Michael Anton: Foreign Policy & National Interest
The American Mind Podcast, Episode III
The American Mind Podcast is made possible in part by generous support from The Randolph Foundation.
In this podcast, Ryan Williams, President of the Claremont Institute, is joined by Claremont Senior Fellow Michael Anton. Recorded Friday, Thursday, December 6, 2018.
Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump administration.
The American Mind Podcast Episode #3: Foreign Policy and the Pursuit of the National Interest
“Welcome everyone, to the American Mind podcast, a production of the Claremont Institute. I’m Ryan Williams, president of the Claremont Institute and publisher of the Claremont Review of Books. This podcast is about ideas, principles, and American politics, usually hosted by yours truly or our vice president of education, Matthew Peterson. Our mission at Claremont has always been the recovery of the American idea—those timeless principles that have made America great since our founding. Visit our website for show notes, essays, editorials, debates, and more at americanmind.org and you can always reach us by e-mailing [email protected]. Don’t forget to subscribe to the American Mind on itunes or wherever you get your podcasts, spread the word to your friends and colleagues, and most importantly—thanks for listening.”
In this episode, I interview former Trump Administration National Security Council staffer Michael Anton. Now a lecturer in politics and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington D.C. Michael is also a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and you can find him writing in every issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Michael and I sat down at his home in Virginia, to discuss the proper first principles of American Foreign Policy, the conduct of post-Cold War American foreign policy especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the considerable work left to be done on the right and amongst conservatives on this most important of topics. Enjoy! –Ryan Williams, President of the Claremont Institute
Williams: Thanks for joining the American Mind, Michael Anton.
Anton: I’m on my second time, I think, right?
Williams: It is your second recording. So the last time you talked with our Vice President of Education, Matt Peterson, about higher education, its defects, and a bit about the Trump agenda. But I thought this time we’d take some time to talk about foreign policy—where we’ve been, where we’re going. You wrote in the spring issue of American Affairs in 2017. At the time you were in the Administration, but you’d written it before. You talked a little bit about the principles that should guide American foreign policy. You made the argument that we’ve been too obsessed with the means of foreign policy, and we ought to get back to the principles, or the ends, or the purposes.
Anton: Speaking to that, there’s a line from Livy that Angelo, our friend, likes to quote. It’s very apt, where I think it’s the Latins are up against it in some way and they have a real problem on their hand with the Romans. And they’re having this conference at home—a Senate debate or something—and they’re panicking. The gist of it is, “What do we say? What do we say? What do we tell the Romans?” because they have this ultimatum. They’ve got to send an emissary to Rome. Finally, this wise Latin senator stands up and he goes, “Let’s first figure what we’re going to do, and then it’ll be easy to figure out what we need to say.”
That was Angelo’s way of pointing out that diplomacy, which is just a medium, had become the message in a way for a lot of foreign policy intellectuals and practitioners. They would obsess over the forms and the details, things that are essentially means, and lose sight of core interests.
So I made the point in that argument that your core interests are not really that complicated, and when I originally wrote it, I used the words “poor,” “contemptible,” and “dead.” Those are the things you want to avoid, and I changed that for more public consumption to “prosperity,” “prestige,” and “peace.” You don’t want to get killed. You don’t want to lose territory. You don’t want to be under physical threat. Especially as a commercial republic, prosperity is a core interest.
Prestige, or national honor, is the hardest to understand, to quantify, well, it’s been possible to quantify, but to really get your head completely around, but people sort of know it instinctively. “Peace with honor,” remember, was one of Nixon’s slogans in ’68, which was we’re going to get out of this unpopular war, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t tarnish our national honor, our national prestige, which actually matters, especially when you’re in an ideological struggle with a state like the Soviet Union. The who’s-up-who-down calculator is not just measured in number of allies, troops you can field, nuclear warheads, and so on. It’s also measured in terms of your international prestige: who wants to side with you and who thinks you’re weak or contemptible, for that matter.
So those things matter. That’s why there’s almost never an easy calculation of the national interests. You always have to think in those terms, and that’s the hardest part.
Williams: Despite our criticisms from Claremont and elsewhere about the conduct of modern foreign policy, no one would really disagree with you, would they? That those would be some decent guiding principles?
Anton: Nobody would, but that’s the thing. The fact that we needed to restate something so obvious shows how bad the debate was. Basically, [the main reason] that article was read was, “Oh, he’s in the Administration. This will give us the key to understanding the Administration.” Even though, of course, it wasn’t like I wrote that for the Administration.
But I got a lot of criticism, and much of it was along the lines of, “Well, duh, so he told us something everybody knows.” All right, well, whose fault is it that I needed to tell you something everybody knows, because it had been obscured for so long.
Then the real trick is then how do you apply it? If you’re a sort of maximalist, neocon, adventurist, you would say that peace for the United States requires war everywhere. That’s an overstatement, but maybe physical troop presence in dozens of countries fighting in various strengths and numbers.
Williams: Or the 100-year struggle in Iraq, or something like that.
Anton: We all agree the United States needs to be at peace, but what are the means to achieving that? What do we actually need to do to achieve peace? And certainly, the last several administrations have gotten that, I think, pretty badly wrong.
Williams: Well, our friend and colleague, Angelo Codevilla, likes to chastise the conduct of American foreign policy over probably that last century as losing sight of the primordial goal, which should be peace. In other words, we ought to do everything we can to secure the peace on our terms that we can pursue our way of life, and so we don’t have to change our way of life to change their way of life.
Anton: Although that brings up an interesting point that I’ve long thought about. It’s evident, but beneath the surface, in Machiavelli. I just taught a little of Tocqueville, not a Tocqueville class, but it was a national security class I was teaching, and I gave them the few Tocqueville chapters toward the end of Democracy in America where he talks about war and peace, and the difference between democratic and aristocratic soldiers; and he has this amazingly candid passage toward the end of one of those chapters—I think it’s the last book, chapter 22—where he says there are these wonderful aspects about war. It widens the horizons; it elevates the nations. It’s good for you to some extent to have a little bit of war. And if you say that today, people freak out. So everybody, I’m just quoting Tocqueville.
This is kind of evident in Machiavelli, though, from a number of passages where too much peace can be a bad thing, where if you’re never under threat, if you never really have to fight for what you have, you never have to exercise certain martial, dare I say, manly virtues. Societies will become corrupt. He specifically uses the word “effeminate.” That’s another word I probably can’t say anymore today.
So part of his project, which is not evident in Machiavelli’s books—they seem very blood-soaked, like he just wants you out fighting all the time—if you read them very very carefully, he seems to want something kind of in between where there needs to be a little bit of fighting, there needs to be kind of a constant threat to keep you on your toes; but you don’t want so much fighting that the war just becomes a self-perpetuating bloodbath to no purpose; and being at war is risky. You could lose. Terrible things can happen to you.
So where do you find that ideal medium? So peace, yes, but if we’re to believe those great philosophers, it’s a qualified peace. It’s not the peace that leads to the downward cycle of softness and frivolity.
Williams: Well George Washington emphasized preparation for war always. That’s how you secure peace. So constant preparation and vigilance might be the second best option to keep yourself from going soft as a society to actual war or threat of war.
Picking up the George Washington theme: what does the founding really have to teach us anymore about foreign policy?
Anton: That’s a difficult question. One of the other things I taught this semester is the Farewell Address.
Williams: A widely misinterpreted document.
Anton: A widely misinterpreted document. There are timeless things one can learn from the Farewell Address, but we also have to understand that he was addressing circumstances of his time in the United States. Circumstances are fundamentally different now than they were in—when was that published? 1796 or -7? We were the weak power. We looked across the Atlantic at great power empires—England, France, even Spain, declining but still strong—any one of whom could have given us a whole host of trouble if they wanted to. The British obviously had in the Revolutionary War, and they would again before long. Empires all of which still had big possessions in North America. So the United States was small, it was new, it was weak, and it was encircled by the world’s greatest powers. So the Farewell Address teaches you something very different.
America finds itself in a completely new circumstance in 1945, where it’s the world’s greatest economic and military power. It’s the only non-exhausted, bankrupt, and/or destroyed great power, with the partial exception of the Soviets, but we sustained absolutely massive losses in World War II, far greater than any other single country.
There was a question of the leadership role that Britain had played and other countries, but especially Britain—they were not capable of doing any more. There was no going back to the status quo ante.
Another document that I taught to my students this past semester was the famous, now declassified, NSC-68 that laid out the U.S. strategy. It’s a wonderful document. I urge everybody to go back and read it. It makes this case. It says, “Look, if we don’t do this, no other good country will, where we would essentially be ceding a vast tract of territory, of the economy, of the ideological space and just sort of a global power to a hostile power. We have to adopt a role that we never wanted, that the founders would not have anticipated, but were they here, what would they do in that circumstance?” I’d like to think they would have something like what we did. I think that’s plausible.
My problem, as I outline in that article, was that, and I’ve been around these people too much, but believe me, you can’t hear a member of the foreign policy establishment, Republican or Democrat, open their mouth without singing the praises of 1945, -47, -50, the. “We have to just go back there and do everything the way Dean Acheson did it.” Give me a break. No. Not that simple.
Williams: Fair enough. Now who’s the principal author of the Farewell Address? Madison had a big hand in it, right?
Anton: I remember reading an account, well, in Spalding’s book. Hamilton wrote some of it. Madison wrote some of it. It was passed around through many hands, and worked on for many months, almost a year, I think, it was worked on. So that’s the greatest speech-writing team ever assembled when you come down to it.
Williams: And then the leading light post-Washington has to be John Quincy Adams, right?
Anton: Right, but finding himself in a similar circumstance. The famous, “We go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” I certainly agree with that. I agree that we shouldn’t do that. We have done it foolishly in the recent past, but we’re still in a circumstance that’s fundamentally different than the J.Q.A. circumstance in a lot of ways. We’re larger. We are more powerful. We have more global responsibilities. For the global commerce system, upon which our own wealth depends, I don’t see a way for it to be maintained without U.S. leadership and U.S. security.
Williams: A more complicated version of the way Britain preserved the free seas, right?
Anton: Yes, and if we were to retreat from that space, countries that don’t wish us well would fill it in unhelpful ways; but that fact is too often used to make the case for a kind of maximalist, intervene-everywhere, or intervene, if not everywhere, in too many places for too many dumb reasons.
So it’s a way that the debate gets sort of tortured, and twisted, and manipulated. “Oh, well, if you agree that we have global responsibilities, and we need to be able to project power, and we need to preserve our alliance structure, well, then that means you’re for everything I want to do, and you have no business arguing about it. If you disagree with me, you’re an isolationist, and you just want to pull out of everywhere and come home.”
It’s absurd. At a recent conference, people asked about that term, and my answer was look, ‘isolationism’ just doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s just hurled as an insult. If somebody is an ideological or partisan believer in what they call the liberal international order, and they don’t like your criticisms of it, or your suggestions for how it might be reigned in a bit, or tuned up, or refreshed for our age, they’ll just call you an isolationist. It’s just a way of insulting you and ending debate.
Williams: There are real isolationists out there, right? None really within spitting distance of power, but there are still some fortress-America types, right?
Anton: I guess there are still some of the fortress-America, or just extreme Libertarians who think we have no basis for intervening anywhere ever, and we shouldn’t have any forward-deployed basing at all.
The forward deployment’s actually very helpful in so many ways to the United States because when we have to take care of—and I’m by no means saying that this applies to every problem we’re currently trying to take care of—but inevitably we’ll have to take care of problems in some part of the world, in the Middle East or somewhere, and having troops forward positioned in Germany, in Italy, in other parts makes that vastly easier to do.
People say, “Well, why are we still there? The war’s been over forever and ever and ever.” Well, for a long time we were there just to preserve the peace, and then it was to deter the Soviet Union, and now we’re there because we just have an infrastructure there, and it’s useful for a lot of the things that we need to do.
Williams: Or the Philippines or Guam, you know, there are unsinkable aircraft carriers, right. That’s another virtue.
Anton: Right. Although we got kicked out of the Philippines as you recall in 1993, amidst much acrimony. I don’t know about Duterte, but there was a period in which the Philippines wanted us back and we hedged because we thought, “We can’t go and put infrastructure in here again only to get kicked out later.”
The Japanese, of course, are delighted to have us in, most of them. Every once in a while there’s a scandal or somebody behaves badly on Okinawa, and it’s a huge problem in the Japanese press; but in general, I think Shinzō Abe and his majority party are quite happy to have the Americans in Yokosuka at the Naval Base because they, of course, are very very worried about China, and a western Pacific without the United States means one that’s just totally dominated by China.
Williams: Yes, I think anyone who’s been paying attention to what China’s been up to in the last decade knows that that’s the case.
So this is a good way to segue way into some more pointed critiques of our adventures over the last 20 years or so. I wanted to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. I sometimes find it frustrating when people, it hasn’t happened lately that much, but people would talk about, “Oh, you work at the Claremont Institute or you run the Claremont Institute. You guys are basically neocons on foreign policy.” I’ve heard that. I haven’t heard it recently, but I would hear it half a decade ago, and my point would always be, “Well, we were in favor of the Iraq invasion for a few reasons, mostly to take out the standing avatar of anti-Americanism in the region, Saddam Hussein, who likely participated in some way or fashion in supporting all manner of terrorism and training.” But also we were quickly critical of the democracy project in Iraq, almost, I think, out of the gate.
I know you’ve said publicly that you were mistaken; Iraq was a mistake. Was it a mistake full stop?
Anton: I think in hindsight you have to view it as a mistake full stop. Saddam, yes, was an avatar of anti-Americanism. He was supporting terror. He had tangential connections to Al-Qaeda figures. This is not to full on conspiracy and say he was involved in the 9/11 plot. I don’t think the 9/11 Commission established that, but it did establish, what there was a lot of reporting on beforehand that people laughed at, that he did have connections to Al-Qaeda terrorists and other terrorists, and he was even, to some extent, in league with Iranians, his bitter enemy.
That said, in hindsight, it seems to clear to me that he wasn’t much of a threat to us at the time, wasn’t going to be much of a threat to us at the time. I totally agree now in hindsight that the Democracy Project was a failure and should have been by everyone to be doomed failure from the start, but we self-handicap ourselves by not being able to talk about obvious things and what are the real prospects for democracy in a certain country with certain traditions. If you say that now, you just get yelled at.
So if the Democracy Project was going to fail and we were going to take him out, then we had no realistic plan to replace him with anything. And part of the problem the United States has is people want to say that the Bush Democracy Project was just a bunch of ideologues trying to force a theory on to a set of circumstances that wouldn’t take it, and certainly there’s a lot of truth to that, but they do forget something: the American people don’t want to see the United States overturn a tyrant and replace him with another tyrant. Broadly speaking, the American people say, “Just stay out of this mess,” if it is a mess, or if you get into it, we don’t do these things unless something comes out of it that’s better. They look at the World War II experience, for example, of that.
It’s one thing if a tyrant is going down and we finagle or maneuver somebody else into power, but to actually use the U.S. military to break a regime fundamentally with a war, take casualties, inflict casualties, and then just replace that tyrant with another tyrant, I don’t the American people are necessarily going to be on board with that. They’re going to want to see some attempt at a better future for that country as part of their own belief of what America stands for, which is just another reason from my perspective not to go in there at all because we didn’t have a better alternative to Saddam Hussein, and think about all the chaos that’s been unleashed since then in the region. Just think of the political chaos.
Would Barack Obama necessarily be President had there been no Iraq war? I don’t know. It doesn’t mean a Republican necessarily would have won in 2008, but Iraq was defining for the Democrats in 2004, which they lost by a whisker because they had a very weak candidate. Had Howard Dean, who was the anti-war candidate all along, not melted down and lost the primaries, had he been able to keep it together, he could easily have gotten the nomination and won the Presidency in 2004.
Williams: It certainly had all manner of spillover effects and unintended consequences, I think, to the detriment of our regime of limited government and our partisan coalitions.
So if we’re attacked by whomever or they’re aided by whomever, it can’t be the standard for intervention that—sometimes we need to punish our enemies, make an impression, make sure that the people in the region or their neighbors know that that would be a bad idea—we don’t necessarily have to be able to find a better option to replace him.
Anton: I’m not saying we have to do that. I’m saying more that there’s a very large strain of American public opinion that wants and expects that, that thinks that that helps justify the morality of what you’re doing.
Despite all of the left-wing criticisms of our country that one will read, I do think the American people have a moral sense of what their country’s obligations to the rest of the world are, and they don’t like to see us openly practice power politics, or cynically practice power politics.
A great example going on right now is Saudi Arabia. Now it’s unquestionable to me that the alliance with Saudi Arabia is in our interests. It should not be discarded over the Khashoggi affair. That would be foolish. That would antithetical to U.S. interests, but I think the President could have helped himself a little by, at least, devising some way to punish the regime without breaking the alliance. It mollifies critics on the Hill and satisfies an example of public opinion, instead of just saying “I’m not sure I believe it” or “I don’t care.” He makes it harder on himself is what I’m trying to say.
Williams: Well, we’ve revoked some visas and have pushed for punishment of individuals involved, right?
Anton: Well, yes. It doesn’t appear to be enough as of yet to mollify that sentiment. Now to some extent, on some quarters that sentiment will be so hardened and amplified that you can’t mollify it, and there’s nothing you can do short of what Lindsey Graham was talking about. Basically, you’ve got to break the alliance. First of all, we don’t have any power to say who the next king of Saudi Arabia is, so it’s foolish for anyone to suggest that that’s something within the gift of any President of the United States.
Breaking the alliance over that, over anything short of something genuinely detrimental to U.S. long-term interests in the region is de facto to give a big gift to Iran, and that’s foolish.
Afghanistan is a good case. We had to go in and punish our enemy. We had to dislodge the Taliban. We make a good faith effort to replace the Afghan government with something better. It’s obviously, probably never going to work. That’s a case where our warlord is better than no warlord, 17 years later.
Did we take the Democracy Project in Afghanistan too seriously? Probably, but again it’s certainly hard for politicians of any party or stripe to basically say, “We can’t make this country democratic. It’s impossible. At least, it’s impossible for us. We don’t know how, and so we’re just going to support the bad guy.”
Just think about the Egypt example. We had great relations with Mubarak for years but started to get really hammered and criticized for that in the George W. Bush years. “Why are you supporting this strong man?”
Williams: And “Why are we sending them so much money every year?”
Anton: And “The people are anti-American because they hate us for supporting the strong man who oppresses them.” The Obama Administration took that rhetoric pretty seriously, so that when the Arab Spring broke out, they and a lot of our neocon former friends were supportive of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of the country, and/or, which amounts to the same thing, an election, which would be used by the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the country and never repeated.
That didn’t work out so well for U.S. interests. So a counter reaction happens, the military mounts a coup, General el-Sisi becomes the President of Egypt, and the Obama Administration essentially tunes him out for the remainder of Obama’s term. Trump gets back into office, sees Egypt as an important ally, an important pillar of the U.S. relationship in the Middle East, and tries to warm up relationships with el-Sisi; and for this, he’s completely hammered.
I’m groping for what I’m trying to say, but there’s a strain of public opinion that is bi-partisan and trans-ideological, that only wants America to publicly do the right thing and be seen to do it for the right reasons. So even if you know that your country’s deep interests are you have to make deals with shady guys, non-democratic guys, you’re supposed to try to find a way to talk about it that masks the reality; and Trump doesn’t really do that. He just says, “He’s an important guy. This is an important country. It’s part of our alliance structure. I’m going to meet with him, and we’re going to have good relations full stop. Your criticism is childish,” and people howl over that.
Williams: Does this suggest that we need to develop a different way of talking about the prudent pursuit of our interests abroad? Why couldn’t we start—gingerly and prudentially, of course—start talking about the fact that in some places, especially places where there’s no separation between religion and politics, you can’t have decent liberal government for the foreseeable future?
Anton: You need to try to do that, but the reaction is going to be loud and fierce. People are going to be very very angry, and they’re going to shout, and scream, and call you bad names.
I think one of the things that I’ve certainly learned—I already knew it, but boy, do I know it now, more so than ever—about conservatism and conservatives are they really hate being call bad names. It just makes them very very very unhappy. Let me put it this way, right after 9/11 Ann Coulter said something along the lines of, “We’re not going to do all these stupid things that people are talking about because Americans don’t want to die for political correctness.” There’s a big portion of this country that’s absolutely willing to die for political correctness.
Williams: Right, and much more so than when Ann said that.
Anton: They would march right off a cliff rather than be called certain names for doing things that have no logical connection to that name. That’s how much they fear it.
Williams: In a way I’m guess I’m suggesting that maybe the only way forward is through. I mean, we have to get over that, I think, and I would suggest or submit that the more we start talking in a different way about our conduct abroad, maybe the easier it might get. Although, initially you might have quite a problem on your hands.
Anton: The problem right now that we’re seeing is the inquisition-like persecution of heretics.
Anton: This is, at least, not mostly the tyrannical government coming after you. You have people who essentially volunteer to do this, and they don’t get paid. They just troll through your work and your Twitter comments. Thank God I’m not on Twitter. If you ever catch me on Twitter, find me and kill me.
They’re just constantly looking to find heretics and destroy their lives by getting them fired, making them unemployable, and just smearing their names. These people’s goal is to make individuals radioactive for life. It’s crazy, and that’s not getting better. That’s getting worse as we sit here.
Williams: Yes, I hope, who knows, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet, but this kind of tactic may have diminishing returns. Although not for the foreseeable future, I don’t think.
Anton: Yes, right now it’s going like gangbusters.
Williams: No, that’s right.
So let’s talk a little bit about this phrase, which is bandied about, which made an appearance and was subject to your criticism in that old piece in 2017: the liberal international order. What is the liberal international order?
Anton: People essentially mean two related things. The first thing they mean is the set of institutions created in the immediate post-World War II world, the U.N., or if not immediately, the things that grew out of that. So the U.N. was created immediately. Other things grew out of it. The W.T.O. eventually is part of it. The Coal and Steel Community, which becomes G.A.T., which becomes the E.U., and so on. And N.A.T.O, of course, which I think was founded in 1949.
Usually the qualifier that precedes the liberal international order is rules-based liberal international order. This set of institutions is considered sacrosanct, and the intentions of the handful of people who set them up in the late 40s, early 50s should bind us for all time.
I have no criticism, or few. I don’t think the E.U. worked out as intended.
Williams: Well, part of the problem with it is at least half of it’s not liberal, right, in the old sense of that term.
Anton: It’s the idea that those circumstances would prevail forever and these institutions would fit their times forever, and I think that has not been born out; but also this notion that the United States standing up for its interests and retrenching a little bit is this anathema to the liberal. I honestly don’t understand the hysteria of the people who are so worried about this.
The worst experience I had, probably, in the Trump Administration was I was invited to go to a conference of foreign policy elites, and I was sort of implored to go because they wouldn’t have anybody from the Administration if I didn’t go. There was about 40 at the conference, and it was just a bi-partisan gathering of the exact same foreign policy elites who had—including a former Secretary of State. I mean some big time people were there—just smugly repeating the same talking points over and over again, and using me, and this was one of the reasons it was so unpleasant, as a whipping post the whole time. They didn’t have any avenue to actually get in Trump’s face and yell at him, but here was a Trump-guy, so we’re going to flog him for a couple of days.
Aside from being a complete waste of my time and unpleasant, it just sort of showed me the bankruptcy of this crowd. These are the people who got us into all of the disasters and mistakes over the last 20 years; and as you said, my article, on the one hand the response was, “Well, duh. Of course that’s true,” but then the other half of the response was, “This is just complete outrageous betrayal of the liberal international order.”
Well, how can those both be true at the same time, folks? Nobody was ever really able to explain to me.
Williams: What do you think of their criticisms has the most purchase? What are the most important parts of this rules-based Order that we ought to respect, preserve, maybe modify, but keep? And what ought we to jettison?
Anton: The biggest failure of the rules-based International Order, which these people won’t or can’t confront, is the failure of other countries, notably China above all, to abide by any rules. Or Russia—so right now everybody knows that Russia’s been in violation of the I.N.F. Treaty probably since 2014, certainly since 2016, early 2017. No question about it. And they deny it, and they’re not going to do anything about it. They’re not going to change their behavior.
So Trump says, “All right, we’ll just get out of the treaty.” Everybody’s howling about Trump doing yet another unilateral action and getting out of a treaty. It’s just the worst thing ever. It’s like when Bush got of the A.B.M Treaty in 2002.
A.B.M. Treaty was a treaty that prevented the United States from developing anything more than a very limited anti-ballistic missile system. The idea behind it was perverse, but logical in a sense. The idea was, well, if you have a missile defense system, it means you will be more confident in your ability to survive right out, or even win a nuclear exchange, and so it just makes the world less stable. The principle that will keep the world stable is one of extreme vulnerability.
Williams: A rehash of M.A.D., mutual assured destruction.
Anton: It’s one of the foundational tenets of M.A.D., so the treaty was signed. It goes back to the old nuclear debate: counter-value versus counter-force. Angelo’s written a lot about this, and he has pointed things to say. Do you target the enemy’s weapon systems and war-making capacity, or do you target the population centers essentially? And the Cold War geniuses on our side decided that counter-value, population centers was the way to go, Herman Kahn being one of the great exceptions, who never that this was a bright idea, but he lost the argument.
Anyway, you see this getting out of treaties that are clearly not in our interests or that the other side is clearly cheating on, and people go crazy because the thing is the treaty. It’s not the interests. They’re all about style over substance, or means over ends.
So why should we let countries who cheat on the International Order flagrantly get away with it, while we dutifully stand by and keep obeying? Why do we let China violate every principle? They have not behaved like they’re supposed to behave under the W.T.O. rules. They’ve been an awful member of the W.T.O. They’re a predatory member of the world trading system, and Trump is standing up to them. I hope he’s standing up to them.
There’s some suggestion that his meeting with Xi at the G20 yielded yet another Chinese —every once in a while the United States gets upset. We threaten to do something. Maybe we actually do do something, although that’s fairly rare, and the Chinese say, “Oh no, no, no. We’re going to change everything,” and we make a deal, and then they don’t follow through.
It’s Lucy and the football. I really hope Trump doesn’t fall for that this time. If anybody won’t, he won’t, but I was a little nervous when I saw it. I thought, “Oh no, no, no. It hasn’t been long enough, and you haven’t inflicted enough discomfort for them to have seriously come around. If they’re willing to make a deal now, it’s a phony deal.”
Williams: There’s this tendency amongst the process-oriented status quo, diplomacy is sort of talking nice and acting like we’re all upholding our end of the bargain. That’s sort of the tendency of the international community, and you have someone like Trump who comes in and says, “Well, no, this is crazy. Let’s get out of these things.” Or even Bush for that matter. The A.B.M. people howled about that.
Anton: The A.B.M. Treaty, he got out of the International Criminal Court. There might have been others, but those two stuck out.
Williams: There’s a pretty good case to be made, and Trump has made it, that we ought not to spend so much housing the U.N., when half it’s members want us dead or are perfectly happy to frustrate our ambitions with the help of our other bigger enemies, and so why not reconstitute the U.N.? The U.N. being something more like N.A.T.O. would make a lot more sense, a union of actually liberal actors, in the old sense of that term, who might work in concert when it made sense, but would stop putting a place like Libya at the head of the Human Rights Council.
Anton: Some of this is just inertia. Something gets founded. It becomes big. It gets a big budget. It employs a lot of people, and no matter how obvious, palpable a failure it is, it never goes away.
Williams: It has a momentum of its own.
Anton: U.N. reform is sort of a pipe dream that’s never happened. I don’t expect it to ever happen. I don’t know that the U.N. will ever go away. It’s just one of those mysteries. N.A.T.O. is another one.
Williams: In the whole scheme of things, the U.N. doesn’t cost us that much.
Anton: In the whole scheme of things, it doesn’t cost us that much, but it costs us more than it costs anybody else by far.
Williams: Sure, and it’s offence against good sense. Health and Human Services probably spends more in a week than we do on U.N. annually.
Anton: You have the classic cab driver conversation. I can remember more than once—I don’t even know how this conversation came up—but somebody says, “I can solve all our problems right away.” “Oh, really, what’s that?” “End foreign aid.” And I just happened to know, I said, “Do you know what we spend on foreign aid?” “What?” It’s like $5 billion. It’s not that much money. It’s certainly under $10 billion. I used to know the figures. The Egyptians we were giving about $1 billion a year. The Israeli foreign aid—a lot of that’s loan guarantees, so in a way it’s aid, but it’s not direct cash transfer.
Williams: The Pakistanis.
Anton: The Pakistanis have been cut way back. You total it all up, it’s nothing. It’s like 1 second of H.H.S. spending. That’s not going to make the difference.
I was saying about N.A.T.O. though—the extreme skeptic, the libertarian isolationist fortress, as America would say, “We should have pulled out of N.A.T.O. the minute the wall fell. No reason to exist.”
I’m more skeptical of that, although I’m not sure N.A.T.O. has found its purpose or quite yet knows what to do. It was famously unable to deal with the Balkan Crisis in the 90s, and the United States had to do it. It has provided support, although nothing decisive, in some of the 9/11 wars.
On the other hand, it reminds me of a talk I heard by—who’s the guy from The Telegraph writing the official biography of Thatcher? You know who I’m talking about, I’m sure.
Williams: It’s escaping me.
Anton: Anyway, he gave a talk in New York, and I heard him talk about it, and in the Q&A, somebody asked him about her views on the E.U. She said she was very conflicted. She saw it as a power grab. She saw it as a threat to Britain’s sovereignty. She saw it in many ways inimical to British interests, but she also thought that in a way it was a concrete example of Western solidarity, and that for Britain to withdraw would be a propaganda coup in a way. It would boost the Soviets. It would be a sign of disunity in the West, and so despite her ambivalence, she sort of reluctantly stayed in, obviously stayed out of the monetary—I guess that was a debate at the time. The Euro didn’t launch until 1999, so it wasn’t something that she oversaw, but that certainly was a debate as it was all being planned. Opposed further integration.
N.A.T.O.’s sort of similar. I do believe, as bad as Europe is right now—it really is suffering a kind of civilizational malaise—Europe is in a sense our mother civilization. They’re our older brothers, our mom, or something like that. Would it be good for Western solidarity for N.A.T.O. to break up, for the United States to unilaterally withdraw from N.A.T.O. and sort of say, “We’re wiping our hands clean. We don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore”?
I don’t think so. I’d actually like to see on a firmer basis, not on an E.U. sovereignty-eroding, bureaucratic, busybody basis, but on a firmer basis of our true civilizational interests. I’d like to see Europe and America grow closer together, but for that to happen, elite attitudes have got to change, and I don’t see any sign of that happening right now. If Europe actually became more populist, if it went in the sort of Matteo Salvini direction, became more populist, or, dare I say—I’m just going to say it, what do I care—Vikto Orbán, this evil man standing up for his own country. How dare he?
If the Continent as a whole started going in that direction, I think it would be good for the United States to be more, not less, enmeshed with Europe, with the notion that we share a civilization, and that that future civilization will be stronger if we’re together. We don’t have to be formally together. We certainly don’t want to cede further control of our nations to trans-national entities. That’s terrible, and I hope Europe goes in the other direction.
But would it be good to even symbolically to break ties or break up the alliance? I don’t see that as being in anybody’s interests.
Williams: So we’ll close out with a discussion of the bigger topic of what should the future of conservation foreign policy be. But given what you just said, I just wanted to ask quickly: what ought we to do, or what ought our posture to be vis-à-vis Russia?
Anton: Russia’s a very big problem in that, it seems to me, Russia ought to want better relations with the United States as a hedge against China. They are more threatening to Russia than we are to Russia.
Peter Thiel has done the math, and he’s said this to me more than once: if you look at the relative economies, and power, and other metrics of power, 1972 compared to today, there’s an almost 20:1 flip. In other words, Russia was much stronger then; China was much weaker then. Relative to that, now China is much stronger now, and Russia’s much weaker, and relative to each other, the disparity is huge. And what Nixon was able to do with China, it seems to me somebody today ought to be able to do with Russia. There’s one big problem standing in the way of that, which is the Russians just absolutely don’t want it. Certainly Putin doesn’t.
Williams: What precisely is it that they don’t want?
Anton: Better relations with the U.S. as a hedge against China. I’ve said this before: Russia’s always been sort of in but not of Europe. Are they a European power? What are they?
Well, the aristocrats spoke French for centuries, and there’s passages in Tolstoy where a servant has to speak Russian to some grand lady that can’t understand what he’s talking about, doesn’t even know her own language.
To bring up Tolstoy, we still read Tolstoy in America, in the West. I’ve got him right there on my shelf. We play Tchaikovsky in our concert halls. We’re going to be playing a heck of a lot of Tchaikovsky because it’s December. Everybody’s going to be listening to The Nutcracker over and over again for the next however many days.
There are still some deep civilizational ties between us and Russians in a lot of ways, much closer than I think there are with Russia and China, with whom we don’t share a long border.
Williams: You mean the U.S. and China. You just said Russia and China.
Anton: Russia and China have a long border by which they are threatened by China, and I don’t think people know this: Russia has an illegal immigration problem from Chinese people poring over the border with essentially state sanction, and the Russians are too weak to do anything about it. I think they’re getting stronger. Russia in 2018 is much stronger than Russia 10 years ago, 15 years ago.
I think it would be in the Russian interests to get along better with the United States, but the Russian people don’t believe it. Some of that’s just owing to it’s hard to overcome 70 years of anti-American and anti-Western propaganda drummed into an entire country.
I’m trying to get at what explains the animosity of the Russian people. Some of it is the years of propaganda. Some of it is the way, we have to admit, we in the West mishandled the end of the Cold War. I’ll give you an example.
So there’s a theory, or a meme, or a notion that’s been bandied about for years that George H. W. Bush, who died this week or maybe last week, but he had his funeral this week, made a verbal but not written agreement with Gorbachev that if Gorbachev did not oppose or allowed for German reunification, the United States would not push the borders of N.A.T.O. outward. This has been written about everywhere. Whether it happened or not is a question. So I don’t know. I’ve never seen proof of it either way.
I’m at that annoying conference that I told you about, and I brought that up. “This is out. People talk about this. A lot of people take it for granted that it happened.” I was treated with fury by several senior members of the foreign policy establishment, who are all in the State Department at the time. They acted like the lady, Hamlet’s mother said “doth protest too much.” They were so vehement in denying it and angry with me for bringing it up…
Williams: It probably did happen. You’re on to something.
Anton: It made me think, “You’re not really convincing me that this is false here.”
I can see a case for, for instance, former captive nations, Warsaw Pact states—Poland, Hungary, that really want to be a part of the West, Czech Republic, Slovakia—for coming into N.A.T.O. on the first round of expansion. Do we need to push out past that? I’ve always been very skeptical of allowing in the Baltic states, not because I dislike the Baltic states or because I wish ill on them, but for two fundamental reasons: it is incredibly provocative to Moscow…
Williams: Geographically it’s mad.
Anton: …and we’ve now made a pledge that I think it would be physically impossible for us to defend. So you make an unfulfillable pledge, that if you ever have to fulfill it and you can’t, all of the sudden, getting back to prestige or honor, your prestige or honor is shattered because everybody knows, “They can promise you anything, but they’re not serious.”
Williams: So if Putin really wanted to take a gamble, he could end N.A.T.O. with Estonia and Latvia.
Anton: We were publicly floating the idea of Georgia and Ukraine, which is absolutely going to freak Moscow—it would be like putting Mexico or Cuba in the Warsaw Pact. Missiles in Cuba was bad enough. We made mistakes that irritated the Russian people, but what explains Putin’s animosity to the United States? And I use that word carefully. He must know what he’s doing.
I always take it for granted that whenever I see a country behaving in a way that I think is not in their interests, I always sort of have to knock myself on the forehead and remind myself that they probably know their interests better than I know their interests. So if they’re doing X, they could be crazy and stupid, but it’s much more likely that they’re seeing something that I don’t see.
Putin had a chance to warm up relations—and he said he wanted to—he had a chance to warm up relations with the United States, with Trump. Trump took a lot of heat for saying good and nice about Putin and the Russians and his wishes to make things better between the two countries, but at every stage, Putin has not given Trump anything to make the act a little easier. In fact, he’s made it harder: his actions in Ukraine, his unwillingness to fulfill the Minsk agreement, which he signed, is totally out of proportion.
So in response to the election meddling, these diplomatic tit for tat—I don’t know how interesting this is, but the Obama people shut down a couple of dachas. They didn’t even shut down a consulate or anything. This is pretty minor stuff. Didn’t even expel any diplomats, or spies, or anything. When Putin finally responds, he lowers our cap of the amount of diplomatic personnel we can have in the country by hundreds. It’s just this completely disproportionate response. Then we’re forced to retaliate, and so we close the San Francisco consulate and two consular annexes. Again, a much lesser thing than he did. He freaks out over that and hits back even harder.
Everything that I’ve seen happen in Trump’s term in office is just showing me that Putin has given Trump nothing. In fact, he’s just made life harder for Trump. He’s made it impossible for Trump to make relations better because every new provocative action Putin does, all of Trump’s critics on the Hill start screaming that we’ve got to get tougher and tougher on Russia. They passed that sanctions bill in the summer of 2017, 97 to nothing, forced the President to sign it, even though the President didn’t want to sign it, not because he didn’t think Russia deserved it, but because he thought it was an unwarranted intrusion to the foreign policy prerogatives of the executive branch.
Again, I think it’s in Russia’s interests to be friendlier with us and to take a more distant relationship with China. They don’t think that. The Russians don’t think that. The President of Russia doesn’t think that. I have to assume he knows his own interests better than I do, but I find it puzzling.
Williams: Yes, well, that’s a problem we’re going to be dealing with for some time to come, I think.
Well, let’s go out on this. Conservative foreign policy has whipsawed a little bit in the last decade. We had the adventure in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan. We seem to be witnessing maybe the eclipse of some of the neoconservatives on this topic for at least two reasons. The American people kind of got tired with the endless war in the Middle East, and then also you’ve had the rise of Trump.
Anton: And some of the neocons have just come out and said, “I’m a liberal after all.” They’re going home.
Williams: Right, and the domestic politics of it have helped.
Anton: My favorite was my former friend—I will call him my former friend because he really was my friend for a while—Max Boot, who defended me one day. I was told about this. So I was being accused of being a white nationalist by Joy Reid on MSNBC, and Boot was on the panel. This was the summer of 2017. And he spoke up and said, “I know him. and that’s not true.” Somebody had told me, and I wrote Boot a note. Boot was highly critical of Trump even then, and I said, “Thank you. I know we don’t see eye to eye, but I appreciate that,” and he wrote me a nice note back. That was fine, and then after the birthright citizenship debate broke out into the open, Boot apparently tweeted, “I regret my defense of Michael Anton, and I no longer will willingly defend him,” as if being against birthright citizenship means you’re some kind of Nazi.
Anton: But leaving Boot aside, what ought the future of American conservative foreign policy to be?
Williams: I don’t want to leave Boot entirely aside, and it’s not just about him, it’s about a lot of these guys. We’ve seen many neocons reject almost in toto other conservative policies that they’ve said for the last 20 years that they’ve supported, which leaves one to believe, “Were you really seriously or even unseriously conservative at all?” Boot even made the argument, which was taken apart by of all people Jonah Goldberg. I feel about Jonah Goldberg sort of the way I feel about Lindsey Graham: I’ve very lukewarm, and then he stands up and he does something great, and I go, “Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
So he wrote a really solid column about Boot, in which he said, “Boot’s basically saying of certain of these policies that he’s now repudiating, ‘Well, I never thought that seriously about them anyway. I trusted my friends who studied this stuff.’” I thought, okay, I can understand something as complex as, say, climate change. I’m never going to learn it to the extent that I need to learn to have anything original or new to say, so I would rely on a person like Steve Hayward for that.
But when it comes to judicial appointments, whether to support a Supreme Court nominee, or something like that, this is a guy whose first book was about the judiciary, and it was a conservative book, praising conservative judges for sound reasons. It’s not like you just borrow that opinion from somebody else. You appear to actually believe it, but it does sort of beg the question: if that’s what your commentary was on all this stuff all along, why should I listen to any of it? You’ve just said that you’re, like, cribbing notes from Wikipedia or whatever and putting them out there. I was, I thought, extraordinary.
Williams: Yes, part of your defense of your switch can’t be, “Well, I was really a dilettante for all these years. Now I’ve finally read all this stuff.”
Anton: Yes. “I wasn’t really paying attention. Now…”
Williams: It seems to me that at the 30,000-foot level, we have to find some middle road between endless adventurism, 100-year wars to promote the peace, international broken window analogies of the neoconservative movement and then the libertarian isolationism.
Anton: That’s the false debate that we’re stuck in. It’s either maximalism or nothing.
Afghanistan’s a very tough case. Democracy in Afghanistan is, obviously, a pipe dream. At a minimum, I think we can say with 100% confidence, that whether or not democracy in Afghanistan is possible, the United States does not know how to deliver it.
Williams: Well if you can’t deliver it in a much more cosmopolitan Iraq, how can you do it in Afghanistan?
Anton: Right, we don’t know how to deliver it, but the fact of the matter is, especially the tribal areas, that border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the great international wasps’ nests of terrorism. It’s the highest concentration of bad guys who wish us ill in the world.
Williams: A bunch of nukes there, too.
Anton: Part of it overlapping with the state that has nuclear weapons and a highly secretive, mysterious, devious intelligence service that’s definitely, at least part of it, working with our enemies and wishes us ill. If things really were to go south there, you can map out your own scenarios, but it’s not impossible to imagine something very bad for U.S. interests emerging from that part of the world potentially involving nuclear weapons.
Williams: Well, Trump’s been skeptical of it, but you can understand, he doesn’t want his own version of ISIS cropping up or whatever it would look like.
Anton: Or he doesn’t want a 9/11 that emerges from that part of the world. I wrote the liberal international order article emerged out of a blog post that I cleaned up and professionalized. I wrote another one, one on the late lamented Journal of American Greatness, that I never did clean up and publish, but it was called “Enhanced Whac-A-Mole: A Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” and the reason I used that phrase “Whac-A-Mole” was one of the reasons we got into the democracy promotion business in the early to mid-2000s, you would hear foreign policy hands and senior people in the Bush Administration, some of them were my bosses, say, “We don’t want to play Whac-A-Mole with terrorists,” meaning, “We don’t want just keep going over there and having to, you know, hit one and it comes over here and so on.” So the solution to that is to build a lasting society that works in these countries, and then we don’t have to play Whac-A-Mole anymore.
Williams: It’s the drain the swamp abroad version.
Anton: Right. It obviously didn’t work, so maybe Whac-A-Mole is just the best we can do. So how do you do it? And I tried to map it out, but it’s essentially, this a quote that Machiavelli attributes to Livy but I think he made up, Discourses, Book 2 Chapter 3, if I’m recalling correctly: “The Romans in the wars they fought made them short and big.” So you go when you have to go, in force, and you deliver massive, overwhelming defeat as quickly as possible, and then you leave. That was the essence of it.
We may have to be doing that in places like Afghanistan for a while, in our own interests. It doesn’t mean—
Williams: And episodically, maybe.
Anton: Episodically. It doesn’t mean a 17-year troop presence in an attempt to build civil society—
Williams: Soccer fields, and irrigation, and yes, right.
Anton: And things like that that don’t work, but you know, you don’t want that area to become the nexus for the next 9/11 or, again, with a nuclear Pakistan, potentially something worse.
Williams: Well, we’ve spent the better part of this house mostly just dipping into these problems. We’ll have to have you back on to continue to talk about this, especially this last question, which is: what ought the future of American foreign policy be?
I remember in October we were at an alumni retreat, and you said, “We’re just starting to think this through, and we need to do a lot more work on it.” So thanks for this initial venture, and we’ll have to keep talking about it.
Anton: Thank you.