Review: The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin
(A version of this article was previously published with Georgia Today)
When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and went on to redefine American conservativism, his message was hopeful. The country was in a temporary rut, but a brighter, better future was within reach. The State just needed to remove artificial “barriers to progress” and let the individual reach his or her full potential.
That kind of message doesn’t resonate these days. Many voters are cynical and pessimistic. They see America as a country on a downward slide. They’d rather hide in an idyllic past than leap into an exciting future.
That’s essentially the message promoted by Donald Trump, the man who won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination with help from a nostalgic slogan: “Make America great again.” Things are bad now and they were good before, so we should have more of the old and less of the new.
Before we ridicule Trump and his supporters, however, we should admit that people on both ends of the spectrum and from all walks of life are fed up with what they see as a dysfunctional political system and a floundering economy. “Make America great again” may belong to Mr. Trump, but simply the word “again” does enough to explain America’s current politics. Other politicians are finding success with similar messages. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders don’t share Trump’s longing for a whiter, more masculine era, but they often speak about an economic paradise lost.
In The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism, esteemed conservative writer Yuval Levin diagnoses nostalgia as a disease afflicting the Republican Party and the country. He finished writing it while Trump’s nomination still sounded like an absurd fantasy, but his analysis has become only more relevant.
The Left wants to turn the clock back to 1965, and the Right wants it to be forever 1981. In Levin’s words: “The Right wants unmitigated economic individualism but a return to common moral norms. The Left wants unrestrained moral relativism but economic consolidation. Both will need to come to terms with some uncomfortable realities of twenty-first century America.”
That starts with accepting that the post-war order is dead and gone, and admitting that it died for real reasons: the global conditions that buoyed America’s booming industrial economy no longer exist, and the era’s stifling social conformity got old a long time ago. The large factory has been replaced by the tech startup. A single mass culture has given way to countless subcultures, smaller groups of like-minded people that often transcend local communities. The bargaining power of workers has been replaced by that of the almighty consumer.
And amidst all that deconsolidation, the federal government has gotten bigger and more centralized. As an ideological conservative with a preference for bottom-up solutions, Levin spots a contradiction. Rather than reforming public services to make them more local and more flexible, and thus better able to meet the needs of citizens in an unbundled society, the Democratic Party is focused on finding top-down solutions to what they consider to be nationwide problems.
Levin’s solution is to accommodate America’s deconsolidation—to “seek diffusing, individualist remedies for the diseases most incident to a diffuse, individualist society”—by relying on the principle of subsidiarity. That means handing more power to the political bodies closest to the problems that government is working to solve. Examples include giving state and local governments more control over how tax dollars are spent, combating soaring tuition costs through deregulation rather than by expanding federal student aid programs, and fixing America’s failing public schools by presenting parents with more choices.
It also means reviving mediating institutions such as places of worship, community organizations, and charities; the institutions that stand between families and the State, and in Levin’s view the ones most capable of addressing the problems facing America’s fragmented society. By restoring horizontal bonds, Americans will be better equipped to live fulfilling, successful lives in an era when confidence in the federal government is historically low.
These ideas aren’t original, but Levin presents them with rare insight and precision. Even more so, he makes a compelling case for why America should wake from its nostalgia and instead make the best of what the present has to offer. In his view, there is a lot. Americans have more choices than their parents and grandparents even dreamed of, and the country’s economy is still dynamic, if much less secure. He focuses on building a better future, not longing for an idealized past.
This book also has shortcomings. Levin is insensitive to concerns about income inequality, and only briefly mentions the (understandable) reasons why many Americans are averse to the kind of localism he prescribes. Many minorities, for example, see subsidiarity as paving the way for prejudiced local officials to deny them equal access to public services and legal protections.
As a social conservative, Levin takes for granted the justice and utility of the traditional norms that govern private morality. Still, he’s one of the few intellectuals from either party willing to take responsibility for America’s problems—and to admit that his party needs to undergo major reform in order to become part of the solution.
(A version of this article was previously published with Thought Catalog.)
I was 22 years old when I first got on an airplane and flew to a foreign country. I knew a few things about the destination, the local language not being one of them. The life awaiting me had few perks: a teaching job with a paltry salary in a remote, rural region of a remote, rural country.
The downsides didn’t matter very much. My life in Midwestern suburbia had gotten stale. I wanted to get lost, so I did.
I spent the next three years rambling, sometimes studying, occasionally working, but mostly bumbling. I did lots of things. Some of them still feel meaningful. None of them were part of a plan and few of them made much sense.
I lived in Hungary then, one of those middle-of-the-road, inexpensive countries that attract westerners who don’t know what to do with their lives, or don’t want to do anything at all. Now I live in Georgia, an (extremely) inexpensive country that attracts lots of westerners who don’t know to do with their lives, or don’t want to do anything at all.
I’m a little older now and more certain about who I am and what I want in life. I have a steady job and a steady relationship and spend less time in basement bars and roadside beerstands. But I’m still an expatriate. It’s worth revisiting what that means and whether that lifestyle is worthy of admiration or emulation.
The life of the globetrotter is celebrated in middle-American pop culture. Whether the subject is a “do-gooder” (Peace Corps volunteer, aid worker, language teacher), a professional backpacker, or an ode to the 1920s Paris expatriates, the wanderer is usually touted as an adventurer, idealist, and cultural aficionado.
Films and novels like Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat,Pray,Love praise the wandering soul, selling a product to audiences who, in many cases, have never ventured far from home themselves. Without question, backpacking through Europe, bicycling across South Asia, or taking a job in a distant capital can be exciting and rewarding.
But for most expats, life is more banal than glamorous.
On Saturday evenings in Tbilisi, a string of expat bars are buzzing with English-language voices. Enter a place like Dive Bar, Café Gallery, or Zoestan, and you’ll see the same picture painted by different hands: American teachers, Dutch embassy staff, British journalists, Belgians on European Volunteer Service, and a few Georgians.
These people don’t necessarily congregate because they love each others’ company. In fact, small expat groups often fall into petty squabbles. These circles are small and socially isolated and people get tired of each other. Members usually haven’t known each other long enough to have deep personal loyalties. These barflys are downing drinks in the same liquor hole because they are all strangers.
My place to be a stranger used to be Budapest. Now it’s Tbilisi, and it’s the perfect place to get lost. Everything is cheap and abundant, the people are welcoming, and internationals are in demand. The lifestlye is intoxicating, but often for what it isn’t, not for what it is. As foreigners we are perpetual tourists, taking part in the local pleasures while free from everyday worries and responsibilities. I am unlikely to run into anyone who knows more than a little about me.
That limbo that foreigners live in – far from home and unable (or unwilling) to assimilate in the new surroundings – is explored in Edward Said in his famous essay Reflections on Exile. Said draws a distinction between the expatriate and the exile: “Exile originated in the age-old practice of banishment,” he writes. “[Exiles are] cut off from their roots, their land, their past.”
His views on expats are quite different:
“[Expatriates] voluntarily live in an alien country, usually for social or personal reasons. Hemingway and Fitzgerald were not forced to live in France. Expatriates may share in the solitude and estrangement of exile, but they do not suffer under its rigid proscriptions.”
The exile’s misery comes from being denied the possibility of going home. They become estranged. The expatriate doesn’t want to go home. But the weakening of roots, the loss of the upper-case “Home,” separates the expatriate from his or her roots as well.
Expatriation is a soft form of exile. No physical barrier stands between the expatriate and his/her place of origin. But after a threshold is reached, interest in returning home disappears. There is no “Home” left to return to.
The expat’s biggest problem is the lack of problems. Money is easy to come by. Bitter political controversies bear no personal significance. The expat is unshackled by tradition, familial obligations, and expectations. He or she is truly free.
But it is precisely because of this form of freedom – freedom as the absence of obligation – that fewer things feel worth doing.
Far from home, in a comfortable but unfamiliar environment, life begins to resemble a dream. Eventually the expat loses their sense of self. Said describes this in detail:
“The exile can make a fetish of exile, a practice that distances him or her from all connections and commitments. To live as if everything around you were temporary and perhaps trivial is to fall prey to petulant cynicism as well as to querulous lovelessness.”
Ennui sets in. With a wallet stuffed with money and nothing important to spend it on, the expat drifts into self-indulgence. Dissipation becomes a lifestyle.
This is far from the life of the swash-buckling adventurer. The expat knows they’ve fallen into dissipation. Bored to tears, they take to complaining about their adopted home. The cuisine lacks variety. The customer service is poor. The locals are uncouth.
So, why not just leave?
Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Ties with home are too weak to be restored – or at least it feels that way. Life here is no great shakes, but going home means accepting all the burdens that come along with it.
James Wood, an Englishman living in Massachusetts, writes of the experience: “Perhaps the refusal to go home is consequent on the loss, or lack, of home: as if those fortunate expatriates were really saying to me: ‘I couldn’t go back because I wouldn’t know how to anymore.’”
Consider Jake Barnes, the quintessential American expatriate in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil … You drink yourself to death,” a friend accuses Jake midway through the novel.
Our protagonist knows he’s in a sorry state. Floating across France and Spain constantly drunk has made him physically exhausted and emotionally empty. But pack up and go back to Kansas City?
It’s no surprise that Tbilisi is full of lost souls. So is Budapest, Bangkok, Berlin; anywhere with a sizable international population. Most of these people came with the youthful enthusiasm that propels the young adventurer. Some still have it.
A lot of others (myself sometimes included) are blowing money on big meals and endless streams of wine, wandering the streets looking for another good time. The lifestyle has its thrills; some cheap, others less so. But it’s nothing to idolize. Just ask the gaggle of Tbilisi expats waking up with a hangover every morning.
Clinton, Trump Supporters Express Wildly Divergent Views on Foreign Policy
By Joseph Larsen
Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump has been the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee since May 3, 2016, when Ted Cruz dropped out of the race. His likely opponent in November’s presidential showdown will be Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former senator, first lady, and secretary of state.
On matters of foreign policy, the two candidates couldn’t be more different. Clinton has spent more than a decade making foreign policy. Her record includes lobbying for the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya and helping build support for international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program. She is often referred to as a “hawk”, which roughly means being unafraid of using American military might to further national interests.
Trump has no experience in foreign policy, and scarcely more in the way of coherent views. He is apparently a stern opponent of free trade, has expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, and believes that NATO membership has become burdensome for the United States. While pledging to focus on “rebuilding the US”, he has also promised to strengthen American military capabilities and make the so-called Islamic State disappear “very, very quickly.”
It is impossible to predict what Trump will do tomorrow, let alone how he would behave once in the White House. Clinton’s policies are also difficult to project, given that pressure from her primary opponent, left-wing populist Bernie Sanders, has recently pushed her to the left on some issues.
A survey published on May 5, 2016 by the Pew Research Center paints a vivid picture of the voters behind the two candidates, and may be helpful in predicting what a Clinton or Trump presidency would look like. The Pew survey was conducted in April, with field researchers conducting telephone calls with 2,008 adults across the United States.
Clinton and Trump supporters see the world through different eyes. For example, the survey found that 85 percent of self-professed Trump supporters consider large numbers of refugees from Syria to be a “major threat” to the United States. By contrast, 40 percent of Clinton supporters gave the same answer.
Seventy-seven percent of Trump supporters favor the use of “overwhelming force” to defeat international terrorist organizations, compared to only 30 percent of Clinton supporters. The latter group are more than twice as likely to believe that overwhelming force exacerbates the problem by fueling anti-American sentiment.
Predictably, Trump backers are less enthusiastic about NATO. Sixty-four percent of them report viewing the alliance as “good for the US.” That is compared to 83 percent of Clinton supporters. Overall, 77 percent of Americans believe the alliance is good for their country, although most also believe that the NATO allies benefit at America’s expense.
Whereas Trump supporters are lukewarm about NATO, 66 percent of them want to see increased US military spending. Only 21 percent of Clinton supporters feel the same. These numbers show the disparities between the views of the candidates and those of their respective constituencies. Clinton envisions a US that is more engaged with the wider world, whereas Trump promises to be more inward looking (although he has verbally appealed to militarism throughout his campaign).
One question on which the two camps agree concerns the use of force against ISIS. Sixty-nine percent of Clinton supporters and 66 percent of Trump supporters favor the current US military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. (A nearly-identical 66 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats favor the military action, making it one of the few issues that Americans agree on).
The two camps have widely divergent views on global economic policy as well. Sixty-five percent of Trump supporters view US involvement in the global economy in a negative way, responding that it “lowers wages” and “costs jobs” in the domestic economy. Only 36 percent of Clinton supporters gave the same answer. Republican voters in general were more likely to have a poor view of America’s role in the global economy. This indicates a reversal of orthodoxy, where the Republicans are viewed as the party of free trade and open markets and the Democrats being seen as more likely to favor protectionist measures.
The Pew survey can be read in full here: http://www.people-press.org/2016/05/05/public-uncertain-divided-over-americas-place-in-the-world/
(Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University by John A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., published by Oxford University Press, 2016)
This short book surveys the experiences of right-wing social science and humanities professors in the US university system.
Conservative scorn for the American academy and its leftward biases has been a fixture of American politics at least since the 1950s.
Currently, it's as relevant as ever. Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio earlier this year referred to liberal arts colleges as left-wing "indoctrination camps." That is not a fringe viewpoint.
The political Right's anti-intellectualism has invited an understandable backlash from liberal academics, providing reliable fodder for the Left's self-identification as a truth seeking movement fighting against "brain dead Conservativism."
This feedback loop leads to polarization: conservatives are excluded from academic discourse, and in turn become more exasperated with the leftward culture of the university system.
John A. Shields, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., a professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, engage with this debate in two important ways.
First, they document the experiences of 153 right-leaning professors in the social sciences and humanities (spoiler: they find conservatives getting less than a fair shake).
Second, rather than rail against the academy from the outside—the preferred response of GOP politicians and one that reinforces stigma against conservative academics—they propose a strategy of engagement.
Shields and Dunn focus on three ways right-leaning academics are marginalized. The first is the process of awarding tenure. Over the course of their interviews, they find a heavy degree of perceived discrimination.
Many academics were afraid to "come out" as conservatives lest they be denied tenure. One interviewee hid his political views for years:
"I started feeling like a whore, which is what you feel like when you're lying to people all the time. I do try to avoid the conversations, I do try to change the subject ... it is dangerous even to think a conservative thought when I'm on campus, because it might come out of my mouth."
In fact, a full 46 percent of political science professors interviewed for this book claimed to have concealed their political views prior to receiving tenure. The same perceived bias works against conservatives during the publishing process.
(The reader should keep in mind, however, that Shields and Dunn managed to get this book published with Oxford University Press.)
Even if a work expressing conservative or right-wing ideas does get published, it is likely to be cited less often than its quality would indicate. Most academics are on the Left and thus less likely to cite right-wing publications.
What do the authors find to be the most significant explanation for this dearth of right-wing voices? Self exclusion. Few conservative undergraduate students are interested in pursuing professorships.
Of course, some liberals attribute that to the "conservative mind" and its inherent mental deficiencies or moral failings. Academics get paid to think objectively and rigorously. Conservatives pursue careers elsewhere because they're incapable of doing either.
The authors rightly raise issue with that caricature, pointing to the fact that a large number of academic positions in STEM fields are held by conservatives.
Plus, anyone who has followed Russell Kirk, Niall Ferguson, Sam Huntington, Yuval Levin, or any other conservative scholar from the past century (Limbaugh and Beck don't count) would have a hard time categorizing them as "mentally deficient."
As the authors point out, the liberal assumption that conservatives lack brain power stems largely from their relative absence from the academy.
Much space is devoted to accounting for nuance in the experiences of right-leaning academics. For example, libertarians report feeling much more comfortable in academic life than do cultural conservatives and neoconservatives.
Moreover, the economics field is commonly viewed as a bastion of right-wing thought. And it is, at least relative to the other social sciences.
The authors cite a 2008 study which found professors of economics to be equally split between supporting Republican, Democrat, and Independent positions.
By contrast, the same study found 72 sociology professors identifying as Democrat, compared to only three identifying as Republican.
The consequence of this anti-conservative bias is a university system that is cloistered and intellectually homogenous. Professors tend to bounce liberal assumptions off each other rather than engage with diverse and contradictory ideas.
We are often left with narratives that are too simple and lack rigor. In the words of Shields and Dunn:
“Many disciplines neglect topics or provide suspect answers to questions that complicate the progressive narrative. Sometimes academics do so by telling the story of the left in either a triumphant way or in a way that leaves no room for conservative contributions to human progress.”
The authors' arguments are well-laid and lucidly expressed. Some of the personal accounts make for excellent reading. There are shortcomings, too. The sample size is small.
And because the data measures conservative professors' perceptions about the academy, rather than objective conditions, it must be taken with a grain of salt.
Shields and Dunn deliver a trenchant study that raises important questions about bias and homogeneity in the university system. The quantitative foundations are lacking, however.
This book also received a lot of criticism from conservatives who believe that Shields and Dunn downplay the extent of discrimination, even to the point of apologizing for it. These critics are mistaken.
However, their claims aren't entirely groundless. The authors place too much emphasis on the intellectual freedom that right-leaning professors enjoy after attaining tenure, while devoting relatively little to the negative experiences of assistant professors and graduate students.
Moreover, the book's promotion raised ire among the authors' fellow conservatives, as it appeared they were taking pains to present their findings in a manner that liberals would find palatable.
This is due largely to an op-ed Shields and Dunn published in the Washington Post titled "Forget what the right says: Academia isn't so bad for conservative professors."
The article (and the title in particular, which the authors claim was written not by themselves but by their editor) provoked a furious rebuttal from National Review writer Frederick Hess. Hess accused them of having "Stockholm Syndrome" toward their liberal colleagues.
The controversy surrounding Passing on the Right proves that outcome was worth the endeavor of its authors. Whether readers love or hate it, Shields and Dunn have succeeded in drawing attention to the lack of intellectual diversity in the American university system.
Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era
by Thomas C. Leonard
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.
250 pp. $35 (hardcover).
The United States is now in an election year, and public confidence in government is sinking – 2014 and 2015 Gallup polls show confidence in Congress at all-time lows.
Voters and pundits are engaged in bitter battles over the meaning of left and right, with the politically-charged term “progressive” used and abused by voices across the political spectrum.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic Party candidates, both wear it as a badge of honor. But this term is often used but little understood.
During Barack Obama’s first presidential term, one left-leaning history professor described a progressive as anyone “who believes that social problems have systemic causes and that governmental power can be used to solve those problems.”
Progressivism has an ugly history, too. The side of the Progressive Era the American left would rather forget is dredged up by Princeton University Scholar Thomas C. Leonard in Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. In a scathing criticism of the American Progressive Era Leonard emphasizes the movement’s rejection of racial equality, individualism, and natural rights.
Progressivism was inspired by the torrent of economic growth and urbanization that was late 19th century America. Mass-scale industrialization had turned the autonomous individual into a relic. “Society shaped and made the individual rather than the other way around,” writes Leonard. “The only question was who shall do the shaping and molding” (p. 23). Naturally, the progressives chose themselves for that task.
Much of this book is devoted to eugenics. Defined as efforts to improve human heredity through selective breeding, the now-defunct pseudoscience was a pillar of early 20th century progressivism.
Leonard argues that eugenics fit snugly into the movement’s faith in social control, economic regulation, and Darwinism (p. 88). But Darwin was ambiguous on whether natural selection resulted in not only change but progress. This gave progressive biologists and social scientists a chance to exercise their self-styled expertise.
Random genetic variance and the survival of inferior traits is useless; what’s needed is social selection, reproduction managed from above to ensure proliferation of the fit and removal of the unfit (p. 106). Experts could expose undesirables and remove them from the gene pool. Forced sterilization and racial immigration quotas were popular methods.
This book’s most memorable chapter is where it analyzes minimum wage legislation. These days, this novelty of the administrative state is taken for granted–many on the left currently argue that raising the wage floor doesn’t destroy jobs–but Leonard finds its roots in Progressive Era biases against market exchange, immigrants, and racial minorities.
Assuming that employers always hire the lowest-cost candidates and that non-Anglo-Saxon migrants (as a function of their inferior race) always underbid the competition, certain progressives undertook to push them out of the labor market. Their tool was the minimum wage. Writes Leonard:
"The economists among labor reformers well understood that a minimum wage, as a wage floor, caused unemployment, while alternative policy options, such as wage subsidies for the working poor, could uplift unskilled workers without throwing the least skilled out of work … Eugenically minded economists such as [Royal] Meeker preferred the minimum wage to wage subsidies not in spite of the unemployment the minimum wage caused but because of it [italics mine] (p. 163)."
In the hands of a lesser author, this book could have been a partisan attack on American liberalism, and one that would find a welcoming audience in the current political landscape.
Leonard deftly stands above the left-right fray. Rather than give ammunition to the right he argues that progressivism attracted people from both ends of the political spectrum.
Take Teddy Roosevelt, a social conservative and nationalist who nonetheless used the presidency to promote a progressive agenda. “Right progressives, no less than left progressives were illiberal, glad to subordinate individual rights to their reading of the common good. American conservative thinking was never especially antistatist”, Leonard writes (p. 39).
Furthermore, eugenics had followers among progressives, conservatives, and socialists alike. The true enemy of progressivism? Classical liberalism, the belief that society is a web of interactions between individuals and not a collective “social organism.”
Leonard combines rigorous research with lucid writing, presenting a work that is intellectually sound, relevant, and original. Readers should take his insights to heart when asking how much of the Progressive Era still lives in 2016.
The answer is not simple. Contemporary progressives like Clinton and Sanders certainly don’t espouse biological racism. For those who whip up anti-immigrant sentiment to win votes, “progressive” is a dirty word, not a badge of honor. Moreover, the American left long ago abandoned attempts to control the economy via technocratic experts.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Modern progressives still place a troubling amount of faith in the administrative state and a lack of it in market exchange.
Leonard closes by arguing that the Progressive Era lives on: “Progressivism reconstructed American liberalism by dismantling the free market of classical liberalism and erecting in its place the welfare state of modern liberalism.” (p. 191).
It’s up to the reader to decide whether that is something to be lauded or fought against.
Joseph Larsen is a political scientist and journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He writes about the pressing issues of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephLarsen2.
Obama comes off as both worldly and insular. But what does the President actually believe about foreign policy?
As President Obama’s time in office comes to a close, his supporters and critics are beginning to write his presidential history. The Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg recently made a big step in that direction with “The Obama Doctrine”, a narrative essay that draws upon a number of personal interviews with the President. Goldberg provides an intimate, dispassionate account of Obama and his foreign policy.
Like his predecessors, the President is a complicated man whose views and values aren’t easy to separate from the everyday sausage making of foreign policy. Is he a thick-skinned realist? A trigger-happy neoconservative? Or, as his lofty rhetoric suggests, is Obama an idealistic liberal? The Obama Doctrine goes a long way toward answering those questions.
No Time for Tradition
Readers will notice a president with little respect for tradition, whether that means traditional ways of thinking about foreign policy—what Obama derisively calls the “Washington playbook”—or the country’s traditional allies. In discussions with Goldberg, Obama refers to American partners in Europe and the Arab world as “free riders.”
He also blames Britain and France for the colossal failure of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans.”
Obama also has no regrets over his inaction in Syria, despite the fact that its five-year-long civil war has killed nearly half a million people, triggered a humanitarian and political crisis in the European Union, and strengthened Russia’s geopolitical position in the Mediterranean.
“I’m very proud of this moment”, he tells Goldberg, referring to his 2013 decision not to authorize air strikes against Assad. Believing that Syria would be yet another entry in America’s long list of failed interventions abroad, he washed his hands of the situation. The human toll is regrettable, but nothing could be done.
All the King’s Straw Men
Despite Obama’s many strengths, I’ve been critical of his tendency to reduce the arguments of his opponents to straw men. This is a common thread in his interviews with Goldberg. In the president’s view, proponents of intervention in Syria offered no plan other than full-scale invasion and regime change (“invade the country and install a government you prefer”). This is patently false; the administration had a range of options short of putting boots on the ground, with the imposition of a no-fly zone being just one.
Obama’s defense of American inaction in Ukraine also looks like him flailing at a straw man: “We have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for [italics mine].” As cabinet members John Kerry and Ashton Carter made clear, the administration could have supported Ukraine financially and militarily without going to war against Russia.
Obama justifies the lack of action in Ukraine in two ways: it’s not a major strategic interest to the United States, and Russia’s close proximity means Moscow will always have the upper hand: “Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination no matter what we do.”
The Obama Doctrine Laid Bare
So, what is Obama’s philosophy on foreign policy? He is a cautious man with a realist outlook (he often refers to “core interests” and “direct threats”), but he also has a liberal’s respect for multilateralism. The latter becomes obvious when he speaks about China. Unlike many people in Washington, Obama believes that a strong, prosperous China can be a reliable partner for the United States.
Perhaps by accident, he acknowledges that the US would benefit from being balanced by a strong rival power: “multilateralism regulates hubris.” This statement says it all. Obama is a realist who believes that international stability is achieved through balance. A United States that is unmoored in multilateral institutions and unbalanced by rival powers poses a danger to both itself and the international community.
Goldberg defines Obama’s strategy in simpler terms: “Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest.” For a president with such sophisticated views on foreign policy, he has strikingly little interest in making it.
“The Donald” will promote a (surprisingly) liberal agenda while obliterating any respect that remains for the GOP and the conservative movement.