggering is not about to go away any time soon. Quite the contrary.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.