The term soon became omnipresent in foreign policy discussions as its definition expanded in scope. It came to mean the foreign policy “establishment” that included those working in government, think tanks, and academia. Four years later, the term, like “globalization” or “neoliberalism” or “populist” or “elite,” tends to obscure as much as it reveals.
To see what I mean, consider the provocation by Hal Brands, Peter Feaver and William Inboden in Foreign Affairs titled “In Defense of the Blob.” Brands, Feaver and Inboden are sharp, right-of-center scholars who have very big toes in the policy world. They argue that the Blob has been stereotyped beyond recognition: “The foreign policy establishment is not a closed cabal, American statecraft has not been a giant failure, and scrapping professionalism for amateurism would be a disaster.” They further conclude: “In reality, the United States actually has a healthy marketplace of foreign policy ideas. Discussion over American foreign policy is loud, contentious, diverse, and generally pragmatic — and as a result, the nation gets the opportunity to learn from its mistakes, build on its successes, and improve its performance over time.”
If the goal of their essay was to trigger the realists, they succeeded. The American Conservative’s Kelley Beaucar Vlahos fired back, arguing vehemently that the Blob remains a closed shop: “Conference panels, sanctioned academic journals, all run by the same crowd. Check the Council on Foreign Relations yearbook, you’ll catch the drift. You can be a neocon, you can be a ‘humanitarian’ interventionist, but a skeptic of American exceptionalism and its role in leading the post-World War II international system? Ghosted.”
Of these two arguments, Vlahos holds the weaker hand. For one thing, her essay repeatedly contradicts itself. The Blob is an exclusive cabal, and yet Vlahos also says it’s on the wane. The rise of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft as an alternative think tank symbolizes the arrival of a new sheriff in town. Furthermore, “money is pouring into colleges and think tanks now, all with the goal of pursuing approaches outside the status quo of hyper-militarization and American hegemony.”
This does not sound like a closed shop to me. The names Vlahos provides of ideologically simpatico non-Blob thinkers — Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Walt, Chris Preble, Mike Desch — are part of the Blob as it is currently defined. None of these thinkers are on the margins of foreign policy discourse, except perhaps in their own mental construct. Indeed, some of them run the very conference panels and academic journals that Vlahos claims are a restricted shop.
One problem that Blob opponents have is that for the first time since the days of Calvin Coolidge, the man occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue articulates ideas that reject the liberal internationalism they dislike. He does so in such a ham-handed, immature, destructive manner, however, that he’s moved the American people to feel more empathetic toward those ideas.
If that is intellectually frustrating to arch-realists, I suggest that they grow the hell up. I am old enough to remember that no president perfectly encapsulates a particular foreign policy philosophy. Neoconservatives grew exasperated with both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; liberal internationalists became frustrated with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. This is how life in the big city works.
As for Brands, Feaver and Inboden, they also exaggerate their argument a wee bit. When they write that the Blob is not recklessly pro-interventionist because the United States abstained “from interventions in Rwanda, the African Great Lakes, Sudan, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Myanmar and other potential cases,” it is not the powerful data point they make it out to be.
I wish the marketplace of ideas in foreign policy worked as effectively as they claim. As noted in “The Ideas Industry,” however, the marketplace of ideas has shifted in ways that make it harder for bad ideas to exit the public sphere. Indeed, rising levels of partisanship are handicapping the crafting of grand strategy and making learning from mistakes more difficult.
For Exhibit A of this trend, see Mitch Daniels’s latest in The Washington Post, about post-pandemic politics. Daniels has the résumé to play an important role in a post-Trump GOP. In this op-ed, however, he cautions against critical postmortems of how current policymakers are coping with the coronavirus pandemic:
Let’s not reprise Iraq. How about we self-vaccinate against HRD [Hindsight Recrimination Disorder] and all agree that, whatever comes, people right now are doing their best with the information they have. If their judgments turn out to be mistaken, let’s avoid another orgy of tribal recrimination and agree that we won’t repeat the errors. Here’s a type of HRD immunity we can achieve without becoming ill ourselves.
Daniels’s suggestion exemplifies the warning that Ken Schultz made a few years ago in the Washington Quarterly: Partisanship prevents learning from mistakes. It also undermines the claim that the foreign policy marketplace of ideas is working just fine.