Intellectuals Who Hate the ‘Blob’ Have a Lot in Common With Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is unusual to find academics at some of America’s most elite universities in enthusiastic agreement with Donald Trump, who is perhaps the least intellectual president in American history. But if a spate of recent books and articles is any indication, the president and the professors are united in scorn for America’s foreign policy elite.

The argument this unlikely alliance makes — that the foreign policy elite is a corrupt cabal that has led the country from disaster to disaster — is fashionable enough, given today’s anti-establishment mood. It also happens to be wrong.  

The attacks on the foreign policy establishment — the bipartisan group of experts that populate the U.S. government and think tanks and other nongovernmental institutions — started during the Barack Obama years. In response to criticism of Obama’s Middle East policy, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes derided the establishment as “the blob,” a homogenous, unthinking repository of conventional wisdom.

Trump dialed up the attacks during his 2016 campaign. He argued that key pillars of U.S. statecraft — promoting free trade, defending allies around the world, spreading of democracy and human rights — were fool’s errands. He dismissed the resulting criticism from foreign policy experts as nothing more than “the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”

Most recently, the blob has come under fire from leading intellectuals such as Harvard’s Stephen Walt, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and MIT's Barry Posen. These and other academics concede that America had an effective foreign policy during the Cold War. But after 1989, Washington embraced a radical doctrine of “liberal hegemony” and fought wars without end in an effort to transform the world. That approach, Mearsheimer alleges, was “prone to failure, sometimes disastrous failure”: It produced quagmire after quagmire, it fired global anti-Americanism, and it fueled conflict around the world.

This self-defeating approach has persisted, these scholars argue, because the blob abhors dissent and engages in rampant fearmongering to protect its privileges and influence. The blob gets its way, writes Walt, by “exaggerating international dangers, overstating the benefits that liberal hegemony would produce, and concealing the true costs.” Although many of these intellectuals have been harshly critical of Trump himself, they thus see the establishment just as Trump does:  a failed elite looking to hold onto power. Yet the attacks on the establishment are themselves deeply flawed, and the Trump era reminds us why we need a foreign policy elite in the first place.

For one thing, the argument that U.S. policy changed dramatically after the Cold War is misguided. America basically continued doing all the things it had been doing since the 1940s as part of an ongoing effort to shape an open, prosperous and secure international system. This included promoting free trade and globalization; anchoring and even expanding alliances that provided stability in key regions; maintaining military primacy; and confronting aggressors that challenged the American-led world order. Yes, the U.S. became somewhat more assertive in promoting human rights and democracy after the Cold War, and in the absence of traditional geopolitical threats it more energetically confronted challenges such as nuclear proliferation and catastrophic terrorism. Yet the fundamental building blocks of American foreign policy remained the same.

And if Posen argues that this policy has been “costly, wasteful, and counterproductive,” in reality it has been fairly successful during the post-Cold War era. Admittedly, it is easy to point out the failures and fiascoes: Disappointing and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a remarkable lack of success in achieving a stable equilibrium in the Middle East, and many others. But these setbacks are no worse than those of any other 30-year period in American history.

To take one example, the period between 1945 and 1975 is often thought of as a golden age of American statecraft. But these decades saw a catalogue of catastrophes — the “loss” of China, a bloody stalemate in Korea, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and many others — that dwarf the disappointments of the post-Cold War era. And because critics of the blob maintain a laser-like focus on failure, they miss some remarkable achievements in preserving and deepening the healthy world order initially created during the postwar decades.

It was not inevitable that the number of democracies in the world would increase from 76 in 1990 to 120 in the early 2000s, that former aggressors like Germany and Japan would continue to coexist peacefully with their neighbors, that there would be relative stability in regions — namely East Asia and Europe — that had seen febrile instability before. It was not inevitable that Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait in 1990 would be reversed, or that ethnic cleansing in the Balkans would be brought to an end. In all of these cases, the persistent global engagement advocated by the blob played a vital role. If one understands that foreign policy is a discipline in which errors and setbacks are inevitable, and successes are measured as much in bad things that don’t happen as good things that do, then the record of American statecraft hasn’t been half had.

Here the blob actually deserves a lot of credit, because it has been central to the effectiveness of U.S. policy going back decades. The fact that America has a bipartisan community of experts who generally share a bedrock commitment to deep international engagement — while still fighting vociferously about key policy issues — has been a source of strength in American statecraft. It has traditionally provided strategic continuity that protects U.S. policy from radical, destabilizing swings based on the last election result. It ensures that Washington has a deep bench of people who know key global issues and understand how the U.S. government works, which is critical given the degree to which the American political system — in contrast to most parliamentary systems — relies on non-career officials to run its foreign policy. For these reasons, most foreign observers do not view the blob as a blight upon U.S. policy. They view it as a collection of expertise and experience that their own countries can only envy.

In fact, the Trump era is making the case for the establishment far more effectively than the defenders of that establishment ever could. America and the world are now seeing what happens when Washington breaks significantly with its own traditions — when it absents itself from global leadership on critical issues such as trade, climate change and migration; when the U.S. withdraws from multilateral agreements it only recently spearheaded; when the president expresses more confidence in dictators than democratic leaders and sets about systematically alienating longtime allies.

The Trump era is also providing a case study in what happens when competence and respect for process — those underestimated qualities of the establishment — go by the wayside, and policy is whipsawed by the impulses of an erratic and solipsistic president on issues from Persian Gulf security to nuclear negotiations with North Korea. The damage might well be far worse, were not the blob — career officials as well as many of Trump’s own appointees — working so assiduously to preserve critical relationships and rein in the president’s desire to create even more disruption.

A foreign policy that bears the imprint of the American establishment will always be imperfect. But as two years with President Trump reminds us, a foreign policy that casts that establishment aside would probably be much worse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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