Benjamin Schwarz became the national editor of The American Conservative in late 2014. He is the author of our March/April cover story, “Building an Underclass,” which examines the consequences of postwar social and urban planning for the working-class British family. To help introduce Ben to our readers, I lobbed him a few questions:
Jeremy Beer: You got your professional start as a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation in the early 1990s. What have we learned about the possibilities and limits of American power since the end of the Cold War? And how has the foreign-policy establishment changed—if at all?
Benjamin Schwarz: I was actually at RAND (as a consultant and as a staff member in the international policy department) from 1986 to 1995, a period that encompassed a rather hot phase of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the first Gulf War, and the push to expand NATO in a post-Cold War world. So, for about half of my time there, the think tank’s national security research was focused almost exclusively on assessing the apparent Soviet threat (and the apparent threat of the USSR’s apparent clients). After the early 1990s, RAND came to find and focus on new apparent threats, as did the rest of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. But despite all that’s happened since my time at RAND, I think we’ve learned very little, I’m afraid, about the limits and purposes of American power.
From the late 1940s until the early 1990s, the foreign policy establishment told the American people that a constellation of elements was necessary to stem the supposed Soviet menace: U.S. military interventions, maintaining the attitude among America’s elites that foreign affairs was more glamorous and pressing than domestic concerns, and America’s globe-girdling “security” commitments—and our concomitantly gargantuan defense budgets. But after that supposed menace evaporated, the costly interventions, the globalist attitudes, the worldwide defense posture, and the obscene defense spending have continued. NATO, the military alliance that was ostensibly formed to thwart the Red Army, hasn’t been liquidated, but rather has hugely expanded and has attacked countries, Yugoslavia and Libya, that, however unsavory, posed no threat whatsoever to NATO’s member states.
I think that during the Cold War the Soviets imposed limits on the exercise of the American foreign policy elite’s overweening ambitions and its dangerously expansive conviction that, as President Obama declared, “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people”; with no superpower counterweight, those ambitions have become all but limitless.
Beer: You wrote an important piece for The Atlantic in June 1996 titled “Why America Thinks It Has to Run the World.” In that piece you argued that “the suspension of international politics through hegemony has been the fundamental aim of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s,” and “the real story of that policy is not the thwarting of and triumph over the Soviet threat but the effort to impose an ambitious economic vision on a recalcitrant world”—in other words, the real story of our foreign policy has been to make the world safe for capitalism. Would you say that this is still the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy? How do the alleged motivations of protecting human rights or promoting democracy come into play here?
Schwarz: Well, I could say—and maybe I should say—that I was somewhat exaggerating my case to make a point about the central role that the creation and maintenance of what James Baker called the “global liberal economic regime” has played in American foreign policy. To crudely put things in Marxian terms, I think that the “global liberal economic regime” is the fundamental aim—the base—of U.S. foreign policy, and that other attributes of a liberal world order, such as democracy and human rights, are the ideological superstructure—but those attributes and aims can take on a life of their own, complete with their own advocacy groups, bureaucracies, and academic specialists, separated from the base. So I don’t believe that, say, the Obama administration intervened in Libya to directly safeguard global capitalism, and I don’t believe that Samantha Power, say, has any great enthusiasm for maintaining the mechanisms necessary to sustain what Karl Kautsky called “ultra-imperialism.”
But I do believe that our political and foreign policy elites universally embrace the notion that America and the world can only be prosperous and secure to the extent that the world conforms to American economic and political values (that is, as Anthony Lake put it, America has a national security imperative to enlarge the “world’s free community of market democracies” and counter the “aggression … of states hostile to democracy and markets”)—and that those elites believe that a global liberal political order and a global liberal economic order are mutually supporting, indeed that the one is dependent on the other.
Beer: In another Atlantic piece–“The Diversity Myth,” published in 1995, you wrote: “the history we hold up as a light to nations is a sanctimonious tissue of myth and self-infatuation. We get the world wrong because we get ourselves wrong.” That still holds true, doesn’t it? What are the ramifications of this lack of self-knowledge today?
Schwarz: First, I should make clear that (a) I believe that America is neither an exceptional nor an indispensible nation and (b) I’m a patriot. Love of country, as Orwell said, implies for better, for worse. I’m a patriot because this is my country, I feel deeply rooted in it, and I could never be at home anywhere else. But I don’t think our history shows us as any better—or any worse —than many other countries. Our political and foreign policy circles believe that America is obligated to inflict its goodness upon the world. This unlovely tendency is made hugely worse—and hugely more dangerous—by an unrealistic understanding of our own history.
We are a nation forged by conquest and nationalist aggression, by a bullying foreign policy, and by what we now call ethnic cleansing and ethnic hegemony. And in pursuit of what we’ve perceived to be our national interests, we have fought counterinsurgency wars—on our frontiers for over 200 years, across Georgia, in the Philippines, Central America, Vietnam—by suppressing, starving, and killing the insurgents’ “base of support”—that is, the civilian population. Having employed those unpleasant but perhaps necessary means to build our continent-spanning nation, subdue our neighbors to the north and south in our pursuit of a hemispheric sphere of influence, and protect what we’ve defined as our global interests, we now demand that other countries conduct their domestic and foreign affairs according to a standard that we hardly applied to ourselves. No doubt Vladimir Putin sees America’s protestations over his pursuit of what he perceives as his country’s security interest as little more than the smug and aggressive braying of insufferable hypocrites.
Beer: You have the polymathic interests of the educated generalist. In your judgment, who have been the most prescient English-speaking figures on the right over the last hundred years?
Schwarz: I distinguish between “right” and “conservative” (just as I do between “left” and “liberal”/”progressive”). To me, “right” is a fairly radical stance, implying a reordering of society to conform to a utopian ideal. At its most extreme those ideals have historically been rooted in pseudo-scientific notions of nationality and race and the transformational power of an authoritarian state; at their far less extreme those ideals are often rooted in a devotion to the happy results that will supposedly follow from giving the market free rein to transform economies, societies, and cultures.
I have a lot more sympathy for conservative than I do for right (but a lot more sympathy for “left” than I do for liberal/progressive). To me, at the most basic level, the kind of conservatism that The American Conservative embraces is rooted in, well, conserving what I’d call (with a nod to Orwell) the traditional decencies in a world increasingly inimical to those decencies. My conservative pantheon actually includes many figures, Orwell among them, who have combined a conservative disposition with a commitment to socialism. So, from England, R.H. Tawney, G.D.H. Cole, and Michael Young fall into my category, as do, from the U.S., such populist figures as Ignatius Donnelly and Leonidas Polk, the Nashville Agrarians, Dorothy Day, and the historians William Appleman Williams, Christopher Lasch, and Eugene Genovese. All, I think, were prescient in their grasp of the corrosive effect of the free market on society, culture, and morals (and manners).
I think that Robert Taft and George Kennan—sons of the heartland and creatures of the eastern and Washington establishments—were especially prescient in their understanding of the profound appeal that the exercise of a grandiose global role had for the national political and economic elite. And Michael Young, whom I mention above and discuss in my cover story, brilliantly foretold the toxic consequences of a free market society and economy devoted, as such a society and economy must be, to the pursuit of meritocracy and equality of opportunity (rather than to a rough equality of condition).
Beer: Along the lines of your helpful distinction between “right” and “conservative,” isn’t the “free market” one of those terms that requires distinctions itself? It seems to me there is a fundamental difference between market exchanges that take place on a smaller, more local and personalist scale (for example) and those impersonal exchanges which characterize what we might call consumer capitalism. Would you agree?
Schwarz: That is a crucial distinction and I was very sloppy not to make it myself—thank you for pointing it out. First, I would ask readers to substitute “consumer capitalism” for “free market” in my answer above—but the essential point you raise demands a fuller response. To me, the problem with small-scale market exchanges—in fact all exchanges and relationships—in the context of a modern, all-consuming, corporate-friendly, global economy and society is that such exchanges all but inevitably become subsumed to and consumed by those larger forces. Nothing escapes the domination of the market, as Marx and Engels, who, although they applauded this process, recognized with more than a hint of tragedy:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the capitalist epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…
Leaving aside the corrosive impact of a market-dominated world on family life, traditional values, and social relations, its impact on what liberals and progressives like to call “social justice” is just as great, a point I alluded to at the end of my previous response (see above). To many such progressives, the Millennium will arrive when, say, the Stanford undergraduate body and the fanciest tech companies and law firms are populated by the smartest, most “creative” people, regardless of ethnic background and sexual orientation, and when business and the state work together to support the women entering the labor market.
We may think these goals represent the triumph of an ideology that was forged in a vacuum called “the ‘60s,” but to me, that ideology has triumphed only in the context of those all-consuming market forces. The dictates of the (impersonal, global-scale) market work toward—almost require—such outcomes, because in this way “human capital” is most efficiently allocated. But this seemingly egalitarian pursuit of “equality of opportunity” elevates the workplace over domestic life and simply replaces an old hierarchy with a new, even more pernicious, one, that of “deserving” talent.
The problem, of course, is that almost of us are, by definition, average, and therefore almost all of us, absent non-market intervention, will make up a permanent underclass—not just because the market won’t reward our meager talent, but because the market has no interest whatsoever in our ability to lead fulfilling lives. Expanding the opportunity for people of various ethnicities and sexual orientations to rise in the world will still mean that nearly everyone won’t rise. As Tawney recognized, such opportunities are no substitute for the ability of all of us “to lead a life of dignity and culture, whether [we] rise or not.” I wonder if conservatives should pay rather more attention to achieving that above-referenced rough equality of condition—that way, parents of average ability (at least of average ability as defined by the market) can raise a family and in other ways pursue a rewarding existence based on community life and their exercise of those interests and talents that are not rewarded by the market.
Of course, I recognize that this utopia—in for a penny—bears some resemblance to a society governed by the ideal “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” popularized by Marx. And of course I recognize that it is wholly unrealistic for a gazzillion reasons, not least because it’s impossible to form a cooperative society in a polity made up of strangers adhering to disparate, and often antithetical, cultures (which is, again, the polity you perforce get in a world ruled by the dictates of a vast and impersonal—and wholly efficient—market).
Beer: One of your distinguishing characteristics as an editor at The Atlantic seemed to be a desire to rescue various long-neglected figures from what TAC contributing editor Bill Kauffman likes to call the “memory hole.” Who are some of your favorite forgotten men and women?
Schwarz: There’s no more perceptive guide to the forgotten figures of TAC-style conservatism than Bill Kauffman, and for those who haven’t read it, I commend his book on the same, America First! The forgotten figures who first come to my mind are the so-called July plotters against Hitler. True, they’re hardly unknown, but because for the most part they lack the conventional qualifications for approbation—progressive, secular, pacific, democratic—they haven’t been embraced as the courageous, principled figures they were. They possessed the exceedingly rare courage to support an acute and active conscience. For nearly all of them—including such conservative-nationalists as Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and General Hans Paul Oster, and such conservative aristocratic officers as Henning von Tresckow and Claus von Stauffenberg—the extermination of the Jews was the Third Reich’s irredeemable disgrace. It was a crime that demanded the Nazis’ overthrow and brought upon Germany, and themselves, what they almost universally called “blood guilt” that could not be expunged.
These humane, honorable, militarist, devoutly Christian, retrograde men held political attitudes that ranged from the romantic reactionary to the strongly nationalist to quasi-corporatist to the quasi-authoritarian. Some of them, such as Friedrich Olbricht, opposed the Nazis from the beginning. Others supported many of the nationalist foreign policy goals embraced by Hitler, and “bore some of the responsibility for the rise of Nazi rule,” as the historian Winfried Heinemann remarks in the German state’s semi-official history, Germany and the Second World War, but “they also produced the only resistance that presented any real threat.” For those dedicated to liberal, secular, and democratic values history provides few better lessons of the fact that we must take, and welcome, our heroes where we can find them.
Rather than continue my laundry list, I’ll quote two passages that show what are for me valuable ways to approach figures from the past. The first is by Orestes Brownson (himself a neglected conservative) on the importance of being a fugitive from the camp of historical victory: “May we not weep for the defeated? Must we always desert the cause as soon as fortune forsakes it, and bind ourselves to the cause which is in the ascendant, and hurrah in the crowd that throw up their caps in honor of the conqueror?”
The second, morally complicated, passage, is by Eugene Genovese: “In irreconcilable confrontations, as comrade Stalin … clearly understood, it is precisely the most admirable, manly, principled, and, by their own lights, moral opponents who have to be killed; the others can be frightened or bought.”
Thankfully, American politics rarely involve irreconcilable confrontations. Nevertheless, I deeply believe that we must acknowledge the courage, good will, and decency of our political opponents and of those historical figures we find objectionable whenever we encounter those qualities, and I’ve tried to do so in my writing. If any readers want to know about my historical and literary rescue efforts, I’ve gathered all my articles and reviews at benjaminschwarz.org.
Beer: You are at work on what is being billed as a “revisionist” biography of Winston Churchill. What are you revising? And what do we most need to know about Churchill today?
Schwarz: Well, mildly revisionist. All of the commercially successful biographies of Churchill have been hagiographic. A few of the others have been unremittingly hostile. It’s been 50 years since Churchill’s death; it’s time for a clear-eyed life and times of Churchill. I’m trying to write a discerning, analytical account that’s neither for those in search of heroes nor for those who want to smash icons. It’s time for a life of Churchill that treats him as a man in history-not as a mawkish hero to inspire us or to enlist in our crusades. It’s time, that is, for a life of Churchill written for adults. It’s perhaps more important to note who hasn’t written a biography of Churchill than to note who has. No British historian of the first rank-not A.J.P. Taylor, not Hugh Trevor-Roper, not Michael Howard, not Paul Kennedy-has taken on the life of the towering figure in twentieth century British history. I’m not putting myself in their class, but I’m trying to write a biography that uses their cool, ironic historical judgment and style. The result, I hope, will be a measured and detached life and times for our time.
Jeremy Beer is president of the American Ideas Institute and editor of America Moved: Booth Tarkington’s Memoirs of Time and Place, 1869-1928.