Countering the Neocon Comeback

The neocons are back, and they’re trying to get Hillary Clinton’s ear. Which makes this exactly the moment for Clinton to forge her own distinct path.

Tagged Foreign PolicyNeoconservatism

Something pivotal is germinating in the politics of American foreign policy. It is a shift rightward toward a tougher line, notably among powerful Democrats. It is dislodging the leftward thrust that was triggered in the mid-2000s, when George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became widely seen as disasters.

Robert Kagan, the neoconservative extraordinaire, sees this shift as an opportunity to change the political center of gravity and is trying to shape the new consensus. In his latest book, The World America Made (2012), and other writings, he is reaching across the decades-old political abyss to tempted Democrats. And there, he has found Hillary Clinton, the unannounced Democratic nominee for President, among others, carefully reaching back. This potential embrace on international matters is not beyond the means of such experienced players. Foreign-policy alignments have shallower roots than domestic policy differences, and historically, the parties have enjoyed considerable overlapping of hawks and doves, activists, and de facto isolationists. Moreover, these positions can change on a dime.

Kagan’s courtship of Clinton has been quite open. “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy,” he told The New York Times in June. “[I]t’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that.” He himself tellingly prefers the term “liberal interventionist.”

Kagan has his reasons for saying this publicly, not least the shifting sands of his own Republican Party. The Obama years have bared new conflicts among conservatives, particularly between the majority that still backs strong U.S. military responses to terrorist threats in the Mideast and a vocal minority of self-styled Tea Party libertarians who share left-wing Democrats’ disdain for foreign military entanglements. Accordingly, Kagan is hedging his bets by trying to fashion a new home, virtually constructing it himself—a de facto coalition of activist Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans in this ad hoc group are unlikely to campaign for Clinton, but they will be careful about attacking her foreign-policy views and will be well positioned to support her national-security positions if she wins.

To gaze back at who has dominated the international debate in America over much of the last 30 years is to see mostly neocons: the old Francis Fukuyama, Fouad Ajami, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, and so forth. They have outshone liberals in presenting their foreign-policy views by being more prolific, more coherent, and harder-hitting. Outside their clan stand only a small handful of notables like Henry Kissinger, a realist; Zbigniew Brzezinski, hard to peg since the Carter years but certainly a neocon foe; Samuel Huntington, a conservative Democract; and Fareed Zakaria, a centrist.

For much of this period of neoconservative ascendance, Robert Kagan has been their intellectual tribune. This is why his courtship of Clinton is so interesting. Kagan’s open flirtation with Clinton has been coyly accepted and even reciprocated. While continuing to clutch the liberals’ new priorities like women’s rights, democracy, and climate change in her left hand, she is extending her right hand to the hawks. Few failed to notice when she selected Kagan to sit on her bipartisan State Department advisory group or when she picked his wife, Victoria Nuland, a very accomplished diplomat in her own right, as her spokeswoman. And it’s no accident that the much-admired former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, a friend to the Clintons and Kagans, keeps Kagan on at the venerable Brookings Institution as a senior fellow.

Clinton has been increasingly touting her heretofore private record of toughness on Syria (she wanted early military aid to the rebels), Iraq (she urged extending the troop pullout date), and Afghanistan (she advocated a longer U.S. military presence). To be sure, it’s fair game in Washington after stepping down as a Cabinet officer to reveal where one stood on contentious issues, especially if these tough calls look plausible in hindsight. Clinton can’t be condemned for that.

The increasing fervor of her memories of past objections to Obama policies, however, is notable. She raised eyebrows in August when she told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” These and other slams at Obama’s liberal foreign policy, since echoed by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, can only be music to Kagan’s ears. There’s plenty in Clinton’s hard-nosed revelations to make the neocons hopeful, but how far will she go? President Obama himself has been moving rightward in his last years, and practitioners have to be mindful of the fickleness of politicians’ foreign-policy beliefs.

Democrats need to reclaim their realist foreign-policy tradition of thinking in terms of power and military force, but not in the manner proposed by the neoconservatives. They should look instead to the effective diplomacy and creative strategies of the Truman era. President Truman and his principal advisers understood that the United States has to make sharp distinctions between those interests that are worth fighting for and those that should be protected by other means, mainly economic and political. They did not believe that the United States needed to demonstrate its strength through unilateral action. Rather than embrace a hubristic postwar agenda, they instead built partnerships through strategies that illuminated common interests and common goals and that spelled out the pragmatic means necessary to achieve those objectives. The future for the Democrats should be Truman, not Kagan.

What Is Kaganism?

Barack Obama, who barely converses with leaders in Congress, treated Robert Kagan to a private lunch this past summer. Imagine those two great foreign-policy minds, the king of the neocons and the budding hard-liner, dining together. Someone who gets such an invitation from the President of the United States has to be taken seriously, so let’s look carefully at what he’s now offering Clinton Democrats.

The World America Made is quite an arresting and seductive work. Kagan melds tried-and-true American exceptionalism with considerable faith in U.S. military power. Together, he says, they can make the world a safer, more democratic place. This approach contrasts sharply with Obama’s once-modest rhetoric and ambitions. Kagan’s language is almost irresistible in the current climate of hysteria about terrorism and Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

Kagan’s current thinking revolves around two concepts: “liberal world order” and “intervention.” In case one were tempted to miss it, the word “liberal” is encased in the first and implied in the second. His euphemism for war is intervention in defense of the “liberal world order.” He has co-opted the “l-word” and now employs it more than liberals themselves do.

Mr. Liberal Neocon’s thesis is as follows: “The most important features of today’s world—the great spread of democracy, the prosperity, the prolonged great-power peace—have depended directly and indirectly on power and influence exercised by the United States.” He continues: “No other power could have or would have influenced the world the way Americans have because no other nation shares, or has ever shared, their peculiar combination of qualities.” The book tells the creation myth of what he calls America’s “liberal world order,” which Republicans and Democrats alike have a special duty to defend against the “non-liberal, atavistic urges…of humankind.” In this vision of the world, America is both the role model and the historical exception, the key to history and the antidote to undependable human nature.

It is the cornerstone of Kagan’s thesis that this “order” is incapable of sustaining itself in the way the term usually implies. “People are right to point to the spread of democracy and the free-market, free-trade economic system as important factors in the maintenance of great-power peace,” Kagan writes, but “[w]here they err is in believing these conditions are either sufficient or self-sustaining.” Not even the Western Europeans, the closest approximation of the American project of democracy and free markets, are fit to play this role of defending the apparently fragile order.

Kagan’s “liberal world order” is maintained by the primacy of American military power, an argument he laid out in his 2003 book, Of Paradise and Power. In that work, Kagan explains that Europe “is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation”—in other words, into a state of naiveté about the world’s dangers. The book made a splash on the eve of the Iraq invasion by offering American hawks a polemic through which to dismiss Europe’s opposition to the war. After all, if only Americans understand power, why then should they have to listen to anybody else on how to exercise it?

How Kagan understands power is a curious thing. He has been rightly alarmed by the unwillingness of policy-makers in recent years to see the value of military force. “It is as if,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “…Americans believe their disillusionment with the use of force somehow means that force is no longer a factor in international affairs.” Kagan need only point to Vladimir Putin’s conquest of Crimea to show that “yes, there is such a thing as a military solution,” if you’re willing to fight. Yet Putin’s aggression and great-power politics are not Kagan’s real focus. His principal interest, bordering on obsession, is in the threats from and within smaller states.

It wasn’t always this way. Neoconservatism was born within the Democratic Party during the Cold War with the aim of stiffening U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. The neocons specifically targeted arms control, which they felt signaled acceptance of communist power. Their aim was to do the opposite: to increase American military spending against a weak Soviet economy and to freeze Moscow diplomatically. Once the Soviet Union crashed, however, they seemed to lose their interest in great-power politics. They never came to see China as the new Frankenstein’s monster. This is all the more notable since neither the weakened Russia nor the emerging China turned out to be pussycats.

Kagan is ambivalent about Beijing. At times he worries that a stronger China will be an anti-democratic force in global politics, but he is unsure just how much to worry because he focuses so pre-eminently on military power, an area in which he rightly observes that the Chinese will trail the Americans for several decades. He avers that for China to become a “superpower in the geostrategic sense…would require something like the collapse of all the other powers in Asia.” Barring that alarmist scenario, he is unimpressed by China’s economic gains, even to the point of arguing that “[a]t present, only the growth of China’s economy can be said to have implications for American power in the future, and only insofar as the Chinese translate enough of their growing economic strength into military strength.” This comes as close as one can to dismissing China’s economic power altogether as a threat in and of itself to American interests in Asia and elsewhere.

Kagan has led the way in shifting attention from superpower rivalry to terrorists and misbehaving minor states. The new danger is not from above, but from below. For reasons never fully explained, he sees the “liberal world order” as far more threatened by Islamic terrorists and new dictators aspiring to nuclear weapons than by the rise of China and the strategic demise of Europe. He doesn’t examine this issue in the detail it merits, but it’s as if he doesn’t believe in America’s (or Israel’s, for that matter) capacity to deter small or medium states from using nuclear weapons. It’s as if these new culprits are quite willing to risk a pre-emptive or retaliatory blow by the United States that would destroy them totally. And what’s the evidence for that? The same was said of the old Soviet Union and the old communist China.

Since establishing the Project for the New American Century in 1997 to lobby for a war against Iraq, Kagan has been a leading proponent of regime change. Unlike President Bush, who focused on the fallacious pretense of the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or Vice President Dick Cheney, who insinuated, despite a complete lack of evidence, that Saddam was complicit in 9/11, Kagan was concerned primarily with Iraq’s alleged challenge to the “liberal world order.” As recently as this year, Kagan has argued that the war was driven “more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest.”
Kagan is similarly gung-ho about “intervention” in Iran and Syria. He thinks Tehran must be brought to heel or suffer intervention. “We should give the sanctions as much chance to work as possible,” Kagan told journalists in 2012, “but be very clear-headed about what needs to be done if they fail…. [I]t is very important that Iran understands that there is a potential of military conflict down the line, which they will not win.”

In the September 2013 public discussion on whether to attack Syria, Kagan was in favor of taking down Bashar al-Assad. When asked by Charlie Rose whether Democrats viewed Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a national-security threat, he responded: “A lot of Americans…don’t see what the clear national security interest is. I don’t know how that’s possible. I don’t know why anybody would want to move into a world disorder in which the use of chemical weapons is essentially winked at by the international community.”

His argument was that Americans underestimate the fragility of their “liberal world order” and must maintain the “tragic vigilance” learned in the Cold War under “the architects of armed liberalism,” Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, lest the world slide into chaos. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” he intoned to Rose, “and in this case I think it will be filled by, you know, the kind of smaller bad actors.” It is not the major powers that Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives mostly fear, but rather that the weaker states that will feel emboldened to cause mischief if the United States does not constantly police them.

How Kaganism Misreads the World

What is to be made of all this? Are we in fact living, as Kagan argues, both in a golden “liberal world order” and at the same time on the precipice of disaster? A cursory examination of the map would seem to call the first assertion into dispute. His second point about the fragility and uncertainty of this world has validity; the question is how to manage these troubles.

So much of Kagan’s thinking turns on the existence of this “liberal world order.” But does it really exist? And how much of it is to America’s credit? Latin America is certainly far more stable than it used to be, thanks in part to U.S. trade and investment. But few leaders down south would credit the arrival of democracy in their lands to Washington’s efforts; quite the contrary. Chileans, for example, still sting at Washington’s past interference with their evolving democracy. The rise of free elections in Nicaragua, in part a result of nearly a decade of illegal American aid to the Contras, is the subject of Kagan’s first book and the fruit of his years in the Reagan State Department. It is no small irony, then, that the current elected president of Nicaragua is Daniel Ortega, the famed Sandinista. Africa has a number of states that are called democracies, but many of these are democracies in name only and are gripped by internal horrors and civil wars. Except for a few young democracies in the former Soviet Union, most of those “freed” states are still authoritarian. Washington can be justly proud of fostering democracies in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and South Korea. These democratic success stories notwithstanding, many countries in the region remain unfree, including the largest: China. Southwest Asia—including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran—certainly doesn’t qualify as a liberal paradise. And the Middle East is mainly a paradise for dictators and fanatics.

More problematic still is how Kagan, or other neoconservatives for that matter, would preserve this idea of the global order. “Intervention” is his favorite policy prescription, but he is cagey enough in his writings and public interviews to be vague. Syria provides a good example of how Kagan tries to walk the intervention tightrope:

Charlie Rose: If Assad was overthrown, Robert, what would be the result you think?
Robert Kagan: Probably chaos. And you know, no one should be under any illusions that there are good solutions out there. We are either going to have Assad in power…or we’re going to have the messy situation that will follow Assad’s departure.

Then, aware of his unhappy dilemma, he begins arguing that the moderate rebels would win the day against all comers if only Washington would provide them with the necessary aid. He argues that “our non-support of those more moderate elements has tipped the balance in favor of the jihadis.”

Thus, it turns out in Kagan’s locutions that the choice between Assad and chaos is resolved by a miraculous victory by the moderate Sunni rebels over the jihadi crazies. But whatever happened to Assad in this equation? And does Kagan truly believe that the almost totally disorganized rebels could actually defeat anyone, Assad or the jihadis, in the next decade? Kagan is surely too intelligent for that. Typically, he sidesteps deep involvement in that kind of discussion.

Is it not interesting how he danced around the question of the United States attacking Syria, when just the week before the interview with Rose, he, along with other neocon luminaries, had signed an open letter to the President demanding just that? The neocons insisted that

the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants.

Call it what you will, but that sounds a lot like war.

Thus neoconservatives are back to helping the rebels win by launching U.S. air attacks against Assad. The shortcomings of the rebels are still unaddressed, except to say that the United States should provide them with more arms. (Didn’t the United States provide the Iraqi army with enough arms?) Most startling, these keen-eyed conservatives say little about the jihadis, the principal threat to the whole region and to America itself. It’s hard to believe that today these hardheaded conservatives actually reckon that destroying Assad would help defeat the far more dangerous jihadis. Even more implausible is their implication that air power alone could depose Assad. Yet they certainly leave that impression. Ah, where are the tough-minded neocons when one needs them?

The hawks ran into a similar problem with respect to removing Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. They wanted the bad colonel deposed, and the United States led a coalition with air attacks that got the job done. Neocons were enthralled. “By far the most important decision taken by any world leader in this entire episode,” wrote Kagan in The Weekly Standard, “…was President Obama’s decision that the United States and the world could not stand by and see the people of Benghazi massacred.” Not long after this exultation, Libya fell into inevitable chaos and bloodshed—and still hasn’t recovered. Have the hawks demanded the United States return to finish the job?

The optimism that led Kagan to call Libya a success was not an aberration. He’d had moments of optimism before. Bill Kristol and Kagan concluded of Iraq after its January 2005 elections, “But the fact remains that it is today more possible than ever before to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world truly are transformed. For this, no one will deserve more credit than George W. Bush.”

If Kagan is unclear about how to intervene in worrisome conflicts, he is equally shaky on where to intervene. At times he seems to come perilously close to suggesting that because one cannot perfectly distinguish between major and minor threats, one is obliged to consider responding everywhere. Reflecting in 1994 on the significance of the Cold War to American strategy, Kagan wrote:

The “lesson of Munich,” which dominated cold-war thinking until its temporary replacement by the “lesson of Vietnam,” taught that a failure of will on small matters eventually led to a failure of will on more vital matters as well. This proved to be a sound strategy for defending American interests, both large and small, and it was this strategy that made possible a peaceful victory in the cold war. There is no certainty that we can correctly distinguish between high-stakes issues and small-stakes issues in time to sound the alarm.

If it is not the responsibility of the government to distinguish between small and large threats, then who shall perform this Talmudic task? No one—because it’s so difficult? Paying great costs in the pursuit of impossible objectives or minor interests is risky, and it is hyperbolic to warn that the shadow of Munich lurks around every corner.

When pressed on the tremendous costs of the war effort in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kagan simply shrugs and offers meaningless counterfactuals of the “what if we hadn’t done it” variety. “Failure in Afghanistan will cost much, much more than the billions spent on this surge,” he maintained in The Weekly Standard in 2011. “It is a peculiar kind of wisdom that can only see the problems and costs of today and cannot imagine the problems and costs of tomorrow.” Does Kagan then blame the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq for the collapse of the Iraqi security forces? Which seems more likely, that the Iraqis were disappointed by insufficient American will, or that they simply felt that their government wasn’t worth fighting for?

Neoconservatives as a whole appear to have learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam, which they are forever citing. There are two right ones, both applicable to the present day. The first is that peripheral interests can indeed be peripheral. It’s very hard to seriously argue that Vietnam mattered on the world-power stage until the Americans made it so with their massive intervention in the mid-1960s. Vietnam meant so little geostrategically that after America’s South Vietnamese allies lost the war, it hardly destroyed America’s global strategic position. Indeed, without the Vietnam noose around its neck, Washington went on to open up relations with China, start triangular diplomacy with Moscow, and greatly strengthen its position in Asia and around the world. If “defeat” in Vietnam had been as devastating as Kagan and the neocons insist, these things never would have happened: America would have drowned under the waves.

Second, it’s critical to understand that though the United States, even with 550,000 troops there, did not win the Vietnam War, neither did it lose it. After the United States left, South Vietnam lost the war. Saigon still had around a million men under arms and was still well equipped despite the foolish congressional cutoff of future aid. Its own forces simply didn’t fight hard enough. It is that lesson that should be in the minds of neocons and indeed all Americans as they think back on the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces and on what might happen in Afghanistan. The United States can expend enormous blood and treasure, but in the end, it is always up to the people Americans are trying to help to win or lose. Why can’t the neocons see this? Why do they always visit the sins and shortcomings of others on America itself, on American will, on Democrats?

Truman’s Legacy

These are worrisome times, more so now than in any period since the end of the Cold War. There are few governments besides our own willing and able to shoulder heavy military and economic burdens within and beyond their own borders. In this regard, the decline of Europe is especially mournful. So much—too much—now tumbles onto America, wrapped as it is in interminable internal political deadlock between Republicans and Democrats and the absence of strong leadership.

Stirring this boiling cauldron are our protagonists: Robert Kagan, Hillary Clinton, and, the most potent of the new hawks, Barack Obama. What will come of all their flirting and newfound shared toughness?

For someone who made such a big fuss about Syria and Iraq in promoting her autobiography, Hillary Clinton has quieted her criticism considerably and now emphasizes that “the threat is real” and military action “critical.” She has not called daily for the expedited arming of the Syrian rebels. (Is it that she now recognizes that such efforts would not produce positive results on the ground for some time to come?) She backs President Obama’s air campaign in Syria but, uncharacteristically, has not demanded its expansion. The same holds for the air war in Iraq. Most interestingly, Clinton has not called for Congress to vote yea or nay on the fight against the Islamic State, if for no other reason than to spread political responsibility for the war effort. On the other hand, pressing for a war resolution would carry over to a possible Clinton presidency and bind her hands accordingly.

Since Obama has become more hawkish, Clinton’s strategy has been to allow no daylight between the President and herself. When she speaks, it’s in general support of his actions. When she’s silent, she allows others to assume that support. The projected image continues to be toughness, and as long as Obama is exhibiting muscle—but not too much—she’s with him.

The President is shaping a very new and different image of himself on national security: the image of a man who is not going to let the United States get pushed around and who will take strong military action, short of a ground war. Perhaps the most startling example of this was his announcement in late September that he would commit to keeping thousands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for another ten years. To be sure, there’s a provision allowing withdrawal from the commitment with two years’ notice, but breaking it won’t be easy for him or his successors. For a President who couldn’t wait to depart from Iraq and didn’t really want any part of Syria in the first place, this new announcement was nothing short of mind-blowing. Of course, the American media paid little attention to it; but that’s a whole other story. He did it ostensibly to prove that he’s gotten tough, that in his remaining two years, no one should mess with him, and that military force has become a legitimate and early recourse for addressing challenges to U.S. security.

And for aficionados of straws in the wind, Obama has also agreed to begin lifting America’s arms embargo against Vietnam, a policy meant to respond to a more assertive China. The initial sales will be modest in scale, but the symbolism of the move is anything but. To those who believe that Washington is devoting too much attention to the Mideast and not nearly enough to increased Chinese muscling in the Asia-Pacific theater, the message is loud and clear.

Obama’s about-face fits the model of other recent Democratic presidents’ closing years. Jimmy Carter preached dovism for two years before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. This prompted him not just to launch broad sanctions against the USSR, but also to begin covert support for Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen. For Bill Clinton, this shift meant finally going whole hog into the Balkans after years of inexcusable resistance to helping victims of genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Now, it’s impossible to judge how much Obama’s conversion had to do with Kagan and the other “liberal” neocons. But they like what they’ve seen recently from the President, or at least they prefer it to what they saw before.

They are not totally off-base in that sentiment. Kagan rightly reminds Democrats that hard power still counts most in the world, not vague “soft power.” For much too long, Democrats have fled from the need to be tough in a nasty world, and thus they are periodically paralyzed by outbreaks of chaos and respond erratically. Kagan’s practical utility, however, ends here.

From this point on, the Democrats will have to forge a serious and workable twenty-first-century national-security strategy pretty much on their own. It will be a daunting task. They may look for inspiration, however, to the creations of President Truman, Dean Acheson, George Marshall, and their teams. They created a hardheaded policy built around international institutions through which they exercised U.S. power (the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank, the GATT procedure for trade talks, the IMF) and the guiding concepts of containment and deterrence. When there was overt aggression, as in Korea, they responded with force. When the threat was subtler, as it was from the Communist Party in Greece or Soviet meddling in Turkey, Truman provided decisive military and economic aid. All this was in the service of both American self-interest and American ideals.

Such inspiration would serve Democrats well today. It is worth remembering that Truman did all this with his military hand tied behind his back. U.S. armed forces had almost totally disbanded after World War II and did not start to reconstitute themselves until the Korean War. Meantime, the Truman team built up the German and Japanese economies, stabilized and democratized their politics, and made them into America’s closest military allies. It took a simple, clear-headed, brilliant strategy and many years to implement it. And for this great foreign policy, they found themselves under constant and vitriolic attack at home.

The strategic task facing a Democratic President today—indeed any American President—is equally confounding. Among the principal obstacles toward reconstituting a new and viable strategy are these. First, Europeans, even the Western Europeans, are simply not strong or reliable allies. For the first time in 50 years, Washington simply can’t count on them for military and economic support. They are in bad shape and without great prospects. Second, it’s hard to find new and comparable allies in Asia to help either there or around the world without igniting significant tensions with China. Japan is key here, but its economy also shows little sign of future strength, and while Washington wants to encourage some growth in Japanese military power, too much is good neither for Japan nor America. Third, the majority of the most serious and active threats facing the United States are not wars or potential wars between countries, but wars within countries, like civil wars and terrorist insurgencies. Such conflicts are incredibly difficult for insiders or outsiders to wrestle with successfully. In any event, the wrestling takes years.

It takes a non-neocon, indeed a non-liberal, to concoct a strategy out of this chaos. The simple neocon answers of more American will or more American military force—more or less without help—make no sense. Meanwhile, liberals can’t begin to address the armed evils of the world through economic means and diplomacy alone, much less through greater understanding. The answers won’t be found in these now common sources of thinking about U.S. foreign policy. The answers might be found by again looking back to Truman and his colleagues.

The key strategic question is: How does Washington once again create something—a winning coalition and a winning policy—out of nothing? The answer now, as then, is a good, simple, workable strategy based first and foremost on reconstituting the economies of our key allies. They have to be strong enough in their daily lives and economic hopes to once again field armies, to provide economic aid to friends in need, and to add heft to their common diplomacy. No amount of preaching to the choirs of Asia or Europe will succeed in getting them to ante up, to meet the threats to their own and American security, without economic restoration. If anything is now plain, it is that austerity is not the answer.

Governments must renew intellectual and physical infrastructures, create jobs, and support technological innovation. They must address the despicable inequality of wealth; putting more in the hands of the middle class will expand buying power and expand the economy. It will take a great leader to sell this most obvious of good strategies. Alas, no sale, no strategy.

The next step is not to create or try to revitalize fixed alliances like NATO or SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) or CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) or any of the other initials and alliances of the past. The nations in each of these alliances don’t share interests to the degree they once did.

Future alliances must be ad hoc. They must be based on the participants’ shared interests in particular situations. And the way for Washington to bind such coalitions together is through strategies that don’t simply reflect American interests, but that combine the key interests of all the parties expected to join together. Each party has to see specifically what’s in it for itself. For example, as Russia escalated its war against Ukraine, the United States did not simply insist that the Europeans fall into line on sanctions. The U.S. position had to accommodate Germany’s desire to be less confrontational with Russia and had to allow time for European politics to evolve in a more assertive direction. Today, no nation will make sacrifices just to be a good ally or to do the United States a favor. Washington will have to make the case and sell it to the political leadership of each country, and with these leaders, to their people. This is not an easy process, but in the twenty-first century it’s the only one likely to produce common action.

Even in the most halcyon days of American power, foreign policy was about making choices. One can’t have it all, though neocons seem to suggest otherwise. And one choice that American leaders, Democrat or Republican, must make is to press other countries into playing roles in various crises commensurate with their interests. Their interests are considerable, but they always assume Washington will do the job…because that’s what they hear and want to hear from the likes of Kagan and the neocons. Others wait for Americans to bomb more, then more still. It’s long past time for other nations to step up in defense of their own interests and for Washington to play the role of coalition builder. That’s the foreign-policy path for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats—with or without Robert Kagan.

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