Who do you think is responsible for the current coronavirus foreign influences fiasco? If you ask the Washington foreign policy establishment, the answer is evident. It is President Trump’s disdain for “the foreign policy establishment” that has led to this current crisis.
This is their same answer for every problem humanity has faced since 2016. If only we listened to the establishment! If only they learned their lesson in 2016. Apparently not, if you go by the Foreign Affairs essay, “In Defense of the Blob,” in which the Blob defends the Blob’s record, and gives the Blob a solid A-plus.
“The Trump administration has sidelined national security professionals, and professionalism, to a degree unprecedented in the modern era,” resulting in the current pandemic, which “demonstrate what happens when the establishment’s experience and expertise are rejected,” write Hal Brands, Peter Feaver, and William Inboden. It is, of course, utter nonsense.
The Foreign Policy Establishment Is Alive and Well
To begin with, this idea that peasants are now ruling DC instead of “experts” is false. As Jacob Heilbrunn of the Center for the National Interest recently told me, “The notion that Trump officials represent a sharp break from the past is hooey. The Trump administration is itself filled with conventional members of the Republican foreign policy establishment, ranging from Mike Pompeo to Mark Esper to Robert O’Brien.”
The current foreign policy frame, prevalent in London and Washington since Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, is this fusion of neoliberal and neoconservative internationalism, practiced by a certain section of foreign policy ideologues. It’s a sort of postmodern, ahistoric transnational managerialism.
Barack Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes called this establishment the Blob, which is possibly the only sensible thing he ever said. The DC Blob is not some non-ideological group of experts. It’s a bipartisan group of ideologues whose worldview ranges from neoliberal in trade and humanitarian interventions to neoconservative in globalist institutions and democracy promotion, regardless of their political affiliation. This group has pushed away other relevant experts to the fringes, from nationalists to conservative realists to foreign policy libertarians.
All this claim of “expertise” is an appeal to authority, an authority that was eroded when people started to question these authorities’ mistakes upon mistakes of the last 20 years. It is also not a binary choice between experts and rubes, as the essay suggests, but between one set of experts who have failed and therefore should be removed and replaced by more competent ones. To think that Madeline Albright, Samantha Power, Bill Kristol, and Max Boot are the epitome of success would strain sanity even during a global flu that started from an extra spoonful of exotic chiropteran soup.
Making the Same Mistakes Over and Over Again
When the Soviets sat together in their politburo before their misadventure in Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet military warned that Afghanistan is a semi-feudal hell, and if the Russian army entered, it wouldn’t be able to leave. Fresh from their successes in decolonizing Africa and watching America humiliated in Vietnam, the Soviet ideologues declared there was no land on this planet that was not ready for the Red Banner. The Afghans, you see, were to greet the Russians as liberators.
The rest as they say, is history. Fast-forward 40 years, and the debates about civilizing feudal lands were familiar to wary conservative realists, only this time, the ones still pushing for the civilizing mission were not communists, but liberals and neoconservatives. They took this approach from Iraq to Libya and Syria.
Whereas true conservatism in an earlier age dictated restraint, prudence, and amoral realpolitik, the Blob pushed for a radical reshaping of the planet. Any deviation from that quasi-theological interpretation of History, any attempt to break from that path, marked one as a heretic.
It is this worldview that has made China a peer rival, at the cost of Western blood and treasure wasted in the Middle East. For all his flaws, Trump is not the cause, but the symbol of that frustration. The Blob all have the same flattening instincts and believe that history is a monodirectional arc bending towards classless/genderless/stateless/borderless/nationless progress, and whatever “challenges” we face can be sorted with a steady hand holding a Styrofoam coffee cup in a board meeting. The children of Kant, Hegel, and Marx are indistinguishable in this regard.
Ideology Is All that Matters
To these people, geography, power, and culture don’t matter. To them, history is a mere nuisance, the future already predetermined. Increased trade will always apparently solve great power rivalries. And there is no land on this planet not ready for a healthy dose of the Rainbow Banner of liberal democracy and sexual revolution. One only needs to push for it.
Naturally, some of the greatest mistakes of the last two decades were predicated on this worldview, from neutering European nation states and military might in favor of a bureaucratic supranational union, to spurious unipolar humanitarian bombings in the Balkans and unilateral declarations of independence for Kosovo. The exact same process was later replicated by a revanchist Russia against Georgia in 2008.
This pattern of mistakes included hollowing out Western relative power in favor of trade with China and pushing for liberal norms in traditionally conservative countries while neglecting realpolitik. Most destructively, it led to trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in trying to push for liberal democracy, either through covert pressure or direct intervention, in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
The Blob ignored the realities of power and interest and the lessons of history in favor of idealism and values. That clever skullduggery is visible all over the Foreign Affairs essay. The authors say the Libya and Iraq interventions were “misconceived and mismanaged,” not irresponsible and unnecessary. The withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan harms “US credibility.” Who would have thought treasure wasted in utopian foreign misadventures would be much better served during a plague? The ancient Athenians would have laughed.
Visit any academic foreign policy conference, and the first thing observable is the creeping corporate-speak. In every panel, carefully balanced among the sexes but only with ideas ranging from B plus all the way to B minus, one can hear deferential discussions about “global solutions to challenges” like climate change, as if diplomacy is just about tinkering technocracy.
Concepts such as the balance of power, buck-passing and offshore balancing, and spheres of influence, commonplace among the foreign policy community until 1993, are strictly verboten. To paraphrase John Kerry, there’s no place for 19th-century diplomacy in the 21st century. Those are concepts from when stony-eyed cynical men ruled a carved-up world. The solution to ungovernable feudalism isn’t leaving each particular stretch of hell for warlords to duke it out and impose their brutal autocratic peace only to cut a deal with the victorious one, but rather more Western taxpayer-funded schools for women.
The Old Ways Are Wiser Than the New Ones
Another deeper, far greater and more coherent worldview has been the backbone of foreign policy throughout civilized human history since Thucydides. It comes out of these conferences only to find the logic of balance of power and spheres of influence still very much in place from Crimea to Korea; nationalism, nation-states, and great power rivalry still lurking in the background; culture and history still determinant factors before the establishment of democracy or success of global institutions; climate change and women’s schools irrelevant compared to power politics, and stony-eyed men still ruling most of the world according to old rules and laws of nature.
No one’s calling for the destruction of all expertise and hierarchy. This is a strawman. But the current set of “experts” needs to be replaced.
The problem with the Blob isn’t that the masses hate expertise, it is that “expertise” is worshipped on an altar and used as a shield to push for a very particular worldview. This worldview is represented by a section of people who formed the ruling edifice of both the political parties, sidelining other worthy experts, who dissented for the last 20 years.