America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary man. Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, died in an automobile accident last year near his northern California vineyard. He was a first-generation immigrant, born in Italy, who shared with so many from a similar background a fierce love for his adopted homeland. A political scientist with far-ranging interests in comparative politics, international relations and strategic studies, and political philosophy, Codevilla also served in the United States government as a diplomat, naval officer, and congressional staffer.
An iconoclastic spirit runs through all his books—whether on arms control, war, nuclear strategy, or the intellectual history of American foreign policy. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, as a senior staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he became a formidable critic of the American intelligence establishment. The book that resulted from that experience, Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century (1992), remains the most trenchant study of the complex, poorly understood world of U.S. intelligence. His The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (2010) was the most important book by an American conservative to foreshadow Donald Trump’s emergence on the political scene and the larger moment in which we now live.
Codevilla’s posthumous book reprises many of the themes of his earlier works. Readers unfamiliar with his distinctive rhetorical style might be put off by his self-assured assertiveness, reinforced in the present volume by the almost complete absence of footnotes. This man of wide and deep learning—he taught at Georgetown University, was a senior research fellow for the Hoover Institution, and was professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University—neither advertises that learning nor boasts of the academic credentials meted out by America’s intellectual elite. But America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations is not an academic work; rather, it’s a thundering jeremiad reminiscent of the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel.
Codevilla approaches the history of the United States from some unusual angles. America’s “rise” coincides with its first century; its “fall” with the Progressive movement’s emergence at the end of the 19th century and its triumph in our own day. It might seem odd that the nation’s “fall” includes its imperial excursion after the Spanish-American War, its contribution to the Allied victory in two world wars (and the great power status that flowed from it), its unparalleled economic prosperity in the postwar era, and, not least, its successful orchestration of the peaceful end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the logic of Codevilla’s argument is simple: In its first century, the guiding star of our statecraft was “America First.” In its second, under the impact of Progressivism and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, America’s ruling class sought to lead the world and spread the benefits of democracy to all nations through the creation of diplomatic mechanisms (the League of Nations, the United Nations) that would achieve “perpetual peace” on earth. Thus has America fundamentally lost its way. Instead of a hard-headed concern with the nation’s interests, including a non-interventionist posture toward the world, America’s elites were captured by woolly-headed idealism in various forms and an arrogant conviction of their own inherent virtue and right to lay down the law to others.
The result: since the end of World War II, though the United States has fought numerous wars, its stake in these conflicts has rarely been clear, the meaning of victory has been left uncertain, and the outcomes almost uniformly unfavorable to Americans . . .
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