What if the U.S. Just Didn’t?

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S1: Reading about Joe Biden’s nominees for cabinet posts these days feels a little like getting your political horoscope read, no one knows what any of these people will actually do. So instead, smart folks are reading the tea leaves, digging up old articles people have written speeches they’ve given, trying to predict the future.

S2: It does seem like Joe Biden has put a high premium on people that he has a personal comfort level with.

S1: Peter Beinart is no astrologer. He’s a historian and a political scientist. I asked him to come on not just to speculate about what happens now, but to build a case, because one of the other things that’s happening at the moment is people like Peter are floating their best ideas in public, trying to shape what happens now. Peter’s expertise is foreign policy. He says he looks at who Joe Biden has named to a variety of key positions, his preferred secretary of state and national security adviser. And already he sees a pattern.

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S2: I do think it’s a legitimate criticism of this team that you do not have an intellectual outlier or somebody who I think stands outside of some of the basic assumptions that are held by the foreign policy establishment Democratic Party.

S3: What Peter’s talking about here is a kind of ethos of American power, summed up best by Joe Biden himself in an essay he wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year. It was called Why America Must Lead Again.

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S2: This is a phrase that comes up again and again. Another phrase that you hear a lot from Biden and his advisers. It’s essentially America has to organize the world because if we don’t organize the world either, no one will. And there will be chaos or some other malevolent actors who will organize it.

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S4: And that won’t be good for us. And I think there are a lot of problems with this way of imagining the way the world works.

S2: First of all, I think it’s simply overemphasized the amount of power that the United States has today, that the United States share of growth of the world’s GDP is now about one seventh as opposed to one quarter at the end of the Cold War and one half at the beginning of the Cold War.

S1: You’re saying that our influence is out of proportion? It sounds almost like a kind of hubris.

S2: I think that the expectation that the United States can be the dominant custodian of world order, it does not take account of how significantly America’s relative power, economic power. And also, I would say kind of soft power, power, prestige has diminished and is still diminishing.

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S3: Today on the show, Peter lays out the case for a fundamental shift in the way Americans see themselves and the world, and he hopes Joe Biden’s foreign policy team is listening.

S5: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Peter’s views about American leadership aren’t exactly popular in some Washington political circles. That’s because for years, most American diplomats have seen themselves as essential players on the world stage. Peter does think the U.S. can be helpful abroad, but that argument that if America dialed back its dominance, chaos would ensue. Peter’s not buying it.

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S4: I’m not against the United States involvement and partnership or solidarity at all. What I am against is the notion that we believe that we have some unique right and ability to, as you said and as Biden said, sit at the head of the table. There may be moments when we sit at the head of the table, but I think that the problem with this metaphor of sitting at the head of the table is it does not acknowledge that we have the capacity to do to not only to do good, but to do enormous harm. And that when we essentially give ourselves the right to set the rules ourselves, we don’t take sufficient account of the fact that we are not even often abiding by those rules.

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S2: We and no other country left the Paris climate agreement. We and no other signatory to the Iran nuclear deal left the Iran nuclear deal. We and in the middle of a pandemic and no other country left the World Health Organization. We violated we invaded Iraq in clear violation of international law. We have basically made the World Trade Organization dysfunctional because we have vetoed all appointments to its main panel. We have a record of not ratifying international treaties on things like preservation of the oceans, the rights of women, children and the disabled, the regulation of arms sales, the regulation of the cluster bombs, nuclear nonproliferation, war crimes and genocide is unparalleled among any country in the world. And I think the American exceptionalism narrative, which simply takes American innocence as a given so that when we do things that are wrong, it’s simply a mistake, it’s out of character. But when other countries do things that that violate international law, that’s a reflection of who they really are. I just think a lot of people in the world don’t buy that.

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S1: Well, I want to talk about when you began to see this this way, because my understanding is that you haven’t always had this perspective. What was the turning point for you? Looking back, I think that.

S4: I like some others of my age, my generation, just kind of Generation X, which is the generation of of some of Biden’s top foreign policy advisors, I think were very influenced by the events of the nineteen nineties, America’s victory in the Cold War, the intervention in the Gulf War in 1991, that America won the debates over America’s intervention in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, where after a lot of fear that these might end up like Vietnam, they actually ended up being interventions that at least appeared at the time, as if we had done something good by stopping ethnic cleansing. I think this set of experiences, the 90s was a period of expanding democracy, a period where America raised its budget deficit, I think led to an excessive faith on my behalf in both American power and American virtue.

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S1: In terms of the way we practiced foreign policy overseas, you note that people that are slightly older than you have a different perspective because, of course, they were around for the Vietnam War. And so when your generation came in, there was a little bit of a clash.

S2: Yes. One of the things that I noticed and I wrote about this a little bit in a book I wrote called The Icarus Syndrome, was that many of the people who were warning about the potential for a Vietnam style disaster in the 1990s were people who had lived through the Vietnam War. And I think for those of us who were younger when the Gulf War and Bosnia and Kosovo did not turn into Vietnam style quagmire, I think it led us wrongly to kind of disregard Vietnam as a important analogy, an important warning for American foreign policy so that when this sense of self-confidence in American power was supercharged by the by 9/11, the Vietnam analogy by that point didn’t have nearly as much salience in the debate as it should have.

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S1: And then, of course, we ended up going into Iraq and Afghanistan.

S4: Right. One of the things that I spent quite a few years trying to grapple with after the Iraq war, which the magazine I edited, The New Republic supported, was what were the intellectual assumptions that led me to this kind of hubristic view that the United States could, outside of the framework of international law, overthrow a government and then reconstituted society in a way that made things better.

S1: Part of what makes Peter feel so strongly about this is that he’s watched as even humanitarian interventions have terrible outcomes.

S4: It’s important to remember that the Iraq war was partly justified as a humanitarian effort to remove a horrific dictator, Libya, which maybe will go down as the kind of the end of the era of American humanity which was justified that way.

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S3: Moammar Gadhafi, the leader who ruled Libya for four decades by crushing the opposition, could himself be crushed by a popular uprising.

S6: The U.S. calls it a reign of violence by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi and his cohorts, and it’s setting in motion a range of options to stop it.

S1: Nothing is off the table when he was asked about his worst mistake as president back in 2016. Barack Obama’s immediate answer was the U.S. intervention in Libya. Despite his best intentions, Obama acknowledged that after killing Moammar Gadhafi, there simply wasn’t a good enough plan in Libya.

S4: When the Arab Spring broke out, you saw a rebellion against the long serving dictator Moammar Gadhafi. And Gadhafi responded to that by cracking down very brutally against the rebels. And he appeared on the verge of an even more brutal crackdown. And there was some interest among America’s European allies in at least using air power to stop him from being able to do that. And the Barack Obama reluctantly agreed to join with Britain and France and other NATO allies to do that. And it then turned ultimately what that led to was the overthrow of Gadhafi. But Gadhafi was not replaced by a kind of a government that could represent all of the Libyan people and bring a functional liberal democratic government. What ultimately happened was the country fractured into into different factions who kept fighting with one another. And the two factions were supported by different groups. And so ultimately, what Libyans got instead of a brutal. Leadership was civil war and a failed state, and that led Obama and others to question whether we had done the right thing by intervening militarily.

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S1: Yeah, when the United States was considering an intervention, I wonder what that conversation was in Washington.

S4: I think there were folks who felt that it would be a stain on America’s conscience if we simply stood by and let Gadhafi carry out what looked like there could be mass killings. And I totally understand that that impulse. I think it comes from a genuinely good place. And yet I think one of the really hard lessons, painful lessons that I think people have learned is that states can be fragile and the alternative to a brutal dictator is not necessarily an inclusive liberal democratic government. Oftentimes what dictators leave in their wake, especially if they’re toppled militarily, is state collapse, especially if the United States is not willing to invest and its allies and its partners invest massively in a project of nation building, as we were not willing to do in Libya. So it’s hard to look at Libya today, which remains a failed state in in a state of civil war, with many outside actors preying upon it and say that Libya is better off because the US intervened.

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S1: And we’re talking about Joe Biden and his team and what they might mean for U.S. intervention and this idea of American exceptionalism. And I think it’s important when we talk about. A circumstance like Libya, these characters have been around for a long time, like the incoming secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, he was there for that decision. And as I recall, he and Joe Biden disagreed about what to do.

S4: Yes. Interestingly, Lincoln was more interventionist on Libya than Biden was. You know, they remain very close to their instincts have been a little bit different. Again, I think Lincoln himself is probably chastened by that experience. But I think that my larger concern about Biden and his this team has to do with whether they are creating a set of expectations around what kind of multilateral U.S. foreign policy can do that are unrealistic, given the power dynamics that actually exist?

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S1: Yeah, I mean, I see this incoming team of Joe Biden’s having some of the same questions and ideas that you do. Like I was looking at something that Blinken said when he talked about Syria and how he explicitly says, you know, we sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little in Syria. And I wonder what you thought about that, because it’s another circumstance where, of course, you could go in with the best of intentions. But you’re right. Like nation building is a lot of work and we haven’t really shown that we’re great at sticking around and doing it. Once the military side of things are over. So I wonder, looking at, for instance, Syria and Lincoln’s perspective on that, do you think he’s toying with some of the same ideas that you are of American exceptionalism and how we should live that in the world or not?

S2: I am very sympathetic to the fact that given how horrific the situation in Syria has been, that Tony Blinken feels agonized about it. I think he should feel agonized about it. I think that’s a that’s a credit to him.

S4: We want people who who who feel agonized when there’s enormous human suffering, but it does not count. I am not convinced of the argument that that things would have turned out better as the US aggressively intervened more aggressively. And I think given this set of experiences that we’ve seen from Iraq to Libya to Afghanistan, I think the onus has to be now on people who want the United States to intervene aggressively in regime change operations, to be able to prove convincingly that there’s a very strong likelihood of a positive outcome, given that we have seen so many negative outcomes over the last two decades.

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S3: After the break, just how badly has America damaged its own reputation abroad?

S1: I wonder if you think President Trump’s term has been kind of an experiment here, because while Trump involved himself abroad, a bit like North Korea in the Middle East the last four years, the U.S. has withdrawn from the international stage. What if what’s happened when we did that?

S2: Well, I don’t think it’s quite right to say the United States is withdrawn. I would say the United States has wielded its power in different ways. The United States has been extremely unilateral, levying sanctions on all kinds of countries, even countries that are traditionally our allies. We have withdrawn from all you know, we were not a great, great about signing up for international agreements already, but we’ve we’ve withdrawn now from a kind of unprecedented number of them. So I think with what we’ve seen with Trump is not, as I think it’s sometimes described, isolationism, but unilateralism, essentially the notion that American power should be bounded by no authority, legal or moral, beyond what America sees as is in its own narrow self-interest. And I think that that has really eroded whatever was left of the belief in much of the world that the United States was pursuing a kind of common good in the world.

S1: It sounds like a more extreme version of what was already happening.

S4: Yes, I think that’s right. I mean, it is.

S2: Important to remember that, again, if you look at George W. Bush’s administration, the Bush administration not only would not enter the International Criminal Court, which was designed to create an opportunity to prosecute war crimes and genocide because of the fear that we might one day be prosecuted. But it basically gave the United States the right to virtually take military action to ensure that the International Criminal Court never brought proceedings against the United States. And I just think we should stop there for a moment and think about that. So basically, the position the United States is, by definition, our behavior should never be subject to the kind of international moral standards of human rights behavior. That’s what Trump has done as essentially taken that logic and taking it even further. But that logic has a deep history in American foreign policy. He did not invent it. And and I think it’s part of the reason that other countries look at the United States and say, on what moral authority do you claim to have to exercise the right of moral leadership for the world?

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S1: I can understand why your argument may be hard for some people to accept, because part of it means accepting. A little bit that America’s maybe on the downslope, but then there’s also this issue we’re talking about now, which is the fact that Americans have behaved badly abroad and everyone seems to know it and there’s been no accountability. But it seems to me that to get people. To accept the argument you’re making that America should have a little bit of a humbler role abroad, the first thing we have to do is convince Americans. Of that second part of the fact that.

S2: We didn’t do such a great job, and sometimes it’s obvious with Iraq and Afghanistan and then I them sometimes I think it’s not I would say, first of all, that it’s interesting that if you look at polling pretty consistently, polling does not suggest that Americans want to withdraw from the world and have America have no role, but neither do they want America to be the single dominant force. Mostly what they want, even if it sounds kind of soft and mushy, is cooperation. They want America to be one country cooperating with other countries. So they’re actually, in public opinion, a surprising amount of support for this and surprisingly little support for the notion of America as the single dominant power, which is often something which is popular in foreign policy circles. The second point I would make is that. There is often a tendency in foreign policy discourse to associate America, the kind of America’s global footprint, particularly its global military footprint, who has more power in Syria or in the Caucasus, Russia or the United States to associate that with the well-being of ordinary Americans. And I think if there’s one thing we can take away from from the Trump experience and the fact that he was elected was that many Americans don’t buy that necessarily in their right not to buy it. It is not necessarily the case that America having more influence in more countries around the world and having a larger military footprint in those countries necessarily better benefits ordinary Americans. In some ways, it actually detracts from our ability to take care of things here at home. And one of the things that worries me about the Biden folks is that I see in their writing not a willingness to really look seriously at cutting the defense budget, but instead an effort to kind of talk about beefing up deterrence vis a vis China so we can compete with China in places like the South China Sea. And I think for an ordinary American who’s just come through the pandemic, surely the priority should not be the balance of military power in the South China Sea, but it should be whether the United States can build a welfare state that can literally keep our people alive. So I worry that the balance there is out of whack.

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S4: You see Americans asking themselves.

S2: What is in it for me? What is in it for me in American global power? How is it actually benefiting me? And and a kind of skepticism of the easy equation that I think you often find that Americans, ordinary Americans, are better off when the United States has a larger footprint around the world. It may well be that if America were to retract some of its military influence and power around the world and redeploy some of those resources and energy towards trying to build a more functional society at home, that actually Americans at home would benefit from that.

S7: Peter Beinart, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Peter Beinart is the editor at large at Jewish Curran’s, you can subscribe to his newsletter, The Biner Notebook over at Substory. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Davis Land. We are getting a ton of help right now from Frannie Kelley. Thanks, Frannie. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Thanks for listening. Tomorrow you can catch my podcast twin, Lizzie O’Leary. She’s going to be in this field with what next TBD. And I’ll be back here to say hey on Monday.