Home/Daniel Larison/The Mindless Defense of the Failed Foreign Policy Consensus

The Mindless Defense of the Failed Foreign Policy Consensus

Foreign policy commentator Max Boot. Credit: U.S. Naval War College/Flickr

Max Boot tells Democrats that they should take their foreign policy cues from an unreconstructed neo-imperialist (i.e., him):

And the Democrats? They don’t have much of a foreign policy, and when the party’s progressives propound one, the results sound like Trumpism of the left.

Boot’s analysis is very poor, and his prescription is worse. Like Kagan and Brands before him, Boot tries to lump together Trump with some of his most vocal foreign policy critics. He uses Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as his examples of “Trumpism of the left,” but except for noting that they also oppose prolonged and unnecessary foreign wars and express some mild skepticism about trade agreements Boot doesn’t come close to proving his point.

It doesn’t help Boot’s case that Sanders is one of the leading opponents of the Trump administration’s support for the Saudi coalition war on Yemen. Both Sanders and Warren voted for the Senate resolution that Trump vehemently opposed. Boot can’t acknowledge Trump’s backing for our despotic clients because it would shine a spotlight on the fact that Trump’s foreign policy has represented continuity with the worst policies of his predecessors. It would also call attention to the fact that progressive critics of Boot’s brain-dead hegemonism are doing more to oppose that foreign policy than Boot and his cohort of Never Trumpers ever have.

He asserts that “Sanders seems oblivious to the events of the more distant past — particularly the 1914-1945 period — that discredited the policy of disengagement that both he and Trump favor.” One problem with this is that neither of them wants to “disengage” from the world, and each has a very different idea of what engagement should look like. Trump’s approach is much closer to Boot’s than he cares to admit with its emphasis on increased military spending, arms sales, and covering for abusive client regimes. Sanders’ preferred foreign policy would be quite different from both, as we can see from his opposition to the illegal and unnecessary wars Boot wants and the disgraceful enabling of authoritarian clients that Trump practices.

The U.S. wasn’t “disengaged” from the world in 1914, nor was it “disengaged” between the wars. Defining engagement narrowly in terms of participating in foreign wars is tiresome and false, and once we understand that the rest of Boot’s argument falls apart immediately. The U.S. took up its post-1945 role of military and political predominance because the other major world powers had all been devastated by the greatest conflagration in history. That role is not supposed to be ours forever, we shouldn’t want to keep it, and trying to hang on to that role won’t be sustainable in any case.

The other problem with Boot’s claim is that the world wars of the twentieth century were products of another era that isn’t going to come again. The violent murder-suicide of the old European empires and its aftermath made up a unique, horrible period in world history. But there is more to history than the wars and the interwar period, and there are more legitimate foreign policy options than mindlessly defending the post-1945 or post-1991 status quo. Boot complains at the start of his column that there used to an elite consensus on foreign policy. Yes, there was, and that consensus failed because it and its advocates lost almost all of their credibility over the last 20 years of repeated, costly failure. If more and more Americans don’t believe in the myth of the “liberal order” that Boot and the others are repeating, that is because those same people were responsible for leading the U.S. into one debacle after another.

Boot’s column is useful mainly for reminding us that he remains wedded to the same failed foreign policy views that he championed for decades before he dramatically broke with the GOP. He has repudiated everything except his worst, most destructive ideas. Needless to say, no one should be coming to him for advice on foreign policy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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