Since 1946, when the Army Air Forces decided to give $10 million to the Douglas Aircraft Company to found what would become the RAND Corporation, national security think tanks have exerted a profound influence on the U.S. role in the world. Though less well-known than defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, think tanks are as important when it comes to determining the direction of U.S. foreign policy. It was think-tank analysts, for instance, who developed the nuclear strategies that guided U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, and it was think-tank analysts who helped establish the counterinsurgency doctrines that defined the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Put simply, think tanks have been intellectual engines of the (now waning) “American Century.”
While there are national security think tanks that lean right and lean left, almost all of them share a bipartisan commitment to U.S. “primacy”—the notion that world peace (or at least the fulfilment of the “national interest”) depends on the United States asserting preponderant military, political, economic, and cultural power. Think tanks, in other words, have historically served as the handmaidens of empire.
Into this fray enters the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the first modern think tank to devote itself to a policy of “military restraint” and diplomatic engagement. The think tank, which is partially funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Foundation, is a unique hybrid of left- and right-wing anti-militarists. Its mission is to promote “ideas that move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.” In a political environment in which U.S. empire is one of the few things upon which leaders of both parties can agree, the Quincy Institute will be fighting an uphill battle. To discuss the institute and its prospects, I spoke with Stephen Wertheim, a historian and one of Quincy’s founders.
Full disclosure: I am a non-paid Fellow of the Quincy Institute.
Daniel Bessner: For decades, the most prominent mainstream think tanks—the RAND Corporation, the Brookings Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations—have claimed that world peace and prosperity depend on U.S. military primacy. Although the left rejects this consensus, radical intellectuals have often worried that engaging with the state betrays their duty to speak truth to power, and so they haven’t been interested in building institutions that could challenge the mainstream foreign policy consensus. With that background in mind, what role do you see the Quincy Institute performing?
Stephen Wertheim: Free-floating intellectuals can speak truth to power. Then what? What will power do with truth? Probably deny it or ignore it. It takes power to beat power, and in today’s United States, it takes institutions to organize power.
Since the 1970s, conservatives have beaten not just leftists but also centrist liberals in building networks and institutions. This is true on domestic policy as well as foreign policy. Through think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, conservative donors and activists have championed causes in good times and bad, guiding the Republican Party and reorienting the American political system. Of course, it helps if you’ve got wealthy individuals who can bankroll institutions, and Republicans have had more of those than Democrats. Still, there is no shortage of wealthy donors in the Democratic camp, yet they haven’t put their money and efforts behind parallel structures.
In terms of foreign policy, we’ve recently seen significant numbers of Americans come together around specific campaigns—campaigns to stop the invasion of Iraq, campaigns to support the nuclear deal with Iran, and campaigns to end U.S. participation in the war in Yemen. This is vital work, and in those few instances where substantial numbers of citizens mobilized for peace, they were sometimes successful. But what has been missing is a larger effort dedicated to transforming U.S. foreign policy wholesale, not only in particular ways and at particular moments. That’s where the Quincy Institute comes in.
Bessner: You’re arguing that experts must play a vital role, whereas leftists and left-liberals sometimes put their faith in grassroots agitation. My sense is that while there have been moments of public dissent from U.S. foreign policy on the left, from Moratorium Day during the Vietnam War to the anti–Iraq War protests in early 2003, these have essentially been moments of saying “no,” of expressing dissatisfaction with particular decisions. What do you think of the grassroots’ place in foreign policy?
Wertheim: Grassroots activism is essential. I have no patience for experts who look down on activists and ordinary people. And while I agree that some parts of the left fetishize the grassroots, others fetishize experts as well.
My position is that the grassroots and experts need one another. Experts who are taking on the status quo are going to be effective only if people ultimately stand up and raise hell (or politely call their members of Congress). In turn, ordinary citizens don’t have the time or the expertise to build out a comprehensive program for foreign policy. This isn’t an easy task even for people who are specifically trained and paid to do it. A democratic public requires experts and leaders to crystallize alternatives and facilitate debate.
Obviously, our country in 2019 is far from a healthy democratic polity, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Foreign policy experts who are prominent in the media and roam the halls of power in Washington are deeply disconnected from where most American citizens stand. They are more enthusiastic about the use of military force than the public, and they don’t seem terribly interested in facilitating an expansive public debate.
So it’s no surprise that we get so-called populist backlashes, particularly when the experts put all their weight behind one point of view and implicitly turn the debate into a referendum on their own legitimacy. We need both better experts and a more informed and mobilized public, not one or the other.
Bessner: The Quincy Institute aims to democratize U.S. foreign policy. What would that look like?
Wertheim: For starters, Quincy could make a significant contribution simply by offering to the public a systematically different world role for the United States—one that defines engagement in terms of peaceful interaction, not bombs and bullets. We’ll also be working closely with the activist community in order to provide research that responds to the real needs of communities.
That’s not to say Quincy is a “populist” entity. The foreign policy conversation in Washington and in the mainstream media is dominated by elites—some real experts and some not—who are more hawkish than many actual scholars of foreign policy. So Quincy has an opportunity to promote the ideas not only of ordinary Americans but also of real experts. Both groups are underrepresented in politics right now.
Bessner: That’s a crucial point: there’s a chasm between academic experts and those who wield the levers of power, or at least those who advise decision-makers, in Washington. What accounts for this gap? Relatedly, why do you think that the so-called experts who pushed the Iraq War—people like Max Boot, David Frum, and Bill Kristol—still maintain such a prominent public profile?
Wertheim: It’s a complicated question. One piece of the answer is sociological. Foreign policy professionals are discouraged from criticizing the status quo and demanding change. Most think tanks depend on funding from the defense industry and governments—the U.S. government and, shockingly, foreign governments. There’s far less money in peace, not because most citizens and businesses wouldn’t benefit from peace, but because most donors and lobbyists benefit from war or permanent mobilization for war. To preserve a career in the small world of national security professionals, it’s safer to maintain friendly relations with everyone.
I often talk to people in Washington who take umbrage at the term “the blob,” which Obama adviser Ben Rhodes coined to characterize the foreign policy establishment. They note that foreign policy professionals are not monolithic in their opinions. That’s true, and in private these professionals say many of the right things: “I thought the Iraq War was a mistake from the start,” and so on. Well, where’s the debate about how to stop the United States from launching the next war of aggression? Because where we are right now, as a country, is that we all agree that the United States should never again invade Iraq in 2003. The debate is skin deep.
Bessner: What allows so many foreign policy professionals to advocate U.S. military primacy as if it were beyond question? Do you think they truly believe that the world will go to pieces if the United States doesn’t exert a hegemonic or imperial role?
Wertheim: Yes. I have no accusation of bad faith to make, as a general matter. Hawks are sincere, and for a while their worldview made a kind of sense. In the late 1990s, it looked like the United States could have its cake and eat it too. It cut the defense budget while extending military dominance in every region of the world. A whole generation learned a triumphalist lesson from the Cold War, instead of the more accurate lesson that the Americans didn’t win the Cold War so much as lose it less than the Soviets did.
A bipartisan cohort of policy elites concluded that both the American public and people around the world would welcome U.S. hegemony. They assumed they could ignore public sentiment while claiming for themselves the right and responsibility to exercise enormous power throughout the world.
This set us up for profound failures after 9/11.
Bessner: And it wasn’t just neoconservatives like Kristol who were promoting U.S. hegemony; it was also liberal internationalists like Madeleine Albright and Samantha Power. Liberals began to believe that the U.S. military was a post-historical, post-political force able to act on behalf not only of U.S. citizens but of humanity itself.
Wertheim: Yes. Samantha Power’s book, A Problem From Hell, is emblematic. In the years before 9/11, the central cause of left-liberal foreign policy was humanitarian intervention. The United States would be the agent of humanity. That assumption should have been hard to indulge then; now, when Donald Trump is president, it looks risible.
Bessner: What are the major foreign policy think tanks in Washington, and would you say they share the primacist worldview that we’ve been discussing?
Wertheim: Start with a handful of think tanks that have more or less nonpartisan or centrist profiles: the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, Center for a New American Security, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and New America. These groups follow an early-twentieth-century model, which sees these institutions as providing dispassionate, “objective” analysis. Though some valuable work comes out of these institutions, I think most of their inhabitants share a liberal interventionist, if not neoconservative, worldview. They take more or less for granted that the United States should exercise “world leadership,” by which they mean, as a baseline, that it should possess and exercise preponderant military power. Some people in these institutions repeat this mantra strenuously. Not everyone shares it, but few challenge it vociferously.
Bessner: A different kind of think tank was pioneered in the 1970s, when consciously conservative outfits like the Heritage Foundation were established. These think tanks, and later imitators like the liberal Center for American Progress, are avowedly ideological.
Wertheim: Right. On foreign policy, the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, the Hudson Institute, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies cater to the right. The Center for American Progress stands out for being closely aligned with the Democratic Party. Yet even these think tanks, despite differing in kind from the early-twentieth-century model, share a neocon-liberal interventionist worldview. The notable exceptions are Cato, a distinctively libertarian organization, and, on the progressive side, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies, and Win Without War.
Bessner: Where will Quincy fit in?
Wertheim: We’ll be something of a hybrid—nonpartisan but with an avowed point of view. Unlike the newer think tanks, our point of view counters the consensus on the use of force. We want to make peace the norm and war the exception. We don’t think the United States needs to be the world’s indispensable nation, especially if that means using military force to overthrow or antagonize regimes that don’t threaten us.
In the quarter-century since the Soviet Union collapsed, we’ve seen Democratic administrations and Republican administrations, responsible presidents and reckless ones. Yet they’ve often followed the same pattern, initially pledging to be humbler in the use of military force but delivering the opposite while in office. We cannot accept a future in which we oscillate between decent leaders who try to avoid doing “stupid shit” (but still do some of it) and aggressive authoritarians who command the most powerful military in the world. That’s just unacceptable.
Bessner: As you just phrased it, the mission of the Quincy Institute is mostly negative: it wants to prevent the United States from wantonly using military force. But beyond having more diplomacy, what type of world do you want to build?
Let’s say the institute succeeds, and in ten years the United States no longer takes military primacy as the sine qua non of its global role and has closed most of its 800-plus military bases. What then? Are we returning to an era of great power competition in which China has its sphere of influence, Russia has its sphere, and the United States has its sphere? Or are we looking at something new, a post-national politics?
Wertheim: I take your point, but Quincy’s is as positive an agenda as you’ll see in a foreign policy think tank. In fact, I think it’s more genuinely positive than the establishment stance of fetishizing military force as the essence of engagement in the world. Force isn’t engagement. It ends human life. It is the ultimate negative. Military restraint is the prerequisite of a genuinely positive vision.
Climate change and neoliberalism pose bigger challenges to the American people than any rival nation-state. Our foreign policy should reflect those priorities. We are not going to address the climate crisis unless we tamp down military competition, ramp up investments in green technologies, and reach a legitimate bargain both among the major polluters—China, the United States, Europe, India, and Russia—and between the Global North and the Global South. I also want to see the United States help change the terms of the global economy so that it remains interconnected but gives far more power to workers and far less to owners of capital. None of this can be accomplished if we continue to pursue global military hegemony, which exacerbates rather than mitigates the climate crisis and the neoliberal order, and consumes more than half of the federal discretionary budget.
Bessner: Speaking of capital: perhaps the major reason Quincy has received so much press coverage is that George Soros’s and Charles Koch’s foundations have come together to provide some of its initial funding.
Why take their money?
Wertheim: I’m a historian by training, and when I started to think about changing my career, I asked a question I had not confronted before: how could I and others take on the entrenched interests behind U.S. foreign policy? President Eisenhower left office warning of the “military-industrial complex,” and today we could add a few hyphens: -intellectual, -congressional, and so on. We’re talking about big money and significant authority. What is to be done?
To answer this question, I looked back to the peace and anti-imperialist movements of the early twentieth century and noted two things. First, these were broad-based coalitions of left and right. People agreed on the need for peace, and though they had different reasons for doing so, they understood they had to work together to reach this goal. Second, the movements relied on select members of the capitalist class. The steel titan Andrew Carnegie, for example, is the reason why we have the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Our conclusion at Quincy was that a broad-based, trans-partisan approach would be most likely to bring enough Americans together to act as a counterweight to the status quo. And once we made that decision, it was clear that the Soros and Koch foundations could be important supporters, not only in providing much-needed financial backing but also in demonstrating that there is a significant desire on both the left and the right to move beyond the militarized paradigm of U.S. foreign policy. Now, it’s important to note that Soros and Koch are only two initial donors to the Quincy Institute. We have others, and, unlike other think tanks, we plan to be transparent about the sources of our funding. Believe me, the more the merrier. We can use all the support we can get because the forces arrayed against us, which endorse an ever-higher Pentagon budget and ever-more arms sales, are well organized and amply funded.
Bessner: But why a think tank? How do they actually influence policy?
Wertheim: On one level, think tanks act as intellectual middlemen, brokers between academia and Washington officialdom. But they also perform unique functions. They generate their own research and analysis in ways that are designed to shape policy. They can act quickly to interpret unfolding events, which is especially important in foreign affairs, where unexpected events regularly occur and first movers gain an advantage. And they produce personnel who are prepared to staff presidential administrations. Obama and Trump, in their different and partial ways, expressed interest in moving away from militaristic policies, but each struggled to find advisers and appointees who could give form to their instincts. As a result, U.S. foreign policy remained largely unchanged. If personnel is policy, Quincy can change policy by training personnel.
Bessner: Your last point is, in my view, the most important long-term function of the Quincy Institute: to build a cadre able to answer technical questions of foreign policy while simultaneously addressing larger questions concerning the nature of power, governance, and sovereignty in the twenty-first century. Connecting these two realms—the technical and the philosophical—would be a significant achievement.
Finally, is the Quincy Institute possible only because of Trump? Has he caused a fundamental shift in how Americans understand themselves and their role in the world?
Wertheim: I think Trump is more symptom than cause, but he matters a great deal. If you’re swayed by Trump’s rhetoric, you may agree with him that the United States is not a righteous, indispensable nation but rather a victim brought low by cunning foreigners. If you’re appalled by Trump, the fact that he’s the president should also make you question the notion that the United States possesses the virtue and foresight required for world leadership. Either way, American exceptionalism is under strain. But exceptionalism can be replaced by many different versions of national identity. Trump’s is deeply conflictual, envisioning a cutthroat competition for resources and status that treats foreigners at home and abroad as threats if not enemies.
On another level, Trump has taken some of America’s worst impulses to their height. Since 1941, a bipartisan consensus has held that the United States should maintain military supremacy in the world. Trump fully agrees, always has, and he’s building up our already vast military. What separates Trump from prior presidents is that nobody thinks he has a strategy for using this power. Nobody thinks he has a theory for how armed strength will lead to peace. Yet Congress has lavished even more money on Trump’s Pentagon, with many Democrats voting in favor of budget increases. Trump is thus laying bare the truth that the American political class is in thrall to militarism. Trump and the establishment are locking arms to chase an illusion of dominance, detached from any defensible conception of the interests of the American people or the world. Against his own intention, then, Trump exposes the irresponsibility of the entire system. It will be up to others to change it for the better.
This interview was previously published in Dissent