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A Victorian Vance

State of the Union: In a recent WSJ op-ed Sen. J.D. Vance channels his inner Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston.

(By lef radin/Shutterstock)

J.D. Vance has written for the Wall Street Journal what could be the first big-name endorsement of a candidate for 2024. In an op-ed dated yesterday January 31, titled, “Trump’s Best Foreign Policy? Not Starting Any Wars,” the Republican senator from Ohio wrote that Trump has Vance’s support because his foreign policy is tested. Trump hasn’t started any wars and will not send Americans to fight abroad.

Vance starts with an event that has now dropped from the news cycle: the rocket attack on Poland, which the Ukrainians tried to spin as one launched by Russian forces, but which was actually a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile. There is no plausible way that the president of a country at war did not get battlefield information from one of his theater commanders about their own missile misfiring and hitting a NATO nation. And yet, for two whole days Zelensky and his lobbyists in D.C. deliberately lied about the incident, fully knowing that the implication of that was to drag NATO into a nuclear war with Russia. The story got dropped by major news sources the moment it was proved beyond doubt that the darling of the West was clearly lying to get us to war.


But the most important part of Vance’s op-ed was this.

Why is it that the people the U.S. trains for leadership are so careful with their words yet so reckless with their actions? Why does America devote billions of dollars to recruiting and training its best young minds for leadership, only to have those minds orchestrate one foreign-policy disaster after another?

The answer is that, from grand-strategy seminars to the State Department, our entire notion of statesmanship is broken. For many, statesmanship means having a polite social-media presence and throwing out slogans about “freedom” and “democracy” while starting world-historic catastrophes in the Middle East. I prefer a different kind of statesmanship: one that stands athwart the crowd, reminding leaders in both parties that the U.S. national interest must be pursued ruthlessly but also carefully, with strong words but great restraint.

Incidentally, the day Vance’s op-ed was published was also the day Prussia marched on Denmark to occupy the region of Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, starting the second Schleswig war, a pivotal moment in European politics. At the time Europe had a whole range of small powers balancing each other, with an overarching British offshore maritime supremacy, a system that had run quite well since the collapse of Napoleonic France. The British used to call it the “Splendid Isolation”—a concept I think we should rehabilitate in an era of emerging multipolarity—wherein Europeans balanced each other, and Britain controlled the sea routes as an “offshore balancer” without any permanent garrison in Europe, only getting involved in mainland Europe as a last resort if a continent-wide hegemonic threat arises.

The emerging German nationalism however led to a rising Prussia to go to war, in their words, to liberate Germanic provinces from Danish occupation. And it provided a challenge to the system. Interventionist voices within Britain argued for a war with the Germans, for “honour.” And it was then that Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston gave one of the most interesting foreign policy speeches in British history. Speaking to supporters in Tiverton, Palmerston started by saying, “I am sure every Englishman who has a heart in his breast and a feeling of justice in his mind, sympathizes with those unfortunate Danes and wishes that this country could have been able to draw the sword successfully in their defence.”

But England didn’t.


Explaining why, Palmerston said,

to have sent a fleet in midwinter to the Baltic every sailor would tell you was an impossibility, but if it could have gone it would have been attended by no effectual result. Ships sailing on the sea cannot stop armies on land…If England could have sent an army, and although we all know how admirable that army is on the peace establishment, we must acknowledge that we have no means of sending out a force at all equal to cope with the 300,000 or 400,000 men whom the 30,000,000 or 40,000,000 of Germany could have pitted against us, and that such an attempt would only have insured a disgraceful discomfiture…

Ultimately, “we did not think that the Danish cause would be considered as sufficiently British, and as sufficiently bearing on the interests and the security and the honour of England, as to make it justifiable to ask the country to make those exertions which such a war would render necessary.”

The two noticeable things here are the simple trade-off and cost benefit calculation. First, Britain could not compete with German “escalation dominance,” given that Germany was a rising land power, and Britain a naval superpower. Second, Britain might have tried to build a continental force if the threat was that large, but a small province changing hand in northern Europe did not alter the balance of power in any measurable way. Britain still guarded the gray seas and there was no naval invasion force in the continent powerful enough to challenge that. And finally, Palmerston, a viscount, thought it prudent to make such argument and lay out his case for restraint democratically, in front of the people, in very simple terms, going against pressure from his own side.

I am not sure if J.D. Vance has read anything about Victorian foreign policy. But he instinctively channelled his inner Palmerston when he pointed out the main problem with the last thirty years of the consensus grand strategy of promoting freedom across the globe, the fumes of which are still pushing us to mindlessly escalate in Ukraine. Ukraine is a backwater Eastern province that, if changes hands, won’t alter the balance of power in Europe, or challenge American naval hegemony, but where further involvement can almost certainly lead to catastrophic consequences.

And Vance thought it prudent to lay out his case, in simple terms, in a paper of record, to appeal directly to the American people. If we aspire for America to implement a realist grand strategy, we should look for more politicians to start thinking of interests, trade-offs, and balance of power, more than values, and then to do exactly that.


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