John Quincy Adams is having a moment of renewal in America. The sixth U.S. president was instrumental in shaping America’s grand strategy, yet is not considered a staple in university curricula today.
The Monroe Doctrine, enunciated by James Monroe, was originally authored by Quincy Adams as secretary of state. It bears a simple, realist logic: America will defend her interests primarily in the Western hemisphere, and stay away from utopian and idealistic endeavors abroad. America, Quincy Adams said in his famous Fourth of July speech in 1821, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
The majority of the American people, including its military veterans, oppose futile humanitarian interventions in strategic hellholes, yet the country’s centrist establishment in both parties pushes for the status quo of the last quarter-century. Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Tulsi Gabbard, and Elizabeth Warren might agree on little regarding domestic politics, but they are all instinctively opposed to foreign interventions, and support, in some way, a more restrained foreign policy after the hubristic world-shaping misadventures of the recent past.
Yet there’s a constant internal struggle between the most instinctively non-interventionist president in recent years and his own cabinet on Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Venezuela. While Trump wants to focus more on China and trade imbalances, a section of his cabinet wants to proceed with the old system.
The recently concluded National Conservative conference was also anachronistic that way. The conference overall was superb (and I wrote about it here) in providing an autopsy of what went wrong in the last 25 years, but one segment of particular interest that needed a standalone treatment was foreign policy.
The reason is not just because foreign policy billed one whole day at the conference. More importantly, one of the reasons conservative nationalism is on the rise is that foreign policy realism in both the United Kingdom and United States has returned, in line with broader public sentiment against unwanted, futile, and endless foreign interventions and wars, and liberal democracy promotion and nation building, especially in semi-feudal regions with no strategic significance.
So it appears this is an area where traditional fiscal libertarians and the nationalist/conservative-realists can channel a new “fusionism” based on greater restraint and less activism abroad, and buck-passing the security burden to local actors, all while conserving resources at home.
Yet the conference’s foreign policy segment seemed like a disappointing return to the heady days of late 1990s triumphalism. To argue that one needs nationalism based on narrow national interest, then in the same breath define that national interest to consist of spreading democracy in semi-feudal societies, as Clifford May suggested on a panel, takes a special amount of historical ignorance and hypocrisy, coupled with hubris.
Not to be outdone, Michael Doran claimed that the United States needs to continue an alliance with Saudi Arabia and Turkey (despite all the evidence to the contrary), the two most radical regimes responsible for the spread of jihadism, in a region that is a strategic redundancy.
While there were glimpses of sanity—such as Rebeccah Heinrichs questioning regime change and North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion dogma, and David Goldman’s superlative analysis of the threat from the rise of a peer-rival in China—the broader policy suggestions in the otherwise superb conference seemed to be an anachronistic return to an era that has gone by: promote freedom and democracy, continue to align with Turkey and Saudi Arabia because alliances are sacrosanct, et cetera. It was like finding a Picasso amidst works by Aivazovsky and George Chambers.
It is exactly in this arena that the Quincy Institute, a new think tank, is creating ripples. It is not to be confused with the John Quincy Adams Society, which aims at promoting realism to grad students. The Quincy Institute is characterized as a Federalist Society for foreign policy that is helping form a brains-trust for the post-Trump world.
Last month I met Dr. Stephen Wertheim, one of the founders of the Quincy Institute. This new think tank, which is still in its formative months, is determined to provide new thinking in the sclerotic DC foreign policy establishment and to be genuinely bipartisan.
“Some of us at Quincy identify as realists in the International Relations sense of the term. But not all of us do, and we welcome people of any political and intellectual orientation who agree that the United States should practice diplomatic engagement and military restraint going forward in the 21st century,” Wertheim told me. “Speaking for myself, I’m happy to reclaim liberal internationalism—a cause that once centered on peace, cooperation, and reciprocity, but has become a justification for U.S. military hegemony.”
For those who remember, Carlson made a similar observation in his recent book, about how liberals changed from being anti-war into the interventionist party under both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But the Quincy Institute isn’t just staffed by liberals. Conservative commentator, former veteran, and professor Dr. Andrew Bacevich is also one of the co-founders.
I asked them both whether retrenchment is an absolutist concept. Do they want American retrenchment from every domain, in every region, against every potential adversary, or is this call for restraint about foolish nation-building and wars, while still agreeing on the potential need to square off against peer-rivals and great powers?
“Your question appears to assume that restraint implies disengagement. We reject the assumption,” Bacevich told me. “We favor engagement that promotes positive outcomes. The U.S. penchant for war over the last several decades has rarely produced a positive outcome.”
Wertheim agrees: “The United States does not need to seek military supremacy in all places, at all costs, for all time. To say so shouldn’t be controversial, but in Washington, DC, it is. Today America has an opportunity to engage in significant military retrenchment, in the Middle East and globally.”
But that doesn’t mean a drawback from everywhere all at the same time, Wertheim explained: “I do not favor retrenchment under any circumstances. It matters what configuration of power might take the place of a U.S. military presence, and it is important to execute retrenchment in a responsible manner.”
China and Asia, for example, are a great power challenge, and the area where the United States needs to focus more. “A forward military presence may be in order where friendly local powers are unable to provide for their own security and where a U.S. presence will actually promote stability. East Asia is one region that is likely to meet those conditions,” Bacevich said.
“In Europe, the Greater Middle East, and Africa, the United States possesses some important interests but faces few vital threats that local actors cannot handle themselves. I’d like to see the United States responsibly curtail most of its forward deployments in those regions,” Wertheim said. “East Asia presents a more complex situation, given the possibility that China could continue to rise and erode stability the region, but at a minimum I have encouraged U.S. policymakers to avoid pursuing a new cold war that would demonize China, become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and intensify the risk of great-power war and far-flung proxy wars.”
While foreign policy realism encourages more prudence, restraint, and significantly narrower national interests, less nongovernmental organization-style activism, and fewer foreign interventions to promote values, the last quarter-century has been a case study of squandering a favorable geopolitical position after the Soviet collapse, at an immense cost of blood and treasure, for futile, interminable ideological mis-adventures abroad.
“Quincy is also guided by the principles of responsible statecraft,” Wertheim said. “Our agenda can and should be shared by realists and liberal internationalists alike.”
As any foreign policy realist would tell you, the United States needs a prioritization of threat perceptions based on extremely narrow, strategic interests, and to eschew democracy and rights promotion and nation building altogether. Conservatism especially values order, and dictates that every society is shaped by its own cultural and historical experience. The simple imposition of alien values, often through force, merely results in more chaos.
In that light, this new think tank is a welcome addition to the debate.