The West’s Dangerous Gambit in Ukraine


Last month, former Norwegian Prime Minister, and now NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia that the Western military alliance would stand with Ukraine as Russia masses troops on Ukraine’s border.

Of course, it is conventional wisdom in western capitals that Vladimir Putin is an imperial monster, and he is always ready to brutalize his neighbors with military force. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong? What if Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are legitimate spheres of influence for the Russian nation, with deep cultural, language, and religious ties going back to the 10th century when Ukraine converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion? What if NATO and the West are the imperialists, attempting to bully Russia from involving itself in a nation whose historical ties to Russia are far deeper than the United States’ ties to Canada?

And how has the United States reached the point in our alliances where a former UN climate change bureaucrat from Norway can threaten to send boys and girls from Wisconsin to die in the Donbass? Since Stoltenberg’s warning, Secretary of State Blinken has seemingly walked back NATO’s position and asserted that, because Ukraine is not a member of the alliance, the West would not respond with force but instead put crippling sanctions on Russia if it were to move on Ukraine.

The great Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warned that Ukraine was precisely the type of nation that could witness a “clash of civilizations” because it was “cleft” between the Orthodox civilization of Russia in eastern Ukraine, and western Ukraine which leans toward western Europe. In the case of nations that are cleft between two civilizations, Huntington advised that the two “principal” nations leading the two civilizations—the United States and Russia in this case—would need to display restraint and diplomacy and work out a deal that might protect the interests of both civilizations in that cleft nation.

Has the Western foreign policy establishment taken Huntington’s advice and looked to diplomacy? Hardly. Let’s look at the recent history of Western meddling in Ukraine.

In late 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to reject an offer of greater economic integration of Ukraine with the West. What was the West’s reaction to the perfectly understandable decision of the Ukrainian president to remain within the Russian sphere of influence? The U.S. State Department aided protesters who forced Yanukovych from power and took an active role in selecting his replacement. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who personally attended the protests against Yanukovych, was recorded telling the U.S. Ambassador to Kiev that “Yats is the guy.” In other words, opposition leader and pro-American Arseniy Yatseniuk should be installed as the Ukrainian President. Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador were also recorded discussing which opposition leaders should go into the government and which should not.

The Western foreign policy elite did not quite understand that sacking a pro-Russian Ukrainian president and installing a pro-American one is the geostrategic equivalent of Vladimir Putin arranging for the sacking of the Canadian prime minister and installing a pro-Russian one. For the Russians, the Americans’ imperial meddling was a bridge too far and they promptly invaded Crimea, where 65 percent of the population are ethnic Russians and nearly 80 percent are Russian speakers. It is almost never reported in the Western media that what amounts to an American coup d’état was the proximate cause of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and prompted Putin to send his “little green men” into the Donbass. It was arrogant U.S. meddling that instigated the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

What, one might ask, would be the U.S. reaction if the Russian navy were to hold joint exercises with the Canadian navy in Lake Ontario?

Has the foreign policy establishment reconsidered its position in light of Putin’s determined actions to prevent eastern Ukraine and Crimea from slipping out of Russia’s orbit? Absolutely not. In fact, they have doubled down.

In September, U.S. and NATO troops held joint exercises with the Ukrainian military on Ukrainian soil with 15 NATO nations and 6,000 troops participating.  These land exercises followed NATO naval exercises in the Black Sea in June that saw 30 NATO ships, 40 NATO aircraft, and 5,000 NATO soldiers participating. Russian displeasure at these June exercises was extreme and nearly led to a hot war when a British destroyer, HMS Defender, sailed into territorial waters in the Black Sea claimed by Russia. The Russian navy fired warning shots and Russian planes buzzed the British ship. These naval exercises followed similar maneuvers by NATO in March.

This American and NATO saber-rattling during 2021 follows billions of dollars in military aid given by the U.S. to Ukraine since 2014.  And, serious Western diplomats are surprised that Russia chooses to mass troops on the Ukrainian border?

What, one might ask, would be the U.S. reaction if the Russian navy were to hold joint exercises with the Canadian navy in Lake Ontario and Russian troops were to hold joint land exercises outside of Toronto?

All these military exercises are defended by NATO as “protecting democracy,” while a more precise definition might be “imperialism by democracies.” It is not well understood that Jacobin crusaders for democracy are among the most dangerous people on the world scene. We are too early in the Biden Administration to know if they will become global crusaders for democracy like George W. Bush. One thing is clear, however: these crusaders have thrown the American constitutional tradition to the wind. In George Washington’s Farewell Address, probably written with Alexander Hamilton, two of the most important authors of the American constitutional tradition, warned, “Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated.”

The Framers of the American Constitution did not advise the United States to become the crusader nation for democracy. Just the opposite. They recommended a foreign policy of humility and restraint. However, the United States, starting with the Spanish-American War, through Woodrow Wilson’s crusade for democracy, and now with our post-Cold War foreign policy, America has instead adopted a policy of arrogance and belligerence. We are in dangerous times.

The ‘Liberal International Order’ Is Neither Universal nor Exceptional


Imagine someone making the claim that ideological commitment to monarchism creates perpetual peace between states that share the values of king and country. History and culture be damned, and never mind that each country has a different monarch. Such a proposition could easily be interrogated by historical research to demonstrate that the claim was false and relied on selective harvesting of case studies to prove a point the claimant already believes valid as an article of faith.

Such a critical eye needs to be turned, mutatis mutandis, to what is called “The Liberal World Order”—a weltanschauung postulating that liberal societies are inherently more peaceful (if not better and superior), that they adopt (or should adopt) values-based activist foreign policies to spread that righteous way of life around the world, and that they form alliances toward advancing liberal ideals or out of mere presumption of shared values and common ideological foes.

The history of republics, as a less common form of government overall, should also bear a similar level of scrutiny. None other than a Founding Father of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist Number 6, made the case for historical skepticism toward the idea of innate eternal peace among countries with democratic systems and commercial ties. Examining Athens, Venice, Holland, and others, Hamilton observed that the ubiquity of trade and a democratic spirit did little to quench the thirst for war and conquest in those societies. In fact, the young United States split with its mercantile mother culture of Britain while allying with the absolute monarchy of France and then refused to back Revolutionary France in the latter’s fight with Britain, disavowing grand ideological foreign policy projects in favor of Washingtonian realism that advised caution about making permanent attachments to other nations in either enmity or amity.

What the fractious relationship between America and the British Empire over the first century of America’s founding highlights is that cultural affinity and economic ties alone do not trump geopolitical concerns. From a realist perspective, an adversarial relationship between the United States and United Kingdom was avoided mainly because Great Britain lost its greatness and co-equal great power status to a confident America in the aftermath of the Second World War. Post-WWII Britain was severely diminished as a world power while London felt increasingly intimidated by the ascent of the Soviet Union in Europe, thus welcoming its place in the American security umbrella as part of the Pax Americana.

Adopting a pragmatic and flexible, if fickle, approach to foreign policy based on perceptions of interest (that could change over time) is not unique to America. Indeed, historically speaking, prudent foreign policymaking is morally ambiguous and driven less by ideology than by managing external threats. The international system operates on the principle of sovereignty. Above all, states aim to maximize sovereignty and achieve a monopoly of force over their territories; they thus resist the presence of a final arbiter in whatever shape or form they appear—whether that be world government or a more powerful state acting as a world hegemon. This explains why, when it comes to major international incidents, the United Nations finds itself oscillating between being entirely sidelined and acting as a conduit for the will of the world’s major superpowers.

Given the absence of supreme authority to oversee international affairs as a Hobbesian Leviathan, the natural equilibrium in the international system is anarchy. While regimes draw on norms and values (of a particular people) to claim political legitimacy and dominate the political system of their respective country, states—structurally constrained by anarchy—aim at minimizing external threats and maximizing security. Given the nuanced relationship between norms and politics, it is no surprise that regimes revel in idealism (even if at times that is reduced to mere rhetorical ploy and sophistry), whereas states, in the final analysis, engage in realism and prudence. Self-preservation, understood as ensuring the political survival of the state and securing its territorial integrity, is the most basic telos of a state—hence the bare minimum target for any state before more aspirational aims (cf. thumos) that require relative power aggregation to achieve, such as a desire for recognition, international standing, and glory.

In World War II, often viewed as the most ideological war of modern times, a democracy (Finland) was a co-belligerent with the Axis powers while two arguably fascist Iberian powers (Portugal and Spain) mostly upheld neutrality in the conflict, with Lisbon taking a generally pro-Allied stance compared to Spain’s pro-Axis tilt. Capitalist Western nations worked in tandem with the communist Soviet Union to overcome the Nazi threat in a grand entente before falling out over dividing the spoils in the postwar era. Then, in the Cold War, major powers in the Communist Bloc turned their back on international socialist solidarity and pursued non-alignment in a desire to maximize their autonomy. Yugoslavia, under General Josip Broz Tito, defied Soviet hegemony and refused to join the Warsaw Pact. Maoist China’s relations with the USSR deteriorated and led to a deadly confrontation while Deng Xiaoping normalized the People’s Republic of China’s relations with America. Geography and context, it seems, are the key determining factors in geopolitics, not ideological solidarity between distant countries with divergent circumstances. Major powers often compete to maximize autonomy and achieve recognition internationally and are often willing to sacrifice ideology toward those ends.

Advocates of liberal internationalism may point to the present U.S.-led bloc of Western liberal democracies as an exception to this general trend of states engaging in realpolitik interest aggregation, but this conveniently overlooks the fact that the Western alliance relies on the United States’ superior power and influence capability far more than it does on any presumption of America’s exceptionalism as a liberal democratic regime. It is quite conceivable that a powerful liberal rival, if one were to exist, might split the American alliance network much the same way the United States supplanted the British Empire as hegemon after the Great War or when the growing power and ambition of China broke the close relations between Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War.

Thus, the “liberal order” does not signal ideological solidarity so much as it reflects an imbalance of power internationally in the aftermath of World War II. The American Century that unfolded since 1945 has indeed been a golden age for U.S. international standing allowing it an almost hegemonic control over the international system, culminating in the American “unipolar moment” that followed the collapse of the USSR. It is this American supremacy over the international system that Western international relations theorists parochially call the liberal order. If the international order is “rules-based,” it is because Washington has set the rules.

The emerging multipolar world is a reminder that history did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In truth, what is exceptional about the last seventy-five years is not America or the liberal order it has forged to serve its interests (or at least those of its elites), but the sheer power that the United States was able to amass owing to its favorable geographic position and relative distance from bloody and costly conflicts across the oceans that guard its borders. And even that exceptional power is not entirely without precedent in the course of human history when compared to the Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Mongol, and British Empires of the past. With the decline of U.S. power and the rise of the rest, especially in the non-Western world, it is no surprise that the liberal world order is appearing increasingly precarious, and the international system is shifting toward multipolarity.

Basing alliances on ideology rather than state interest blinds strategists to the realities of great power competition and morally neutral (minimal or maximal) considerations of interest that underlie the decision-making of “liberal” and “illiberal” states alike. Put simply, making geopolitical decisions prudently requires statesmen to balance their state’s interest against its holistic power capability (including its force projection and military prowess but also its economic strength and diplomatic leverages). Constructing an alliance on the presumption of shared values and moral absolutism also risks creating an environment where the ideological differences between states are exaggerated and inflated into “threats” in order to sabotage diplomacy with ideological adversaries even when strategic interest dictate otherwise. This is evident in the West’s dealings with countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Russia, which are often framed not as the geopolitical menaces that they are but as heinous existential threats, ignoring their marginal power status.

If North Atlantic countries are serious about maintaining the alliance network as a strategic resource, it would be wise for these nations to see such arrangements as they are—aggregations of interests to effect desired geopolitical outcomes—rather than an idealistic and utopian crusade for the soul of the world or as an instrument for advancing abstract universal principles and imposing the values of one state or group upon others. To recognize the historical and conditional forces that enable nations to band together with clear-eyed realism and to fully account for the shared interests among them is to allow the participants to better justify and uphold the alliance.

History is a compendium of transience. After all, nothing real and concrete is ever perfect, absolute, or permanent. The inevitability of decline and impermanence that defines life per se has an especial bearing on international affairs. It entails viewing international politics through the lens of tragic realism and abandoning the idealistic attempt to ground geopolitics in notions of exceptionalism, moral universalism, or missionary zeal. The impossibility of absoluteness in the real world means that sensible statesmen could dispose of the idea of the international system as a zero-sum Manichean prize to be won for all time.

As the primordial realist Thucydides observed millennia ago, fear, interest, and honor are the three central drivers of man, with hubris the source of his eventual downfall. As states are composed of men, they too anchor their behavior on these three motivators as they navigate the anarchic waters of the international system, where the most powerful states often drown not by other competitors but by hubris and overreach all their own. The key lesson here is that a state that overextends itself out of over-confidence in its own beliefs and norms, moral narcissism, and a disregard for the limitations of its own power eventually turns millenarian and self-destructs—missing various opportunities for diplomatic engagement and rapprochement and risking unnecessary escalation with strategic rivals. It would be tragic indeed if the North Atlantic bloc follows in this Manichean path, compelling allied nations to filter their grand strategy through liberal ideals and sacrifice their national interests at the altar of the alliance’s self-righteousness and its rather choleric compulsion to interventionism and war.

Arta Moeini is the Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a postdoc fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. Dr. Moeini’s latest project advances a theory of cultural realism as a cornerstone to a new understanding of foreign policy.

Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. Dr. Mott is an international relations scholar and author of The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.

Bill Gates and Ersatz Virtue


In this day and age, what does it mean to be a virtuous person? Despite his ruthless business practices, his cruel treatment of his employees, his association with known pedophiles, and his less-than-gentlemanly propriety with women, Bill Gates had, for a time, the answer. Be a humanitarian. Virtue is not a way to live your life with a relentless focus on reigning in your own personal, selfish desires. Virtue is not treating well the people who are right in front of you: your family, your friends, your employees. No, virtue is a sentiment to do good for the downtrodden. It is doing good for people far away. The farther, the better.

Bill Gates is a symbol of our age. A vicious person in his everyday life who built a stellar reputation with the worldwide establishment by constantly displaying his sentimental humanitarianism. The Gates Foundation, the global headquarters of sentimental humanitarianism, has little interest in philanthropic causes in the United States. Sure, they will throw a little money at a few charter schools in the U.S. to help “poor and minority” students. But their real focus of the Foundation is on the most downtrodden, African farmers and other serfs who need mosquito nets. They have a deep desire to improve healthcare in Burkina Faso. They signal their virtue by “helping” people they do not know.

They are a “nonprofit fighting poverty, disease and inequity around the world.” Their virtue does not come from treating their neighbors with respect, but rather because they have, for more than 20 years, “committed to tackling the greatest inequities in the world.” Their philanthropy is spread out over 130 countries in the world. Why help people near you when you can help people far, far away? Be kind to your wife who is standing right in front of you? No, that is too hard. Instead, write a check and send it to sub-Saharan Africa. In our time, the true understanding of virtue is gone; all that remains is the ersatz virtue of the sentimental humanitarian.

With the implosion of Bill Gates, can we finally get over this association of humanitarianism with virtue? What seems positively clear from the Gates example is that many loathsome people embrace humanitarianism as a mantle to disguise personal vice. How many speeches at the Oscars have been given by wretched and contemptible people who were then given rave reviews because they touted a humanitarian cause?

This confusion of humanitarianism with morality has caused great evil. The great ideological movements of the 20th century, communism and National Socialism, were “humanitarian” crusades. Much violence in history has been justified by the “need to save humanity.” The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was sold as a great humanitarian cause, with a utopian goal of “ending tyranny in our world.” Humanitarianism, when you scratch the surface, turns out simply to mask a will to power.

If the modern age confuses humanitarianism as virtue, what is the alternative? The alternative was laid out by the great Harvard professor Irving Babbitt more than one hundred years ago. His answer lies at the heart of every great religious tradition. As he wrote, “there may be something after all in the Confucian idea that if a man only sets himself right, the rightness will extend to his family first of all, and finally in widening circles to the whole community.” This Confucian notion is precisely the opposite of the Bill Gates notion of virtue. Gates associates his virtue with the way he treats people in the farthest circle from his own. For people in his immediate circle, he treats them like dirt. Bill Gates’ virtue is that of Robespierre, who defined virtue as “that compassionate zeal for the oppressed…that still more sublime and sacred love for humanity.”

“Social justice,” is likewise ersatz justice. As Babbitt would have written about Bill Gates, “genuine justice seems to demand that men should be judged, not by their intentions or endeavors, but by their actual performance.” Even many confused religious leaders tout “social justice” when, as Plato taught, it is a thing that does not exist. Justice in society flows directly from just people with just souls. It exists nowhere else.

There are certainly “injustices” in society, such as income inequality, but these inequities flow out of the souls of the grasping and greedy, not from some moral flaw that is found “in society.” Whatever racism exists in society is not caused by something “structural” in society but from actual people who may have racism in their hearts. And none of these vices are corrected by philanthropy, yet some think that philanthropy can serve as absolution.

One cannot simply condemn all philanthropists as masking their loathsomeness by embracing humanitarianism, but the motivation to easily acquire “virtue” by performing philanthropy does not seem uncommon. Some who are loathsome try to wash away their sins by embracing humanitarianism and offering philanthropy.

What modernity has lost is the understanding that virtue starts with self, not with an outpouring of emotion on behalf of the downtrodden. Orderly societies are built not by philanthropy but upon self-ordered people. And the rarest type of society, the free society, only emerges when individual citizens are so well-ordered—themselves—that there is no need to impose order from above. You don’t need a cop with a gun when no one is breaking the law; freedom and virtue are two sides of the same coin.

“Wokeness” is just another chapter in the three-hundred-year-old book of sentimental humanitarianism, a book that was written first by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With Wokeness, if you are a member of a favored group, you possess “virtue” regardless of any vile personal behavior.

Western societies are spiraling downward not because we have adopted the wrong “public” policies, but because individuals have lost the sense that the key to life is controlling one’s own behavior, controlling oneself. As the Buddha said, “Self is the lord of self; who else can be the lord?” And St. Paul would add that this self must not be one’s ordinary self, but the divine part of self.

Someone should have told Bill Gates that personal probity is everything; humanitarianism is nothing.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.

Column originally published at Crisis.

Afghanistan: The U.S. Can Always Go Back


The U.S. is finally getting out of Afghanistan. While most Americans have long supported an exit, advocates of a continued U.S. military presence warn of the Afghan government’s collapse, the subjugation of women and the re-establishment of a terrorist haven.

Both sides of the debate ignore a key point: U.S. troops can go back. A permanent military presence and a permanent retreat aren’t the only military options…

This is a preview. Read the full article at The Wall Street Journal.

The American Mess in the Ukraine


Russia is massing tanks and troops on the Ukrainian border. Inevitably, we are about to hear many ‘Putin is Hitler’ media stories. What will go unsaid is that the seven-year crisis in the Ukraine was largely an American creation, due to the US’s congenital meddling and interventionism in nations with little strategic importance to the United States. There is great irony in Biden administration officials trying to get ahead of a potential crisis that was largely caused by Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Nuland.

The potential area of conflict is Ukraine’s Donbass region, the eastern-most portion of Ukraine where most people speak Russian as their first language. In early 2014, civil war broke out in the Donbass after a US-backed coup d’état had ousted the Russian-leaning government in Kiev. The coup was clearly orchestrated by Nuland, who was then assistant secretary of state for European affairs; she probably had the CIA’s assistance. Someone, likely the Russians, intercepted and leaked Nuland’s phone call to the then-US ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt. Their discussion was to decide who was to be the next prime minister of Ukraine. Nuland’s choice was Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a rabidly anti-Russian politician. Nuland famously said: ‘I think Yats is the guy.’ When Pyatt warned Nuland that the Europeans might not support Yatsenyuk, Nuland diplomatically replied: ‘Fuck the EU.’ Yats ended up as prime minister.

Neoconservative revisionist historians like to point to Russia’s invasion of Crimea as the origin of the recent Ukrainian crisis. This account of history is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Nuland’s meddling in the internal politics of Russia’s neighbor is the equivalent of Putin orchestrating a coup in Canada to install a pro-Russian prime minister. American diplomats should not be arrogantly choosing the prime ministers of countries in the backyards of other great powers. The US’s blockheaded diplomats instigated the crisis.

Not surprisingly, within a month of the American coup in Kiev, Putin took Crimea, the most heavily pro-Russian part of Ukraine with deep historic, religious and cultural ties to Russia. During that same month of March, ‘little green men’ — armed soldiers not wearing insignia — began appearing in eastern Ukraine. The green men were Russian special forces sent to stir up an insurgency, which they did. Large sections of the Donbass fell under Russian control.

In February 2015, the French president, German chancellor and President Putin of Russia met in Minsk to try to prevent a major regional war. The Minsk accords was the kind of compromise that American diplomats should have pursued earlier. The Minsk agreement envisioned a return of the Donbass to Ukraine but with a measure of autonomy and a recognition of the region’s cultural bond with Russia. The Minsk accords and the subsequent ceasefire are now breaking down.

The American people expect our diplomats to understand the politics and culture of other nations and to work out compromises that will avoid wars. With Victoria Nuland, you have a ‘diplomat’ who does not care to understand the perilous politics of a nation like Ukraine; she simply wants to bully that divided country until a pro-American politician leads it.

Ukraine is what Samuel Huntington described as a ‘cleft’ nation, deeply divided internally because ‘large groups belong to different civilizations’. Ukraine, he pointed out, is ‘divided between the Uniate nationalist Ukrainian speaking west and the Orthodox Russian-speaking east’.

Given the potential for a conflagration in Ukraine to spread into a disastrous war between the West and Russia, one would think that our Russian ‘experts’ would be cautioning diplomacy, would recognize Russian interests in eastern Ukraine and would be looking for a compromise that would also protect Western interests in western Ukraine. Huntington himself argued that, in the situation of a smaller nation divided between two civilizations, the leading nation in each civilization — in this case, the US and Russia — ‘should negotiate with each other to contain or to halt fault-line wars’.

Vladimir Putin is a garden variety authoritarian dictator who will deal ruthlessly with political opponents. But ordinary Russians who do not threaten his power can live their lives in peace, can worship where they want, and can run their own businesses. In short, Putin is not Hitler; he is actually a vast improvement over the Soviet Union.

Therefore, President Biden has two choices toward Ukraine. He can embrace diplomacy and work out a deal with Russia, or he can view Ukraine as simply another province in the American empire, the Nuland approach. One approach will bring peace, the other may bring war.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.

Why Diplomacy Has Not Returned


In his inaugural address, President Biden backhandedly criticized Donald Trump’s foreign policy by asserting that, “we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” A month later, at the Munich Security Conference, Biden proclaimed that “diplomacy is back.” After decades of endless wars and the militarization of American foreign policy, such fondness for diplomacy is welcome. But is it genuine? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be no.

On his very first day in office, without diplomatic consultation with one of our closest allies and trading partners, Biden canceled the Keystone pipeline, killing thousands of American and Canadian jobs. A short month later, and to the chagrin of Democrats in Congress, Biden bombed Iran-backed militias in Syria, seemingly to “send a message” to Iran — certainly not a diplomatic message.

Not 30 days after the Syria bombing, Biden labeled Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” who would “pay a price” for election meddling while also reminding viewers that he believes Putin “has no soul.” Biden’s remarks caused the Russians to withdraw their U.S. ambassador. Not one day later, Biden’s “diplomatic” team arrived in Alaska to meet with Chinese leaders. Rather than first seeking common ground, his team opened the meeting with harsh criticisms of Chinese behavior, leading to a fierce Chinese response, an exchange between the two superpowers that Politico labeled as “undiplomatic.”

More recently, his team has been critical of German support for the Nord Stream pipeline that will bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. Some in Congress want Biden to move forward with sanctions on companies participating in pipeline construction. If Biden moves to throttle the pipeline, as some of his allies in Congress desire, the breach in U.S.-German relations would be catastrophic. One senior German official said the result may be a “major portion” of the allied Christian Democrats and Bavarian Christian Social Union turning against the United States.

Within a short few months, Biden has caused significant diplomatic breaches with our Canadian ally, a potentially catastrophic breach with our ally Germany, has chosen military action over diplomacy with Iran and, most ominously, has brought relations with Russia and China, two nations that are an existential threat to the United States, to maybe their lowest points since the Cold War. These are not diplomatic snafus; this is a string of serious diplomatic fiascos.

If one takes the long view, it can be shown that the seeming American inability to engage in genuine diplomacy is not limited to the administration. Virtue signaling and moral condescension toward other nations is now a congenital feature of American elites. Since Woodrow Wilson and his utopian promise to make the world “safe for democracy,” many American elites have conducted themselves with boastful moral preening on the world stage.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said of the United States: “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” A short time later, the younger George Bush asserted, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Does one really think that a nation which displays such excessive pride in its moral superiority can engage in genuine diplomacy with other nations? Mere partisans will take comfort in Biden’s stumbles on the world stage, but a more thoughtful analysis of the situation would point to serious cultural issues that afflict American elites. The arrogant moral preening that has been taking place at America’s elite colleges has produced a generation of American leaders who now bring their puffed up moral superiority to meetings with the leaders of other nations.

Expert diplomats require a keen understanding of the interests of their own nation but they require something more—humility. True diplomacy requires the ability to consider that we may not be right about everything; other nations have interests and also have a point of view. To the contrary, American elites have come to believe themselves as humanitarians without peer on the world stage. Pushy hectoring of other nations is a common feature of American “diplomacy.” With this arrogant attitude, there are more foreign policy failures to come.

William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of Democracy and Imperialism. Article originally published at The Hill.

Aristotle and Our American Oligarchy


There is only one explanation for the continuing presence of thousands of soldiers at the Capitol: the transition of the United States from a constitutional republic to an oligarchy. What oligarchs fear most is the demos, the common people who historically rebel against rule by selfish elites. The oligarchs must surround the Capitol with troops to remind the plebeians that their brief revolt of 2016 will not succeed again and that they will be crushed.

Aristotle considered oligarchy a deviant form of rule that tended to arise when elites became corrupt and were no longer interested in the common good but only in enriching themselves; this seems a quite accurate description of our elites. I am not alone in making this observation of late. The assertion that America is now an oligarchy is not a new one; it has been made by many commentators including here, here, and here.

Indeed, it is almost old hat to assert that the United States is simply no longer a functioning constitutional republic. That the wealthy have a wildly disproportionate influence upon our politics is an obvious fact. When the nation goes to war or funds the government through a huge Continuing Resolution, the people’s representatives in Congress have very little influence.

What has gone too-little remarked upon is that the transition to oligarchy brings great dangers. In Book V of Politics, Aristotle warns that oligarchies are very unstable forms of government. “Mixed” regimes, where the middle class has some political power are far more stable, Aristotle says. Aristotle’s advice to oligarchs is to avoid relying “upon the political devices…invented only to deceive the people, for they are proved by experience to be useless.” In short, don’t lie because it doesn’t work.

Our oligarchs have not taken Aristotle’s advice—how many still read him?—and have, in recent decades, produced numerous big lies to justify their actions.

In 2003 the Bush Administration told us that America’s sons and daughters needed to invade Iraq or we might all be vaporized under a “mushroom cloud.” Then, when our brave warriors found no WMDs—and endured the meat grinder of war—we were told regularly that victory was imminent. This same deception continues with regard to Afghanistan. The oligarchs and their servants emerged from the wars better off: Paul Wolfowitz went on to run the World Bank; David Petraeus landed at private equity giant KKR; and the defense contractors thrived with the help of retired wartime generals now on their boards. For the 35,000 working-class families of Americans killed or wounded, the wars were tragic.

A few years later came the financial crisis of 2008. We know what caused it. Politicians of both parties required banks to provide favored groups with mortgages, although many were not financially capable of paying them. The banks simultaneously took opposing positions on these toxic mortgages: Their economists warned of financial disaster while their sales divisions rolled the toxic mortgages into securities and sold them. When the inevitable meltdown happened, politicians aligned with the oligarchs rushed to bail out the banks. The banks could then continue their bipartisan contributions to the politicians who constructed the bailout—a vicious circle of growing oligarchy.

The Bush bailouts of 2008 were a decisive event in modern American politics, the moment when it occurred to millions whose lives were badly impacted that distant elites had the game rigged. For the middle class, thousands lost their homes and thousands more saw the value of their homes collapse. The oligarchs told the people that these difficulties were just part of the business cycle; things go up and things go down—the kind of explanation Aristotle would say is designed to “deceive the people” but is politically “useless” because it persuades no one.

In the wake of the bailouts came Barack Obama. Like many Democrat leaders, Obama claimed to be an advocate for the working class. He was in fact a quintessentially oligarchic politician: Ivy League bred, feted by Hollywood, a regular on the Vineyard, a supporter of the 2008 bailouts, showered with Wall Street money, and contemptuous of working-class “clingers” with their guns and religion.

Obama’s ideological progressivism frightened many, too. A middle-class backlash came in the form of the Tea Party. The oligarchs wanted no part of these rubes; so, the IRS was promptly weaponized against them. Lois Lerner, the IRS employee who so effectively undermined the Tea Party, retired with a full federal pension. Several years later, the Obama Justice Department released a statement saying that they found no evidence of a political motive for the kneecapping of Tea Party groups—an obvious falsehood.

During Obama’s presidency, Fox News picked up on the fact that people don’t like being lied to, and they played up every scandal in which the administration seemed to be lying: Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Hillary’s email servers, “if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan,” etc. As Aristotle might have expected in an oligarchy, Fox News achieved blockbuster ratings when their daily theme became: What lies are the establishment telling the people today? It may be left to the reader to decide which scandal was serious and which sin was venial, and whether the Obama Administration lied more egregiously than the Bush Administration. Suffice it to say that many working-class Americans became convinced that their elites were serial liars.

Then, at that precise moment, Donald Trump descended the escalator. Aristotle wrote that when the people believe they are being ruled by a corrupt oligarchy, “anybody is good enough to be their champion.” President Trump can be described as a vulgar, narcissistic, and ill-mannered leader, and even as a demagogue, but the people looking for a champion against the corrupt establishment feverishly welcomed him. Trump’s message resonated because he gave voice to grievances that had been ignored, or consciously created, by the oligarchic establishment: a hollowing out of manufacturing, declines in working-class wages, out-of-control illegal immigration, huge income disparities, trashing sacred national symbols, and endless wars. Trump did not solve these problems, but he was a genius in pinning the blame on the oligarchs and undermining their legitimacy.

With Trump, many Americans came to understand that the denizens of the institutions that make up oligarchic America—the media, the universities, entertainment, politics, and business—have rigged the game for themselves and live in an affluent bubble. Therefore, even before Trump captured the nomination for president, the oligarchic establishment sought to undermine his movement. They illegally surveilled him and his campaign in hopes of catching him colluding with the Russians. We all witnessed the endless “show me the man and I’ll find the crime” Mueller probe. Finally, there was the buffoonish Adam Schiff and the farcical impeachment. Many fabricated falsehoods, as well as selective leaks of classified information, would find their way into Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post. As with Lois Lerner, no one who did the dirty work for the oligarchs was punished for the illegalities used to frame Trump. His followers, who felt they finally had a leader fighting for them, took it personally.

The final shoe to drop was the pandemic, and it was dropped on the neck of the working class and small-business owners. While California’s oligarchs dined without masks at The French Laundry, they crushed one hundred thousand mom-and-pop restaurants. While oligarchs escaped the cities, using Zoom from their second homes in the Hamptons, the working class put on their masks and went to work at the warehouse, the hospital, and the grocery store (if they kept their job at all). During the pandemic, the collective net worth of the oligarchs grew by $931 billion while middle-class unemployment broke records.

Then came the 2020 election. Only thorough investigations can establish whether Trump’s wild allegations of election corruption have any truth, but, given the oligarchic establishment’s ruthless behavior during Trump’s presidency, the deep suspicion of Trump supporters is understandable. The belief that the election was stolen, which Trump recklessly encouraged, became the last straw. It was on to the Capitol.

The strategy of the oligarchs has been to use the ugly protests to justify crushing the deplorables once and for all. First, cut Trump off from social media and disconnect him from his followers and, at all costs, try to prevent his return through a second impeachment. Next will come banana republic-style prosecutions. For his supporters, put them on no-fly lists, get them fired from their jobs, and begin a CCP-style social credit system. Throw the entire weight of federal law enforcement against the Trump protesters, while allowing the violent leftist rioters from this summer to avoid punishment because they enjoy both the financial and moral support of the oligarchs.

The oligarchs will assume that, given their dependable partnership with corporate America, Silicon Valley, the mainstream media, and the FBI, their political dominance is now permanent. They seem oblivious to the seething anger that this consolidation of power will create.

As Aristotle would have predicted, the volatility of our politics is increasingly driven by clashes between the institutions controlled by the oligarchs and working-class people who view elites with contempt and do not share their woke cultural, religious, and philosophical outlook. We are entering what historian Michael Vlahos calls, ominously, the “revenge cycle” of politics. We no longer seek compromise and common ground; now politics is about crushing your opponents, in the way that a warring army would force an unconditional surrender.

It is historically the case that leaders of populist revolutions tend to get more extreme and the masses more radicalized, not less so. This is particularly true when ruling elites are slow to acknowledge working-class grievances, as they were in pre-revolutionary France and Russia, and as they are now in the United States.

Like many elites, Joe Biden seems oblivious to the powder keg he is sitting on. If he continues to ignore working-class grievances and simply to be a mouthpiece for the oligarchy, Aristotle would say that our country is headed to a bad place.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialismfrom the University of Michigan Press.

No Substitute for Strategy: What’s Wrong with “Defending Forward”


President Joe Biden has entered office promising reform at home and restoration abroad. But American foreign policy needs new thinking, not a return to the past. Despite the serial incompetence of the Trump administration and the poison pills it left behind, the two decades preceding Donald Trump were a time of massive American overreach, and yes, “endless wars.” As the fight to shape Biden’s foreign policy begins, the administration should pause before just pressing the reset button.

For the past twenty years, U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by a group of hawkish, Middle East-centric scholars and officials. The results have been disastrous. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has squandered more than $6 trillion on wars in the Greater Middle East. It has won none of them. Now, under the auspices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), many of those same scholars have written a monograph urging the continuation of these policies.

The past four years have treated FDD well—the think tank helped drive and justify President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and helped author the “maximum pressure” policy that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Its budget soared from $12.2 million in 2018 to $32.5 million in 2019. Yet at the same time, Trump’s term saw the rise of realist and restraint-oriented foreign policy camps in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. The hawks’ operational environment has gotten worse.

In Defending Forward, FDD is firing an early warning shot across the bow of the incoming Biden Administration. Under a bipartisan guise, with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the lead, the report calls for a globe-girdling grand strategy that makes faraway problems of all sizes look bigger because they are closer.

Defending Forward suffers from three main maladies. First, it fails to situate its arguments in the context of broad American interests. Second, the authors either misunderstand or misconstrue basic elements of military doctrine in their call for Americans to embrace what they describe as “forward defense in depth.” Finally, the report ignores geography—America’s greatest strategic advantage.

The report’s section on “The Big Debate” offers ad hominem bromides but little strategic guidance. Panetta warns of the dangers in “withdrawing into a defensive and insular crouch.” Clifford May and Bradley Bowman write that those who advocate ending endless wars exhibit “stunning ignorance” because ending them would allow the nation’s “enemies to plot in safety and comfort.” LTG (ret.) H.R. McMaster frets that advocates of restraint want to “avoid all military interventions abroad,” and that their policy proposals are “narcissistic,” relying on “blind adherence to an orthodoxy based on emotion rather than reason.” John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt are described as “realists-cum-isolationists.”

The report’s Big Debate is mostly a sideshow. Instead, the meat of the report is its region-by-region middle section, a punch list of military and diplomatic tasks in the Middle East, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific region. In the Iraq chapter, John Hannah, a former Middle East aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, offers suggestions for learning the right lessons from the Iraq War—albeit without examining the wisdom of starting the war in the first place. Hannah suggests keeping as many troops as possible in Iraq in order to lean on ISIS and to help the “well-intentioned but weak” Iraqi government distance itself from Iran.

Unfortunately, Hannah’s analysis elides basic political realities. The Iraqi government has close relations with Iran—current Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi would not be in office without Iranian assent. After the assassination of Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi host Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020, Iraq’s parliament immediately called for U.S. forces to leave the country. A month later Hannah called for regime change in Iraq again, after calling in 2015 for regime change in Iran. The main lessons that seem to be escaping Hannah are that America’s ability to control Iraqi politics is limited and the significance of Iraq to the United States is low.

Instead, Hannah blames the 2011 U.S. withdrawal for the rise of ISIS and suggests that if we don’t want an ISIS resurgence, the United States can’t withdraw further. This conveniently ignores the central role that regime change played in allowing ISIS to rise in the first place. Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’ progenitor, was mounting attacks on US troops daily before withdrawal was even part of the discussion.

The closest the report comes to a strategy is its short plea for what Panetta terms “forward defense in depth.” This in turn points to a November 2020 Foreign Affairs article by Kori Schake, Jim Mattis, Jim Ellis, and Joe Felter. That article argues that President Trump was bad for national security and that allies are an unalloyed good, but presents the defense in depth claim in one sentence:

Protecting the United States requires a strategy of defense in depth—that is, of identifying and dealing with global problems where they occur rather than waiting for threats to reach American shores.

That is not what defense in depth means. Defense in depth emphasizes slowing, not blunting an attacker’s advance, ceding space for time, stretching the attackers’ logistics lines and rendering them vulnerable to attacks on their flanks.

It is also strange to market the idea as particularly ally-friendly, as the authors do. The military concept of defense in depth a) assumes war, b) involves ceding territory to the attacker, and c) frequently involves wanton destruction in the area being ceded. The canonical modern example of defense in depth is the Soviets in the Battle of Kursk, the largest and most destructive tank battle in history. Massaging this concept into something Washington policymakers could sell to allies as a grand strategic concept seems like a stretch.

One could attempt to modify this operational concept into a grand strategy, but neither Mattis and his coauthors, nor anyone writing for FDD, has done so. Given that reality, we cannot credit “forward defense in depth” as a clear strategic concept or even orientation.

“Forward defense in depth,” much like the report as a whole, is just old wine in new bottles. It sounds little different from the “flytrap strategy” post-hoc justification for invading Iraq—“fight them in Baghdad so we don’t have to fight them in Boston.” Leaving aside a needed parsing of just who “them” is (accidental guerrillas tend to arise in the face of foreign occupations), this concept ignores the greatest strategic advantage America holds: its providential geography.

A century ago, the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-Jules Jusserand, put it perfectly. America, he wrote, “is blessed among the nations. On the north, she has a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and the west, fish.” If there is anything truly exceptional about America it is the United States’ location on the map and the enormous advantages inherent in being the only major power surrounded by weak, friendly neighbors and oceans.

While Pentagon planners regularly lament the “tyranny of distance” in describing what it takes to get American troops into a faraway fight, what John Mearsheimer termed the “stopping power of water” is an enormous net benefit for the United States. It is harder for them to reach us than it is for us to reach them. Any prospective foreign adversary would need to subjugate their regional competitors first in order to even think about attacking the United States.

McMaster dismisses America’s geographic advantage with references to terrorists and ICBMs being unconstrained by distance. Recent experience indicates otherwise. The United States, thanks to its geography, remained minimally impacted by the chaos it unleashed in the Greater Middle East. One suspects that were Libyan, Syrian, or Afghan refugees flooding America’s shores, the United States would likely be far more introspective about its “forward defense.”

Modern technology has also increasingly undermined the advantages of forward military presence. While anti-access/area denial concepts may have become an “intellectual junk drawer,” the fact remains that comparatively cheap missiles, mines, and drones have put forward-deployed U.S. forces at unprecedented risk, whether in Iraq or East Asia. Even with air and missile defense batteries, U.S. detachments are often closer to being hostages than threats, especially in the event of a high-intensity conflict.

Forward deployment in defense of allies would require distinguishing between vital interests and secondary concerns. This is not something the Washington foreign-policy establishment has excelled at in recent decades.

Where policymakers have overstated the importance of various problems, as in Iraq, the Afghanistan war, and U.S. Iran policy, all of which the FDD scholars supported, the human and economic costs of their ostensible solutions have been immense. U.S. policy in the Middle East unleashed a maelstrom of sectarian violence, empowered Iran, and created a massive suck on U.S. military and diplomatic attention that would have been directed better elsewhere.

This is where Defending Forward truly runs aground. The general tone of the report is “this much or more, everywhere.” Asia strategists will tell anyone listening that U.S. and allied advantages are declining rapidly in that region. U.S. allies’ defense spending and defense concepts are inadequate to the challenge posed by China. Meanwhile, the pandemic has exploded domestic budgets at all levels, and the prospects for increasing U.S. defense spending by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars per year seem unlikely. As CJCS Gen Mark Milley put it in December, “There’s a very strong argument to be made that we may have forces in places that they shouldn’t be and we may have forces that are needed in places that they’re not right now, and that we need to adjust our global footprint.”

Strategy, grand or otherwise, is about choice. It is about setting priorities. President Biden has a golden opportunity to transform, not restore: to replace the blustering incompetence of the Trump years with a humbler, saner American foreign policy, one that rejects the hubris that helped put Trump in the White House. Defending Forward does promise a restoration of sorts: a restoration of the worst foreign policy ideas since the end of the Cold War. The president would do well to reject it—and its votaries.

Gil Barndollar is a senior research fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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