A review of To Make and Keep Peace: Among Ourselves and with All Nations, by Angelo M. Codevilla

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, Lady Bracknell observed in The Importance of Being Earnest, but to lose both looks like carelessness. To have lost the peace three times in the past century suggests something worse than carelessness in American foreign policy. Woodrow Wilson set the stage for World War II by making the best the enemy of the good when negotiating the resolution of World War I. Franklin Roosevelt’s naïveté about the Soviet Union set the world adrift into the Cold War. And now a succession of mistakes following the fall of Communism has left America flailing. The overwhelming American majority that favored foreign interventions after 9/11 has melted, yielding isolationism unseen since the 1930s. How did it come to this?

One political party or the other may blunder, but disasters on this scale can be achieved only by consensus. Angelo Codevilla contends that a self-perpetuating foreign policy elite, incapable of taking in abundant evidence about all the things it neither knows nor does well, has steered American foreign policy in the wrong direction for the past century. The shrill partisan debates, he argues, obscure an underlying commonality of outlook among the “liberal progressive,” “realist,” and “neo-conservative” currents in foreign policy. All three schools of thinking derive from “turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressivism.”

All regard foreigners as yearning for American leadership. Their proponents regard foreigners as mirror images of themselves, at least potentially. Liberal internationalists see yearners for secular, technocratic development. Neoconservatives see budding democrats, while realists imagine peoples inclined to moderation…. Different emphases notwithstanding, there is solid consensus among our ruling-class factions that America’s great power requires exercising responsibility for acting as the globe’s “policeman,” “sheriff,” “umpire,” “guardian of international standards,” “stabilizer,” or “leader”—whatever one may call it.

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It isn’t just that the emperor has no clothes: the empire has no tailors. In the decade since President George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, America has gone from hyperpower to hyperventilater. The Obama Administration and the Republican leadership quibble about the modalities of an illusory two-state solution in Israel, or the best means to make democracy bloom in the Middle East’s deserts, or how vehemently to denounce Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, everything that could go wrong, has. Europe’s frontiers are in play for the first time since the fall of Communism; Russia and China have a new rapprochement; American enemies like Iran have a free hand while traditional American allies in the Sunni world feel betrayed; and China has all but neutralized American sea power within hundreds of miles of its coast.

America’s credibility around the world is weaker than at any time since the Carter Administration. American policy evokes contempt overseas, and even more at home, where the mere suggestion of intervention is ballot box poison, while the Republicans’ isolationist fringe wins straw polls among the party’s core constituents. In 2013 the Pew Survey found 53% of U.S. respondents considered America less important and powerful than a decade earlier, the first time a majority held that view since 1974, just before the fall of Saigon. And four-fifths of respondents told Pew that the U.S. should not think so much in international terms but concentrate on its own problems, the highest proportion to agree with that proposition since the survey began posing it in 1964.

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Codevilla offers a bracing antidote to stale, wishful thinking. A professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, he is one of our last sages, an actor in the great events that brought down the Soviet empire during the 1980s, as well as a distinguished scholar of political thought. Among the modern-day classics he’s authored—including War: Ends and Means (1988, with Paul Seabury) and The Character of Nations (2000)—To Make and Keep Peace is his Summa, a tour d’horizon of American and world history crammed with succinct case studies of success and failure in war and peace. It offers a comprehensive counter-narrative to the established understanding of foreign policy, examining the whole record of American engagement with the world. More ambitious still, his historiography stands on the foundation of Saint Augustine’s concept of peace and war as interpreted through the rise of Western civilization. It is marred if anything by the author’s modesty: At barely two hundred pages, Codevilla’s presentation is too condensed to make clear to most readers why the past century’s mainstream thinking failed so miserably. Some sentences read like notes for a paragraph never filled out. One hopes that he or his students will elaborate the ideas presented in this short volume.

In Codevilla’s reading, no American leader since Theodore Roosevelt quite passes muster (though he has qualified praise for Dwight Eisenhower). His paragons are John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln. Ronald Reagan’s administration achieved only a “rhetorical restoration of the concepts of victory and peace,” but “hardly affected real U.S. policy.” Broad principles of foreign policy as expounded by Lincoln and Quincy Adams, to be sure, require fine judgment about detail: “Discernment of what does and does not impinge on our peace is essential because there is no such thing as a small war any more than a small pregnancy,” Codevilla writes. “[W]hen war comes, when some states begin to kill and others to take sides, the logic of fear and honor, the multiplicity of passions, drive events beyond anyone’s control.” Peace and war are more art than science: “Awareness of the stakes, laser-like focus on a vision of the peace that is to follow, green-eye-shade comparison of costs and benefits, are the albeit-imperfect guides for planning the transition from peace to peace.” Elites chronically exaggerate their ability to control events, Codevilla warns. The Spartans and Athenians of the Peloponnesian War, like the contending powers of the First World War, never imagined they were putting their civilization at stake.

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Codevilla parses the choice between war and peace through American history with a subtlety one would expect from a distinguished translator of Machiavelli. John Quincy Adams, for example, “wished aloud for a navy big enough to exterminate the…Barbary pirates,” but “he did not propose trying to do this, because that navy was lacking.” Adams maintained cordial trade relations with the Russian Empire while opposing its efforts to support monarchy in the Western Hemisphere, a stance in which Codevilla finds a precedent for our present relations with China. Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of State Cordell Hull, by contrast, hastened the advent of war by denouncing Japan’s invasion of China and making treaty commitments in the Pacific Rim without fortifying vulnerable positions, an unhappy combination of big talk and small stick that stands as a horrible precedent for the Obama Administration’s behavior today.

Codevilla approves the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a way to hold local rulers responsible for the hostile actions of their subjects, but abhors the ensuing occupation and counterinsurgency campaign, which only “hardened the divisions between this artificial country’s main religious-ethnic groups.” As for “democracy,” he scoffs that “U.S. viceroys spent most of a decade fruitlessly trying to negate the Shias’, Sunnis’, and Kurds’ democratically expressed mutual antagonism.” The much-lauded “surge” “consisted of turning over to Sunni insurgents the tribal areas into which the Shia were pushing them. Rather than defeating them, the U.S. government began arming them.” And the result: “After a bloody decade, Iraq ended up divided along ancient ethno-religious fault lines but more mutually bitter.”

He rejects intervention in the Syrian civil war as such. “It is not clear by what right or to what good we Americans should foster a set of killings, the bounds of which we know not and cannot control, nor, above all, whom that would benefit. Thus Syria’s internal struggle falls under the heading of ‘their business.’” But he laments the lost opportunity to punish Syria after Damascus instigated the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut; our failure to use the 150,000 American troops in Iraq in 2003 to destroy the Bashar al-Assad regime in retaliation for hosting anti-American forces; and the Bush Administration’s 2006 decision to halt Israel’s attack on Hezbollah. These were Syrian acts of war against America, and America should have responded with war. A fortiori, Codevilla argues, America should have made war on Iran in response to the 1979 seizure of American diplomats and other acts of war. The same criterion applies to other Islamic regimes that support terror: “Our business now is forcefully to restore respect for ourselves by holding those rulers responsible. The longer we wait, the more force will be needed.”

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Codevilla reserves his deepest disdain for the postwar twilight of “No-win war, no peace.” According to his scathing summary of Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict (1960), “international affairs are contests between interchangeable units,” each seeking to maximize gains and minimize losses “within an inescapable matrix of choices.” The point of the ensuing “game theory” was to show the irrationality of the United States pursuing other than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Henry Kissinger merely “translated Schelling’s lingo into English and promoted a class of white-coated conflict managers.”

Codevilla quotes Quincy Adams’s vision of America as “a beacon on the summit of the mountain to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes…a light of admonition to the rulers of men, a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed.” But this also implied, Adams added, that “the first and paramount duty of the government is to maintain peace amidst all the convulsions of foreign wars, and to enter the lists as parties to no cause, other than our own.” The progressives of the next century, however, sought salvation through social engineering at home and abroad.

Codevilla’s condensed narrative resists summary. Further explication of the misguided progressives’ motives would have been particularly welcome. Since Woodrow Wilson, the son of a pro-slavery Presbyterian clergyman, foreign policy has been more a salvific quest than a rigorous calculation of costs and benefits to the American nation. Liberal internationalists from Wilson to Jimmy Carter are less concerned about the practical consequences of their action than whether they belong to “the fellowship of the redeemed,” as Joseph Bottum wrote in An Anxious Age (2014). Watching the smoke rising from their last catastrophe, they will intone with teary eyes and quivering upper lip: “We did the right thing.”

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The rise and triumph of progressivism is impossible to fathom without reference to America’s efforts to make sense of the Civil War. To the defeated South, the sin of slavery no longer was an offense that came into the world by the hand of the slaveholders, but a “collective social sin” to be corrected by social engineering. To the victorious but bloodied North, 400,000 war dead was too high a price to pay for principle. The descendants of the Puritans marched to war as crusaders against slavery and returned as pragmatists.

Codevilla’s story pivots on the events leading to the worst of all ruptures of America’s peace. Not only Abraham Lincoln but also the future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens opposed—for the sake of preserving the country’s character—statehood for Texas and other territories seized from Mexico. If the United States assimilated such territories by force, Lincoln warned, “the next thing will be a grab for the territory of poor Mexico, [and] an invasion of the rich lands of South America.” It was not so much slavery, Codevilla argues, that divided Lincoln from Stephen Douglas, but opposing visions of American greatness. Some Southerners like Stephens opposed the Mexican adventure because American domination of other peoples would undermine “that high order of moral and political integrity without which no republic can stand.” And some Northerners, including Walt Whitman, urged America to seize Mexico to impose a better form of rule than the Mexicans might themselves devise.

Here Codevilla tells only half the story, though. By 1854 Alexander Stephens had changed his mind, backing the adventurer John Quitman’s abortive campaign to acquire Cuba as a slave state, and denouncing President Franklin Pierce for blocking it. After Lincoln’s election, Jefferson Davis offered to stop secession if Lincoln would annex Cuba and other prospective slave territories to the South. I call attention to this episode not to argue details with Codevilla, but rather to broach a broader issue. Slavery trumped matters of principle or sentiment because of a circumstance beyond any American’s control: soil exhaustion by intensive cotton cultivation, which would have strangled the South’s economy unless America acquired new land. The economics of slavery, that is, arguably turned a comedy of errors into a tragedy in which the main participants could not act other than they did.

America got “such a peace as the circumstances permitted” after the Civil War, Codevilla argues, although “the Republican Party inflicted twelve years of attempted nation-building on Southern states—sucking their remaining wealth, building political rotten-boroughs to pad its powers in Congress, and rubbing salt into wounds by appointing Negroes to positions with punitive powers.” Here Codevilla seems callous. There is a difference between American efforts to impose democracy on foreign lands, and a commitment to extend democratic rights to people born on American soil but previously denied such rights. It was not the freed slaves’ fault that they were ill-prepared for democratic citizenship: America had imported them against their will and therefore bore the responsibility for their condition. Codevilla argues that it was inevitable for a century to pass between the end of the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; but he does not dissuade me from believing that the tardy fulfillment of Reconstruction’s promise was a scandal.

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Codevilla has no patience for “rational actor” theories: “Human beings routinely sweep aside reason about interest. In this regard, today’s Middle East is no different from Europe, 1914…. Our civilization abounds with accounts of ideas and mentalities that utterly exclude peace.” Yet often there is a method to the madness. Wars run out of control not only through the spread of passions and the demands of fear and honor, but because countries can and do back themselves into cul-de-sacs they can exit only through violence. Such was the case in the American South. Countries and sometimes whole civilizations will fight to the death because their present course leads inexorably to extinction. In these tragedies that could not have turned out otherwise, the only applicable Golden Rule is to do unto others before they do unto you.

Athens could not temper its imperial ambitions when colonies provided half its food. Rome could not stop conquering new countries that supplied slaves to its large agricultural estates. For France in 1914, postponing war meant giving Germany a growing and ultimately insuperable preponderance due to its faster population growth; even as Germany could not wait until Russia built railroads that would make Germany’s eastern front as vulnerable as its western one. Hitler told his military commanders three weeks after he invaded Poland that Germany had no choice but to go to war swiftly because its economy could not hold out much longer. Iran, beset by galloping demographic decline and the impending exhaustion of hydrocarbon reserves, must build its Shiite empire now or shrink into irrelevance. Pointless as World War I appears in retrospect, one might contrast the impassioned nationalism of 1914 with Europe’s anomie in 2014. With most of Europe dying a slow demographic death, its nations fought the Great War to avert becoming what they are today anyway.

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All of which brings us back to Codevilla’s central question: by what criteria should we decide to refrain from meddling in others’ business—or choose instead to make war? An adversary who perceives no remedy to existential problems other than aggression must be fought, and is best fought preemptively. Codevilla reserves his loftiest praise for Abraham Lincoln’s “commitment to peace through adherence to law.” Sometimes, though, there’s something to be said for the hotheads. If America’s Civil War had broken out later, after 1861, the Union well might have lost and slavery would have spread throughout South America. Had the South enjoyed time to link up with Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico in 1862, and perhaps also with Lord Palmerston’s Britain, the blockade of Southern ports and even the Union cause would have been untenable. In that sense, John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid and other abolitionist actions drew out the South prematurely and contributed to Union victory.

Ronald Reagan and his national security team—at least in his first administration—understood that the sclerotic Soviet economy could not compete with America’s, and that Russia understood its window to project power was closing. That insight informed Reagan’s commitment to Cold War victory. Détente with a declining superpower was not an option: America had to win. For the same reason, it is misguided to expect a negotiated settlement with Iran.

Codevilla excoriated America’s nomenklatura in America’s Ruling Class: How Political Elites Hijacked America (2010), and the same populist tone pervades To Make and Keep Peace. Codevilla’s dudgeon is not directed against elites as such, however; he is a genuine intellectual who disdains frauds. He has every right to urge the peasants to burn Frankenstein’s castle. A self-perpetuating elite insulates its members from the consequences of error. America has lost the ability to bring forth statesmen who pursue what he calls America’s peace, rather than conjure the ideological phantom of universal peace. Codevilla calls for the formation of a different, genuine elite aligned with the outlook of America’s founders: “America needs a new generation of statesmen,” he contends, who “would have to affirm their craft’s forgotten fundamental: that the search for peace begins with neutrality in others’ affairs and that when others trouble our peace we impose it upon them by war—war as terribly decisive as we can make it.”

But who will educate the educators? “In 2013,” Codevilla reports in passing, “the U.S. government banned the teaching of [Augustine’s] ‘just war’ theory in its academic venues because of its Christian origin.” It is hard to find an academic venue still interested in teaching the fundamentals of Western civilization, and not only because the academic mainstream considers the subject matter an excrescence of colonial triumphalism. And apt pupils are as scarce as competent teachers. One wonders how many undergraduates could read, without continuous recourse to Wikipedia, To Make and Keep Peace, a book so good as to remind us how bad things are elsewhere.