No matter one’s political persuasion, it would be tough to credit the view that the world is more peaceful today than it was only a few years ago. A shambolic American exit from Afghanistan, a major war in Eastern Europe, the horrors visited upon innocent Israelis and other foreign nationals by Hamas terrorists, and the prospect of a Chinese move against Taiwan—if these and other global hotspots are the evidence for President Joe Biden’s early 2021 claim that “America is back,” then I doubt that anyone would like for us to stay.
Since America’s emergence as a global superpower at the end of the Second World War, American elites have tended to see the world through the lens of the familiar—a common trait of human nature. This phenomenon is especially pervasive among the wealthy and the commercial and financial technocratic class, some of whom believe that attending the World Economic Forum in Davos or vacationing in the Maldives is enough to give one a consistent geopolitical worldview. Many years ago, I recall a former boss of mine—now the head of a prominent alternative asset-management firm—returning from a conference with a child’s sense of wonder about what he had learned about political tensions in Central Asia and their implications for hydrocarbon and natural-resource markets. I was tempted to reply: “Have you ever read The Economist?”
More seriously, this vignette shaped my belief that Wall Street nearly always misprices geopolitical risk—a kind of international analogue of America’s bi-coastal elites consistently misapprehending their flyover countrymen, asking variants of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” It seems never to occur to them to turn the question upon themselves.
Much of this ensues from limited, or perhaps curated, exposure to the world. More difficult to remedy, though, is the witless cultural supremacy typically practiced by American leaders both inside and outside of government; policymakers and influencers are (often subconsciously) wed to the belief that the world runs according to American society’s transient preoccupations. One current example: our export of the “woke” catechism, which doesn’t translate ideologically to other corners of the world. Thus, we now see the much-noted “Queers for Palestine” sign at many Western protests over Israeli actions in Gaza. While I’m sadly well acquainted with “intersectionality” and other artificial Western academic constructs, I’m confident that Palestinians and many others don’t see the world in this way.
Americans are notoriously ahistorical. Our knowledge of history rarely predates 1776, unless it comes from Hollywood. Moreover, both elites and everyday Americans share a predilection for short-term outlooks. While much of the world pulses to ancient ethnic aspirations and rivalries, we have X-addled attention spans that heavily discount all but the recent past and near future.
The “end of history” worldview that took shape at the end of the Cold War continues to influence us. It manifests in two regrettable ways: a misguided view that we now live in a “post-conflict” world, in which diplomacy and negotiation can resolve every dispute, and the associated rise of credentialism among American elites. With little experience of great-power conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union, what now constitutes wisdom has become performative. One need only wade through U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s “The Sources of American Power” in the current issue of Foreign Affairs to observe a world viewed through the looking glass, most infamously when Sullivan, writing before October 7, opines that the Middle East is “quieter than it has been for decades.”
How, then, can we and our elected leaders see the world more clearly? Apart from extensive and meaningful experience outside the U.S., studying world history would be a start—a foundation from which to form reasoned opinions. Similarly, a healthy skepticism toward the “tyranny of the vocal” is essential—that impassioned 10 percent on any issue that seeks to shape narratives through noise, not facts and reason.
Finally, we should require our leaders to hold American interests paramount. Reasonable people can disagree on the value of multilateral institutions, alliances, collective action, and the merits of a principles-based foreign policy compared with a transactional one. But no policy should subordinate American national security interests to competing agendas. Take a recent example: to suggest that climate change poses a greater threat than nuclear war—as Biden did in September—is so unserious as to suggest an abdication of government’s responsibility for national security, one of its few well-defined roles under the Constitution.
Arguably even more important for policymakers and elites is to understand that universal values are distinct from Western values. One can certainly believe in the superiority of one’s own value system, ideally with a heavy serving of humility. Put differently, we can believe that our values are best, while simultaneously not seeking to impose them upon, or impute them to, others.
Therein may lie the primary issue with our foreign policy establishment: its inability to process the reality that state actors and their leaders may see the world differently than we do. In an environment saturated with talk of “privilege,” Americans would do well to cashier the privilege of thinking that the world operates according to American designs.
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