It is unusual to find academics at some of America’s most elite universities in enthusiastic agreement with Donald Trump, who is perhaps the least intellectual president in American history. But if a spate of recent books and articles is any indication, the president and the professors are united in scorn for America’s foreign policy elite.
The argument this unlikely alliance makes—that the foreign policy elite is a corrupt cabal that has led the country from disaster to disaster — is fashionable enough, given today’s anti-establishment mood. It also happens to be wrong.
The attacks on the foreign policy establishment—the bipartisan group of experts that populate the US government and think tanks and other nongovernmental institutions—started during the Barack Obama years. In response to criticism of Obama’s Middle East policy, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes derided the establishment as “the blob," a homogenous, unthinking repository of conventional wisdom.
Trump dialled up the attacks during his 2016 campaign. He argued that key pillars of US statecraft—promoting free trade, defending allies around the world, spreading of democracy and human rights—were fool’s errands. He dismissed the resulting criticism from foreign policy experts as nothing more than “the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power."
Most recently, the blob has come under fire from leading intellectuals such as Harvard’s Stephen Walt, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and MIT’s Barry Posen. These and other academics concede that America had an effective foreign policy during the Cold War. But after 1989, Washington embraced a radical doctrine of “liberal hegemony" and fought wars without end in an effort to transform the world. That approach, Mearsheimer alleges, was “prone to failure, sometimes disastrous failure": It produced quagmire after quagmire, it fired global anti-Americanism, and it fuelled conflict around the world.
This self-defeating approach has persisted, these scholars argue, because the blob abhors dissent and engages in rampant fearmongering to protect its privileges and influence. The blob gets its way, writes Walt, by “exaggerating international dangers, overstating the benefits that liberal hegemony would produce, and concealing the true costs." Although many of these intellectuals have been harshly critical of Trump himself, they thus see the establishment just as Trump does: a failed elite looking to hold onto power. Yet the attacks on the establishment are themselves deeply flawed, and the Trump era reminds us why we need a foreign policy elite in the first place.
For one thing, the argument that US policy changed dramatically after the Cold War is misguided. America basically continued doing all the things it had been doing since the 1940s as part of an ongoing effort to shape an open, prosperous and secure international system. This included promoting free trade and globalization; anchoring and even expanding alliances that provided stability in key regions; maintaining military primacy; and confronting aggressors that challenged the American-led world order. Yes, the US became somewhat more assertive in promoting human rights and democracy after the Cold War, and in the absence of traditional geopolitical threats it more energetically confronted challenges such as nuclear proliferation and catastrophic terrorism. Yet the fundamental building blocks of American foreign policy remained the same.
And if Posen argues that this policy has been “costly, wasteful, and counterproductive," in reality it has been fairly successful during the post-Cold War era. Admittedly, it is easy to point out the failures and fiascoes: Disappointing and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a remarkable lack of success in achieving a stable equilibrium in the Middle East, and many others. But these setbacks are no worse than those of any other 30-year period in American history.
It was not inevitable that the number of democracies in the world would increase from 76 in 1990 to 120 in the early 2000s, that there would be relative stability in regions—namely East Asia and Europe—that had seen febrile instability before. It was not inevitable that Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990 would be reversed. In all of these cases, the persistent global engagement advocated by the blob played a vital role. If one understands that foreign policy is a discipline in which errors and setbacks are inevitable, and successes are measured as much in bad things that don’t happen as good things that do, then the record of American statecraft hasn’t been half had.
In fact, the Trump era is making the case for the establishment far more effectively than the defenders of that establishment ever could. America and the world are now seeing what happens when Washington breaks significantly with its own traditions. The Trump era is also providing a case study in what happens when competence and respect for process—those underestimated qualities of the establishment—go by the wayside, and policy is whipsawed by the impulses of an erratic president. The damage might well be worse were not the blob working to preserve critical relationships and rein in the president’s desire to create more disruption.
A foreign policy that bears the imprint of the American establishment will always be imperfect. But as two years with President Trump reminds us, a foreign policy that casts that establishment aside would probably be much worse.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.