Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

An American Return to Peace

A strong, sober realism can restore a U.S. foreign policy hijacked by progressive idealism.
George Washington vintage

The Quiet Man has only recently been moved to the top bracket of director John Ford’s great films. As with so many Ford classics, this hilarious but wise story of an Irish-American former boxer (played by John Wayne) is often ignored. The film contains many highlights, but Wayne’s fight with the Irish bully (Victor McLaglen) remains this political science teacher’s favorite.

Wayne’s character went to Ireland to recover psychologically after accidentally killing another boxer in a professional match. Reluctant to fight again,—“quiet”—he is forced into the ring by McLaglen. Locals insist the battle be held under formal Marquis of Queensbury rules to demonstrate their sophistication. The rascally McLaglen professes to agree and circles the area continuously shouting “Marquis of Queensbury rules.” When Wayne follows suit, the burly McLaglen lands an enormous blow to the back of Wayne’s head, knocking him down and almost out.

If only everyone followed Queensbury’s rules, even the many who profess them. That reality is the specialty of foreign policy political scientist par excellence, Angelo Codevilla, who taught for many years at Boston University and is now a fellow at the Claremont Institute. His earlier classic Advice To War Presidents was aimed at the experts, but now he has written a book for all of us, To Make and Keep Peace: Among Ourselves and with All Nations. Unfortunately, most experts in the field never quite caught the Quiet Man lesson. Codevilla tries to educate them.

None of the major foreign policy schools get it. Pacifism enables the bully and finally promotes aggression and war, neither very peaceful. Liberal internationalism denies that nations can be bullies when we understand them better and teach them to be good democrats. Realism thinks we can convince the McLaglen’s to see their better interest in making a deal rather than fighting. Neoconservatism has Wayne become a bully too, not only winning the fight as Wayne does but to reform McLaglen and the whole countryside of unsophisticated rubes to accept the American way, by force if necessary. Codevilla stresses that the word “peace” is foreign to them all.

Codevilla builds his theory on the radical idea that the purpose of foreign policy, especially for the U.S., is peace. This was the ideal that motivated the Founders like George Washington, who urged the nation to “cultivate peace and harmony with all” as its “only” foreign policy goal and John Quincy Adams who set “the first and paramount duty of the government is to maintain peace amidst all the convulsions of foreign wars, and to enter the lists as parties to no cause other than our own.” If war was required by a vital national interest, the goal was to return to peace as soon as possible. This remained U.S. national policy right up to the 20th century and the rise of philosophical progressivism in both political parties.

Progressive leader Woodrow Wilson changed it all, synthesizing Elihu Root’s utopian faith in rational treaty-making, Nicholas Murray Butler’s belief in the obsolescence of war, and David Starr Jordan’s conviction that just men can reform the world. Wilson believed “America’s mission is to bring peace and unity to mankind.” He “had replaced the compass of concrete peace with a utopian creed” expressed in his idealistic Fourteen Points program for the post-World War I world and a League of Nations to manage it thereafter. While his vision was frustrated by his traditionalist successors Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, ever since Franklin Roosevelt progressivism has ruled the foreign policy roost; and the U.S. has been in a constant state of war.

Codevilla holds that all four of today’s foreign policy ideologies are based upon the same progressive idealism. The only way back to a national interest of realism based on peace is to reject its premises. “Gradual and sinuous as wise changes in U.S. foreign policy would have to be, the intellectual challenge would have to begin simply with reversing the progressive movement’s erasure of the distinction between America’s interest and that of mankind, between what is ‘our business’ and what is ‘their business,’ between peace and war.” What is our business? Militarily defending the nation is, by building the best possible missile defense and “behind that shield to wield diplomacy and military power to guard our peace and win our wars.”

Codevilla can offend advocates for peace by his hard Machiavellian assumptions and conclusions (Codevilla is a translator of The Prince). Human beings “naturally crave excuses for treating political opponents as bad people.” In response, the job of 21st century Americans is “giving no offense and suffering none.” And “When others trouble our peace, we impose it upon them by war—war as terribly decisive as we can make it.” Machiavelli warned “never do an enemy a little harm.” But his anchor to peace rests in the same realism. A “green-eye-shade comparison of costs and benefits” is required before any military action. “Discernment of what does and does not impinge on our peace is essential because there is no such thing as a small war.” As much justification as the elder Assad gave by supporting the truck-bombing of U.S. troops in Lebanon, Codevilla argues against U.S. troops in Syria today. If early America could live with despotic czarist Russia, it is possible to harmonize relations with China and Russia today if we respect their business and they ours.

“America’s paramount interest is remaining itself, remaining the place to which would-be Americans born elsewhere come to live in a unique way, without a ruling class.” “‘All men are created equal’ is the heart and soul of what makes America different from the rest of the world. Preserving that exceptional nature is American statecraft’s natural, paramount objective.” The greatest problem with permanent war is that it needs a permanent elite to run it. This ruling class in both parties turns a war on terror into a surveillance operation against “all citizens equally rather than plausible enemies discriminately, it stumbled into a state of domestic siege that foredoomed America to domestic strife.”

Elite power over “homeland security,” in turn, “fueled its sense of moral-political-intellectual entitlement to nation-build fellow Americans” as well as foreigners, labeling dissenting citizens terrorists, producing animosity “among ourselves.” The Department of Homeland Security’s Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1970-2008 classified persons “suspicious of centralized federal authority” or “reverent of individual liberty” as “extreme right-wing terrorists.” So U.S. citizens become monitored by increasingly militaristic police.

Perpetual involvement in international disputes leads U.S. leaders to expect foreign nations to follow their ways. These leaders “promote the same recipe of secularism and sex roles” to a very traditionalist world as they do domestically. All U.S. embassies celebrate gay rights for a month each year, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaiming “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” As a result, Islam comes to believe that the U.S. “exports godlessness, immorality, the dissolution of families” to them. This affects us too. American troops originally complained of Afghan troops using street waifs for sex and for torturing dogs but Pentagon higher-ups set up training to show American troops how to tolerate their ways for the greater good of winning the forever war.

The world is dangerous and war is sometimes necessary. Strength is required—but it should be to keep the peace. As Ronald Reagan put it, “Peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it. Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use it.” Reagan made mistakes in foreign policy, especially in Lebanon, but he did remove the troops sent there after deciding it was not worth the cost. More important, Reagan committed fewer troops than any recent president other than Jimmy Carter and negotiated with the Soviet Union in a way that led to the end of the Cold War in peace, without firing a shot.

Codevilla brings a healthy dose of reality and common sense into the foreign policy debate. His realism will shock many in today’s Oprah-sensitivity world. But getting back to basics should be welcomed if Americans are ever to return to peaceful times. This Irish reviewer personally has a higher threshold for threat and a lower one for requiring “respect” than does the author, but Codevilla’s logic is impeccable. The goal domestically and internationally is peace, and that is achieved by being strong and minding only our business and not that of others. A healthy debate is taking place over foreign policy these days, especially among Republicans, and Codevilla should be the invaluable quiet man in guiding an intelligent discussion.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.