News of the creation of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (with which I am affiliated) prompted an immediate response from the ever ebullient and bellicose Bill Kristol. The Quincy Institute opposes wars of no purpose that drag on endlessly. Kristol prefers to ignore those wars, especially the ones that he energetically promoted, promising easy victories that never came to pass.
Yet his swipe at the Quincy Institute merits attention. It expresses in concise form the challenges facing anyone advocating a less militarized and more prudent approach to American statecraft.
Rather than discussing the reality of the present, Kristol diverts our attention to a manufactured past. On Twitter, he offers his own version of the history: “75 years of a US-led liberal international order, based on a US forward presence and backed by US might, with regional and bilateral alliances and relatively free trade, has enabled remarkable peace and prosperity. But let’s go back to the 1920’s and 30’s!”
Now that jolly little narrative is chockablock with half-truths and outright evasions. (“Peace and prosperity” for whom, one might ask.) But it’s the sarcastic reference to the 1920s and 1930s that’s key. It’s Kristol’s way of smearing as head-in-the-sand, let-Hitler-do-whatever-he-wants isolationists anyone with the temerity to question the wisdom of engaging in endless wars. For those of Kristol’s ilk, Hitler is not yet dead. Or perhaps more accurately, there are always lots of Hitlers out there, perhaps speaking languages other than German, but keen to carry on the Fuhrer’s work. And according to Kristol, it is America’s eternal calling to stop them dead in their tracks.
I am, of course, caricaturing Kristol’s views, just as he caricatures anyone who suggests that the interests of the United States, and perhaps even of the rest of the world, might be better served by an approach to U.S. policy based on realism and restraint—not turning our back on the world but engaging it creatively, informed by an appreciation that the 1920s and 1930s are gone for good.
I don’t pretend to speak for my colleagues at the Quincy Institute, all of whom are younger and smarter than I am. But I’d suggest that being mindful of the 1920s, as Kristol insists we must, is less important than taking stock of the 2020s, which are just around the corner. I have no doubt that history should play an important role in helping us understand the challenges that await our country and the planet as a whole, but it can’t be the stale, potted history to which Kristol clings.
The world has changed, Bill. So, too, has the United States. It’s time for you to start catching up.
Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large and a co-founder of the Quincy Institute.