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I recently got an email from the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins, inviting me to register for and watch an online forum on “World Order after COVID 19.”… I clicked on the link and looked at the agenda.
On the one hand, the program looked interesting, mainly because several of the panels featured experts in public health, law, bioethics, etc., topics not normally included in events dealing with foreign policy, grand strategy, or “world order.”
The program also features keynote speeches by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and my HKS colleague Larry Summers. Eric and Larry are big thinkers who are always worth listening to, even if one sometimes disagrees with what they have to say.
On the other hand, however, I could not help but be struck by the conventional (and to some extent interventionist) inclinations of most of the foreign policy experts on the program. Most of them personify what has been dubbed “the Blob.”
Here’s the line-up: Graham Allison, Anne Applebaum, Philip Bobbitt, Hal Brands, Eliot Cohen, Elizabeth Economy, Henry Farrell, Peter Feaver, Niall Ferguson, Christine Fox, Frank Gavin, Kathleen Hicks, Will Inboden, John Lipsky, (wait, there’s more)...
Plus: Margaret Macmillan, James Miller, Alina Polyakova, Gary Roughead, Kori Schake, Thayer Scott, Benn Steil, Janice Stein, Jim Steinberg, Jake Sullivan, and Thomas Wright.
Don’t get me wrong: the scheduled speakers are all accomplished figures with impressive academic and/or policymaking credentials. Inviting any of them to speak at such an event is entirely appropriate.
With 1 or 2 possible exceptions, however, none of their views depart from the liberal internationalist/neo-conservative consensus that has guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. They don’t agree on every issue, of course, but it is a pretty homogeneous group
Revealingly, the organizers did not invite any experts w/ distinctly different perspectives on U.S. foreign policy or world order. For example, they didn’t invite John Mearsheimer, who in 2019 published a major article in INTERNATIONAL SECURITY on the emerging world order.
Nor did they include the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim or Trita Parsi (a Johns Hopkins Ph.D), the Atlantic Council’s Chris Preble, Cato’s Emma Ashworth, or MIT’s Barry Posen. Or a smart and experienced human rights advocate like Sarah Whitson or Ken Roth.
I raise this issue because the organizers (Brands & Gavin) and several participants (Feaver, Schake, & Feaver) have challenged the claim that the US foreign policy establishment is prone to groupthink and rarely held accountable for its repeated failures.
Yet their conference mostly features the usual suspects, w/mainstream views about America’s global role. Nearly all of the invitees believe active US leadership is the key to a stable world order and that the US should work hard to spread liberal ideals as far as possible.
Most of them think U.S. security and prosperity requires it to be militarily engaged all across the planet. There is no place at the table for progressives or restrainers, or anyone who challenges the Blob’s views about America’s supposedly “indispensable” role.
To be clear: I am not arguing that these conventional views do not deserve to be heard. I also believe Brands and Gavin are under no obligation to include alternative perspectives in this event. It’s their party.
I’m sure there will be lively discussion and some disagreements among the participants. It’s impossible to bring any group of academics together and not have a few arguments. But the debates will be mostly over tactics, not strategy.
They surely won’t stray outside the boundaries of the “acceptable” consensus on these topics. The participants will debate the “how” of U.S. foreign policy, not the “what” or the “why.”
Yet it is ironic—to say the least—that the same people who insist that there really is a lot of wide-ranging debate within the foreign policy community could not bring themselves to include experts who might challenge the consensus view in more fundamental ways.
There are two possible explanations: 1) the organizers mistakenly believe that the assembled lineup actually reflects a wide-ranging set of views; or 2) they don’t think anyone outside the consensus has views worth hearing. Frankly, I don’t know which alternative is worse.
The world is changing rapidly and profoundly, and the Kissinger Center missed an opportunity to sponsor a more intellectually diverse, enlightening and much-needed conversation.
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