Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has her eye on the White House in 2024. Photo by John Lamparski / Getty Images
Features

After the Blob

Inside the battle for a new American foreign policy

There is not an obvious shortage of think tanks in Washington, DC. Walk the capital’s streets and it will not be long before you pass an imposing building with a brass plaque identifying the headquarters of the Foundation for This, or the Center for That. This month, a new organisation, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, opens its doors. Armed with the requisite impossible-to-disagree-with name (anyone for irresponsible statecraft?), its job will be “promoting ideas that move US foreign policy away from endless war and towards vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace”.

Named after diplomat-turned-president John Quincy Adams and animated by his warning that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”, the institute made a small splash over the summer thanks to the eyebrow-raising duo providing the cash. Billionaire investor George Soros is the quintessential globalist, a villain of the alt-right and the subject of a steady stream of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Charles Koch, another billionaire, is loathed by the left for the “dark money” he and his brother David, who died this year, have spent keeping American libertarianism afloat for decades. You would struggle to dream up two bogeymen with the capacity to enrage so wide a range of the political spectrum.

In keeping with this unconventional cross-partisanship, the institute’s team of scholars and researchers ranges from Trump-adjacent conservatives to left-wing academics more at home at a Noam Chomsky seminar than a MAGA rally.

This ideological coalition is united by a common enemy: the community of government foreign policy officials, think-tank experts, consultants and journalists famously nicknamed “The Blob” by Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

The Blob received a rhetorical mauling in a recent conference organised by the American Conservative, a combative small-circulation monthly magazine founded by Patrick Buchanan, the granddaddy of paleoconservatism, and Taki Theodoracopulos, the Spectator columnist never far from an accusation of antisemitism. At “Regime Change: How to Replace the Beltway Blob with the Foreign Policy Americans Want”, anti-war liberals, libertarians and conservatives plotted the Blob’s downfall in a room at the top of the Hart Senate Building on Capitol Hill. The room had a breathtaking view of the city which the attendees think has got so much so wrong in recent decades.

Andrew bacevich, a conservative historian at Boston University and a co-founder of the Quincy Institute, railed against the “militarists” and “zealots” responsible for the Iraq war, in which his son died fighting in 2007. “Looking at the course of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War,” he said, “it’s a pretty dismal record, but the Blob seems to be oblivious to the havoc we have created through our misuse of force and the damage we have done to other countries and to our own country.”

Senator Josh Hawley takes a tough stance on China (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty)

On one panel, participants discussed ways to “throw a monkey wrench” into the military-industrial complex. On another, contributors contemplated how to deal with the “swampy ecosystem supporting the status quo”. The Quincy Institute’s arrival was greeted enthusiastically, while the names of well-known neoconservatives, such as former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, and liberal interventionists, including Obama’s UN ambassador Samantha Power, were more spat than spoken.

Does this laundry list of grievances translate into a coherent set of ideas? And can a ragtag alliance really form a serious foreign policy counter-establishment that does more than just point out the Blob’s mistakes?

The emerging anti-Blob has one thing going for it: timing. America is at the twilight of two long wars which the majority of voters want to be over and about which it is difficult to convincingly answer the question, “What have we achieved?” Iraq and Afghanistan may not have disfigured American life in the same way as Vietnam, but the financial and human toll has hardly been insignificant.

More generally, America’s ambivalence about being a superpower has been obvious for a decade. A chaotic world might be seen by some as remaking the case for American engagement overseas, but that increasingly feels like a minority view. Americans have elected the closest thing to the anti-Blob candidate in the last three presidential elections.

Opposition to the Iraq war was a distinguishing feature of Obama’s candidacy in 2008 while a recalibration of America’s relationship with the rest of the world was — for all that the anti-Blob claims he did not go far enough — perhaps the major theme of his presidency.

A bluntness about American failure in the Middle East was also an important dividing line between Trump and his rivals for the White House. And while it is difficult to distil the president’s erratic decision-making into anything approaching a doctrine, America First is clearly more than just a catchy slogan.

Josh Hawley is the youngest member of the Senate, with impeccable conservative credentials and a worldview compatible with the post-Trump Republican party

However, the sceptical mood that gives the anti-Blob such energy also points to their biggest problem. Frustrated paid-up members of the Blob will tell you they cannot remember a time when their ideas were so out of favour. Plenty will also acknowledge some of the criticisms levelled at their side of the debate.

Indeed, one of the exhilarating things about Washington at the moment is just how fluid and open-ended so many debates feel — none more so than the conversation about America’s place in the world. Far clearer is the sense that one era is over, but exactly what will replace it remains to be seen.

On China’s rise, Russian revanchism, Syria, Iran and Israel, the future of Nato and much more, the range of suggested approaches could hardly be wider.

And yet, in Washington, too few of these conversations are conducted in good faith. Just as the Blob can seem too comfortable repeating tired bromides about the “indispensable nation” and reflexively labelling the other side “isolationists”, the anti-Blob camp too often questions the motives of its opponents in  quasi-conspiratorial terms rather than engaging in substantive argument. Further complicating the picture is the president himself. If Trump’s election exposed received DC dogma to overdue scrutiny, his erratic actions in office trivialise and obscure issues that will outlast his presidency.

Perhaps some clarity can come from recent speeches by two of the most feted Republicans in DC, both of whom are thought to have designs on the White House in 2024. Until last year, Nikki Haley was Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Now she is trying to find space for establishment Republican thinking in a populist age. Receiving the prestigious Irving Kristol Award at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner recently, she sought to adapt a more traditional Republican approach to foreign policy to a party transformed by Trump. To the anti-war coalition, this is exactly the sort of Blob shapeshifting they seek to guard against.

Josh Hawley is the youngest member of the Senate, with impeccable conservative credentials and a worldview compatible with the post-Trump Republican party. In his speech last month at the Center for a New American Security, Hawley said the post-Cold War consensus around ever-expanding American commitments overseas deserves not only fresh scrutiny, but “replacement”. “The universal, progressive international order never fully arrived, because it was never fully rooted in reality,” he said, calling the unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War “an aberration — a triumphant one, of course — but one that offers no road map for our foreign policy today.”

That is music to the ears of the anti-Blob, but Hawley is no dove. Like Trump, he favours a robust approach to China. Unlike Trump, his grievances are not limited to trade: instead, he urges America to gear up for a broader geopolitical and cultural confrontation.

Both the Blob and its critics at perches including the Quincy Institute tend to see the battle over the future of US foreign policy in black and white terms. The former regard themselves as defenders of an idealised rules-based international system, the latter as brave insurgents against the war machine. The battle over the future of US foreign policy is going to be a lot messier than either side realises.

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