Foreign Affairs Magazine at a Turning Point on US Global Hegemony?

I have not critiqued articles in Foreign Affairs magazine for at least two years because it seemed pointless to whip a dead horse. Dead intellectually I mean. I regretted the loss of a sparring partner given that FA was and remains broadly representative of the US foreign policy establishment.

FA was for a long time stuck in the rut of democracy promotion and cheerleading the unipolar, America-dominated world. Every article celebrated the ‘public goods’ delivered to a world in need of leadership by the United States of America through the international institutions and the “rules based international order” that it created and ran.

The villains on the FA stage were external to the United States, the revisionist authoritarian countries, Russia and China: Russia by its weakness and irreversible decline which prompted Moscow to bursts of aggression against its neighbors to keep its citizenry in line; China by its growing economic and military might which are projected to bypass the United States in the coming twenty years and already threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

When Donald Trump won the November 2016 election on a campaign platform that challenged directly all the tenets of this foreign policy establishment, the initial reaction of the Foreign Affairs editors was incredulity that a renunciation of the globalist world order which brought the lion’s share of financial and geopolitical benefits to Washington could happen in their America.

And so, it now appeared that the greatest threat to US hegemony could come from within the United States, by the fortuitous election of the incompetent and intellectually blinkered real estate mogul from New York City, Donald J. Trump. To their credit, FA did not pursue the Russia-gate explanations for the defeat of Hillary Clinton and overturning of the bipartisan values-based foreign policy in favor of Realpolitik hard power and naked selfishness of ‘America First’.

Trump was denounced by FA for populism. Articles in the November-December 2016 “Power of Populism” themed issue reminded us of how badly populism had played out in South America in the hands of autocrats. In the immediate aftermath of the election, alarm at FA was tempered by the belief that this aberration would not last, that Trump would be impeached, forced to resign for one reason or another. Efforts should be made to hold the hands of our Allies, to reassure them that the American people do not support isolationism, and to prepare for the restoration of the status quo ante following the 2020 elections, at the latest.

However, now, midway through Trump’s mandate, when the Mueller investigation clearly was not producing any “smoking guns” that could bring down the imposter in the White House, when the 2020 electoral campaign is getting underway and the Democrats have not produced any candidate capable of vanquishing Donald, the editors of Foreign Affairs have finally decided to take a fresh view of what the future holds for US foreign policy, namely downsizing.

That is the task of a set of four articles in the May-June 2019 issue as introduced by FA Editor Gideon Rose under the overarching title “Searching for a Strategy.” Rose calls this “a sobering message to someone in real trouble who refuses to admit it.” His first author, Daniel Drezner, “tells us it is time to face the facts: American hegemony is not coming back; U.S. hard power is in relative decline; US soft power has taken a huge hit.”

Next, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner in a jointly written article offer what Rose calls ‘tough love.’ Per Rose, their message is that “Washington has to abandon its post-Cold War fantasies of liberalism marching inexorably forward to certain global triumph. It should temper its ambitions, lower its sights, and focus on promoting freedom and openness within the international system where it can.”

In light of where Foreign Affairs has stood for the past 25 years, this surely sounds like a turning point. However, a close reading of these two essays suggests that it is a bit early to celebrate the triumph of common sense Realism over blind Wilsonian Idealist ideology. The problem is with the quality of their thinking, which is as superficial and insubstantial as the thinking of Dr. Rose himself.

These authors are all working at the level of academic games, without any concern over the real world consequences of the foreign policy that has been in practice for the last 25 years of unending US military action abroad, and in particular the consequences of a war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 that may have caused the deaths of as many as one million civilians and has brought havoc to the entire region which we feel to this day. All they can say about the past policies is that they were “misguided” or “wrong” by misjudging the ability of the United States to re-order the world in its image. And so, there were “screw-ups.”

They hold no one to account for this. But without house cleaning, without application of the good old American principle of ‘throw the bums out,’ how can we move forward to new policies based on new operating principles? We cannot….That this is so is proven by the featured space also allotted in this issue to one of the greatest culprits in the Neo-Conservative inspired foreign policy debacle, Robert Kagan, as I explain below.

Moreover, the three authors suffer from the hot air syndrome. Like all too many contributors to Foreign Affairs magazine they are generalists who build their argumentation out of off-the-shelf, commonly accepted and never challenged notions. I will mention only several points which fall within my area of expertise, Russia. They are at best debatable and at worst totally ungrounded in fact. Notion 1: that Russia is only a spoiler, that it is failing economically and suffering a demographic crisis. Notion 2: that it was Russian policies which made Ukraine hostile to it. Notion 3: that Russia massively interfered with the 2016 American elections.

My point is that the authors have not personally tested any of these and a great many other propagandistic items of pure fantasy that they deal in as solid facts. It is impossible for political scientists of this caliber to provide a new strategy for US foreign policy when all they are doing is rearranging the cards in the deck of conventional wisdom.

The third article in this section is by Harvard professor Stephen Walt, the one Realist in the panel whom Rose describes as ‘gloating’ that his past warnings about overreach have been proven prescient. Walt, he tells us, is advocating ‘offshore balancing’ as the better way to go if the United States is to continue to play a determining role in international relations.

Actually, there is a lot more to Walt’s article than an argument for offshore balancing. Walt has used his rare allocation of space in FA to address the issue of unaccountability of foreign policy thinkers and practitioners that I mentioned above, as well as the absence of debate, of challenges to prevailing policy in publications like FA, in think tanks, in universities. It has to be said that Stephen Walt and his fellow Realist, and sometime co-author John Mearsheim of the University of Chicago, are almost the only dissenting voices on the broad outlines of US policy that are given the microphone at FA from time to time.

Good for them! By I am unsure how their occasional chance to speak out helps the rest of us “dissidents.” I am skeptical of the degree of freethinking that they themselves would allow if they had the power. I say this in the knowledge that going back three years my colleagues in the US, senior academics holding similar views to mine about the need for open debate on our Russia policy, appealed to Walt to arrange round table discussions at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, and received no support from him whatsoever.

Moreover, granted that Stephen Walt’s intellectual courage is far greater than most academics, considering his once taking on the Israel Lobby, that does not make him an expert on Russia, the country that has greatest bearing on US foreign policy today along with China. Consequently, he was as prone to making ignorant pronouncements on Russia in his essay as the other American generalist academics in this issue.

My point is that there can be no true Realism absent an in-depth knowledge of history, culture, language of given regions. It is for the Idealists to coast along on universalist principles. The Realists are obliged to know their stuff or forfeit that label of honor.

Apart from the several essays at the start of the issue commissioned by the editor to deal with the cover page theme, each issue of FA also consists of self-standing articles dealing with a great variety of subjects. Many are written by specialists who have done their own research and are making an original contribution. Sometimes they even challenge directly the conventional wisdom in their field. One such article appeared in the January-February 2019 issue of FA, a harsh and extensively documented critique of UN peacekeeping missions: Séverine Autesserre, “The Crisis of Peacekeeping.” Not surprisingly, that article brought down on the author’s head a number of outraged Letters to the Editor.

In this May-June 2019 issue, I would mention two essays that justify buying the magazine: Calvert W. Jones, “All the King’s Consultants. The Perils of Advising Authoritarians” and James D’Angelo, Brent Ranalli “The Dark Side of Sunlight. How Transparency Helps Lobbyists and Hurts the Public.” These prove that the American school of political science is not without its redeeming practitioners. Who knows? They may even be in the majority, but they are not favored by the powers that be in the foreign policy community.

Then there is one further essay worthy of our attention: Robert Kagan’s “The New German Question. What Happens When Europe Comes Apart?”

I call attention to this piece because Kagan is precisely the troublemaker political scientist who incited some of the worst crimes committed by the United States abroad in the past two decades and walked away from the debacles unscathed, his reputation intact. From the end of the 1990s, he was a key contributor to the thinking of the Neocons, a major advocate of what became the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was foreign policy advisor to McCain during his 2008 electoral campaign and he has been an active publicist for waging the New Cold War on Putin’s Russia. I devoted a chapter to Kagan in my 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. I included him alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington not because I believed he is “great” but because I believed he was highly influential and inescapable in any review of the intellectual forces guiding foreign policy at the time.

Kagan is yet another foreign policy generalist with a skill for writing that by far exceeds his concern to get facts straight or to consider other sides to an argument. Now in the current issue of FA, we find him making his case for American globalism by stealth: without the firm presence of an American security commitment, Germany may go rogue.

It is not my intention to trash Kagan’s article. He has done his homework here and presents us with important and justified questions. He even offers some valuable insights into Germany. I have in mind in particular his mention that Germany today has achieved the domination of Central Europe that was the Mitteleuropa aspiration of Wilhelmine Germany before the First World War. This is something that your average reader of The New York Times would not find in his newspaper, and it is such readers Kagan is pitching to, not some lofty academic circle of specialists who need no such discoveries.

What is missing in Kagan is an analysis of what exactly that domination, which I would rather characterize as economic colonization, means for the rest of Europe today, what it means in particular for relations with France, with Russia. This, by itself, should be a matter of concern for students of Europe as it raises the question of the solidarity and notional equality of EU Member States. So we have a potential problem with Germany, even putting aside the question of America’s firm guiding hand being present or not on the Continent. Germany is too comfortable with the countries it can dominate and correspondingly uncomfortable with the big neighbor to the east which it never could and cannot today dominate. Germany gives too close an ear to the Russophobe rantings of the Poles and of the Baltic States.

Almost every one of Kagan’s points in the article calls out for a corrective context to make sense of what he is stringing together like beads to get to his end conclusion that weakening US presence in Europe may lead to all hell breaking loose as Germany reverts to its uglier traditions of the past.

This is so from the very get-go when Kagan tells us that “Germany has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene.” He takes this back to the wars in the 1860s and 1870s by which Bismarck forged the nation, and then to the German striving for empire, for its ‘place in the sun’ in the period from the 1890s to WWI. However, most European nations were forged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the same way, and Germany’s imperial ambitions from the 1890s were entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age, when all major powers including the USA were engaged in the same game of territorial expansion either within Europe or overseas. The question of Germany’s responsibility for WWI is an open and shut case only for those who swallowed Anglo-American jingoist propaganda from the prewar years and have never looked back.

On the third page of his 12-page article, Kagan sets out his main thesis: “The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated liberal international order established after World War II.”

Kagan points to the US commitment to European security that protected France, the United Kingdom and Germany’s other neighbors so that they could welcome its postwar recovery and integration into what was becoming the European Economic Community, then the European Union. Moreover, Germany could devote its resources to economic expansion without having to pay for its defense.

He might, of course have dotted his i’s: modern Germany grew up under US military occupation, with more than 50,000 soldiers on the ground in Germany, an occupation that continues to this day and compromises German sovereignty as much as its integration into the EU does.

To this Kagan adds the benefit of US led free trade policies that enabled Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter and enjoy extraordinary prosperity, which tended in Germany, as elsewhere, to prop up the existing democratic political order. The United States acquiesced in trade imbalances for the sake of peace on the Continent.

Then Kagan reminds us that the new Germany was created under conditions whereby Europe suppressed nationalist passions by erecting the transnational institutions. This is particularly relevant in Germany, says Kagan, because “no other nationalism had played such a destructive role in Europe’s bloody past.” Touché! At this level of argumentation, it is hard to disagree with him. The possible disagreement comes at a different level over why exactly Germans might become more nationalistic in future.

Kagan goes on to tell us that Germany does not really need NATO for its defense. It needs NATO to reassure its neighbors and to reassure itself: the Germans voluntarily accept shackles because they still harbor fears of old demons.

So what could threaten Germany’s peace with itself and with its neighbors? Firstly, Kagan names the Eurozone crisis of 2009 and the aftermath of German dictated policies of austerity that turned Southern European nations against Germany and riled up Germans over their own government’s bailing out profligate Member States. All of this was disruptive, but still only economic in nature even if it touched off a wave of nationalism on the Continent.

Now, per Kagan, Germany and Europe are facing a new challenge to the peaceful status quo, namely the policies of Donald Trump which undermine all of the circumstances which Kagan says combined to create the peaceful Germany we love. Trump speaks against the European Union and for sovereign nations. He supports Brexit. He is against free-trade and sharply criticizes the German trade imbalance with the United States. He opposes NATO and those who are not paying their way, and he wants to withdraw from Europe.

Meanwhile Germany appears to be experiencing a renaissance of nationalist politics as seen in the electoral successes of the Far Right Alternativ fuer Deutschland.

Kagan closes by warning darkly about the risks of a rearming Europe, the risks of the rightwing nationalists who might put an end to democratic and peaceful Continent of which Germany has been the single most powerful member.

Everything Kagan has set out is within the realm of the possible, though I would call it improbable. In worst-case scenarios, the nationalist and populist parties may win a third of the seats in the European Parliament in the upcoming pan-European elections of May 26. Meanwhile on the Left, the assorted Green parties are likely to surge. In Belgium, where there are concurrently elections to the national parliament, the Greens may even constitute a majority, if not the lead party in a coalition. Yes, the gains by the anti-elite parties on the Left and Right will overturn the center right and center left bloc that has dominated politics for the past decades and with which people like Kagan feel comfortable. However, that is not the end of democracy, only its best expression in peaceful change of leadership and policy direction.

More to the point, it is arguable that NATO and the American presence are becoming a destabilizing rather than stabilizing force in European politics. When speaking of the Alternativ fuer Deutschland, one must remember that their power base is in the former East Germany, which is one of those Central European states that was colonized by West Germany following the fall of Communism and has suffered from lustration that decapitated its intelligentsia and from de-industrialization. The AfD, like a large part of the former GDR population, is anti-NATO, which it sees as an infringement on sovereignty, and for some accommodation with Russia.

And most important of all, Kagan only touches on the one aspect of German national egoism that has touched off nationalism at home and around Europe when he mentions the austerity program and debt reduction. Far more important for the unleashing of nationalism across the Continent was Merkel’s ill-considered insistence on open borders to the 2015 flood of illegal migrants into Europe. Yes, German has a labor shortage for which the incoming migrants were viewed there as manna from heaven. Yes, Germany also had at the time a deficit of good will arising from its hard hearted economic dictates to the rest of the EU. Clearly Merkel sought to make amends by her newfound humanitarianism . But the empty-headed “Wir schaffen das” [we can manage] from Merkel while opening the floodgates to Muslims enraged a great many Europeans outside of Germany who had high unemployment and no desire for their communities to be overrun by unvetted economic migrants from the Middle East.

It is arguable that the German policy on migration gave the Brexit movement in Britain that small nudge over the 50% line that made the difference and put Europe in full crisis mode. The reverberations are still being felt in terms of support for the Euroskeptic nationalist and populist parties as we head into the May elections. Whatever Trump and his erstwhile Alt Right campaign adviser Steve Bannon may have contributed to the unwinding of Europe by their various America First policies is insignificant by comparison.

In conclusion, I find that the May-June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine has several excellent entries but their merits are outweighed by weak to poor entries featured at the start and introduced by the Editor, not to mention by the lengthy article from the irredeemable propagandist Robert Kagan. Taking the publication for a representative marker, I believe that the US profession of international affairs has unrealized potential to be a useful advisor to policy makers. But it is being held back by the senior editors, by think tank and university department chairmen and women who are wedded to failed policies and ideology for which they never paid a price. What we need at the helm are experts guided by intellectual curiosity who follow Truth wherever it takes them and not generalists guided by ambition for political preference.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018