Rubio’s little dust up with Rex Tillerson got me thinking. Rex Tillerson defended his approach as realism in the service of America’s fundamental idealism. I don’t think that’s such a bad approach, but the ultimate foreign policy ideal, just like the ultimate domestic policy ideal, should be the good of our nation. Basic things: safety, security, prosperity. The stuff of the Constitution’s Preamble. Whether realist or idealist, a hazy concept of national interests is the big sleight of hand of all foreign policy theorists. Almost all of them substitute intermediate goals–access to sea lanes, stability, NATO dominance of Europe, democracy in the Middle East–as national interests. They often forget to ask and rarely show how those things directly or even indirectly promote America and its people’s safety and flourishing.
Strategy is supposed to be a tailoring of means to ends. But in this arena, the ends are often themselves simply means to other ends, which requires value judgments about what is the national interest. So these intermediate goals are bandied about as if they come up from on high, even though their connection to real national interests is obscure. There is little attempt by any of the “talking heads” to think critically about whether these intermediate goals actually do anything tangible and beneficial for the American people.
Even Gen. Mattis, whom I like and respect, seemed to engage in this kind of thinking, noting that our interests are not aligned with Russia, while Trump, with brute simplicity, simply says the ultimate goal is America First. This formula puts each of these intermediate goals in perspective as subordinate to a broader, unifying policy. That is heresy to the foreign policy establishment, in which most of the apparatchiks are very committed to their intermediate concerns of one kind or another. Indeed, they ignore evidence that these goals could lead to real costs and harm, such as, to pick some examples at random, a life-changing conventional or nuclear war with Russia or a mass influx of terrorists into Europe through regime change and chaos in Libya.
Kissinger in his work World Order does a good job of showing how he is a kind of savvy, principled realist, who is also concerned with historical American concerns for expanding freedom, democracy, and American-style government around the world. Wise as he undeniably is, as a Burkean I’m skeptical of this tinkering with foreign countries’ governments as a goal, both insofar as it is difficult, but also because I believe it leads to endless conflicts in the way the old Westphalian system, with its sharp distinction of internal and external affairs, did not.
On the other hand, being an American, I do think we can trust, get along with, and predict the actions of similar countries like the UK or France more reliably than authoritarian nations like China, Russia, and Iran. So, while I’m a realist, I part ways from the so-called structural realists because I believe internal affairs matter for how countries act, how our interests align, and how much we can realistically depend on them and predict what they’re likely to do. In either case, our real interests must always come first.
For example, while I feel blood and historical kinship with the Australians and British and Europe generally, their defense must not be our concern. With regard to certain popular “national interest” goals, I’m skeptical of how Russia dominating its neighbors harms that interest. And, even if I conceded that outcome did harm our interests–Kissinger makes the argument that anyone dominating the Eurasian landmass is a problem that the U.S. must concern itself with–I’m skeptical that it’s worth the cost in blood and treasure to prevent it.
After all, as Washington said, “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”
In his attempt to get Rex Tillerson to label provocatively a powerful foreign leader a “war criminal,” Rubio has shown himself to be a neocon hack, and not a terribly bright one, which is precisely why I don’t want him or anyone like him to be President. Even so, we must be skeptical of all of the foreign policy experts, because they leave unsaid the tenuous connection of our claimed interests and our real and enduring ones.