Last month, Stephen Walt suggested that non- or less-interventionist people on the Right and the Left should get together to ally against the interventionist consensus. Walt rightly suggests this would be tough, and points to three main obstacles: the lack of a deep bench of personnel who could staff a restraint-minded presidential administration; internecine squabbles on policy, both foreign and domestic, within this coalition; and special interests unduly influencing Congressional foreign policymaking.
I think all of Walt’s problems are serious and worth taking up in more detail. At a moment when I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been about the prospects of foreign policy change, it’s important to start smashing the obstacles to that change.
I’m most sanguine about Walt’s first worry. There is an effort already underway to develop a bigger network of writers, thinkers, and operators. Organizations worth mentioning here include the John Quincy Adams Society, active on college campuses both promoting realist ideas and identifying and cultivating students who may be able to contribute going forward. Defense Priorities is doing a good job of producing large volumes of opinion pieces and media hits that are readily consumable by both Congress and lay people. Efforts to develop networks among people already in Congress are by definition more off-the-radar, but my understanding is that things there are better than they were five years ago.
What’s important here is not so much the quality of the marginal op-ed or even the topline number of people working on these issues. It’s the sense that working toward restraint is a viable career path that non-crazy people can set out on. For decades, neoconservatism has been a career, as Scott McConnell has noted. In other words, with the next presidential election two years away, and with the neocons at least partly cowed by the disasters they wrought and disarray in their ranks, if present trends continue on the talent-development front, I’m not as worried about the butts-in-chairs problem.
By contrast, I worry a lot about internecine squabbles within the coalition. Restraint-minded people include Latin Mass Catholics, actual socialists, tweedy, above-it-all academic realists, stinky hippies, goldbug libertarians, and an array of other groups, making it a veritable clown car of disarray. With a political climate in which every issue is treated as Determining the Fate of the Republic, how will this group hold together? Would it have been sustainable in the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings? In light of the disputed nature of the Caravan? The group contains actual pro-lifers—are the academics and the hippies going to be able to handle that?
The contrast that needs to be drawn here is with the coalition behind the bipartisan consensus. These people agree about most things. This is true not just on foreign policy, but on most non-foreign policy issues. Yes, they may quarrel over whether interest rates should go another 250 basis points, or whether charter schools are on balance beneficial, but to the extent these disagreements happen, a) they don’t impede cooperation, and b) you don’t hear about them that much, likely because they’re on issues that are both wonky and seen as less hysterical than culture war or other issues.
I don’t have well-formed views on how to cross this bridge, but for political purposes it may be best in the long term to have two establishments, one on the right and one on the left, with differing emphases, so that they can argue about tactics and implementation while remaining on the same broader outlook. In the meantime, however, there aren’t enough of us out there to staff two establishments, so I’d suggest more thought is due on this issue.
The special interests issue is tough, considering the academic research shows that lobbying (and similar efforts) are most effective when they’re defending the status quo. What may be more effective than trying to stand up new pressure groups would be identifying existing groups with influence that could be used in a campaign against the American imperium. Conservative anti-tax (and by extension, spending) groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, health care providers and pressure groups looking for more public money, education groups (teacher’s unions?), the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers) and other religious groups, and an array of lobbies and organizations. They could be given more money to convince them to be more active on war and military spending without having to build from the bottom up organizations and figure out who to talk to on Capitol Hill.
Even squaring up to the obstacles, though, it’s a much better time to be a realist/restrainer in DC than it was five or 10 years ago. And to that, we should all be raising a glass.