On November 16, the Charles Koch Foundation hosted a dinner and mini-conference at the W Hotel in Washington, D.C., featuring directors of CKF-supported centers and projects. In the audience were about 100 foreign policy-makers and experts and journalists. Claes Ryn spoke on the origin, mission and activities of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship. The other speakers were Barry Posen of MIT, Stephen Walt of Harvard, Monica Toft of Tufts, who is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at CSS, and William Ruger of the Koch Institute. Claes Ryn’s remarks are below:
The Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University came into being last spring. We have initiated programming, appointed visiting fellows and research assistants, given faculty research grants, and contributed to public debate through lectures and publications. We have a prominent council of advisors, which includes Andrew Bacevich, Chas Freeman, Tulsi Gabbard, Dennis Kucinich, and Walter McDougall. We hosted a launch event at the National Press Club in September. Our website has a very convenient address: css.cua.edu.
The Center promotes research, teaching and public discussion about the kind of prudence, foresight, restraint and concern for a larger good that we associate with statesmanship. How can statesmanship advance respectful, peaceful foreign and domestic relations? Of special interest is how the ethos of American constitutionalism, with its emphasis on deliberation, compromise, and limits on power, can be translated into foreign policy.
Let me try to explain what is distinctive to CSS’s intellectual orientation by being a little autobiographical. As a professor of politics I have always been interested in issues of foreign policy, international relations, and national security. That interest began to intensify in the late 1970s. An important reason was that I noticed certain dubious intellectual trends that I had reason to think would become more and more influential and eventually have substantial practical impact. As a student of political philosophy—Western political thought from Plato to the present—I had given special attention to certain questions of ethics and imagination, which had made me alert to the currents in question. By the mid 1980s it was apparent that a new ideology and a corresponding network of intellectual and political activists were forming. Having originated with university people, this emerging ideology had representatives in think tanks, magazines, publishing houses, and the press. Its influence extended to the media generally and to Capitol Hill. The movement advocated a highly abstract and ahistorical approach to politics and had a clearly utopian dimension. It had far-reaching practical implications that were markedly imperial and interventionist. The movement’s central ideological theme was that America was special by virtue of its universal principles and had a mission to bring democracy and freedom to countries around the world, starting in the Middle East. Aha, you say, he’s talking about the neoconservatives! Yes, I am. They were at the core of the movement that worried me. The trouble was that back in the 1980s almost no one seemed to notice that seemingly diverse writers and activists were congealing into a fast expanding intellectual and political force. Although it was evident that in time this movement would directly affect practical politics, especially American foreign policy, supposed experts in foreign policy, international relations, and national security were not closely examining these developments, although they were so obviously relevant to their fields. Why were they not picking up on the movement and the danger that it posed? The scholarly attention of these experts was, it seemed, turned in every other direction—specific issues of state action, alliances, trade, military affairs, etc. But policy views always imply and have their origin in basic views of human nature and the world, so that what is to come in practical politics is always foreshadowed by what is happening in the mind and the imagination. Whatever the reasons, the experts did not have their fingers on the pulse. They overlooked the ideological-political dynamic that would in time give a new and strongly interventionist edge to American foreign policy thinking. Perhaps they missed the salient characteristics of the movement because to some extent it blended with familiar Wilsonian and liberal humanitarian interventionism. The experts knew about particular advocates of the new ideology, but they did not discern the special ideological verve and pointed political agenda that connected them.
It was partly because of frustration with this neglect that in the 1980s I, who had never claimed to be an expert in those fields, veered more and more in that direction. Somebody had to point out what was happening. I tried to explain the nature of the movement-in-the making and warned of its likely effect on policy. Some of you may have heard, for example, of a little book called The New Jacobinism, published in 1991, which pointed out the striking parallels between the representatives of the new ideology and the intellectual leaders of the French Revolution of 1789. Other books and articles criticizing the movement followed. It was spreading by leaps and bounds, piggy-backing on earlier American interventionist impulses, and yet alerting the foreign policy establishment proved difficult. When at long last it dawned on the more discerning among them that something new and important and disturbing had happened it was, in a sense, too late. Iraq had been invaded.
So, CSS is an attempt to help address what appears to be an acute need, to get to the bottom of trends that shape policy. The great delay in identifying and criticizing the ideology of American empire is just a particularly telling example of a serious intellectual deficiency. A central question for CSS is, how do views of human nature and the world inspire different types of leadership and political aspirations. The Center wants to explore the deeper origins of either sound or unsound foreign policy and domestic thinking. We want to assist in the development of a philosophically and morally based new “grand design” for international relations. Although the Center is going “up-stream” from policy debates, I want to suggest that in so doing it will be in some ways more practical than policy-oriented thinking that pays little attention to why policies evolve in the first place.