In his first major foreign policy address and on the stump, Donald Trump’s message for America’s foreign policy establishment is a slightly more diplomatically worded version of his signature line from The Apprentice: “You’re fired!”
In Washington D.C. last month, Trump pledged not to surround himself “with those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Rather, America needs to “look to new people, because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing, even though they may look awfully good writing in the New York Times or being watched on television.”
At a rally in Lynden, Washington, this month he was less diplomatic, talking frequently about how “stupid” America’s diplomatic face is and promising that for folks like Secretary of State John Kerry, the “gravy train” will soon derail.
The country’s foreign policy elite was not about to take that charge lying down. Evan Thomas for one, writing, predictably, in the New York Times, penned the strongly worded op-ed “Why We Need a Foreign Policy Elite.”
Thomas, a Washington fixture who went to Phillips Academy and Harvard, wrote that no one “vilified the Eastern elite more than Richard M. Nixon.” He “bellowed” at his chief of staff, “None of them in the Cabinet, do you understand? None of those Harvard bastards!” And yet for national security adviser he tapped Henry Kissinger, “a Harvard professor who today embodies the East coast foreign policy establishment.”
Thomas’s made-for-Sunday School lesson: “As even Nixon recognized, since its emergence as a global power in the late 19th century, America has relied on a highly trained corps of diplomats, worldly financiers and academics to steer it straight.” Pink-slip them and “chaos will follow.”
But what if it doesn’t? What if you could send the current crop of diplomats and experts packing and not be much worse off?
Thomas gives a potted and highly selective history of Wise Men steering American foreign policy between the twin dangers of “isolationism” and nuclear Armageddon. There is something to it, but he gets important details wrong and he makes one grave error.
Nixon, wrote Thomas, campaigned against “eggheads” but, deep down, “He knew that to open up Communist China and negotiate an arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, he needed a policy expert and diplomat like Mr. Kissinger.”
Yet the headlines read “Nixon Goes to China,” not “Kissinger Goes to China,” for good reason. It was anti-elitist Nixon, not Harvard prof Kissinger, who pursued the relationship with China relentlessly, as a way of driving a wedge between the Chinese and Soviet Communists. And that Nixon-driven wedge was what enabled Kissinger to make some progress in negotiations with the U.S.S.R., which rather undermines the point that Thomas was going for there.
Thomas is right that there have been past giants of foreign policy, such as diplomat George F. Kennan, whose vision helped to steer the American ship of state. But the present performance of the American foreign policy elite surely matters as well.
These are the folks who helped to sink us into war in Iraq during the most recent Bush administration; who encouraged President Obama to intervene in Libya and Syria, making more room for al Qaeda and ISIS; who encouraged cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s dirty war in Yemen in order to grease the Iran deal; who praised the Arab Spring with nary a word about how it might lead to Jihad Winter; who tend to pursue their own abstract and ideological goals rather than the concrete interests of the nation they represent.
Would America really be much worse off, for instance, if the government 1) fired the current National Security Adviser and Secretary of State; 2) didn’t consult with them or even take their phone calls; and; 3) applied the same shunning to the last few holders of those offices?
Some important information would probably fall through the cracks, we can grant. But the fact that one can even seriously consider that question points to a deep dysfunction in America’s foreign policy elites. Wise Men they are not. We’d be better off without many of them.
Jeremy Lott is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.