This is my way of saying the feedback to my Foreign Affairs essay, “This Time is Different” has been more positive than I expected. This is, in its own way, very depressing. I was hoping that people smarter or savvier than myself would push back against my Season of Doom series. Nope. Way too many people I know who have served in government have told me that they agree with my thesis.
I do not know if Hal Brands is smarter than I am, but he has undoubtedly written way more about grand strategy than I have. In his Monday Bloomberg column, Brands suggests that I am being too pessimistic: “Although there is good reason to worry, it is too soon to pronounce the passing of American internationalism just yet.”
Brands does not dispute my diagnosis. In contrast to my saturnine conclusions, however, he offers three reasons for optimism:
- Political opposition has constrained the shifts in American foreign policy under Trump: “The reason that Trump’s rhetoric has so far been more radical than his policies is that the competing institutions are selectively resisting his agenda.”
- “The political foundations of U.S. foreign policy have been tested before, and they have survived pressures that seemed far worse than the ones at work today.” Brands references the Vietnam era in particular.
- “One can now see, however faintly, the outlines of a new consensus.” Brands suggests that the consensus is that the greatest threat to the United States is “the form of aggressive behavior by hostile authoritarian powers.”
I hope that Brands is proven correct. As I said in the Foreign Affairs essay, “It would be delightful if, ten years from now, critics mocked this essay’s misplaced doom and gloom.” Unfortunately, I am unpersuaded by his first two points and dubious about the third one.
It is undeniably true that both Congress and even President Trump’s own subordinates have contained his worst impulses on, say, NATO and NAFTA. But this is damning with faint praise. Sure, Congress has prevented Trump’s worst excesses, but only the worst ones. Furthermore, grand strategy has to be about more than not dismantling everything. If you own a car, it’s probably best not to puncture your tires. But not getting the oil checked will eventually lead to the car breaking down as well. Congress has blocked Trump’s worst actions, but the accumulation of what Trump has done is pretty bad.
I would also push back on Brands’s contention that things were way worse in the 1970s. He writes, “Polarization was intense and often violent; pursuing a centrist foreign policy seemed impossible.” This does not jibe with my research for “The Ideas Industry.” It is true that there were more protests and civil disobedience during the Vietnam era. That is not the same thing as political polarization. To put it another way: Vietnam marked the beginning of the erosion of trust in authority and the rise in political polarization. Both of those trends are far worse now than 40 years ago.
Brands’s final argument is the most intriguing, and the one that allows him to define the current state of affairs as only “mostly dead.” Multiple progressives, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have inveighed against authoritarianism. One could almost picture cross-partisan agreement on defining the common threat.
I am unsure about two things, however. First, it is not clear what Sanders, Warren et al. will do to tackle these threats. Second, it is not clear that conservatives actually agree on the threat. On Sunday, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told CNN’s Jake Tapper that, “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” This does not sound like someone who agrees that the greatest threat to the United States is kleptocratic authoritarianism.
I do not come by my pessimism about the state of American grand strategy lightly. Maybe Brands will be proven correct. If I squint hard, I can see that outcome. But it is much easier to envision my scenario.