The Federalist: To the degree that the United States has a foreign policy over the past century, what does it look like? Does it have a coherent foreign policy? Or have we been kind of wavering back and forth in a reactive way over the course of multiple presidencies that have no real coherent approach to the world?
Angelo Codevilla: The answer to that is both, all of the above, because the overall foreign policy has been…to waver back and forth with no apparent theme to the putting. The overall theme that makes all of this possible is the impossible desire to make a better world. Which is really unique in the annals of nations.
Prior to the twentieth century in America, no other body politic has ever imagined that they could remake the world in its own image. Perhaps not even the Romans really thought that, because they did not think in terms of making the world into Rome, they simply wanted to subjugate the world to Rome, bring the slaves to Rome, govern everything for the sake of the center.
The twentieth-century Americans have wanted to altruistically improve the rest of mankind… Now, this being impossible, they have found themselves at grips with any number of setbacks and have been compelled to retreat. Then they would go ahead and try it again. This has not worked out particularly well. George Kennan wrote already in 1950, this had been going on for a while, that 50 years earlier Americans could not have imagined that there would be any major concerns, any troubles with the rest of the world. Whereas by 1950 they could hardly think of anything else.
Now, that’s really rather significant. For a country to become less secure as it grew in power exponentially. Exponential growth in power, exponential diminution in security. Wow. Remarkable.
TF: The thing that seems to me to be a major factor in this, too, is the inherent American optimism that everyone perhaps shares their values and their love of liberty and their love of human freedom. To what degree do you think that that is sort of the driver of the problem?
AC: That certainly is an underlying … That’s an enabler. You could hardly go ahead and try to do this world of information unless you believed it were possible. What would make it possible would be this uniformity of mankind. There are, in the minds of American foreign policy people, there are no real foreigners in the world. Foreign affairs is not about dealing with foreigners. It’s about dealing with human beings which are basically the same. That’s a problem, because of course that’s not the way the world is. The world is actually diverse. Now, of course, in modern parlance diversity means sameness.
Kindergarten to You, But Not to Them
TF: That’s the thing that also sort of comes into play when you deal with perspectives from I think both sides of the political aisle. I think there are views that are espoused by both Democrats and Republicans that depict the world either as everyone is a global citizen or something of that nature or, from the Republican, certainly from the neo-conservative branch of the party, that if not everyone has that shared about them, that they have other characteristics that are just presumed to be shared.
AC: There are three ways of saying the same thing. The liberal internationalists say we are all alike in that we all want secular progress. Material progress in the absence of religion. Realists say we’re all alike in that we all want moderate relations with one another and are perfectly conscious of relative strengths… We adjust automatically. The conservatist says we are all alike in that we all want democracy. Well, the subtext of that is that we’re all alike. Which of course isn’t true.
TF: Yes. That’s the other thing that I think is lost within this — an assumption that everyone prioritizes things in the same order. That some would not rather be holy than free, or rather be secure than free.
AC: Or that they would rather cut off their noses to spite their face. The idea of inveterate ethnic hatred or simply dislike…
When I came to this country I confronted the great American racial divide and people here told me this was quite unique. I thought of course not. I grew up in Lombardy, and we had prejudices that were at least as deep as the ones, the divide of American whites and blacks. Our prejudices were against Sicilians.
Of course when we were discussing Iraq I pointed it out to very senior foreign policy persons here in Washington that the divide between the Sunni and Shia was not bridgeable. They said, “Well, they simply have to get over that kindergarten stuff.” Kindergarten stuff to you, but not to them.
An Immigrant’s Plunge Into Foreign Affairs
TF: Let’s talk a little bit about your background. How did your childhood go? When did you come to the country?
AC: I came to America at age 13. Landed at Pier 40 in New York. Started learning English in the Garment District where my mother worked. There, it was a mixture of Yiddish and Sicilian. Then I decided that I would learn English correctly from The New York Times. I became an addict of The New York Times. An addiction which has lasted to this day. It was a good language which has deteriorated. It no longer is precise. It’s no longer what it was. That’s the English that I learned.
TF: You learned English. You came up living in the Garment District. What prompted your interest in foreign policy and security?
AC: Well look, the formative event of international affairs of my childhood was of course the Hungarian Rebellion in 1956. This happened right after I arrived in America. I started reading about it, and I was amazed at what had happened and why we, the United States had not reacted to it in a way that would have freed the Hungarians and advantaged the United States against the Soviet Union.
I had two perspectives. I was reading in The New York Times and I had picked up this magazine on the newsstands. It said National Review. I had no idea what it was, but I read it and the contrast with The New York Times was quite enlightening. I continued to pursue that. Since I spoke already French and Spanish, as well, it was a natural fit which took me away from my original academic interest, which was physics. I started out as a physics major. Then I gradually got taken off into history and international affairs.
‘We Are Graduating Semi-Literates’
TF: You know when you were studying history and international affairs, it was a very different time obviously in higher education in America. You’ve observed some of the changes that have happened over the course of a number of different social changes. What do you think about the current differences between, we’ll come back to your story in a minute, between your higher ed experience and the higher ed experience of students today?
AC: Oh, it’s huge. It’s huge. I saw higher education as a student and as a professor. Two different worlds. Back then, we worked 12 hours a day. Getting through college was extraordinarily hard work. We looked at people who worked eight hours a day as loafers. The idea, the hijinks that go on in college today go on really only because students don’t have to work. You were very lucky to get a C. A C was an average grade. A grade to be proud of.
Now grade inflation and that has taken hold, and the amount of work that I can demand as a professor of students dropped through the floor. Standards have dropped through the floor. We are graduating semi-literates. The only remaining bastions of serious education are in the technical fields. Strictly technical fields. There are all sorts of courses out there that purports to be technical and they are not.
The level of preparation of students coming into college is abysmal, literary and scientific. It’s a different world. We’re educating a generation of morons.
TF: There’s a number of leftists and Progressive philosophers who have talked about how that the family’s influence on children’s lives is profoundly unequal. To which of course the suggestion is well, the best way to make them all equal is to stop feeding and bathing them.
In terms of the lessons that you took both from Hungary and from the other stories of the day that you were reading as you were coming up as a student, how did it influence and shape the way that you view the world?
AC: Well, these days I read about how disadvantaged people are because their parents did not go beyond high school. None of my ancestors ever went beyond the third grade. Yet education was highly valued. That’s that. As for family, well, my father died a month before I was born and I was raised by my mother who never remarried, simply that. Again, the pathologies that are associated with those conditions were simply totally absent, totally absent from my life.
Structure and expectations, et cetera, et cetera, were there. It had nothing to do with external factors. It really basically is all in your head and it is what you want, it is what you consider right. That’s that.
Entering the Foreign Service
TF: There’s so many aspects to unspool from a life that’s been as interesting as yours in terms of the different ways that you’ve affected policy. When was the first opportunity that you had to deal with these questions, not just as someone who had opinions about them and had been studying them, but as someone who could actually apply your views in a way that could affect policy?
AC: Yes, I entered the Foreign Service… Foreign Service was a wonderful institution. At the time, it was the highest-ranking job and a very high-ranking job. The work [could get simply by passing an exam. That’s having nothing else to rely on except the capacity to pass exams. That’s where I went. Then I was offered a job on the Hill.
That was a marvelous institution because the U.S. Congress was the only legislative body in the world that actually legislated, that actually had superintendence of the rest of the government. It isn’t that anymore. For the same reason that other legislative bodies have lost their legislative powers, namely the prevalence of parties, the prevalence of political parties. We didn’t have parties led by party leaders. As recently as 25 years ago, party leaders were largely irrelevant.
Now they are the only ones who count in the Congress. At any rate, because the Congress had these powers and exercised them and because the congressmen and especially the senators were superintendents over vast areas, could not possibly superintend them all, they hired staff to whom they delegated those powers. In fact senators, especially senators, but also congressmen cannot possibly do the jobs that are assigned to them. That’s why they have to have staff and that’s why staff who are enterprising, in fact exercise enormous powers. I did.
TF: One of the things that I have heard from the experienced staffers who were on Capital Hill—what year were you started?
AC: I got there in ’77.
TF: So a lot of the staffers who I heard from who were there in the ’70s and the ’80s basically say that the role of a staffer dramatically changed and the type of person who was a staffer looks very different. Today they’re young people, typically with a bachelor’s degree, who are on the Hill for a very short amount of time and then jump into the private sector to consulting or things like that. Then apparently, this is what I’ve been told, there was a much more of an expectation, an expertise.
AC: There are two kinds of staffer, always were. One is the expert and the other is the grunt, is the gopher, essentially. The committee staff are generally more experienced. I was asked to serve on the committee staff. The staff of the Intelligence Committee, right after the committee had ceased to be the Church Committee, which had done significant things with regard to the Intelligence. It was broadened to non-leftists briefly and included on the Democratic side, Moynihan and Jackson. On the Republican side, someone that they considered … Generally a bunch of people were considered ciphers.
The man who hired me, Malcolm Wallop, had a slightly different idea. He said that ‘I want to get somebody who can stand up to the folks who, well, who had made the Church Committee staff.’ We were all still there. I took the challenge and had a wonderful time. At the same time [I] worked on his personal staff doing all sorts of enormously interesting things, all of my choice and he made it clear that I was to exercise his powers as best I could. I did that.
Plus of course at this time I still had my connection, my friendship going back some years with Dick Allen and Bill Van Cleave, these were Ronald Reagan’s most intimate collaborators. These are people whom I had known as a student and young professor. We worked together to elect Ronald Reagan. That was all a very interesting thing. Got to know Dick Pipes. I was one of the Reagan advisors, Reagan foreign policy advisors. All of that very interesting.
Missile Defense as a Solution to Mutually Assured Destruction
TF: Tell me about missile defense.
AC: Oh, well, there’s an awful lot. You have to understand the technology, and there are very few people who do. It’s not a quick study. In a nutshell, missile defense began as an extension of air defense. Same basic technique, radar seize the target, intercept it.
There was a man by the name of Herman Kahn who wrote the seminal book on thermonuclear war. He had a collaborator by the name of Donald Brennan who focused on the missile defense, on really the highest leverage thing that one could do with regard to nuclear war to prevent casualties, essentially. How does one avoid the idea of mutual destruction. Which makes no military sense, makes no political sense at all. How does one get away from that?
The solution was various kinds of missile defense. Now, to understand the possibilities one must understand, number one, the technical approach, the basic technical approach which was of course the extension of air defense, radar seized target, directs somehow interceptor to intercept target. The basic shortcoming, inherent shortcoming in that approach is that radars cannot see over there. That’s the coverage of the earth. Therefore, they must wait until the damn thing comes over the horizon.
The solution to that was known theoretically from the very beginning. Namely to put some kind of sensors in orbit to foresee these things. In order to make ground-base defense serious you must have space-based information. Now, this was so clear so early that the Soviet Union, as it negotiated the end of our anti-missile program, insisted on as a primary condition that nothing be done to substitute for ground-based radars. That is really the shackle number one, technical shackle number one of the ABM Treaty.
The second obvious fact about missile defense is that if you really want to do it right you don’t use the radar, you don’t use the ground-based interceptor because, well, the most efficient way to do it is to strike missiles as they rise from their paths in orbit. This was perfectly clear to Herman Kahn and Donald Brennan back in the 1950s.
The technology began to exist circa 1960, space-based interceptors. All sorts of things like that. The shortcomings of those things were also very clear and therefore it was obvious that someday some kind of directed energy would have to take that place. So obvious it was and so clear and present was the advent of these things by 1970 that as the Soviet Union was negotiating the end of our missile project, it insisted that the treaty banned the use of “weapons based on other physical principles.”
This is the other shackle that was placed on us. Now as it happened, technology developed precisely as forecast and by the late 1970s it was obvious that both of these things could be done. I spent more, most of my time really, on the Hill doing something that I wasn’t paid for. I was paid for controlling the Intelligence Committee budget. What I wasn’t paid for and I spent most of my time on was developing and promoting missile defense, various missile defense programs.
My single contribution, the one that I hope is engraved on my tombstone, is that at a certain point as I was being briefed by the Navy on very powerful chemical laser that they had built, someone said, “You know, if there were technology that enabled one to focus beams in space and to track those beams and if it were married to this laser, wow, the things we could do.”
Well, at this point I was privy to the technology of the KH-11 satellite, which happened to have every one of those elements. I said, “Ah ha. Let me see if I can get you guys a DARPA, some black clearances so you can see this technology. I believe you can put these things together.” Low and behold that was done. That was 1979.
TF: Obviously in the intervening years Americans have seen the success of Iron Dome… Why has missile defense not remained a major part of what Republicans talk about when they talk about foreign policy? Also, I would expect moderate Democrats would want to talk about it when it comes to foreign policy.
AC: Because it was, the denial of missile defense became part of the identity of a whole class of people circa the 1960s and early ’70s. As a professor I assigned the arguments of these people to my students. My students, young people, Right or Left, didn’t believe this. “You mean people actually thought this way?” The idea of eschewing one’s one self-defense is so counterintuitive, so counter to the basic human instinct for survival, that unless you have been inoculated with this crazy idea from youth, you simply react to it as stupidity.
This is something which is passing away. The reason why we, to answer your question, at the very moment the reason we don’t have it now is a long hangover. That hangover is, it manifests itself in fact, in effect in the military and in people who come into a responsible position, because in order to understand these things you would have to actually know something about the technology. The degree of technical ignorance, the degree of scientific illiteracy in policy people cannot be overestimated.
The Foreign Policy of the Next President
TF: Frame, if you would, what you think the foreign policy message of the next president, what they ought to chart and what a lot of these current class of governors and relatively young politicians who may not have as much experience on foreign policy should look to as they are considering what their own views ought to be.
AC: I would suggest two things. One procedural and the other substantive. The procedural one is to realize that one of Henry Kissinger’s great legacies…ought to be thrown away. That is the notion of creative ambiguity. This runs directly against every traditional tenet of diplomacy. What you must do in international intercourse is strive for utter and absolute clarity instead of what we’re doing, which is the exact opposite.
Clarity in formulation of policy, know exactly what it is, what is it you are after? What is it they are after? Honesty, the notion that diplomacy is people lying to each other is nonsense. That is not how things work.
You end up discrediting yourself very quickly. Lies have extraordinarily short legs. Of course, you end up lying to yourself, which is the worst thing of all. That’s the first thing procedurally. In a nutshell, the substantive focus of American foreign policy ought to be to mind our own business. Which does not mean any sort of retreat. It means actually discerning our business from that of others and actually minding it with all the forces that we can muster.
What does this mean in practice? It would mean telling other nations, “Look, you may do whatever you wish to yourselves, amongst yourselves, but know one thing. You touch one American the wrong way and it is the last thing you will ever do.” Because we have the power. We will use it for ourselves. We will leave you alone, and we ask no more from you than to be left alone. We are here to live in a unique way as our founders wanted us to live. As generations of immigrants have affirmed by coming here. People come here to live in a new and different manner.
The Relation Between Farming and Foreign Policy
TF: A final question for you. You are a farmer.
TF: You are a vintner.
AC: That’s right, grapes.
TF: What have you garnered from the experience of farming and of making wine that applies in any way to foreign policy and security?
AC: Well, look, when I till the earth, I don’t do it for the pleasure of tilling the earth. I do it for the pleasure of getting the crop. When a statesmen goes to war and a soldier goes to war he doesn’t do it for the pleasure of shooting unless he’s a pervert. He does it in order to gain victory which would allow us to live peacefully. The natural end of farming is the produce. The natural end of war is peace. Unless you are striving for your peace, you’re wasting not only your time and your energy, you’re wasting life and goodness, too.