Stephen Wertheim is a co-founder and research director of the Quincy Institute and a research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
When we decided to create a new foreign policy think tank, we never dreamed it would generate the wave of interest, curiosity and occasional vitriol that has ensued since we announced it.
My colleagues and I founded the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft to promote — brace yourself — diplomatic engagement and military restraint. But since the news of our formation broke last month, the speculation about us has proved as revealing as anything we’ve done.
Why, many asked, were George Soros’s and Charles Koch’s foundations teaming up as founding donors of the Quincy Institute? Aren’t they the two arch “globalists” — and isn’t Quincy “isolationist”? Because Quincy aims to take on the D.C. consensus, is it a stalking horse for populism, out to advance some form of President Trump’s “America First” agenda? Or, as a C-SPAN caller asked me, is it just another vehicle for elites to dump on Trump?
The truth is, Quincy is none of those things. We think peace should be the norm in the United States’ foreign policy, and war the exception. This principle is anything but radical. But as the reactions show, it is radical in the United States of 2019 and, for just that reason, desperately needed.
The United States is wielding power irresponsibly. After the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. leaders had a chance to embrace pluralism and peace in the 21st century. Instead, the United States anointed itself the “indispensable nation.” It pursued military dominance across the globe, inflating minor troublemakers into existential threats and launching unnecessary wars that continue to take lives. Today, Trump and both political parties agree on little else besides taking roughly $1 trillion every year away from American taxpayers and communities to bestow that money upon the Pentagon.
How will the Quincy Institute change this state of affairs? For one, it will promote different ideas, starting with a genuine abhorrence of war. Some politicians and pundits not only tolerate war but extol it. They fetishize the use of force as the acid test of U.S. global “engagement.”
We reject such thinking. War is sometimes necessary as a last resort, but war kills and maims, preventing genuine engagement with others. Quincy stands for peaceful cooperation among people, pursued through vigorous diplomacy and exchange. Peaceful cooperation has become essential in the 21st century, when the principal threats to human welfare, such as climate change, affect the planet as a whole and require coordinated action.
Second, the Quincy Institute recognizes that responsible foreign policy requires responsible national debate. Yet much of the political class in Washington has succumbed to intellectual lethargy. It suppresses serious arguments, rewards unserious ones and fails to hold its members accountable for disastrous undertakings such as the Iraq War.
Quincy seeks to democratize the formulation of foreign policy, speaking to the American people at large. Although the billionaire backers of the institute have attracted attention, its success will ultimately depend on the American people embracing peace as an imperative.
Much of the coverage of Quincy suggests an immense appetite for its work and raises fair questions about its agenda. Even skeptics seem to recognize that a wider debate would be healthy. Yet some of the commentary shows that hawks want to shut down debate before it even gets going.
Their first strategy: deny there’s a problem. According to some critics, the United States is not at war, so Quincy has nothing to oppose. “Only one problem: We’re not fighting any endless wars,” claims a Heritage Foundation analyst. A visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution agrees: “The United States has not been engaged in any declared, sustained military ground campaign for more than a decade.”
This is quibbling in the service of deception. The war in Afghanistan, the longest in U.S. history, continues today after almost two decades. The endless-war deniers should deliver their message to the families of the more than 2,400 U.S. service members killed and more than 20,000 wounded in the conflict. They should try reassuring civilians in 40 percent of the world’s nations: That’s where the United States now operates in its war on terrorism.
A second strategy is name-calling. Quincy stands accused of being “the ‘new’ isolationists.” “Let’s go back to the 1920’s and 30’s!” neoconservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeted sarcastically. Might there exist a choice besides armed domination or total isolation? The American people have heard enough from those who dismiss as “isolationist” anyone who objects to the use of force. If it remains impermissible to oppose war anywhere, the United States will end up waging war everywhere.
Smears such as these stifle debate and do the country a disservice. The result will be deeper public alienation and more politicians who dismiss all experts, amplify Americans’ fears and turn them outward on the world. The United States will then plunge further into the spiral of global warfare and cold civil war. No one will benefit, except pundits decrying “isolationism” all the way down.
The American people have an opportunity to live at peace with the world and with themselves. Perhaps we should take it.