The Long View: Permanent Interests

This is a short essay by John, now nearly 20 years old. It bears recollection now. Would that John had remembered this wisdom in the run up to the Iraq War:

The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.

The important bits of this essay:

  • Any fixed goal of statecraft is not as good as a willingness to respond to objective circumstances
  • The "international community" is an American invention, made possible by victory in WW2
  • Not all things are possible to all countries at all times
Permanent Interests
by John J. Reilly
 
Probably we can do without a general field theory of U.S. foreign policy. At any rate, it would not be a good idea to run the country's foreign affairs according to one. Nevertheless, there should be certain things that are obvious to everyone about America and the world. You don't have to be very familiar with today's opinion leaders to realize this is not the case. Jack Beatty at the Atlantic Monthly thinks that the end of the Cold War frees us to demobilize. Michael Lind at The New Republic supports the single-minded pursuit of national interests. For that matter, Bob Dole speaking before the World Affairs Council in June of 1996 seemed to think that what U.S. foreign policy needs is "men, not measures." It is hard to think of three establishment figures with more different views generally, yet in this area they all still manage to miss the point in almost the same way.
The point is this: American security is a function of the state of the world. It does not depend on the state of American culture or the competitiveness of the American economy. Such things may determine our ability to do what we have to do. However, the domestic life of America does not define our international needs. Naturally, just because we need to do something, it does not follow that we will be able to do it. One can conceive of a world so hostile or chaotic that no level of American mobilization would make us physically safe and let our society flourish. In such a case, some commentators might be tempted to speak of an America that had turned its attention homeward. The reality would be an America that had ceased to be a subject of history and had become an object. The "state of the world" is not like the state of the weather. It is defined by physical and cultural geography, and it changes far more slowly than daily newspaper readers are apt to think. The fundamental reality is that Earth is Eurasia. The important parts of Eurasia are its extremities. The rest of the world's territory is important only as it relates to the ancient civilizations that exist on the supercontinent's eastern and western ends. America is endangered if either of these peripheries becomes aggressive, or falls under the control of a hostile power of the interior. Preventing these things from happening is what American statecraft and armed forces exist to do. Everything else, absolutely everything else, is optional.
As a practical matter, the pursuit of this strategy means maintaining the outcome of the Second World War. The gaggle of international bodies created by 1950 were designed to do this. The U.N. is simply the alliance that won the Second World War, preserved in amber and surrounded by a rabble of international social workers. The other institutional monuments from that era, the International Monetary Fund and NATO and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (which finally achieved its originally intended form in the World Trade Organization) are similarly American inventions. There is no "international community" to which the United States must defer or against which it must defend its national interests. To the extent there is an international system, it is an American artifact. You neglect its maintenance at your peril.
As a theoretical matter, the nature of this international system was not determined by the Cold War. The combination of the rise of Soviet power and the successful defense against it was simply a particular instance of the system at work. The American interest in a secure Europe and East Asia antedated the Cold War and continues after it. It would have required something like the same level of American engagement even if the Soviet Union had never existed. It requires a comparable level of American engagement now.
This is all you absolutely have to know to keep American foreign policy on-track. Still, there are some other points you might want to keep in mind. For instance, be wary about trying to whittle down U.S. defense commitments to "vital interests." A vital interest is something that, if you don't have it, you are likely to die. A country that will fight only when its vital interests are at stake will only fight when it is fighting for its life. This is not a good idea. Also, beware the notion of the inevitability of a multipolar world. It is based on the false assumption that any political entity will act as a world power as soon as its economy achieves a certain relative size. In reality, not everything is possible to a culture at every point in its history. People who think that today's China is just a larger version of Wilhelmine Germany are in for a surprise rather like that experienced by the enthusiasts for the European Union.
Finally, we may note one other way in which the state of the world has not changed with the end of the Cold War. The Left in the U.S. throughout that period saw its role as more or less the defense of socialism. Thus, they sought to limit the influence and power of the United States. Even with no more Fatherland of Socialism to defend, they still continue the same policy, like a missile defense system that keeps working even after the civilization that built it has died out. When they finally realize that anything they want to achieve in the world will have to be achieved through the United States, we will have a different politics.
End
 
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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