Last week, people across the free world and those aspiring to join it celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. President Ronald Reagan had appeared to be hallucinating when, in 1987, he stood by the Iron Curtain and called on the Soviet leaders to “tear down this wall.” But in 1989, what seemed impossible became a reality. And two years after that, another impossibility came true: The Soviet Union dissolved.
The anniversary is a good occasion for reflecting not just on the significance of the wall’s end but also on the role of American moral and political leadership in making that moment possible. It is a lesson we are now at risk of forgetting.
By the 1970s, the “realist” camp, better described as cynics, dominated Republican foreign policy thinking. Presidents Nixon and Ford led this camp; Henry Kissinger was its chief theorist. They believed that the United States was a declining power and that it needed to reconcile itself to the fact that communism was here to stay. Given that fact, and the nuclear parity between the Soviet Union and the United States, the realists believed the two countries would have to learn how to coexist peacefully.
While the cynics at least believed that the United States and USSR would be leaders in a multipolar world—Kissinger had called for a “concert” of nations to establish the future order—the Carter administration operated on the notion that the superpower role of the United States was doing harm. When it came to foreign policy activism, less was more. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Carter acted as if the Soviet threat would cease to exist if he didn’t take it seriously.
Then came Reagan. Reagan’s strategies toward the Soviet Union were clever, nuanced, innovative—even adventurous. Like most innovative enterprises, there were both failures and successes, but the successes eclipsed the failures. The Reagan administration based its strategies on both clarity and deception. It forced the Soviets to waste money they could not afford on weapons and defense systems that required technologies they did not have. It is easy to look back and think that Reagan tried just to bankrupt the Soviets through military spending, but there was much more to it than that. As Reagan was putting pressure on the Soviets for their human rights violations in the Communist bloc, his secretary of state George Shultz was meeting with dissidents, and his CIA was funneling money to the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Reagan’s strategies were both complex and complicated. His policy, however, was simple. In his own words, the policy was, “we win, they lose.”
Ronald Reagan had made a gamble based on his unwavering faith in America.
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Decades later, a new Cold War seems to be taking shape. There is the Western bloc, led by the United States, and there is the Eastern triangle, with China on top and Russia and Iran on the bottom corners.
Meanwhile, at home, we have a Democratic party that believes that American intervention more often harms than it helps. This is no longer the party of John F. Kennedy, who won by out-hawking Nixon, or even Bill Clinton, who said the United States “stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.” With the exception of a few senior Democratic figures—like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, both of whom supported the Iraq War, and both of whom seem like beings from another age—the mainstream of the party believes America should step back from its role in world affairs. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic frontrunner, declared that “we ought to get out of the Middle East. I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”
On the other side, there is Donald Trump. Just like the cynics of the Nixon-Ford years, the president and his base want the United States to retire from the world. Enough with serving other nations. America First!
At least judging from where each party’s leadership stands, there no longer is a Reaganesque faith in America. Americans have chosen decline.
The problem is plainly visible when you look at the most prominent shapers of foreign policy in the two parties. There are few foreign policy thinkers on the Democratic side who seem morally and intellectually serious. The best example is perhaps Michèle Flournoy. But the quantity is small. Worse, they are all but irrelevant in the party of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The kind of names that carry with them political legitimacy for a Democratic candidate are Ben Rhodes, Matt Duss, and Tommy Veitor, who, combined, fail to reach the intelligence of algae. There are also Susan Rice and Samantha Power, whose names will forever be stained by the Obama administration’s failures in Syria and Libya. Yes, Elizabeth Warren could hire Flournoy or Ash Carter, but she likely will not.
Things are worse on the Republican side. It isn’t that the party lacks talent. The problem is that many of the wisest foreign policy hands signed anti-Trump public letters. And even if the administration wanted to hire the signatories of those letters, odds are that they would decline the offer.
Such talented individuals as the Trump administration has been able to recruit have quickly become irrelevant. Talent is only as good as the president’s willingness to use it. James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Bolton are the obvious examples of this notion, but they are not the only ones. Maybe the best example is Trump’s first secretary of the Air Force, Heather Wilson. Wilson is a graduate of the Air Force Academy. She is a Rhodes Scholar and earned a doctorate from Oxford in international relations. She was a staffer on George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council. She served for a decade in Congress. And she couldn’t wait to leave the Trump administration.
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It seems that Americans have decided not to be a serious power anymore—because seriousness brings with it responsibilities. Politics as entertainment is more fun than politics as a craft to organize a society. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC have modeled themselves after reality-TV shows, with pundits screaming over one another. Members of Congress understand that educating themselves on issues and passing legislation are not as rewarding as joining the reality TV world. Even for many citizens who consider themselves knowledgeable about world affairs, nibbling on 280-character tweets is preferable to digesting long essays.
This would not be as much a problem if the fate of the world did not rely on the United States. However unserious our politics, we still disproportionately benefit from the world order that we have created and protect, albeit everyday less than the day before. As Jimmy Carter would find out, pretending that threats don’t exist doesn’t make them cease to exist.
The Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations made many mistakes. Kissinger would find out in 1991 that he was wrong, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Carter would come to learn much faster that he was wrong. But they took seriously the responsibilities that rested on their shoulders. The same could not be said about the Trump administration, or a Warren administration filled with political hacks like Matt Duss and Ben Rhodes.
Back during the Cold War, some conservatives argued that just because a Communist system could not sustain itself over the long haul did not mean that liberalism would be the inevitable victor. Liberals could lose the Cold War if they lost their virtues before the Soviets lost control.
China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s states of economy and politics do not look good at all. But the trajectory of America’s state of virtues is not promising, either. Nobody seems to have faith in America anymore. We have chosen decline.