For more than seven decades, the stewards of U.S. foreign policy ceaselessly proclaimed the values and goals to which they were committed: American leadership in the world, strong ties to Europe, a deep commitment to NATO and to collective defense.
I am talking about our secretaries of state and defense, and our national security advisers—people like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, and Stephen Hadley, foreign policy stalwarts of the past five Republican administrations.
Different as these individuals might be in some respects, when they talked to the rest of the world, they sounded almost like a well-rehearsed chorus. I know first-hand, because as a newspaper correspondent I travelled around the world with some of these leaders, and as an author I interviewed them. The specific issues might change from administration to administration, but the basic theme was always the same: American internationalism.
Or, to put it another way, the very opposite of America First.
And that raises an interesting question: Where are these men and women now?
Many of them are still alive, writing, speaking, working, appearing on television. Why do these pillars of America’s foreign-policy establishment seem so silent? Why aren’t we hearing passionate dissents?
Over the past few weeks, President Trump has pointedly refused to reaffirm America’s commitment to Article 5, the linchpin of NATO. He has created a profound rift with European leaders over climate change. He has treated the leaders of Germany and France in such a way that both of them are using opposition to the United States as one of their main themes in domestic elections. His top advisers have rejected the entire concept of a global community. For good measure, the Trump administration has eviscerated the State Department budget and left top positions vacant.
And based on what our former leaders have been saying (or, rather, not saying) you would think all of this was no big deal. To be sure, some of them have criticized specific actions by Trump—but carefully, and rarely if ever in the broad-brush terms in which the Trump administration itself characterizes the way it’s changing America’s role in the world.
Let’s first dispense with the argument that these former officials don’t know how to engage in public dissent—that, after all, they are merely mandarins, not elected officials. That’s silly. During the George W. Bush administration and in the run-up to the Iraq War, both Scowcroft and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski issued passionate dissents, and to considerable effect. (More about Brzezinski later.)
Nor does it hold water for these officials to say that they do raise their objections in private, during face-to-face meetings with Trump or his senior advisers. All of them are sophisticated enough to know the inherent limits of claiming that you raised something in private. (In Sino-American relations, for example, when U.S. officials raise the subject of human rights only in private, or when Chinese officials make complaints about Taiwan only in private, the other side says, in effect: OK, you can say you registered your objection, let’s move along.)
The greatest impact these former officials could have would be to issue a joint public statement rejecting Trump’s America First policies, in whatever terms and whatever language they might want to use.
Are they simply unable to collaborate? Is it simply beyond question to think that former Cabinet members and national security advisers, accustomed to operating on their own, would issue a joint statement? That’s not unprecedented, either. Over the past 10 years, Kissinger and Shultz joined with former Defense Secretary William Perry to issue several joint statements in favor of the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Kissinger is, of course, a special case, if only because he is best known to the public and to the Trump team. I admit that, realistically speaking, there’s no chance Kissinger would challenge the underpinnings of Trump’s America First policies, because he has come to play the role of courtier for every president. Trump’s famous old joke that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” might extend to Kissinger as well—so long as he is still given entrée to the White House and allowed to position himself as an intermediary between Washington and Beijing.
But, just for the historical record: Kissinger used to preach gloom and doom about any slackening in the American commitment to Europe, even ones that fall far short of what the Trump administration has done over the past month. During the Nixon administration, for example, the Senate began considering what was called the Mansfield Amendment, which would have cut back on America’s troop strength in Europe.
How did Kissinger respond at the time? As recounted in his own memoir, he organized a meeting of the “Old Guard” of American foreign policy—men like Dean Acheson, John McCloy and Henry Cabot Lodge—and they issued a joint statement denouncing the Mansfield amendment, which never passed. That was, in short, precisely the sort of collaborative effort we are not seeing in response to Trump’s far more egregious America First policies today.
To be sure, some of today’s Old Guard have said or done more than others. Powell, to his credit, wrote a strong op-ed criticizing the budget cuts at the State Department. Gates warned at one point that Trump should “stick to the script” on his trip abroad (Trump didn’t). Schultz has said very little, though he did at one point debunk Trump’s claim to have been wiretapped by former President Barack Obama.
The only one of these former leaders to issue a broad critique of Trump’s foreign policy was Brzezinski, who died last month. In March, he said the administration’s handling of foreign affairs was “chaotic, unclear, unfocused,” and that “the United States is currently a kind of wonder-wonderland.”
What made Brzezinski so much more forthright? I came to know him, both through interviews and in his academic career, and one difference stands out to me. After leaving office, he did not set up a consulting firm to earn income from private clients. He did outside advising occasionally; the record shows that he was a consultant to Amoco in the 1990s battle over Caspian Sea oil. But there was never a Brzezinski Associates, as there was a Kissinger Associates and a Scowcroft Group. In fact, Brzezinski could be quite eloquent on the subject of the influence of money in Washington.
Do financial concerns matter to other former officials, inhibiting them from speaking out? Do they worry about losing their access to the White House? I wonder. They are, by and large, honorable people; they regularly insist their ties to consulting companies don’t affect their views. For example, Rice, Hadley and Gates are linked together in their own consulting company, RHG.
As it happens, Rice, Hadley and Gates, along with Baker, were prime supporters of the nomination of Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, to be Trump’s secretary of state. RHG has represented ExxonMobil; Gates said this didn’t matter; he has known Tillerson by working with him in the leadership of the Boy Scouts. As secretary of state Tillerson has defended many of Trump’s policies and has accommodated to Trump’s budget cuts and his decimation of the State Department.
By definition, it’s too soon for final judgments. Tillerson, for example, was absent from the White House ceremony at which Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change—perhaps a hint that he will not defend everything Trump does.
But if, over an extended period of time, Trump carries forward the sort of America First policies we’ve seen over the past few weeks, causing a permanent rift with Europe, and if history comes to judge officials like Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as enablers of that fundamental change, then history should also have something to say about our former foreign policy leaders who have said so little for so long. They will be judged as the enablers of the enablers.