When Zombie Neoconservatives Attack

Why most Americans are right about foreign policy, and David Brooks is wrong.

New York Times columnist David Brooks speaking at the Book Expo America in New York.
New York Times columnist David Brooks speaking at the Book Expo America in New York. James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

This might be disturbing news to some readers, but the New York Times columnist David Brooks is very unhappy with the American people. Why? Because they don’t seem to be blindly following his views on foreign policy anymore. In fact, his latest column says their ideas about U.S. foreign policy “stink.”

To be specific, Brooks is troubled by some recent surveys of public opinion, which show declining public support for endless U.S. intervention overseas. He interprets these polls as evidence that Americans are abandoning traditional liberal internationalism and reverting to isolationism. This trend really bugs him because he believes U.S. leadership after World War II—and especially its promotion of the so-called liberal world order—was a selfless act of statesmanship that produced several generations of peace and prosperity. Now, alas, he thinks America is “withdrawing from the world,” and this trend is allowing “wolves” like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to “fill the void” and letting countries like Iran destabilize the Middle East.

Is he right? Are the American people as misguided as he says? Should we be very afraid?


For starters, the liberal world order that Brooks now extols was never fully liberal, never truly global in scope, and not all that orderly. True, there hasn’t been a great-power war since 1945, and U.S. engagement in Europe and Northeast Asia helped stabilize these regions during the long Cold War. But Brooks misses a key lesson of that period: U.S. internationalism worked best when it was essentially defensive in nature and when it focused on deterring direct Soviet aggression against vital U.S. interests (see: NATO). American power—including its military power—turned out to be extremely good at this mission, especially when it was combined with sophisticated and far-sighted diplomacy.

By contrast, U.S. efforts to remake local politics in other parts of the world—in other words, to engage in nation building—were often morally dubious and much less successful. The Soviet Union and the United States never fought each other directly, but the Cold War on which Brooks looks back with such fondness also featured bloody and expensive conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, repeated interventions by both superpowers in the developing world that killed or wounded millions of people, and plenty of regional conflicts between other states, some of which were encouraged and subsidized by Moscow or Washington or both. This aspect of U.S. Cold War policy didn’t work so well, and it is the part that most closely resembles the country’s more recent follies. Not surprisingly, it goes unmentioned in Brooks’s nostalgic reverie.

Brooks also overstates the extent of American retreat today. The United States is still in NATO; still has thousands of soldiers, sailors, and aircrews in the greater Middle East; still has powerful forces in Asia and is likely to increase them even more; and is busy conducting counterterrorism missions in more countries than I can keep track of. Indeed, no country on the planet comes close to the level of military activity that U.S. armed forces are engaged in today. And if National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have their way, the United States could find itself in another Middle East war in the not-too-distant future. If its current policy is one of “withdrawal,” I’d hate to see what greater engagement policy looked like.

Lastly, Brooks offers up a typically simplistic reading of U.S. adversaries’ actions and one in which the United States’ only sin is insufficient resolve. I’m not happy with what Russia, China, and Iran have been doing in recent years, but Putin’s cyber-meddling, Xi’s crackdown against the Uighurs or others, and Iran’s Middle East activities are hardly motivated by perceptions of U.S. disengagement. In Russia and Iran’s case, their actions are more readily explained as attempts to secure their own interests against what they see as relentless American pressure against them. That’s not a justification for what they are doing; it is an explanation that avoids simplistic caricatures. But the idea that the United States might appear threatening to others—even unwittingly—is a concept Brooks can’t seem to grasp or acknowledge.

Given Brooks’s worldview, however, he has reason to be worried. Americans are increasingly uncomfortable bearing outsized global burdens, and he thinks it’s mostly because they’ve “lost faith in human nature and human possibility.” He wants them to get that optimistic mojo back so that they will willingly pick up their lances, mount their chargers, and rush back into the world to slay a few more dragons. Don’t worry: It’ll be a cakewalk and maybe even pay for itself!

There is a far more obvious explanation for the trends that worry Brooks, which he alludes to only in passing. Americans are unhappy with the foreign policy that he and others have been peddling for the past quarter century for one simple reason: It has been a near-total failure, time and time again.

During the Cold War, the United States employed an essentially realist strategy—containment. In order to deter Soviet expansion, Washington concentrated first and foremost on maintaining favorable balances of power in Europe, East Asia, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf. U.S. leaders made some significant mistakes along the way (e.g., Vietnam), but on the whole, this strategy worked well, and it ended with the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. This policy made sense because preventing the emergence of a rival regional hegemon was in America’s long-term strategic interest.

In the unipolar moment that followed the Cold War, however, U.S. leaders succumbed to hubris and decided to try to remake the world in America’s image. Convinced that it had found the magic formula for success, the United States committed itself to remaking local politics all over the world. American leaders hoped to do this peacefully—by expanding NATO, supporting color revolutions in Eastern Europe, embracing the Arab Spring, etc.—but they were willing to use force if they had to.

Unfortunately, this strategy was doomed to fail. Aggressive efforts at democracy promotion alarmed authoritarian states, and open-ended NATO expansion poisoned relations with Moscow and drove it closer to China. Regime change in various places didn’t lead to stable democracies but to failed states, costly occupations, and new terrorist movements. The rapid expansion of global markets did not deliver benefits broadly and made the world financial system less stable, as we learned to our sorrow in 2008. As the ancient Greeks understood, hubris usually leads to humbling disasters.

Exhibit A, of course, is the invasion of Iraq in 2003—the war that Brooks and his fellow neoconservatives worked overtime to sell to the American people—but the list of failed efforts at global social engineering also includes the forever war in Afghanistan, the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, President Barack Obama’s premature declaration that Bashar al-Assad must go, and the United States’ active support for anti-Assad forces in Syria. And in direct contrast to America’s supposed liberal ideals, its activities also included the George W. Bush administration’s reliance on torture, warrantless surveillance, extraordinary rendition, and targeted killings—actions that may have something to do with the declining appeal of the American model around the world.

The results of these policies speak for themselves. Relations with Russia and China have deteriorated steadily since the 1990s, and the two superpowers are increasingly aligned with each other. According to Freedom House, democracy has been in retreat for 13 consecutive years. The Middle East is in flames, and U.S. actions over the past 25 years have done far more to destabilize the region than Iran’s have. The United States squandered trillions of dollars in unnecessary and unsuccessful wars, some of them justified by lies. Yet as Brooks’s own career illustrates perfectly, the people who supported these actions paid little or no price for their mistakes. Instead, most of them failed upward to even more influential posts in the media or in government.

The real lesson of the surveys that are bugging Brooks is abundantly clear. Americans aren’t rejecting constructive forms of global engagement; indeed, there’s even some evidence that Americans would be willing to make sacrifices in order to deal with looming problems like climate change. Americans aren’t embracing isolationism either; they are just fed up with a foreign policy that isn’t working. They are tired of paying for wars the country didn’t need to fight, didn’t win, and that left Americans weaker and less safe than they were. They aren’t eager to keep subsidizing wealthy allies who refuse to do enough to defend themselves or to keep giving unconditional support to reckless Middle East partners whose values are at odds with their own.

Surprise, surprise: Americans are also less willing to follow the advice of the people who have championed these failures, never apologized for them, and seem to have learned nothing from their mistakes. I can understand why Brooks finds this situation upsetting, but at this point he shouldn’t be surprised.

In any case, what “stinks” about this situation is not the American people’s sensible response to a quarter century of foreign-policy missteps. The more pungent aroma emanates from those elites who refuse to acknowledge their own errors or take responsibility for them. Now that stinks.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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