The World

Mayor Pete: Quiet American

Buttigieg has referred to Graham Greene’s classic novel to explain his views on U.S. foreign policy. He’s completely misreading it.

Pete Buttigieg, Graham Greene.
Pete Buttigieg has cited Graham Greene’s work as inspiration for his foreign policy philosophies.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence and Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capital Concerts.

Most people who have written undergraduate theses rarely mention them in their later careers. Mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, however, has built his political reputation on displays of performative intelligence meant to set him apart from other presidential candidates in a crowded Democratic field. To help build this image, Buttigieg has, on several occasions, referred back to his Harvard undergraduate thesis, which examined British author Graham Greene’s critiques of America’s actions abroad. Buttigieg, the mayor of a midsize city with no past political experience and few foreign policy credentials, has used his thesis to show the academic work that has informed his views on foreign policy. “In a very jaded, British way, Greene points out the dangers of well-intentioned interventions,” Buttigieg told New York magazine, when asked for a list of his 10 favorite books in April.

Buttigieg’s interpretation of Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American grounds the way he speaks about America’s actions abroad; Buttigieg cites the novel to warn of the dangers and unintended consequences found in “[innocent] intentions gone abroad to change the world,” but he never questions the fundamentally kind motives at the heart of American foreign policy. The Quiet American, however, contains a darker critique of America’s intentions, viewing willfully ignorant policymaking as an evil in itself. Buttigieg’s choice to ignore one of the novel’s key messages speaks to both his ambitions as an establishment-friendly candidate and his reluctance to challenge long-held norms about American power as he advances his political career.

The plot of The Quiet American (spoilers ahead) revolves around a murder. Alden Pyle, an American intelligence officer working in Vietnam in the final years of French colonial rule, is found dead in the book’s first pages, and most of the novel looks back on key events in his life. Through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, jaded British journalist Thomas Fowler, we see Pyle’s displays of public virtue: Pyle refuses to drink, never swears around women, and courts Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend while maintaining a “proper” and “gentlemanly” demeanor. Pyle’s earnestness also influences his work: He sees the United States as well-positioned to positively influence Vietnam as French colonial rule ends.

Pyle’s zeal, Buttigieg argues in his thesis, represents a Protestant moral certainty that guided U.S. policy during the Cold War and evolved into the evangelism behind the 2003 Iraq invasion and the “Global War on Terror.” What Greene described as Pyle’s “pronounced … views on what the United States was doing for the world” may have strayed into overzealousness, appearing to a jaded character like Fowler as “aggravating,” but they were based in a fundamentally optimistic and kindhearted morality. In Buttigieg’s eyes, this moralistic foreign policy is simply misguided optimism, the blunders of an idealistic young man (or country) trying to shape the world in his image without a real understanding of the environment in which he operates.

Pyle’s actions in the novel, however, should deny him the pretense of innocence. He arrives in Vietnam unsettlingly optimistic about his ability to change a country he has never visited and whose languages he does not know (Pyle speaks no Vietnamese and can barely communicate in French). Pyle anchors his worldview in the writings of York Harding, a fictional “diplomatic correspondent” who “had been [in Vietnam] once for a week on his way from Bangkok to Tokyo” and quickly wrote a policy tract on reshaping Southeast Asia. Harding’s writings are prescriptive and, though Pyle reads them with a comically contemplative tone, quite simple. The fictional Harding argued that America was uniquely positioned to shape post-independence Vietnam by supporting a new and positively disruptive military group—a “Third Force.” In any country, Harding argued, “there was always a Third Force to be found free from [both] Communism and the taint of colonialism—national democracy he called it; you only had to find a leader and keep him safe from the old colonial powers.” Harding argued that America, because of its values and lack of colonial legacy in the country, was a natural candidate to identify and train members of this new Third Force.

Harding’s words captivate Pyle; in trying to build his Third Force, the American diplomat arms an amoral warlord, leading to a bombing in a public square that kills dozens of children. When confronted with the bloody and pointless aftermath of his plans, Pyle is shaken by the death but unrepentant about his decisions; he stammers that his proxy “wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him … [Pyle] was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” He is certain that York Harding’s vision just needs a bit more time to play out.

Pyle has too much blood on his hands to be charitably described as a misguided optimist. After finding himself with real power over a country he knows nothing about, he chooses to exercise that power based on the impressions of a comically ignorant fellow outsider. Pyle’s earnestness cannot compensate for, and is only made worse by, his willful ignorance. Similarly, his outward chivalry, when seen in the context of his victims, should strike a reader as more sociopathic than humanizing.

Of all the lessons to reference from the novel, then, why does Buttigieg summarize his work on The Quiet American by repeating Greene’s quote that “innocence is like a dumb leper that has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm”?

Buttigieg has spent his short political career asking for the support of the governmental and media institutions that maintain America’s foreign policy worldview, institutions whose basic provincialism has changed depressingly little since The Quiet American was published in the 1950s. While Buttigieg wrote his thesis, the United States was attempting to build an alternative Iraqi government with a group of diplomats who had little prior knowledge of the country and, with few exceptions, didn’t even speak Arabic. York Harding’s “Third Force” in Vietnam has become any number of dubious local partners in conflicts from Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Syria, to Libya, while hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died at the hands of modern-day Pyles. The architects of these disasters have either peacefully retired (think George W. Bush’s bathtub paintings or Paul Bremer working as a ski instructor) or advanced even further in their careers (in the case of John Bolton). Calling out institutional America’s reluctance to seriously examine the consequences of this war and punish those responsible for it would place Buttigieg to the left of his own party, far from the position of a centrist consensus figure that he is seeking.

Buttigieg’s efforts to lay out his own foreign policy views in a June 11 speech at Indiana University also show how little he is willing to depart from establishment thinking. Though Buttigieg criticizes past American actions in this speech, he presents a future foreign-policy vision with enough caveats to repeat past mistakes. Buttigieg, for example, criticizes the 2003 Iraq invasion, saying that future military interventions must be justified by an “imminent threat against the United States, our citizens at home or abroad, or our treaty allies.” He also adds that, in any future military campaign, “we should also deploy diplomatic, development, and security assistance to guard against future instability.” Buttigieg forgets, though, that the Bush administration did justify the Iraq invasion by arguing that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to regional allies and that the U.S. deployed humanitarian and diplomatic personnel to Iraq in large numbers after the invasion.

At other points in his speech, Buttigieg caveats his rhetorical nods to progressive Democrats so heavily that he nearly contradicts his main points. He condemns China’s mass detention policy towards its Uighur minority (which the Chinese government justifies on counterterrorism grounds) but insists that America could still cooperate with China on “combatting terrorism.” Though he criticizes human rights violations by U.S.-backed Gulf states, he only proposes to “speak truth” to these regimes about their actions and says nothing about the fundamental soundness of these alliances. He says that American policymakers should not seek to re-create the seemingly unchallenged American hegemony of the late 1990s but later adds that “it is not too late for America to restore her leadership position as a beacon of values that are both universal and at the core of the American project,” calling on America to promote “democracy, freedom, shared security,” and in a way that nearly echoes Bush-era rhetoric.

Though Buttigieg knows that he cannot run in today’s Democratic Party without criticizing the mistakes of past interventions, he does not criticize the overall philosophy that brought these wars about. And though he points to specific instances of America’s long-running international support for dictators, he fails to see how these alliances undercut his own rhetoric about America serving as a global model for human rights.

The most striking part of Buttigieg’s foreign policy speech, however, is how little he mentions non-Americans. He only speaks about the impact of American decisions on others with a small reference to the “countless civilians caught in the crossfire” during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars; he only uses the phrase “collateral damage” to describe harm that America suffered “to [its] national moral authority” during these campaigns. The details of an Iraqi’s life under a crass and unforgiving military occupation, or the pain suffered by a Pakistani family obliterated in a drone strike, all go unmentioned.

I want to assume that Buttigieg, a well-traveled polyglot, recognizes the traces of Pyle’s provincialism that form the basis of this kind of rhetoric. But reading through the most detailed iteration of Buttigieg’s policy views, it’s clear that either his performative cosmopolitanism sits on top of a fundamentally provincial worldview or he feels uncomfortable challenging the ideas that have guided decades of American foreign policy (and, by extension, the foreign policy establishment they represent).

Buttigieg’s reluctance to honestly describe Pyle’s flaws may also stem from an uncomfortable truth: Many steps in Buttigieg’s career have placed him closer to Pyle that he would like to admit. After completing a Rhodes Scholarship, Buttigieg spent time as a management consultant at McKinsey, working with a group of people who, in his own words “view themselves as kind of answering questions and solving problems, and … didn’t think that much” about the overall impact of their actions. This is, to put it mildly, a measured way to respond to a question about McKinsey’s record suggesting ways to “turbocharge” sales of opiates and identifying online dissidents for repressive regimes. Through these words, Buttigieg seeks to rationalize the actions of “modern-day Pyles” instead of choosing to truly empathize with their victims.

Buttigieg has also applied this worldview in South Bend, Indiana. During his tenure as mayor, perhaps with higher office in mind, Buttigieg set out to improve key economic metrics by attracting large technology companies and aggressively evicting low-income and homeless residents. Policies like these did little to address South Bend’s persistent racial wealth gap and helped give the city one of the highest eviction rates in America. Again, Buttigieg’s actions echo some of Pyle’s worst qualities: his enthusiasm for quick, all-encompassing solutions and his disconnect from those who must absorb the consequences of his actions.

Running in today’s Democratic Party, Buttigieg is too politically astute to openly echo Pyle’s zeal. However, the trajectory of Buttigieg’s career, and the speed at which he climbed each institutional ladder in front of him, has left him little time for serious introspection on the consequences of American government’s actions abroad or at home. Buttigieg’s past work on The Quiet American could give him an opportunity today to grapple with prescient criticisms of American foreign policy. Instead, he has used his examination of that novel as another bullet point on a résumé-centered campaign while glossing over Greene’s most pointed critiques.