Multilateral Dreamin’

The prospective renewal of the establishment’s full powers in a Democratic administration secures its longtime foreign policy personnel’s influence; yet it also puts them in the position of trying to convince Americans that they would use that influence to accomplish something other than the diminution of American security that they delivered to us over the past generation. Unable to argue that the same actions and attitudes would produce different results, they mix generalities about multilateralism with straw-man characterizations of those who understand that foreign governments pursue their proclivities—not their private dreams.

They have another problem. The American people strongly approve of President Trump’s emphasis on an “America First” foreign policy, and will not look kindly on re-subordinating America to the establishment’s hobby horses. 

Trump was elected to end pointless military adventures abroad. Whatever the establishment might prefer, nobody now is going to send U.S. troops to fight overseas, especially not in the Middle East. 

He was elected to be “tough on China.” Returning to business as usual with China is the establishment’s top international priority. But public opinion has so shifted that candidate Biden promised to be even tougher on China. His administration will have to pretend. 

The entire U.S. ruling class decried Trump’s bypassing the Palestinians to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But that bypassing transformed the Middle East. Nothing so thrills the establishment like sitting down with “the Europeans” as senior partners. But the Europeans pull in different directions. Helping America is the last thing on their minds.

Published in Foreign Affairs, the establishment’s flagship organ, “Defense in Depth” by Kori Schake, James Mattis, Jim Ellis, and Joe Felter, may be the purest example of this genre. There is hardly a proper noun in it. It’s all fluff, the point of which is something like “we’re the experts, trust us.”

“International engagement,” the authors claim, “allows the United States to see and act at a distance, as threats are gathering, rather than waiting for them to assume proportions that ultimately make them much costlier and more dangerous to defeat,” and serves as “an early warning system that gives time and space to meet dangers when they arise.” 

When was the last time anything like that happened? These credentialed historians might think of an example. All they come up with is, “The pandemic should serve as a reminder of what grief ensues when we wait for problems to come to us.” Did anyone warn us about the pandemic? Certainly not China, which hid the facts. And certainly not China’s plaything, the World Health Organization. In fact, the establishment decried Trump’s severance of travel from Asia and Europe. The authors pretend not to know.

They charge that, by concentrating on America’s interests we have been “allowing a long-tended garden to become choked with weeds.” What gardens, what weeds? Which do they want to pull, and how?

They charge that “Advocates of the current administration’s approach seem to believe that other countries will have no choice but to accede to the United States’ wishes and cooperate on its terms.” But that is the very opposite of reality. In fact, the premise of taking care of our own business first is the painfully learned knowledge that other countries do have choices, and that they seldom act in our interest. The authors imagine we have been meanly “maximiz[ing] U.S. gains at the expense of countries that share [America’s] objectives.” Like who or what? This is purely gratuitous speculation.

Their wishful thinking is that “the presence of U.S. diplomats and military forces in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East [gives] credence to U.S. commitments . . . create[s] a bulwark against threats, a shock absorber . . .” Alas, widespread deployments of forces equipped primarily for show and constantly suffering loss discredits America.

Then Mattis, et al., would have the reader suspend judgment on the absurdity that, since the U.S. defense budget will not permit a proper expansion of U.S forces, it must deliver the good in other ways. “That requires substantial investment to help build capable and willing allies, to negotiate and collectively enforce international rules and practices that restrain adversaries.” 

Suppose that NATO allies were to spend up to the fabled 2 percent of GDP on their militaries. What would they buy that would be of any use to America? This is a ham sandwich without ham, or bread, or any sense.

They continue: “Since China is utilizing asymmetric strategies and technological innovation, the United States also needs a comprehensive approach.” Like what

It is especially inappropriate for Mattis to cast aspersions on the shortcomings of “America First” regarding  China since he bears so much responsibility for them. Together with his colleague H. R. McMaster as national security advisor, Mattis convinced PResident Trump to enter into his fraught, sad bromance with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—a reversal of Trump’s initial intentions. These generals did this largely to satisfy domestic preferences of South Korea’s president, for whom relations with the North outweigh everything. 

This turned out to roil the main alliance that really matters to us: Japan. Moreover, Mattis as secretary of defense, oversaw the effective nullification of Trump’s America First commitment to missile defense against China and Russia. Trump notwithstanding, Mattis’s Defense Department produced a program the centerpiece of which is to continue the Nixon-era policy not to place any meaningful barrier to missiles from Russia or China reaching the United States. Why? This is foreign policy establishment theology. This is the stock in trade in which Mattis purveys, sometimes against what seems to be his judgment.

During a discussion of the Obama plan to station U.S. and NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic States, Mattis agreed emphatically that they could serve no good military purpose there. Raising his hands above his head in a gesture of surrender, he said that cut off from aerial supply by Russian S-400s, hemmed in by nuclear armed Iskander missiles against which they have no defense, and pressed by Armata tanks impervious to the guns of our M-1 tanks, these troops would end up as prisoners and hostages. But then, as secretary, Mattis implemented that very policy—not at Trump’s behest. Why? The complexity of transatlantic relations—trying to satisfy all with little regard to what it means to us.

Consider Europe. How could Americans harmonize the obvious discord and dysfunction that now reigns there? Germany is at the heart of the problem, hectoring the countries to its south for economic reasons, and pressing all others to adhere to its peculiar sense of morality with regard to all matters, especially refugees. In that regard, the Germans act less out of morality than out of fear of Turkey. What is that to America? Neither Mattis nor his co-authors address such questions.

What about the United States, Europe, Russia triangle? On the one hand, our establishment wants us to provoke the Russians. On the other hand, it knows that, were push to come to shove in the East, Germany especially would support us the way a rope supports a hanged man.

No. The establishment’s vapidities veil a substantial void. Their competence is bounded strictly by their experience, which is of personal success and public failure. Thus they will speak authoritatively amongst themselves. But America no longer listens.

The best comments on this genre may have come from, of all people, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Though smitten by the foreign policy establishment’s externalities for some years, Rubio most recently tweeted: “I support American greatness, and I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.” Take progress where you can find it.

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images