Can Republican Intellectuals Survive the Age of Trump?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Who was most upset about Donald Trump’s shocking presidential victory? (Other than Hillary Clinton, that is.) A good place to start is with these 122 Republican foreign-policy mandarins who wrote an open letter months before the 2016 election declaring him “utterly unfitted to the office.” In return, Trump has declared them utterly unfitted to be part of his administration. And their interventionist foreign-policy leanings as well.

So, how are things going in the political wilderness? To answer the question, I had a talk this week with one of the most prominent Never Trump intellectuals, Eliot A. Cohen. Cohen is vice dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a former counselor at the State Department under George W. Bush and the author, most recently, of “The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with what made you semi-notorious relating to Trump’s election. Initially, you urged young conservatives to join the administration for the good of the country. Shortly afterward, you wrote a Washington Post opinion piece walking that back. So what happened in that interim?

Eliot Cohen: I had nothing but loathing for the candidate who won. But I did indulge in some hopes that maybe he would moderate in office. The immediate trigger for the reversal was a conversation with somebody I knew, with whom I had disagreed, cordially, about Trump. He asked me to suggest some names for the administration to maybe hire, so I did. I said there was somebody who might not want to apply, but maybe if you reach out to him you could get him. And that triggered a remarkably hostile rant.

And I began to think to myself, wow, if this guy, whom I thought of as a reasonably level-headed person, represents what these Trump people are like, then this is going to be something fundamentally different. And then, of course, all of that was very quickly reinforced by Trump’s behavior during the transition and the first week. And then I wrote a piece in the Atlantic in which I just said, this is hopeless. And I’ve been pretty consistent about this. Look, I’m not capable of excommunicating people, and I wouldn’t even if I could. I understand why people went, some of whom I respect greatly. There are some people who’ve gone in to the administration and served admirably. Although all the ones that I’ve known have quit.

TH: Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary, and ex-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster for example?

EC: Mattis, who is a tower of integrity, in particular. McMaster got fired. I think Jim Mattis decided to quit.

TH: Last summer at the Aspen Security Forum I interviewed longtime CIA official John McLaughlin and raised the question whether he would work with Trump if asked. His answer was evasive: He said he was simply glad the phone hadn’t rung. So, what would you do now if your phone rang?

EC: Tell them they must be joking. They wouldn’t call me and I wouldn’t want their phone call. I distinguish very sharply between a political appointee and a career member of the civil service or the intelligence community or the Foreign Service or the military. Those are completely different things. If you are a political appointee, you are a personal representative of the president of the United States of America. And if you think that this is somebody who is utterly unworthy, not just unworthy of being president, but is simply an awful human being in many, many dimensions, you have no business being his personal representative. This isn’t like a being a criminal defense lawyer where you will knowingly and rightly represent some real creeps. This is very different.

TH: We have a two-party system, at least for the time being. If you think that the party you are associated with, the GOP, no longer merits your attention or your service, should you go to the Democrats?

EC: I’m an independent. That temperamentally suits me better, anyway. I’m an intellectual, and the job of intellectuals is to tell the truth as they see it, and that’s it. There are some people, the Daniel Patrick Moynihans, who are able to somehow both be politicians and be intellectuals, but usually you can’t be both at the same moment. The way I view my own purpose in life at the moment is, first and foremost, I’m a teacher. I’m helping to lead one of the divisions of Johns Hopkins University. And then I’m somebody who’s going to describe things as I see them. That’s my job.

TH: So, given the increasing polarization that we’re seeing on foreign affairs and America’s role in the world, is there room anymore for a sort of center-left to center-right consensus?

EC: Well, it still holds, actually. The extremes tend to be very noisy. The uncomfortable truth is that there are some continuities between President Barack Obama and Trump on foreign policy. And people need to be aware of that. I suspect that we are seeing a larger, more fundamental change in American foreign policy. For the moment there remains some sort of centrist consensus about the United States playing a leadership role. There’s even a kind of centrist consensus about human rights being an important part of our role in the world. But it’s clear that a lot of Americans no longer quite understand why we should be present in Europe. There is nothing like the post-Cold War vision, which so many of us took for granted for so long. So we’re in a period of flux. Public intellectuals have an important role to play in articulating what that vision might be. At the moment we don’t have politicians who think that way.

TH: So let’s say we go from four years of Trump to eight years of Trump, plus we’ve got Democratic leaders who also want less involvement in the world. Do we think this a withdrawal attitude that can shift back any time soon?

EC: We’re going to have changed in that way no matter what. But with a somewhat more normal kind of Democratic presidency we’ll recover a certain sort of equilibrium, but it will be a different kind of equilibrium than, say, existed in 2000. And that’s partly just because the world is changed. The rise of China. The rise of various authoritarian powers. This broader crisis of liberal democracy that we’re seeing. Plus, goodness knows what shocks are on the way, including economic shocks.

If you have four more years of Trump, or if you have a really quite radical Democrat come in, which I think is less likely, there’s a lot of damage. And the damage is not simply to the substance, but the tone, and the tone is actually tremendously important. People can understand Trump as an anomaly. If he is re-elected, then a lot of faith in the basic stability of the United States as an actor in the national system goes. We’ve already taken a hit that way, by the way. But the hit will be much, much worse.

TH: So, are we at another “whither NATO” moment, as we were after the fall of the Soviet Union?

EC: More than the usual “whither NATO.” I mean, it’s always “whither NATO,” that’s everybody’s favorite Foreign Affairs article from the 1980s, but it will be more, “Why NATO in the first place?”

TH: What’s your two-sentence answer to that question?

EC: The answer is that the problems of European security have not been resolved and the United States has a very strong interest in a stable and prosperous European continent, and the Russians are a real problem and need to be contained still.

TH: Do you think pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty was the right thing to do?

EC: Actually I do. Because the Russians were cheating on it. When people cheat, there have to be consequences. And at the moment, there are whole classes of weapons that the Chinese and the Iranians can have, and the Russians can have because they cheat, and we can’t have because we’re going to stick to a treaty to which we’re the only people who really adhere. It doesn’t make any sense.

TH: What about expanding North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership to North Macedonia and taking Poland up on its offer of building a base for a permanent U.S. presence?

EC: I think there is something to be said for having a permanent presence in Poland. I don’t have a particularly strong view about Macedonia. But the larger issue here has to be the commitment of European states to law-abiding multiparty democracy. And in some parts of Europe there’s been real backsliding on that. And because this administration doesn’t particularly care about ideology by and large, some of that’s gotten lost.

TH: You’re talking about Poland, Hungary, the new Italian government?

EC: Particularly Hungary. Somewhat less so Poland, considerably less so Italy.

TH: On NATO expansion, that has always been Putin’s big obsession — that the West is surrounding him. Do you think we should continue to antagonize him in that way?

EC: Well, he’s antagonizing us. I don’t think we’re the ones antagonizing him. I think he’s pursuing Russian national interests as he sees them. And he’s done them in some pretty aggressive ways, including invasion, support of violent insurrection and subversion of our own political system. Ultimately, you have to have a working relationship of some kind with the Russians, but it’s always better to do it from a position of strength and from a position where, say, if they interfere with our elections, we make them pay for it.

TH: You talked about some policies that were handed down from the Obama administration to the Trump White House.

EC: More attitudes than policies.

TH: One of them is to try and extricate the U.S. from the two wars. Trump says he wants to do this, although it’s not moving along any sort of particular timeline. With Islamic State having lost its geographic caliphate, is there a reason to stay in Syria? Is there a reason to stay in Afghanistan?

EC: Those are relatively low cost investments for us. The Obama administration made a terrible mistake by the way. It disengaged from Iraq precipitously and that got us into our third Iraq war. And similarly, if you simply leave our Afghan allies in the lurch, which it kind of looks like we’re planning on doing, that also sends us some pretty terrible messages.

TH: Last week, I interviewed Ambassador Robert Blackwill about a paper he did for the Council on Foreign Relation in which he went through and graded Trump on a series of foreign policy issues. Two policies that he gave very high grades on were China and Saudi Arabia. On the Chinese, previous administrations have tried to talk about them as partners, he said, while Trump is talking about them as if they are rivals, even enemies. Do you think that was a significant shift?

EC: First, I don’t believe in the exercise of giving grades. On China, I give Trump credit for being tougher on trade. I don’t think the administration has a strategic approach, though, or an overall geopolitical concept, and they went out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was a terrible mistake. Looking at how they’ve dealt with Japan or Australia, they have not really done the things you need to do to develop the sort of containing or counter-balancing coalition that we need in the Asia-Pacific. Their prism on China is very much an economic one, and an old-fashioned economic one at that. It’s not a broader strategic one.

The other thing that one has to be wary of is to look at particular policy decisions from this administration and say, well, they’re actually not so bad. Say Venezuela — I don’t think that they’ve done anything too wrong. Mind you, I rather doubt that they’re prepared for what would happen if the regime suddenly collapsed.

On Saudi Arabia, it’s pretty appalling when the administration did its level best to pretend that the crown prince didn’t order a resident of the United States chopped to pieces in a foreign consulate.

TH: The flip side being that if Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has a normal lifespan, he’s going to be there for 40 or 50 years. Is it more pragmatic to try and plow through this incident and keep that relationship?

EC: That can take you to a really dark places. And these people don’t think about — and in Trump’s case, I believe, do not care about — what it means to go to really dark places.

TH: Finally, we didn’t really talk about China. But it seems like the future history has already been written. Over decades, we are told, China will surpass the U.S. economically, it will equal us militarily, and become a full peer rival and perhaps a stronger one. Do you buy that?

EC: The potential is there certainly. Am I absolutely sure that it will be the case? No. I’ve always felt that there are a number of vulnerabilities that China has that may limit it, such as their precarious banking system, their demographic profile, and so on.

TH: You mean the aging population?

EC: Yes. There’s a whole bunch of areas where there’s more uncertainty in the Chinese trajectory than that we think. There’s always this tendency that people have to think in terms of straight-line projections. And I don’t think that’s right. We live in a nonlinear world, particularly when it comes to politics.

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

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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