A Cwyllynfell reader has drawn attention to Daniel Bessner’s interview with historian Stephen Wertheim. Stephen is Deputy Director of Research and Policy – a co-founder and non-paid Fellow of the Quincy Institute. for Responsible Statecraft: the first modern think tank to devote itself to a policy of “military restraint” and diplomatic engagement.
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”.
Daniel Bessner – the Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Associate Professor in American Foreign Policy, University of Washington – explains that almost all national security think tanks share a bipartisan commitment to the notion that world peace (or at least the “national interest”) depends on the United States asserting preponderant military, political, economic, and cultural power. After giving a brief history of America’s influential think-tanks from 1946, Daniel Bessner discussed the institute and its prospects with Stephen Wertheim.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1970
Wertheim (below right) points out that recently significant numbers of Americans have come together around 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, adding: “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”.
Quincy could make a significant contribution simply by offering to the public a systematically different world role for the United States. Its point of view counters the consensus on the use of force.
The institute wants to make peace the norm and war the exception. Its members 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
Wertheim believes that grassroots activism is essential and has no patience with experts who look down on activists and ordinary people; though he agrees that some parts of the left fetishize the grassroots, he points out that others fetishize experts as well. His position is that the grassroots and experts need one another”. Two reasons are given:
- 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 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.
We need better experts and a more informed and mobilized public, not one or the other.
Wertheim says that 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. Those who are prominent in the media and roam the halls of power in Washington are deeply disconnected from where most American citizens stand – far more enthusiastic about the use of military force than the public. 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”.
Daniel Bessner (left) poses this question: “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 responds: “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”.
He continues: “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 . . . 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”.
Obama and Trump, in their different and partial ways, expressed interest in moving away from militaristic policies, Wertheim notes, 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 who are prepared to staff presidential administrations, building 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.
Bessner responded that connecting these two realms—the technical and the philosophical—would be a significant achievement – the most important long-term function of the Quincy Institute.
To read the interview in full click here.