Since the end of World War II, American conservatism has been characterized by a three-pronged coalition. The first prong emphasizes the virtues of a free economy, the second a strong military, and the third a faith, family, and flag social conservatism. The three prongs endure today, but they are being redefined and renewed. That’s because the leading problems facing the United States have changed. In the postwar era’s defining decades, culminating in the Reagan presidency, conservatism faced down threats to freedom. As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the greatest threat facing our nation is the erosion of solidarity.
At the height of mobilization for World War II, American industrial production was under the command of government planners. Even as this control was relaxed after the war ended, the government continued to play a large role in American economic life. In this context, the Republican party was the natural home for free-market advocates who wished to reduce regulatory control, cut taxes, and encourage the creativity and dynamism of capitalism. The Cold War made anti-communism a bipartisan consensus, but the most hard-nosed anti-communists gravitated toward the right. In the 1950s, ardent flag-waving and Main-Street moralism were bipartisan as well, but again the more outspoken tended to be on the right. As the cultural revolutions of the 1960s took hold, the Republican party became home for religious and social conservatives.
William F. Buckley launched National Review in 1955, aiming to strengthen all three elements of the conservative coalition. Inspired by figures such as Friedrich Hayek, movement conservatism, as it came to be called, advocated free-market principles. National Review editor James Burnham cast the Cold War as a fundamental struggle for the future of Western civilization and urged military resolve. Buckley’s Catholicism dovetailed with strong affirmations of moral tradition.
Among voters, these three elements—pro-business economics, anti-communism, and social conservatism—could coexist without much difficulty. But tensions arose among conservative intellectuals. In practice, conservative anti-communism entailed military strength. But Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and other social conservatives argued (rightly, to my mind) that the militarization of American society accelerated the erosion of tradition. Free-market theorists tilted in a libertarian direction, which implicitly opposed them to those who argued on behalf of traditional moral authority.
It was in view of these tensions that National Review editor Frank Meyer developed his account of “fusionism.” In his influential book In Defense of Freedom, he argued that a commitment to freedom unites the three strands of conservatism. The link between free-market philosophies and anti-communism was easy to establish. Hayek and others had explained the anti-totalitarian nature of free-market systems. And, of course, the Soviet commissars linked their quest for hegemony to the elimination of capitalism, and their aggression required American resolve to contain.
But social conservatism posed a difficulty. How can those who insist upon the authority of tradition be cast as defenders of freedom? After all, social conservatism emphasizes loyalty to tradition and obedience to “permanent things,” as Kirk put it. Meyer’s solution was to observe that only free obedience makes for genuine virtue. As John Milton said in the Areopagitica, his polemic against government censorship, virtue untested “is a blank virtue, not a pure one.” Therefore, those who seek to renew the moral character of the American people must promote a culture of freedom, for only such a culture can secure the conditions for true virtue.
Meyer’s argument was always wobbly (as was Milton’s). But political coalitions are not political philosophies. They do not require ironclad arguments and impregnable rationales. In practice, for mid-to-late-twentieth-century conservatives, the unifying motif of freedom was fitting. The New Deal Democrats had constructed a government apparatus of unprecedented scope. The Soviet Union was an actively hostile totalitarian threat. And social conservatives, believing a silent majority was capable of renewing the nation if unshackled, joined the chorus calling for the restoration of freedom.
Our society has changed a great deal since Frank Meyer’s book was published in 1962. The demise of the Soviet Union spawned an end-of-history utopianism that affected both liberals and conservatives. Economic globalization was a victory for the free movement of capital and goods, but it degraded the prospects of Americans without college degrees. Increased immigration was a victory for the free movement of people, but it undercut working-class wages. Wave after wave of the sexual revolution—yet another movement under the banner of freedom—surged through society, weakening family norms. At this point, more than 40 percent of infants are born out of wedlock, and schoolchildren are told that being male or female is a matter of choice. For social conservatives, the freedom hymns are harder to sing with the old enthusiasm.
In Frank Meyer’s time it was entirely plausible to identify threats to freedom as the leading danger. In our time it is otherwise. We are imperiled by a frayed social contract; we celebrate diversity but forget to labor for unity; and moral and cultural structures are disintegrating, especially the institution of marriage. Since I took over as editor of this journal early in the last decade, I have described our time as a crisis of solidarity. In my March 2012 column (“The One Percent”), I discussed the fragmentation detailed in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. A year later I analyzed the ways in which the winners in American society have monopolized not only wealth but moral virtue, and in so doing have created a culture increasingly hostile to ordinary Americans (“War on the Weak,” August 2013). I have pointed out that the deregulatory priorities of our political elites—economic deregulation on the right and cultural deregulation on the left—now endanger the body politic (“Crisis of Solidarity,” November 2015).
In Return of the Strong Gods, I sketch the ideological history of the postwar era. That era is characterized by a political consensus charged with anti-totalitarian imperatives. To this day, these imperatives lead us to believe our greatest problems stem from homogeneity, regulation, and constraints on individual freedom, a condition of over-consolidation that encourages discrimination, exclusion, and oppression (the liberal concern) and stagnation, untapped economic potential, and over-bearing government (the conservative concern). These problems ask, in turn, for solutions invariably framed as advancing the cause of freedom: freedom for sexual minorities if one is on the left, for entrepreneurs if one is on the right. But these freedom-solutions increasingly ring false. The greatest challenges in 2020 arise from social disintegration and deconsolidation. These dangers call for new approaches that restore solidarity.
In my January Public Square (“Work vs. Consumption”), I outlined the proposals put forward by Oren Cass in The Once and Future Worker. Cass’s policy ideas can be criticized, but the overall thrust is beyond dispute. The greatest economic problem we face is the increasing divergence of the interests of our economic elites from those of high school–educated Americans. The former have benefited enormously from the evolution of the American economy since 1989. The latter have suffered stagnation and setbacks. Cass is a leader in developing the economic leg of the new fusionism, arguing that our free-market system must be adapted to provide productive roles for American workers.
In the same Public Square, I reviewed Jahara Matisek, Travis Robison, and Buddhika Jayamaha’s assessment of American foreign policy. Again, the details of their analysis merit scrutiny, but the overall judgment is surely correct. Sober assessments of our national interest need to replace globalist dogmas and utopian dreams as the basis for the use of American power. Below, I consider a more developed version of this argument in Colin Dueck’s book Age of Iron. The new fusionism requires a view of America’s global leadership that is clearly organized around the interests of the American people.
Below, I also discuss Yuval Levin’s new book, A Time to Build. Levin calls for a renewed spirit of devotion to our civic, cultural, moral, and religious institutions. These institutions bind us together, allowing Americans to sustain and strengthen what we have in common. Levin’s approach is distinctive, but the main theme is familiar. First Things seeks to restore our shared loves: religious devotion first and foremost, but also commitment to the achievements of Western culture, loyalty to moral truths, a fitting patriotic piety, and steadfast faithfulness to the marital covenant. The old fusionism organized around freedom must give way to a fusionism of solidarity. As Levin recognizes, renewing devotion to our common projects is today’s most pressing need.
In truth, this new fusionism already operates in the practical politics of American conservatism. In his recent State of the Union Address, Donald Trump did not extol entrepreneurs and innovators. He emphasized America’s workers. Economists can debate the wisdom of his trade policies, but the political meaning of those policies is clear. Tariffs and protectionism indicate a political desire to restore solidarity between the global economy’s winners and its losers.
In foreign policy, too, the imperative of national reconsolidation is evident. One can argue that Trump’s complaints about nations that freeload on our security guarantees in NATO are counterproductive. But his intuition that American foreign policy must be focused on American interests is sound. When Trump underscores patriotic themes, he draws accusations of nativism, but he is merely announcing a solidarity rhetoric of the sort that must be central to any political community. In the State of the Union, he went so far as to call for the restoration of prayer to American schools—a potent image of unity. Some deem school prayer unwise in our religiously pluralistic society, but we should not gainsay its larger aim, which is to foster the solidarity-creating spirit of devotion.
There have been many signs of the emergence of a new fusionism. On a number of occasions, I have recalled Ted Cruz’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Cruz reprised the old fusionism and used the word “freedom” countless times. By contrast, the man who won the nomination and became president of the United States did not speak of freedom in his acceptance speech, but instead emphasized themes of walls, protection, and reconsolidation—solidarity.
I do not put my trust in princes. Donald J. Trump is not my “voice,” as he urged voters to believe in his convention speech. But I do trust my fellow citizens. In 2016, Republican voters sent a clear signal to our ruling class: We’re worried that our country is dissolving and that we will be set adrift in an endlessly fluid world. The improbable rise of Bernie Sanders suggests that Democratic voters harbor the same concern. These worries indicate a crisis of solidarity, and this crisis calls for a new fusionism, one oriented to the problems of our time, not those of the twentieth century.
Institutions, the Soul of Society
David Hume distinguished two types of philosophy. One seeks to inform our decisions and shape our actions. Because we are always already swimming in the swift current of events, this sort of philosophy must not be overly minute. It succeeds insofar as it is “easy and obvious,” written so as “to please the imagination and engage the affections.” The other sort of philosophy is more rigorous, but therefore dry and often tedious. It prizes precision at the expense of warmth. Hume describes this philosophy as “accurate and abstruse.”
In A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, Yuval Levin essays a philosophy of society in the “easy and obvious” mode. He argues for a social Aristotelianism. Institutions are to society what the soul is to the body: They provide form. As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the early nineteenth century, Americans are a distinct people, not because of our DNA, but because of the political, cultural, and religious institutions that give our society its shape and character.
Like many other cultural critics (including this author), Levin detects a profound disquiet in American society. This unsettled state is not a revolutionary anger. Instead, it is best understood as “exhaustion and frustration.” As Ross Douthat observes in The Decadent Society, we feel that we have reached any number of dead ends. This sense of futility and paralysis, Levin argues, afflicts us because our institutions have declined and decayed.
Two corrosive tendencies undermine our institutions. One Levin calls “insiderism.” Those who bear responsibility for our institutions use them to enrich themselves or in some other way to advance their own interests. Nepotism is a signal instance of insiderism, a vice evident in the dual-career power-couple scene in Washington. Doctors who game Medicaid and parents who buy their children admission to universities present other examples. Insiderism leads to corruption, and corruption is the cancer of institutions. It is a timeless problem.
The other peril is “outsiderism,” the refusal to identify with and support institutions. This peril is uniquely modern. Rousseau was among the first to articulate an ethics of authenticity. Institutions are by definition conventional. Their purpose is to elaborate, adjust, and inculcate conventions, without which society cannot function and individuals become disoriented. But the ethics of authenticity cast institutions as a threat to the “real me,” and today’s leaders strike oppositional poses, even as their status depends upon the prestige of institutions.
The American personality exacerbates the dangers of outsiderism. As Levin notes, the “desire for immediacy, informality, and authenticity is one of the most distinctly American facets of our national character.” We imagine we can go it alone, but in truth, institutions give shape, direction, and stability to our lives. We champion equality, but institutions require hierarchies. So we are pulled in two directions. We naturally gravitate toward institutions. Even the free-spirited establish informal fraternities; dedicated surfers and mountain climbers come together to celebrate shared passions. All the while, we don’t want to see ourselves as “joiners,” and we shy away from a strong vocabulary of loyalty.
In recent decades, our native tendency toward outsiderism has been exacerbated by a hyper-competitive race for wealth and celebrity. Neither goal reinforces institutions, which thrive when elites compete for honor rather than for money and Twitter followers. Unmoved by honor and indifferent to dishonor, the well-placed treat their institutional roles as “platforms.” High-flying professors leap from institution to institution. Politicians use social media to appeal over the heads of party leaders. Lawyers and bankers and CEOs bend rules in order to maximize their payouts. Our purported leaders use and discard institutions, making loyalty seem like a chump’s game.
Other factors have contributed to the decline of institutions. Levin notes that Watergate-era reformers insisted upon transparency. If everything were open to public view, they imagined, backroom deals and smoke-filled rooms would become things of the past. This insistence was well-intended but counterproductive. As Levin explains, politics requires compromise (as does the governance of most institutions), and compromise is rarely lovely to behold. By making a god of transparency, we’ve contributed to our current institutional paralysis.
The rise of meritocracy is another destructive factor. Institutions require leadership, and leadership requires character. But as Levin notes, “our meritocracy implicitly substitutes intellect for character and efficiency for integrity.” Being good at taking tests, reading books, and solving complex mathematical problems does not correlate strongly with the patience, devotion, and good judgment necessary to run institutions. Cleverness is not the same as wisdom.
Levin observes, “Americans increasingly expect institutions not to form and socialize its denizens but rather to display them and provide them with arenas for self-expression.” The fixation on “diversity” exacerbates the role of “display,” making a great show of skin color, gender, and sexual proclivity. But these traits are even less well correlated to character and the capacity for leadership than is cleverness. A rainbow ideology spends the capital of institutions on the causes of “social justice” rather than building it up. The University of California at Berkeley recently hired young faculty in the life science division. The first stage of the process screened out two-thirds of applicants on the basis of “diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism” statements, which have nothing to do with scientific expertise. The hiring committee presumed upon the strength of our scientific institutions rather than drawing from the deepest possible pool of talent to renew its ranks.
A functional society requires legitimate authority. In a liberal democratic culture, legitimacy is theorized in terms of proper protection of individual freedom (the liberal element) and consent of the governed (the democratic element). These are important, but more important are basic expectations. We ask of those who exercise authority that they be competent, trustworthy, and willing to sacrifice their private interests for the sake of the public good. Levin’s analysis suggests that our liberal democratic order is being hollowed out, not because “illiberalism” is gaining the upper hand, but because our leadership class is neither competent, nor trustworthy, nor willing to make sacrifices.
Levin rejects the common conservative view that the weaknesses of our institutions stem from heedless hedonism. He also rejects the view, common in liberal circles, that America is being convulsed by resurgent discrimination. Both reflect a politics that longs to return to the 1960s. In his previous book, The Fractured Republic, Levin offered a detailed criticism of this nostalgic mentality, and he repeats it in fresh ways in A Time to Build. Against a backward-looking approach, he urges clear-sighted assessment. Our distempers flow from “a pervasive sense of flux and insecurity.” Our institutions seem untrustworthy, even oppressive, as they often are when led by people who lack competence and integrity. Our core problem, therefore, is disintegration—a lack of form. As I have put it in Return of the Strong Gods, our dominant consensus of openness has left many of us homeless—economically, morally, and culturally. Meanwhile, our leadership class retreats into “super-zip” neighborhoods of stunning homogeneity, where they protect themselves and their children from the consequences of their misrule.
The great American watchword is freedom, which Levin endorses. But he knows that a culture of freedom requires the firm foundations of rootedness and responsibility. In our time of disintegration and formless openness, fear and anxiety erode the conditions for freedom. I am shocked by the self-censorship so many impose upon themselves, internalizing political correctness. I talk to talented millennials with well-paying jobs who are consumed by anxiety about their economic futures and find the prospect of marriage and children full of frightening risk. If we wish to restore the American culture of freedom, Levin concludes, then we need to recover the virtue of loyalty, which is the cohesive force of solidarity. “We want objects of devotion,” Levin writes, “we want something to commit to.” We desire institutions, leaders, and ideals worthy of our loyalty—and we need them.
Writing in Dissent, Daniel Luban surveys the contretemps over liberalism within conservative circles. He identifies First Things as a journal advancing a “post-liberal” criticism of the political status quo and entertaining “common good” alternatives. A man of the left, Luban has his doubts. He observes that a cynic might read these pages and judge they provide little more than “an intellectually and theologically respectable pedigree for the Republican program du jour, whether Reaganite or Trumpist.” But he allows that a fair-minded reader will have observed, over the last few years, that First Things has “offered a genuine rethinking of old pieties.”
I respect the doubts. First Things was founded in order to intervene in public debates. In the give and take of democratic politics, interventions are, to a greater or lesser degree, partisan. As I have noted in the past (“The Civility Trap,” March 2019), making shows of bipartisanship and calling for civility has the effect of buttressing the regnant establishment; indeed, given the partisan left-leaning character of establishment opinion, tut-tutting about civility is often tinged with liberal partisanship even as it claims to stand on higher ground. So, yes, a critical suspicion is merited. But one must allow, as Luban does, that those writing for First Things seek a genuine rethinking. We aim to change and shape the “Republican program du jour” (and the Democratic one as well) rather than slavishly follow it.
Luban correctly notes that the question of “liberalism” looms large in this rethinking. In these pages, Adrian Vermeule has described liberalism as a religion. Last month, Ryszard Legutko outlined the tyranny of liberalism when it ascends to the throne of super-theory. Patrick Deneen, a regular writer, has penned an influential book, Why Liberalism Failed. Alternatives such as “integralism” have been floated. Terms like “common good conservatism” have been tossed about. We published Sohrab Ahmari’s criticism of “David French-ism,” the classical liberalism influential within conservative circles.
To my mind, this debate about liberalism is necessary. The liberal tradition is one of loosening, or as I put it in Return of the Strong Gods, “weakening.” Social contract theory, whether in Hobbes or Locke, was not meant as an explanation of the historical origins of human society, but rather as a thought experiment. Liberal theory of this sort asks us to imagine our civic bonds within the relatively “small” and bloodless ambit of individual interests. It shifts attention away from larger, stronger metaphysical and theological concepts. The effect of liberalism, therefore, is to drain some of the moral and spiritual energy out of political questions, allowing for political debate at lower temperatures.
The rule of law, a bill of rights, constitutions designed to limit concentrations of government power, civic mechanisms such as the Electoral College that blunt the full force of democratic majorities—these are elements of our liberal tradition. They are not derived from John Locke, but they participate in the same enterprise of moderation. They restrain collective energies and cool the influence of metaphysical convictions. The rule of law, for example, prizes legal forms, even to the point of subordinating substantive justice (a “warm” concern) to procedural justice (a “cool” commitment). The other features of a liberal polity and culture have similar effects of moderation.
Liberalism does not aim to be “individualistic.” Locke’s goal was to illuminate our solidarity—it is a social contract. But it is undeniable that the effect of liberalism is to weaken the binding passions of community, which means opening up possibilities for individualism. The problem is that the weakening of communal forms and institutions need not lead to greater freedom in the long run. An exaggerated individualism is more likely to produce the stultifying conformity of mass culture than genuine liberty. At the end of “Why I Am Not a Liberal” (March 2020), Legutko observes that liberalism deprives us of the thick conceptions of the good that guide us toward self-mastery. Without self-mastery we are too feeble, too easily manipulated and cowed, to sustain the culture of freedom that is among the greatest achievements of the West.
In a 1984 essay, “The Conditions of Freedom and the Condition of Freedom,” Kenneth Minogue illuminates this paradox, that of a liberalism developed to promote freedom and yet, over time, leading to its opposite. When the ancient Greeks spoke of freedom, Minogue observes, they were referring to a system of government based on “public discussion among equals.” But equality is an ideal, not a reality. Some people are wealthier, while others possess greater physical strength or rhetorical skill. In view of these inequalities, only a widely shared virtue of courage can ensure substantive equality in the public square. A man of modest means needs chutzpah if he has any hope of being heard. The tongue-tied require fortitude in order to overcome fears of embarrassment. The need for courage remains in our own time, for without courage, our legal freedoms become empty because unused.
Courage, however, is not encouraged by liberalism, which prefers mild virtues (such as reasonableness) to spirited ones. What Minogue calls “heroic steadfastness” values truth-telling over utility. It cares more for honor than for property and values integrity over survival. Insofar as liberalism’s temperature-lowering influence becomes widespread and obligatory—inflated into a “super-theory,” to use Legutko’s term—the conditions for freedom wither. In its success, the liberal project has made us a weak and pliable people who enjoy every guarantee of liberty but quiver with anxiety, call for “safe spaces,” and are unable to stand against political correctness.
This does not mean that liberalism “fails.” As Luban notes, very nearly all the critics of liberalism end up endorsing it. “No one,” he wryly observes, “really has the stomach to burn out the tongues of blasphemers anymore, even if some remain too ornery to admit it.” Even our latter-day socialists are quick to specify that their ideal of “democratic socialism” will staunchly defend “civil rights and freedom.” In one form or another, liberalism continues to attract our loyalty, even as we recognize its problems.
The enduring loyalty to liberalism is not a contradiction. Every form of life is subject to perversion. Religious observance can become a rigid and empty ritualism. A fitting emphasis on the cultivation of an internal faith can slide toward subjective pietism. Solicitude for the emotional well-being of others can descend into therapeutic relativism. Likewise for political forms. The aristocratic ethos may be taken too far, creating an intolerable tension in society as the precious honor of elites motivates endless conflict. In The Making of Europe, Christopher Dawson argues that until the love-society of the Church gained sway, it was precisely this excess of honor that made feudal Europe a society of perpetual war. The liberal project of moderation can also be taken too far. As a “super-theory” it erodes the conditions for the very freedom it set out to defend.
The remedy for excess is not extirpation but rather a return to the mean. Our thoughts about liberalism should not be merely theoretical, geared toward determining whether this feature of modernity is “good” or “bad.” We do not enjoy the luxury of living outside or above the world into which we are cast. Political responsibility calls for particular judgments about particular circumstances. What are the diseases afflicting the body politic? What are the possible remedies? Minogue, like Legutko, suggests that we are afflicted by smallness of soul, what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” I agree. We have deprived ourselves of the galvanizing language of love and its we-making power. Restoring a civic order characterized by honor, courage, and solidarity is not a liberal project. Recognizing this fact about our present situation does not entail rejecting liberalism. What must be rejected is the foolish notion that a vigorous culture of freedom needs only the moderating ministrations of liberalism.
America’s Global Leadership
George W. Bush’s effort to remake the Middle East by invading Iraq and transforming it into a peaceful republic ended in failure. The overwhelming military power of the United States and trillions of dollars of expenditure were shown to be impotent in the face of human nature, which resists the best intentions of social engineers, armed or otherwise. By 2016 and the candidacy of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans had soured on foreign entanglements. In Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism, foreign policy expert Colin Dueck takes the measure of our collective misgivings.
Throughout most of our history, Dueck argues, the mainstream tradition has been “conservative American nationalism.” Historians commonly call the Republican consensus of the 1920s and 1930s “isolationist.” As Dueck explains, this term of derision is inaccurate. In truth, the conservative nationalist tradition is complex and includes a pragmatic commitment to American involvement in affairs far beyond our coastlines. But in the first decades of the twentieth century the powerful American economy and our native idealism created a tense ideological situation. The tradition of conservative nationalism seemed willfully to insist upon what international idealists such as Woodrow Wilson thought were artificially limited horizons.
American involvement in World War II projected national power across the globe. The United States mobilized its vast industrial resources to prosecute military operations of unprecedented reach in the Pacific and Europe. The use of nuclear weapons to end the war with Japan put an exclamation point on the global extent of America’s military might. This extraordinary hegemony established the basis for what Dueck calls the “golden age” of American internationalism.
The age was golden because the reality of American power, Wilsonian idealism, and the older tradition of conservative nationalism aligned with relative coherence and stability. After 1945, Harry Truman and his team struggled to understand how to respond to Soviet aggression. They hit upon a brilliant strategy. Postwar idealism and its international institutions would provide the architecture for the American-led “free world,” an alliance that would face down communism.
Thus, from the 1950s through the 1960s, political leaders, pundits, and policy planners had little difficulty toggling among discussions of our moral mission, our national interest, and the existing posture of American military power. America would serve the world by defending freedom, which in the Cold War context meant defending our way of life against Soviet aggression—an almost perfect fit of idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism. Together, international idealism and national-interest pragmatism justified maximal American power projected as widely as possible throughout the world.
The Vietnam War tarnished the golden age. Liberal doves argued that America’s bellicosity was misguided. Our battle against communism created unnecessary enemies, many argued, and America would be both truer to her ideals and safer if we intervened less. Nixon withdrew armed forces from Vietnam and pursued détente with China and the Soviet Union. The 1975 Helsinki accords formally recognized postwar boundaries in exchange for a Soviet recognition of human rights. But the basic harmony of the three elements of the golden age—moral mission, national interest, and military posture—remained intact. This is why, when Ronald Reagan’s election restored the old anti-communist fervor, our foreign policy consensus could pivot back to a Cold War “peace through strength” approach without too much difficulty. The Reagan era was, if not a golden, at least a silver age. The postwar structure of alliances, our trade policies with allies, the promotion of human rights, and a renewed commitment to projecting military power remained well integrated.
Dueck does not put it so succinctly, but after the Berlin Wall fell, the coherence of American foreign policy came undone. Those three key elements came apart. The Cold War victory, though welcome, raised hard questions. What moral mission should our now unsurpassed military serve? What national interest did we have in maintaining the extraordinary (and expensive) war-fighting capacities developed during the Cold War?
In the 1990s, some talked of reaping the “peace dividend.” But little changed. NATO brought in new members from the former Soviet bloc. The United States encouraged the development of the European Union. The postwar General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade became the World Trade Organization and soon included China. An array of non-governmental organizations administered foreign aid, provided humanitarian relief, and advocated for human rights. Our global military infrastructure expanded in order to defend the newly enlarged “free world,” now dubbed the “rules-based international order.” Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence had expanded from forty countries to eighty.
Thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, this new world order is a wonder to behold. There remain “rogue states” and regions convulsed by sectarian violence. But container ships and oil tankers move unhindered. Airlines fly all over the world. Cash machines take bank cards issued in faraway countries. The Gates Foundation sends public health experts to Africa, and McKinsey consultants circle the globe. Battalions of lawyers charge handsome fees to deal with innumerable international agencies and arbitration panels. The security of this remarkable system of interlocking commerce and cultural exchange is guaranteed by the United States military.
As Dueck notes, throughout his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump insisted that the main thrusts of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had betrayed rather than served most Americans. His inaugural address contained a stinging indictment: “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our own military; we’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.”
The great merit of Age of Iron rests in Dueck’s refusal to adopt the usual stance of foreign policy professionals, who dismiss Trump’s rhetoric as ignorant and dangerous, and deride him as “transactional.” John Ikenberry has warned, “A hostile revisionist power has indeed arrived on the scene, but it sits in the Oval Office. . . . Trump has abdicated responsibility for the world the United States built.” Dueck agrees that the rules-based liberal international order promotes peace and prosperity, and that our global military posture deters competitors. But he observes that times have changed. During the Cold War, defending the “free world” was a clear moral good and, at the same time, served America’s national interest. Today, it is not obvious that the American-designed and American-protected global system serves our national interest. In this respect—which is the most important respect when it comes to grand strategy—Trump’s rhetoric is correct.
Consider the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), the decision to bring China into the World Trade Organization (2001), and other efforts to spur economic globalization. These initiatives had bipartisan support, especially among foreign policy elites. Economic theory promised a “win-win” for all nations, and many argued that the spread of capitalism to countries such as China would lead to the triumph of liberal democracy. These assumptions were at the very least mistaken. China has become a powerful adversary, and globalization has harmed the interests of significant sectors of American society.
Moreover, the current global system has costs. “Strategically, the backbone of that order has been a network of US peacetime commitments, military bases, defensive alliances, and force deployments.” When Trump hectors European leaders for their failure to “pay their fair share” of NATO costs, he is expressing, in a blunt way, what has become an inconvenient truth. In 1961, when the Soviets tried to push American forces out of Berlin, the purpose of NATO was crystal clear. In 2020, Turkey is moving into northeast Syria, and Germany has accepted permanent dependency on Russian natural gas. Both are NATO members, and both actions flaunt American interests, making NATO’s mission and purpose unclear. Those actions also cast doubt on the wisdom of spending vast sums to sustain the American military power upon which NATO depends. Why are we underwriting the security costs of allies who often don’t act like allies? This uncertainty characterizes almost all of our military commitments around the world, especially in the Middle East. The uncertainty is not a reason to tear up old treaties or exit existing alliances. But it does demand questioning old pieties.
Ikenberry and others want to renew the golden age. They argue that the United States has a moral mission to sustain the rules-based international order, just as it led the “free world” decades ago. Others insist that American military power secures our agenda-setting role as global hegemon and protects us from terrorism and rogue states. No doubt there is merit in both claims. But during the Cold War, the “free world” meant our allies who stood with us against a common enemy. Today, the global system includes our adversaries. The lesson of Iraq is that the post–Cold War moral mission of bringing liberal democracy to the entire world was unrealistic, even irresponsible. The lesson of China seems to be that the infrastructure of economic globalization—the “rules-based international order”—does not unfailingly serve our national interest. Thus it is not self-evident that our powerful military should be deployed to protect it.
American foreign policy must coordinate the three foundational elements that worked together so well during the golden age: moral mission, national interest, and military posture. Today, these elements are in disarray. We are entering the age of iron, Dueck argues. By this image he resists the temptation to try to update the old truisms of the golden age. In the coming decade we will need to rethink the foundational commitments of American foreign policy. What are our national interests in a globalized economy? We cannot take for granted that what’s good for the international system is good for America. What is the moral mission of American power? The end-of-history utopianism of recent decades needs to give way to a more sober assessment of our responsibilities. And how should we adjust our military alliances and deployments? Dueck has done a service in defending the main thrusts of Trump’s foreign policy. We must dispense with golden-age nostalgia and answer these questions in order to inform the use of American power.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ On February 18, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput put down his crozier. His retirement came after thirty-one years of episcopal leadership, first in Rapid City, South Dakota, then in Denver, Colorado, and finally in Philadelphia. A Kansas native and member of the Potawatomi tribe, Chaput entered religious formation with the Capuchins at an early age and was ordained in 1970. Before his appointment to the episcopacy, Chaput served his religious order in many capacities, from local pastor to provincial minister.
I met him in 2011, shortly after he was appointed archbishop of Philadelphia. Pope Benedict XVI had moved him to a diocese with financial, legislative, and legal troubles. Chaput and I had lunch in the vast Gilded Age mansion on City Line Avenue that then served as the episcopal residence. (He soon sold the property and moved into a residence on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.) As we sat across from each other at a dining room table that could seat sixty, Chaput observed, “This is crazy, isn’t it?” Thus began the conversation during which I learned that the newly appointed archbishop combined a clear-sighted candor with intelligence and good will. Over the next eight and a half years, he improved the health of his diocese, healing financial wounds and standing up to political bullies, while hosting a World Meeting of Families, chairing a USCCB committee, and serving as a delegate to the 2015 and 2018 synods in Rome and as a member of the Synod of Bishops’ permanent council.
His forthrightness, along with his administrative skill, made Chaput an excellent leader. He has a deserved reputation for articulate fidelity to the apostolic tradition. I was therefore interested to hear a liberal-leaning Denver priest say that he regarded Chaput as an ideal bishop: “He never leaves you in doubt about what he expects and where you stand as a priest.” Clarity in our confused age is like water in the desert. Chaput is a happy laborer for the faith. He speaks his mind and does so with a smile and a steel spine. I’m grateful for his contributions to the pages of First Things. I’m more grateful still for his witness of fidelity.
♦ Some commentators are snorting that Rush Limbaugh is merely a talk radio show host, and therefore President Trump has debased the Presidential Medal of Freedom by awarding it to him. Such people are ill-informed. In 2016, President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Ellen DeGeneres. Her greatest accomplishment is her eponymous TV talk show, which rarely rises above banality. DeGeneres received the Medal of Freedom because she is a celebrity who normalized homosexuality in the public’s imagination. When the histories of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years are written, her name will have been forgotten. By contrast, Limbaugh’s long-running radio show has played a major role in our political life. Limbaugh rose to prominence in the old regime of three mainstream TV networks dominated by establishment liberals. It was a time when conservative talk radio let loose new ideological currents in the United States, and he was preeminent in that medium. Success came in part because he was a talented showman, but it also depended on his political seriousness. He inserted mini-lectures on political philosophy into his broadcasts, and his listeners, mocked as rubes by coastal elites, appreciated being treated as fellow citizens capable of making up their own minds about politics.
♦ In defense of religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions of physics or geometry.” Nice rhetoric, but the assertion begs the question of what it is upon which our civil rights depend. As Robert Wilken documents in Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, our constitutional protection of religious freedom does indeed depend upon “religious opinions.”
♦ I once heard Roger Scruton observe, “We are trained to be attracted to other cultures—but no longer to be attracted to the opposite sex.”
♦ The broken windows theory of political culture: It’s only two or three steps from tolerating flag-burning to tolerating the meddling of the FBI and CIA in domestic elections.
♦ The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into foreign funding, much of it from China, that has benefited Harvard and Yale. The Department press release states: “In recent weeks, the Department discovered Yale University may have failed to report at least $375 million in foreign gifts and contracts, choosing not to report any gifts and contracts over the last four years.” The investigation comes after the indictment of Harvard professor Charles Lieber for lying about receipt of Chinese money. Harvard apparently does not exercise oversight, and science faculty are free to take large sums of money without telling anyone. Though current government regulations require the reporting of gifts and contracts from foreign sources that exceed $250,000, it appears that elite universities have issued themselves exemptions, adopting the academic equivalent of sanctuary-city policies of non-reporting. It’s yet another instance of our ruling class deciding which rules apply to its denizens, gaming the system and pocketing as much cash as they can get.
♦ Elite universities enjoy a massive public subsidy. Donations generate tax exemptions that add up to billions annually. Aside from a small tax on the net investment income of the very largest endowments (imposed for the first time in the 2017 tax bill), these financial behemoths operate tax-free. The benefits are premised on the assumption that American universities promote the common good for all Americans. But a 2019 Senate report found that a propaganda arm of the Chinese government had contributed more than $110 million to U.S. universities (nearly $100 million more than the universities had reported). The Chinese Thousand Talents program provides stipends to American scientists. Lieber received $50,000 per month. These payments are not charitable donations. They are meant to smooth the way for the transfer of technological leadership from the United States to China. At the same time that leading American scientists are on foreign payrolls, Chinese PhD students dominate many graduate programs at American universities, crowding out native-born students. All of this is underwritten by the American taxpayer.
♦ As I write, President Trump has on his desk a draft of an executive order that would restore sanity to the architecture of federal buildings. The order stipulates that new federal construction, when appropriate, should adopt traditional styles. The prospect that our landscape may be deprived of yet another banal modernist building has our cultural establishment in a lather. One critic editorialized, “The state [is] imposing its will on the creative freedom of its citizens.” That’s a rich accusation, given that our architectural establishment has been imposing its will on American citizens for more than fifty years—and doing so on the taxpayers’ dime. The Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in D.C. (451 7th Street SW) was designed by Marcel Breuer, a postwar architect still lionized as one of the “greats.” A person condemned to work in this concrete pile (rather than theorize about its progressive qualities) once described it as “ten floors of basement.” Like the elite universities that trumpet their virtues while selling our nation’s patrimony to the highest bidder, the architectural establishment reserves its highest compliments for its greatest failures.
♦ Yale history professor Glenda Gilmore commenting on Twitter about the federal architecture executive order: “This may not seem like the most dangerous thing we face, but it’s one of the warning signs of fascism and…wait for it…genocide. The cult of antiquity & the imposition of monuments to a nation’s mythical glorious past precede both of those disasters.” Gilmore is an award-winning historian.
♦ Kenneth Minogue writing on the fallacy of political engagement:
A whole generation of simpleminded people have come to believe that they are being supremely active and courageous in taking part in mass demonstrations, which is precisely where both activity and courage are lacking. Now that all serious Nazis are dead, for example, some thousands of sheep, who would not have said boo! when it mattered to do so, imagine themselves lions.
He wrote these prescient lines in 1979, before Yale professors enjoyed the convenience of joining virtual mobs with tweets about fascism and genocide.
♦ I recently received a copy of George Hunsinger’s commentary on Philippians. It is an installment in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, for which I am pleased to serve as general editor. Hunsinger’s commentary includes several substantive excurses that address the doctrine of the atonement, including themes of vicarious substitution, the pattern of exchange, and the nature of Christ’s death as a cultic sacrifice. It’s one of the most theologically rich contributions to the series. Strongly recommended.
♦ The nineteenth-century scholar William Johnson Cory made the following observation about elite education:
A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of submitting to censure and refutation, . . . for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. And above all you go to a great school for self-knowledge.
♦ Compare these sentiments to a letter from Oklahoma University president Joseph Harroz Jr. after an “incident” that followed on the heels of an earlier “incident”:
The professor, a faculty member in History, read from a historical document that used the “N-word” repeatedly. While she could have made the point without reciting the actual word, she chose otherwise. Her issuance of a “trigger warning” before her recitation does not lessen the pain caused by the use of the word. For students in the class, as well as members of our community, this was another painful experience. It is common sense to avoid uttering the most offensive word in the English language, especially in an environment where the speaker holds the power.
Rest assured that OU’s president will take “decisive action.” Faculty will be subjected to “a new required diversity, equity, and inclusion training regimen.” The university administration will develop “an incident response protocol” that employs “culturally restorative justice practices.” I don’t think that this is what Cory meant by the art of assuming, at a moment’s notice, a new intellectual position. It bespeaks the opposite of mental courage and mental soberness.
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