John Allen Gay is the Executive Director of John Quincy Adams Society, and an alumni of The National Interest. Today he talks to us, in our Q+A series, about American interests, U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, the Trump administration’s agenda and the future of world order.
You can follow him on Twitter @JohnAllenGay.
You can also find other Q+As here.
- What are the major challenges facing U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy? In light of those challenges, who or what is the biggest threat to U.S.?
We’re currently in a very extended geopolitical position. We guarantee the security of states that border one great power (Russia) and of states engaged in active territorial disputes with another (China), and in a confrontation, those states would likely be unable to secure themselves without significant American aid. We’re also deeply involved in the Middle East, including a growing entanglement in competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And this comes after fifteen years of war and deficits have combined to erode our military capabilities. The stability and cohesion of our government has also faded a bit.
All that combines to create a situation ripe for confrontation: a rival power, believing America is outdriving its headlights, might confront a U.S. treaty ally or strategic partner, in the hope that we’ll back down. But will we? I’m not sure that we’ve bitten off more than we can chew – we’re still the most powerful country in the world – but it certainly appears we’ve bitten off more than we need to chew. We could guarantee U.S. territorial integrity, hemispheric hegemony, and command of the global commons, and maybe even prevent the emergence of regional hegemons elsewhere, on far more measured geopolitical ambitions than those we have now. More measured ambitions, because they would hew more closely to our vital interests, would also boost our credibility – it’s much easier to convince Putin that we’d be willing to risk nuclear war over Norfolk than over Narva. (That’s true of both the British and the American Norfolk.) At the level of geopolitics, we’re a naturally secure country, but we’ve chosen to position ourselves in a way that reduces that security by increasing the risk of a serious, probably unnecessary confrontation with another great power.
- There’s a debate whether Trump is a Realist or not, and consensus is divided on that. Do you think Trump at least heralds a change to the bipartisan activist Liberal/Neo-conservative consensus? And is he or will he be able to follow through that change?
The Trump administration seems to have a few camps on strategy. One side, around Steve Bannon and Michael Anton, seems eager to shift responsibility onto partner states in key regions, to eschew nation building, and to limit attempts to actively export our political and social system to other countries, all things Realists have tended to favor. However, that all goes out the window on things related to Islam, with which parts of this camp appear eager to confront. Another camp seems to basically represent the policy preferences of the “Blob” – or perhaps Blob-ism with Trumpian Characteristics, doing more or less the things the Blob would have done, but with rhetoric about burden-sharing and responsibility, and maybe some marginal policy shifts in that direction. My read is that the alignment with Saudi Arabia, the strikes on the Assad regime in Syria, and the efforts to keep Europe from sweating on Article 5 came from this part of the administration. Rex Tillerson seems to be a human bridge between the different camps.
Trump himself seems to be straight out of Walter Russell Mead’s old article in The National Interest on the Jacksonian Tradition in U.S. foreign policy, which doesn’t really fit with anything we find in the Beltway. If Thucydides was right that states are motivated by fear, honor, and interest, Jacksonians are heavily focused on honor, while traditional Realists tend to zoom in on fear and interest. And I haven’t touched on issues like immigration, trade, and praxis, which have been important in limiting the support Trump has enjoyed from Realists as a whole, and which have kept many Blob critics on the sidelines or in the opposition.
Will this lead to a lasting shift? I’m not so sure. There’s not a Trumpian intellectual infrastructure in Washington. There is no Trump Institute, no Bannon Fellowship. And there are certainly Realists who worry that Trump will use the Realist label, but not really practice Realist policies, meaning critics of Realism will gather up unpopular administration policies, mistakes, and bad things that happen in the next three years, call it Realism, and say we should therefore not pursue Realism.
Something very similar happened with the Obama administration, which critics of offshore balancing and of restraint accused, erroneously, of adopting those strategies. I’m particularly worried that this phenomenon will discredit Realism for people left of center, which would be ironic since a number of the most prominent Realists today are left of center. Realism is about stepping back from ideology, about aligning goals with our capabilities, about thinking hard about our own interests and trying to account for how others pursue theirs. It’s a robust, credible alternative framework that’s accessible for people across the spectrum of domestic politics, and it counseled against a number of our recent mistakes – Iraq and Libya, for example.
- With the U.S. having struck a Syrian airbase and just having shot down a Syrian plane in June, does the U.S. risk getting pulled into a large-scale war in Syria? Do you think there are chances of a major great power war in the Middle East in the near future?
We’re certainly at a moment of dangerous strategic drift in Eastern Syria, all tied to uncertainty about what comes after ISIS, uncertainty for which we’ve had literally years to prepare and yet still somehow appear to be flying by the seat of our pants. In the Northeast, we’ve got growing friction with the regime and a quieter tension with the Turks and possibly among the rebels we back. All that appears likely to grow once ISIS is put to flight. It’s not clear what a good end state looks like there or what price we should be willing to pay to get that end state versus the alternatives. It’s the same story in the Southeast around Tanf, where we have been willing to use deadly force against regime-aligned elements in order to keep them at a distance from our forces there; some would have us use our presence there to effectively deny Syria a useful border with Iraq, lest Iran use it as a logistical corridor. Such a corridor wouldn’t be good, particularly for nearby U.S. partner states, but is preventing it worth a permanent presence and potentially a direct confrontation? If the threat is to U.S. partners, why isn’t the burden on them to handle this? Indeed, some U.S. partner states in the region have better working relations with Russia than we do, and might be better equipped to manage the fallout there.
That said, it doesn’t look like Russia wants a war, at least if we stay out of Syria’s west, and Secretary of Defense Mattis insists we don’t want a war, either, and that we will avoid mission creep, too. But not intending something doesn’t mean it won’t happen, especially in armed conflict. The risks we’re running as a country, and the risks we’re asking our troops to take, appear to be far greater than the post-ISIS threat in the area to American security.
- How do you think US should recalibrate its relation with the EU, UK and Russia given the current geopolitical situation?
If we could, Rose Mary Woods-style, accidentally put an eighteen-and-a-half-month gap in recent history, I’d say time was ripe for a reset with Russia. After all, those tend to happen in new administrations, and there are a number of areas – Ukraine and Syria, mainly, but also arms control and information warfare – where there is probably space for a reduction in tensions. Detente wouldn’t fix everything, but it could see less violence in the Donbass, less friction and risk in Syria, and fewer sanctions, and perhaps it could slow the pace of information confrontation. However, politics is the art of the possible, and I don’t think the Trump administration has the domestic space to make substantive concessions to Moscow, and certainly not to effect a real, epochal reset that would provide clear, lasting ground rules for both states in Europe. After NATO expansion, it’s hard to even say what that bigger reset would even look like, since we’ve permanently locked ourselves into a significant, confrontational role right on Russia’s border.
On the UK, there’s clearly an opportunity for the United States to tighten up with Britain on terms favorable to us; the friction over Brexit has created a buyer’s market for British friendship, and the alignment of interests between two maritime powers (plus, and I know I’m being a bad Realist here, the deep cultural bond) is stronger than with the continental states.
Our longstanding support of European integration and expansion ought to be reviewed. After Brexit, Turkey’s autocratic turn, and the rise of Euroskepticism as a political force, it’s less clear how much people in member states desire an ever bigger, ever closer union. It’s also increasingly apparent, particularly after the drama over the association agreement with Ukraine, that Russia views the EU as a geopolitical competitor, but that Russia can also leverage Euroskepticism against the EU. All these dynamics make it harder to say that further advances in the European project will increase stability; indeed, in the Ukraine and Brexit cases, it seems to have decreased stability. Either way, though, it’s an issue that Europeans are far better equipped to work through than outsiders. It was certainly unseemly for Obama to go to London right before the Brexit referendum and tell British people how to vote.
- What is your opinion about the “Thucydides Trap”?
I haven’t read Graham Allison’s new book [which argues that a war between the U.S. and China is likely] and so won’t pass judgment on the finer points, although I think it’s highly valuable that he’s reframed U.S.-China relations in Realist terms: an established power confronted by a rising power, and the risks of confrontation embedded in that structural shift. That framing drops all of the baggage that comes with the details of this particular case—the arbitration rulings, the freedom of navigation operations, whose pottery fragments were found on which sandbars, etc—and encourages us to think in the broader, more holistic terms required when dealing with relations between great powers.
Structurally, I think it is ultimately Washington’s choice whether there will be a major confrontation in East Asia, since we have elected to be a player there, and can in theory change the scale of our role. The debate among Realists on the question of whether America needs a major role in East Asia or not is fascinating and crucial; ultimately, it comes down to whether you believe China is a potential Eurasian hegemon, and, if so, how much a Eurasian hegemon would threaten America and how much America would have to do to prevent its emergence. Is the danger great, yet preventable at a cost that is lower than the cost of living with it?
The answers to these questions have potential implications that can be measured in trillions of dollars and thousands – or millions – of lives, but there seems to be more interest inside the Beltway on operational questions that take our grand strategic ambitions for the region as assumptions. That’s not to say the assumptions are all wrong – after all, the more aggressive offshore balancers would say we’ve got East Asia broadly right – but that they ought to be examined more seriously. We should take a step back and think about whether our red lines in the region align with our interests. How much would a Chinese foothold in the “first island chain” threaten the United States? What about a Chinese “mare clausum” in the South China Sea? How likely is it that regional states will bandwagon with China? Again, these are questions we aren’t really talking about, even though the answers aren’t obvious and even though our policies imply we’re quite certain about a particular set of answers.
- Please tell us about the John Quincy Adams Society (JQAS) and future plans and endeavors.
The Society exists to broaden the conversation about strategy on college campuses. Even though there’s a robust debate in the academy about what America’s proper role in the world should be, inside the Beltway, a strategy of primacy – of being the leading player in every important region of the world, and of backing up that role with regular exertions of military force – is treated as an assumption; disagreements with this strategy tends to be dismissed without much thought. And that’s in spite of America pursuing non-primacist strategies for its entire history, except the last thirty years or so, and in spite of the fact that America’s rise from a colonial backwater to the world’s largest economy happened under a still-more-measured vision of American security, one in which America went “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” [as John Quincy Adams said in a speech to Congress on July 4, 1821,] eschewed permanent alliances, and understood “American Exceptionalism” to include a separation from the tyrannies and blood feuds of the Old World. It’s also in spite of the significant costs that pursuing primacy has had for us – only under the more strident versions of primacy does it make sense to invade Iraq or expand NATO into Russia’s backyard, for example.
And so we hope to elevate discussion of such alternatives to the status quo, which can be put under the broad headline of “restraint,” so that the next generation of leaders can take the nation on a more prudent path, or at least be aware that this option is plausible and deserves to be taken seriously. In service of that, we support chapters of the Society on college campuses, and those chapters become fora for learning – for learning about foreign policy, connecting with experts and new perspectives, and charting the path for a foreign policy career. Last year – our first year – had some real successes, including cosponsoring a talk at one of our chapters by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and running an essay contest that’s giving students an opportunity to appear in the National Interest. We’re really starting to pick up some momentum – I had four conversations on my calendar the other day with potential chapter leaders, and last night we had a happy hour for interns and young foreign-policy professionals that drew more than fifty people. I think there’s a tremendous appetite among young people all across the political spectrum for a new direction in foreign policy – after all, in two years, there will be college freshmen who have never lived in a country at peace.
Needless to say, if you’re an undergrad or grad student and you’re reading Bombs and Dollars, you should probably be getting involved in a JQAS chapter or launching one on your campus.