Billionaires Can’t Buy World Peace

A new think tank funded by George Soros and Charles Koch wants to end American interventionism, but shows no understanding of what motivates it.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Hungarian-born US investor and philanthropist George Soros receives the Schumpeter Award 2019 in Vienna, Austria on June 21, 2019.
Hungarian-born US investor and philanthropist George Soros receives the Schumpeter Award 2019 in Vienna, Austria on June 21, 2019. GEORG HOCHMUTH/AFP/Getty Images

The idea of American exceptionalism, once a civic faith, now has the ring of the quaint—and not only because America elected a callow bully as president a few years back. You have to go back a very long way—perhaps to the establishment of the institutions of the liberal world order and the Marshall Plan—to find a time when you could confidently say that America’s global role was more exceptionally good than exceptionally bad. In some quarters, the corpse of American exceptionalism is being prepared for burial. I felt as if I heard the first strains of the funeral music when I read that George Soros and Charles Koch—an icon of liberal globalism and a right-wing libertarian—have teamed up to finance the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank dedicated to reducing America’s global footprint.

The name is a nod to President John Quincy Adams, who famously said in a July 4, 1821, address that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Realists like George Kennan adopted that expression as a touchstone; so, too, Adams’s assertion that a militaristic America might become “dictatress of the world” but “would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

That seems to be the guiding principle of the Quincy Institute or at least of two of its co-founders, Andrew Bacevich and Stephen Wertheim. Though he has described himself as a “Catholic conservative,” Bacevich is a lacerating critic of American Cold War and postwar policy. In his 2002 book, American Empire, Bacevich sought to rehabilitate the reputation of two of the great left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy, Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, both of whom argued that America’s self-image as a benevolent hegemon concealed the brute reality of capitalist self-aggrandizement. In a recent column, Bacevich called for a new foreign policy based on the recognition that the “imperial project … leads inexorably to bankruptcy, both fiscal and moral.”

In a recent article in the New Republic, Wertheim, a historian at Columbia University, argued that since the end of the Cold War, liberals have surrendered to the neoconservative vision of American military supremacy, thus forging a consensus around a policy of endless war. Liberals have thus been largely silent, Wertheim wrote, in the face of Donald Trump’s glorification of the military. “For decades,” he argued, “they have failed to stop war and violence for the same reason they have failed to reverse soaring inequality.” I have to say that that observation stopped me cold. Unfortunately, Wertheim neglected to stipulate the reason; perhaps he considered it self-evident.

Leaving aside the merits of the case for the moment, anti-militarism has the feel of a polemic whose time has come. First, most Americans really do prefer to tend their own garden, save when the garden feels gravely imperiled—which it has for much of the last 80 years but no longer does. Second, the “forever wars,” as critics call them, in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured voters on the idea that America can do anything good in the world, certainly through the use of force. Third, Trump seems to have deepened the cynicism of both those who admire him and those who hate him. And finally, who can argue with the slogan “Put an end to the forever wars”?

There is a natural affinity between left-wing critics who regard American power as malevolent and realists who eschew moralism of both the left and right but view democracy promotion, nation building, and other liberal vocations as a gross dissipation of national energies and a project doomed to fail. Indeed, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy’s own arch-realist, may have called the Quincy Institute into being last fall when he proposed a coalition of anti-war progressives, realists, and conservative libertarians to stand against the alliance of “liberal interventionists and hawkish neoconservatives.” There has been much head-scratching about the shotgun marriage of Soros and Koch, but Walt’s point is that they have far more in common on foreign policy than meets the eye—assuming, that is, that Soros now shares Walt’s skepticism about the liberal world order and America’s role in upholding it.

This brings me to the question of merits. To thinkers on the left like Bacevich and Wertheim and to realists like Walt and Michael Mandelbaum, the difference between liberals and neoconservatives—between, say, John Kerry and Paul Wolfowitz—is no more than tactical. They both, according to Walt, “embrace American exceptionalism … favor overwhelming military supremacy, and endorse the broad goal of spreading liberal values … to every corner of the world.” That’s a tendentious summation—but what it leaves out matters as much as what it includes.

Let me illustrate my point with reference to Barack Obama. As he made clear in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama was hardly a principled anti-militarist, but during the 2008 campaign, he thrilled liberals by vowing to use far more statecraft, and less force, than George W. Bush had, to dictate less and listen more. Obama entered office arguing—and believing—that great-power rivalry was a thing of the past and that the transcendent issues of the day were global ones—climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, poverty, and state failure. American exceptionalism, for Obama, meant leadership not on national but on transnational issues.

Obama did not fail for lack of trying. He offered a reset to Russia—and got burned when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and threatened Eastern European and Baltic members of NATO. He tempered human rights criticism of China but gained nothing on trade, business practices, or regional security (much less on human rights). He pulled all combat troops out of Iraq—but then had to go back in when the country seemed to be disintegrating before Islamic State attacks. He tried to pivot from the Middle East to Asia—but couldn’t. Realists cut Obama some slack because he resisted the impulse to intervene in Syria and castigated his critics as “the Blob.” But Obama ended his tenure enmeshed in great-power rivalry and fighting bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s the moral? Did the liberal interventionists around Obama, whether Hillary Clinton or Samantha Power, weaken his resolve and dilute his vision? Was he, that is, a martyr to the Blob? The idea strikes me as absurd. Obama was mugged by reality: He found that the transit from “the world as it is”—the title of his advisor Ben Rhodes’s memoir—to “the world as we wish it to be,” to use another favorite Obama phrase, was vastly less navigable than he had thought. He had to keep a few thousand troops in Iraq because Iraq needed America’s help to fight the Islamic State, which Obama rightly considered a serious, if hardly existential, threat to U.S. national security. He had to stand with America’s NATO allies against Russia. He had to tell China it couldn’t simply seize disputed islands even while reaching an agreement on climate change. Obama never glorified the use of force, as Bush did or God knows as Trump did in his July 4 address; he used it when he could find no more effective instrument.

In the column mentioned above, Bacevich lists the great issues of the day as climate change, the global shift of power, and cybersecurity. You could argue with his specific priorities but still agree that, even more than in 2008, the biggest problems are the global ones. But it is wishful thinking to describe great-power struggles as “detritus traceable to the twentieth century,” as Bacevich also claims. Wertheim, similarly, has described a clash of ideas between “the new Cold Warriors,” eager to refight the battles of another time, and the “Restrainers,” who see the virtues of cooperation with China (and, presumably, Russia). But this is a false dichotomy: We live simultaneously in this century and a new version of the last one.

Liberals recognize the need to continue searching for areas of cooperation like climate change but do not fool themselves about the motives of other great powers. Similarly, one can be horrified by Trump’s decision to unilaterally abrogate the nuclear deal with Iran without fooling yourself about the danger of Tehran’s decision to blow through caps on uranium enrichment. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the lesser-footprint crowd is rearranging the world’s problems in order to fit their doctrine.

It’s worth noting that John Quincy Adams was neither a realist nor a radical nor a libertarian. He was, rather, a zealous nationalist. As secretary of state under James Monroe, Adams did insist that America remain neutral in struggles between monarchy and republicanism in Europe. That was because U.S. national interests lay elsewhere. Alone in the cabinet, Adams defended Andrew Jackson’s brutal campaign against both Indians and Spanish troops in northern Florida, for Jackson was hastening the process of America’s destined expansion. Like the Founding Fathers, Adams never doubted that Providence had singled out America for greatness. None subscribed more devoutly than he to the principle that today we call American exceptionalism.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.