Joe Funderburke, Ad Godinez, Andy Whiskeyman and Bryan Groves recently teamed up to post a short article on Tom Ricks’ Foreign Policy blog, “The Best Defense.” In the article, this sagacious team of doctoral students offers readers the foundation of what appears to be a cogent argument that the U.S. has taken its eye of the proverbial international relations ball by allowing misfocused, meandering Liberal ideology to supplant a more pragmatic, grounded Realist approach to the formation and execution of foreign policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the authors fall short of building the support structure necessary to make their argument tenable. Funderburke, et al lament that while Russia, the old nemesis of the U.S., was twirling its villainous moustache in a well-played game of realpolitik through the nefarious employment of its elements of national power in ways that cleverly manipulated the international system, allowing it to reemerge as a multifaceted regional force to be reckoned with, the world’s sole superpower was off rescuing distressed damsels and pulling kittens safely down from trees across the globe at substantial costs to real and relative power.
The article proffers, as its underlying theme, that the eminent Henry Kissinger was dead to rights when he warned in 1969 against the inefficacy and distraction inherent in a foreign policy that fails to appropriately balance U.S. interests with American ideals. Kissinger’s words are as worthy of serious consideration now as they were when he spoke them 45 years ago. Saliently missing from the old Secretary of State’s counsel, however, is an explanation of what, exactly, he meant by U.S. interests and American ideals. And perhaps this absence in codification is the true genius in his advice.
That is, Kissinger likely recognized that while U.S. interests are, as Lord Palmerston wisely posited, unwavering regardless of how society may morph over time, American ideals are dynamic and subject to evolve in concert with the natural changes in cultural values and various demographic aspects of the U.S. population. Plainly put, interests are to ideals what science is to art. Kissinger understood that critical U.S. interests were so timeless that future policymakers would comprehend them without explanation but that the American ideals of his era may well seem anachronistic to future generations of policymakers. So the article’s authors were wise to excavate Kissinger’s old adage, but they failed to grasp that it was an incomplete tool by design. Hence they stopped short of employing two steps, the presence of which would have made this column into something worthy of the POTUS’s desk.
The first of these paramount steps is a clarification of those Palmerstonian U.S. interests. U.S. Vital Enduring Interests of National Strategy (VEINS) are those interests that the U.S. must never compromise, regardless of the natural variations in policy direction common from generationally iterative administrations who may deviate from their predecessors in the interpretation of which ideals are “American.” The U.S. VEINS are 1) protection of U.S. citizens, secrets, assets, and infrastructure; 2) maintenance of U.S. geographic sovereignty; 3) defense of critical U.S. allies; and 4) security of those critical aspects and components of the U.S. economy extant in the realms of land, sea, air, space, and cyber that underwrite the American way of life and standard of living.
The second critical step missing from this article is an enumeration of what, precisely, the authors view as contemporary American ideals relevant for consideration in the realm of foreign policy making. No doubt there are myriad sources (the Declaration, the Constitution, U.S. Code, general U.S. history, Executive dictates, public opinion, SCOTUS decisions, and the list goes on endlessly) from which to draw when considering what might legitimately constitute American ideals. And each of these sources is likely to yield wildly disparate policy implications when interpreted by various patriotic Americans who view the world and America’s role in it through fundamentally different political or ideological lenses. So the authors’ views on American ideals will be as necessarily subjective as anyone else’s. Nonetheless, if this stalwart quartet of PhD candidates intends to make a credible argument that administrations have failed for decades to heed Kissinger’s exhortation, they incur the responsibility of qualifying their position.
But even should the authors come up with a brilliant, well-considered, thoroughly-analyzed, peer-reviewed set of American ideals as they no doubt would, they would still be left to contend with the unavoidable reality that their opinions, for all their erudition and scholarship, still lack legitimacy. In the U.S., there exists a common understanding (reinforced by statute) that the relatively small group of freely, fairly elected leaders of the executive and legislative branches of federal government and those who serve at their assignment are the sole proprietors of the popular mandate to determine American ideals from the perspective of government. Ergo, any new administration coming to power enjoys the exclusive right to set the agenda guiding foreign policy in accordance with whatever it deems to be the latest manifestation of American ideals.
So the unfortunate truth for the authors is that for all their efforts and good intentions, they’re attempting to make an argument which is founded on a concept of American ideals that they lack the authority to legitimately define. As advisors to policymakers, they may palaver at length about their view of the Zeitgeist and what this means for the embodiment of modern American ideals. But, ultimately, they are just as much slaves to the vision of legitimate leaders as the rest of us. Where the authors might best find their more appropriate place in the influence of leaders is in the illustration and explanation of U.S. VEINS and why their consideration must be so heavily weighed and, as Kissinger said, properly balanced with whatever American leaders view as the ideals of the nation.
Tim Wolfe is an Army strategist. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC, known popularly as Lord Palmerston, was a British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century. (Public Domain)