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The New Quincy Institute Seeks Warmongering Monsters to Destroy

Andrew Bacevich on his new left-right group, which is going hammer and tongs against the establishment on foreign policy.

For the last month, the foreign policy establishment has been abuzz over the new kid on the block: the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, named for John Quincy Adams. Adams, along with our first president George Washington, warned of foreign entanglements and the urge to go abroad in “search of monsters to destroy,” lest America’s fundamental policy “insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit….”

Those in the foreign policy Blob have had different reactions to the “upstart” think tank. These are the preeminent organizations that stand imperious in size and square footage, but have lacked greatly in wisdom and clarity over the last 20 years. Quincy will stand apart from them in two significant ways: it is drawing its intellectual and political firepower from both the anti-war Left and the realist and restraint Right. And it is poised to support a new “responsible statecraft,” one that challenges the conditions of endless war, including persistent American militarism here and abroad, the military industrial complex, and a doctrine that worships primacy and a liberal world order over peace and the sovereignty of other nations.

Quincy, which is rolling out its statement of principles this week (its official launch will be in the fall), is the brainchild of Trita Parsi, former head of the National Iranian-American Council, who saw an opening to bring together Left and Right academics, activists, and media disenchanted by both sides’ pro-war proclivities. Together with Vietnam veteran and former Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich (also a longtime TAC contributor), the Carnegie Endowment’s Suzanne DiMaggio, Columbia University’s Stephen Wertheim, and investigative journalist Eli Clifton, the group wants to serve as a counterweight to both liberal interventionists like the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations, and the war hawks and neoconservatives of the Heritage Foundation and Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

They’ve already taken hits from both sides of the establishment, dismissed brusquely as naive, or worse, isolationist (that swipe from neoconservative Bill Kristol, whose now-defunct Weekly Standard once ran a manifesto headlined “The Case for American Empire”). The fact that Quincy will be funded by both George Soros on the Left and the Charles Koch Foundation on the Right has brought some rebuke from unfriendlies and even some friendlies. The former hate on one or the other powerful billionaire, while the latter are wary of Soros’ intentions (he’s has long been a financial supporter of “soft-power” democracy movements overseas, some of which have encouraged revolution and regime change).

But Quincy’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. With a president in the White House who has promised to draw down U.S. involvement overseas (with the exception of his Iran policy, he has so far held to much of that pledge), and national conservatives coming around to TAC’s long-held worldview on realism and restraint (and an increasing willingness to reach across the aisle to work with like-minded groups and individuals), Quincy appears poised to make some noise in Washington.

According to the group’s new statement of principles, “responsible statecraft” 1) serves the public interest, 2) engages the world, 3) builds a peaceful world, 4) abhors war, and 5) is democratic.

Andrew Bacevich and Trita Parsi expanded on this further in a recent Q&A with TAC.

(Full disclosure: the author is on Quincy’s steering committee and TAC also receives funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.)

TAC: Quincy’s principles—and thus it’s name—are rooted in the mission of “responsible statecraft.” Can you give me a sense of what that means in practical terms, and why you settled on this phrasing for the institute?

AB: With the end of the Cold War, policy elites succumbed to an extraordinary bout of hubris, perhaps best expressed in the claim that history had designated the United States as its “indispensable nation.” Hubris bred recklessness and irresponsibility, with the Iraq war of 2003 as Exhibit A. We see “responsible statecraft” as the necessary antidote. Its abiding qualities are realism, restraint, prudence, and vigorous engagement. While the QI is not anti-military, we are wary of war except when all other alternatives have been exhausted. We are acutely conscious of war’s tendency to produce unintended consequences and to exact unexpectedly high costs.

TAC: Quincy is a trans-partisan effort that is bringing together Left and Right for common cause. Is it a challenge?

AB: It seems apparent to us that the myriad foreign policy failures and disappointments of the past couple of decades have induced among both progressives and at least some conservatives a growing disenchantment with the trajectory of U.S. policy. Out of that disenchantment comes the potential for a Left-Right coalition to challenge the status quo. The QI hopes to build on that potential.

TAC: Two of the principles take direct aim at the current foreign policy status quo: responsible statecraft abhors war, and responsible statecraft is democratic (calling out a closed system in which Americans have had little input into the wars waged in their names). How much of what Quincy aims to do involves upending conventional norms, particularly those bred and defended by the Washington “Blob”?

AB: In a fundamental sense, the purpose of the QI is to educate the American people and their leaders regarding the Blob’s shortcomings, exposing the deficiencies of old ideas and proposing new ones to take their place.

TAC: That said, how much blowback do you anticipate from the Washington establishment, particularly those think tanks and individuals whose careers and very existence depend on the wheels of militarism forever turning?

AB : Plenty. Proponents of the status quo are entrenched and well-funded. Breaking old habits—for example, the practice of scattering U.S. military bases around the world—will not come easily.

TAC:  There has been much ado about your two primary funders—Charles Koch and George Soros. What do you say to critics who suggest you will be tied to/limited by their agendas? 

AB:  Our funding sources are not confined to Koch and Soros and we will continue to broaden our support base. It’s not for me to speak for Koch or Soros. But my guess is they decided to support the QI because they support our principles. They too believe in policies based on realism, restraint, prudence, and vigorous engagement.

TAC: Better yet, how did you convince these two men to fund something together?

TP: It is important to recognize that they have collaborated in the past before, for instance on criminal justice reform. This is, however, the first time they’ve come together to be founding funders of a new entity. I cannot speak for them, but I think they both recognize that there currently is a conceptual deficit in our foreign policy. U.S. elite consensus on foreign policy has collapsed and the void that has been created begs to be filled. But it has to be filled with new ideas, not just a repackaging of old ideas. And those new ideas cannot simply follow the old political alignments. Transpartisan collaboration is necessary in order to create a new consensus. Koch and Soros are showing tremendous leadership in that regard.

TAC: The last refuge of a scorned hawk is to call his critics “isolationist.” It would seem as though your statement of principles takes this on directly. How else does Quincy take this often-used invective into account?

AB : We will demonstrate through our own actions that the charge is false.

TAC: Critics (including James Traub, in his own piece on Quincy) say that Washington leaders, once in office, are “mugged by reality,” suggesting that the idea of rolling back military interventions and avoiding others sounds good on paper but presidents like Barack Obama had no choice, that this is all about protecting interests and hard-nosed realism. The alternative is a bit naive. How do you respond?

AB: Choices are available if our leaders have the creativity to recognize them and the gumption to pursue them. Obama’s patient and resolute pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal affirms this possibility. The QI will expose the “we have no choice” argument as false. We will identify and promote choice, thereby freeing U.S. policy from outmoded habits and stale routines.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor at The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC