• Keiton Grundfast

Towards an Illiberal Foreign Policy: The Case of Syria

American foreign policy in the 21st century has been marked by a seeming tendency towards sudden and dramatic gyrations. The short peace of the 1990s was followed by a global war on terror spurred on by the September 11th attacks, the next seven years of ever-expanding war brought an ostensible course correction in the form of Barack Obama, who pursued a grand strategy that prioritized international multilateralism, while the election of Donald Trump presaged what many perceived as an epochal break with certain national-security pieties, a tendency that many viewed as isolationist in character. Paeons and eulogies have been sung for the supposed “rules-based international order” and America’s place in it over the previous decade. Declinist hysteria—or a tendency to mistake gestures at retrenchment for terminal decline—has seeped down from think tanks into everyday journalistic op-eds. Broader global transitions are taking place regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, yet American foreign policy has never been more malleable.

To discern where the future might take us, we must look to the past. There is no better place to begin than with the most vexing foreign policy issue of the past decade: the case of Syria.

Liberalism and the Syrian Quagmire

Syria was among the last of the powder kegs to explode as the Arab Spring tore through the Middle East and North Africa in the winter of 2010-2011. In a sense, it was fortunate for Bashar al-Assad, whose family had long held the country in the grip of clan politics, that his people had waited so long to revolt. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had been replaced after the Obama administration refused to lend it rhetorical support. International concern was growing about Moammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya when a massacre appeared likely in the city of Benghazi. Governments that had held firm across the region for decades fell to the demands of mass protestors or shook under the strain of sudden popular protest. But in March 2011, when the possibility of intervention in Syria’s nascent rebellion was broached in the White House, President Obama’s response was pointed: “Shouldn't we finish up the two wars we have before we look for another?”

This reticence did not stop the administration from participating in a multinational coalition assembled against Ghaddafi. The administration sold it to the public, and to themselves, as an effort that would enable them to “lead from behind”. The regime would fall under the blitz of NATO and allied airpower, order would be restored to the state, democracy would be introduced at last, and its people would decide on the composition of their new government, all without American boots ever touching the ground.

This, of course, did not go according to plan. Ghaddafi was indeed toppled, but order was not restored, American diplomats were killed in an embarrassing intelligence failure that went on to dog the administration to its final days, and conflict between Libya’s tribes broke out when democracy failed to adjudicate between the country’s multitude of competing interests.

But these were instructive developments that lay ahead.

No sooner had Ghaddafi fallen then the world turned its attention to Syria, where protests were escalating rapidly into armed conflict. The United States hesitated. Obama’s National Security Council was divided. Samantha Power, the U.N. ambassador and prominent advocate of humanitarian interventions abroad, led the charge in favor of American action. Others such as Robert Gates, Ben Rhodes, and Obama himself, were more skeptical. Obama had campaigned on ending wars, not starting new ones, and he perceived Syria and the broader Middle East as a more complex morass to wade into than the one he had just sanctioned in North Africa. Still, the clarion call to prevent avoidable atrocities evidently compelled him to make his now infamous declaration asserting that the use of chemical weapons in the conflict would constitute a red line, one which, if crossed, would precipitate American intervention.

There was a legitimate fear among policymakers in the early days of the conflict, as bombs ripped through Damascus and Assad’s regime appeared on the brink of collapse, that rapid state disintegration would result in the uncontrollable proliferation of chemical agents across the region. For an administration which swung so often between a fixation on narrow security-minded interests and the high-minded idealism of Samantha Power, this seemed like a reasonable compromise.

The issue, of course, was that Assad did not fall. The morass that Obama foresaw grew more complicated. Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah rushed to the regime’s defense, enabling it to retake critical territory in the west of the country. Esoteric schisms among jihadists in the east birthed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which proceeded to insinuate itself within the broader opposition and in the territory they had seized from state forces in the north and east of the country. The Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkish-based separatist movement which had warred with the Turkish state for three decades, capitalized on the power vacuum in the north to assert itself and build an autonomous region out of three initially disparate territories which housed the majority of Syria’s long-suppressed Kurdish population. Israel took to launching tactical precision-strikes on Hezbollah’s forces in the country, fearing arms transfers from the Syrian regime to Lebanon which could shift the balance of power in the anti-Zionist movements’ direction. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fearing a further extension of Iranian influence across the Levant, put their oil wealth to use in funneling money and resources to competing actors within the Syrian opposition. Turkey, which hoped for an easy extension of its influence, provided rebels in the north with arms and access to its territory, turning a blind eye to the flood of radicalized mujahadeen who now looked upon Syria as a new Afghanistan, a place where greater ambitions could be nurtured in the confusion of conflict.

Dueling arguments for and against intervention reached their consummation in the chemical attack that struck the Eastern Ghouta region in August of 2013. Casualties ran from the low hundreds to the thousands, but the images broadcast live across the world were clear and unmistakable. Children foaming at the mouth, bodies laid out in rows, doctors racing to save lives with limited resources and under the strain of constant bombardment.

Western intelligence agencies quickly determined that the chemical agent sarin was used in the attack and the United States began its expected mobilization in support of intervention. The rationale was clear: the red line had been violated. Humanitarian concerns were now paramount, American credibility was at stake. The inevitable analogies to Munich and Hitler were made in arguing for intervention. Most operating within the national-security bureaucracy, foreign policy pundits, American allies, and members of Obama’s own cabinet expected him to authorize the strike for which logistical preparations were already well underway.

Yet when the moment came, the United States hesitated. British prime minister David Cameron was defeated in the House of Commons when he put the question of intervention to a vote. Public polls demonstrated that public support in the US for a strike was low. Obama himself, in his deliberations, regularly returned to the issue of the Iraq War and the faulty intelligence used to justify it. He punted the issue to Congress, whose membership at the moment was not disposed towards authorizing a strike. They did not have to, for Russia used the momentary pause in events to propose a diplomatic arrangement: Syria would surrender its chemical weapons under the watchful eye of international inspectors. The United States quickly agreed and the prospect for a retaliatory strike was definitively foreclosed.

Depending on who one asks, this was either a proud assertion of American interests or an abdication of them.

The decision was initially met with a mixture of outrage and relief. Certainly, the foreign policy establishment, deeply ensconced in its network of think-tanks, executive agencies, and elected offices, reacted with great ambivalence, for the great moral war over Obama’s foreign policy proclivities had seemingly been decided in favor of realist instinct over idealist ambition. An inflection point had been reached in the modern history of American foreign policy and it had passed with a whimper instead of a bang. For some, this bordered on apostasy. For Obama, it was his “proudest moment”. But what accounts for the vast gulf in perspective? How could the same event be looked upon with feelings of both bitterness and pride?

American foreign policy in perspective

The history of American foreign policy has been traditionally recounted as a competition of contrary philosophies. On the side of the realists, a tradition which stretches back to Washington’s farewell warning about the costs of “foreign entanglements”, a cautionary mentality reigns.

The overriding objective of American foreign policy must be guided by the maximization of its interests, defined narrowly as whatever will directly and materially benefit the nation, and a neutralist orientation towards the rest of the world. It is forceful in its conviction that if the enemy of my friend is my enemy, then so much the worse for friendship.

Idealists view the world as ripe for engagement. Indeed, to them it is necessary for the United States to engage with the world politically, economically, and militarily. Put simply, idealists dictate that the United States has positive interests everywhere and when something threatens its position as the world hegemon, and its position as a leading exemplar, force is required to make a moral point. Hence the invocations, during the Syrian crisis, and in today’s debate over withdrawal from Afghanistan, to the problem of “credibility”. With the United States having established itself as world-hegemon, retreat from possible conflict, even when such conflict does not significantly impact America’s material interests, may well do irreparable damage to America’s image, damaging its position as a moral leader abroad. The problem of credibility is a function of the idealist’s humanitarian mindset. An America that fails to lead by example, that fails to rescue human populations from their plights across the globe, is an America that has surrendered the credibility necessary to lead, so goes their story.

This, of course, is no problem for the realist. After all, the realist is not particularly interested in “moral leadership”. But the situation becomes more difficult as the past progresses towards the present and as we look to the international order constructed after the Second World War. The failure of the post-Versailles order stemmed from the fundamental fact that the only states with any significant stake in its perpetuation, Britain and France, were not strong enough to uphold it. After war broke out once again and Europe was left enervated and incapable of global power projection, the United States stepped into the role of global hegemon. Of course, this hegemony was incomplete, as it faced the competing order of the Eastern Bloc headed by the Soviet Union. This presented the United States with a fundamental dilemma. The realist position predicts that structural transformations in global power will lead to conflict between states who feel, in an anarchic international environment, that their dominant position is under threat and thereby threatened hegemons ought to and will do anything to preserve their power, even at the expense of other states in the system. The idealist, aiming to avoid another round of world war, looked to the construction of international institutions and treaties to bind the states of the world closer together economically and politically, to make future war as infeasible an ambition as possible. Faced with a choice between strategies, the United States chose both.

Some scholars have remarked on the apparent incongruity between the ideals promoted by the US during the Cold War and the actions it took to undermine its rival. State supported coups, attempted and successful assassinations, outright invasions of foreign countries, support for unsavory actors abroad. The incongruity can be explained by the simple fact that the US constructed two overlapping orders, a liberal-international order built to last and a security-oriented containment order, the latter being a contingent response to the threats of the moment.

As some have recently noted, the incongruity that is more troublesome, particularly for the realist, is in explaining how a foreign policy philosophy dedicated to retrenchment could also demand a global security policy, one that encouraged US intervention in the affairs of states far beyond its borders. It would seem that realist inclinations may, under certain circumstances, lead to the type of global presence the idealist would promote in practice, even if the motivations and actions actually undertaken are vastly different.

If offensive realists like John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor of international relations who once wrote of the “tragedy” of great power politics, truly believe aggressive action is a necessity in the international sphere to hold onto power, then they are making an implicit presumption that power over the international sphere is worth holding. While this may make sense for states that share space with neighbors of similar size and capabilities, it does not hold for the United States, flanked as it is by two vast oceans and bordered by neighbors who could not hope to match its technological, economic, or military superiority at any point in the near future.

Some realists propose a compromise between material interests and America’s position as a global hegemon by calling for a strategy of “offshore balancing”, in which the US may well provide military support to states abroad to defend its interests without directly placing its forces in harm’s way. But global contexts where a strategy such as this would be warranted are just as likely to degenerate into a scenario in which proxy conflicts become the norm, as they were during the Cold War, pulling the country deeper into the affairs of states abroad.

As the situation stands now, it has become something of a refrain in the scholarly literature to speak of a return to “great-power competition” as a consequence of the rise of China and Russia’s aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe. But the truth of the matter is that Russia is a declining power facing a bleak demographic future and a weakening economy on par with Spain’s and Korea’s. China, the greatest potential competitor, exists far beyond our shores and militarily threatens regions in whose future the United States lacks any true material stake beyond an idealistic concern for the fate of free peoples.

Breaking the impasse

President Obama chose not to confront America’s supposed rivals in Syria, even after Russia intervened overtly on the side of Assad and commenced an air campaign against the broader opposition. The rise of the Islamic State, which posed as much a threat to the regime in Baghdad as in Damascus, compelled the US to insert itself back into the region. But Assad’s removal has never been a core objective in the six years since that campaign began, to the dismay of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which sees his ouster not only as a vital precondition for peace but as a moral imperative that must be satisfied. It is the fate of Assad upon which the struggle over a “rational” foreign policy has played out in the most clarifying terms. But who are the sides in this struggle and who, exactly, is winning?

The answer may surprise us.

For all of the commentary made on the vast differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s foreign policies, closer inspection reveals deep continuities between the two administrations. Obama’s multilateralism was always predicated on the notion that America had overstepped in its dealings with the world, that it had hurried into Iraq without regard for the country’s internal dynamics and that its attempts to cobble together a stable state out of Afghanistan’s warring tribes had instead exposed it to an enervating nation-building effort from which it could hardly hope to extricate itself. The attempt to “lead from behind” in the Libyan operation was a belated course correction to these tendencies.

Donald Trump’s unilateralism simply took these tendencies to their logical conclusion: the beratement of NATO allies over the burden of defense spending differed only from the Obama administration’s efforts in how public the admonishment was, Obama’s ill-fated “pivot to Asia” presaged the Trump administration’s focus on China as a primary geopolitical competitor, and their mutual contempt for entanglements in the Middle East is well known. Indeed, Trump’s nationalism shares much with Obama’s realism in its rejection of exceptionalism, for Trump’s transactional approach to international relations implicitly assumes that all nations seek to prioritize their own interests at the expense of others and that America, far from having any unique moral obligation as a “shining city on a hill”, is simply the strongest among similarly inclined states.

Both worldviews constitute rejections of the idealist concern for the propagation of liberal ideas abroad. But both were also more perceptive than the detractors within their own administrations in seeing that competition with Russia was a dead end, that common-cause might be reached on Syria and other issues, that the rising threat to US interests was not Russia but a rapidly growing China, which had successfully extracted an enormous amount of capital from the country under the thin veneer of “free trade” and used it to bolster their own industrial policy.

A strong bipartisan contingent that stresses the importance of internationalism has boxed in both administrations from pursuing a more sensible course on Syria and other questions. Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s most prominent foreign policy advisors, referred to this nebulous network of think tanks, pundits, and policymakers as the “Blob”. The Blob operates according to an inertial logic in which American credibility is always dependent upon the use of force abroad and stresses its moral obligation to humanitarian intervention wherever necessary. Any attempt to resist precipitates a flood of condemnation, as seen first in the response engendered by Obama’s refusal to strike Syria and then in Trump’s decision to eliminate material support for the Syrian opposition and then his decision to withdraw American forces from northern Syria.

Indeed, the policy and journalistic worlds maintain a dangerous symbiotic relationship, in which the groupthink that afflicts the former filters down into the latter. One might discern this in the Associated Press’s effort to fact check Donald Trump at the second 2016 presidential debate. The reason why AP fact checkers reported Trump’s claim that the Syrian regime was in conflict with the Islamic State as “wrong”, despite the verifiable facts to the contrary, is because their sources have always considered the facts inconvenient. For Assad to fight the Islamic State would mean that they are not united in a common conspiracy to crush the “moderate” opposition, which would entail the existence of common interests between America and the reprehensible regime. The idealist bureaucracy cannot accept this and, willfully or not, feeds highly distorted narratives to its sources in the mainstream media.

If the Blob was not blinkered, it would perceive more clearly that destroying the Assad regime would collapse the only remaining state structure left in the country, fueling an even greater refugee outflow than that seen thus far, exposing vulnerable minorities to Sunni extremists, and giving space for the Islamic State to flourish in areas it no longer has to contest.

Those who argue that cutting back support for the rebellion undermines our leverage make the implicit presumption that we have any true interests worth leveraging. In constrained media environments with short-time horizons, nuanced arguments to the contrary cannot be made, nor do national security bureaucrats have any incentive to make them, so certain is their conviction that the problems presented by non-Syrian actors like Islamic State cannot be divorced from the problem of Assad.

Such recalcitrant inclinations can also be discerned in the attempts made to reach a rapprochement with Russia over Syria. The moment at which this was most likely to happen was in the inaugural month of the Trump presidency, where individuals such as Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn numbered among Trump’s closest advisors. It was they who sought to execute the “revolutionary foreign policy” that Trump campaigned on.

However, the neo-Jacksonian nationalists surrounding Trump were quickly undermined and pushed out, either by selective leaking from intelligence agencies alarmed at the possibility that the Trump administration might actually attempt to pursue a course radically different from its predecessors or by internationalist advisors within the administration who were able to peg dissenting viewpoints as irresponsible and dangerous. With only the president left to champion the vision he ran on, the administration’s foreign policy became a carnival show of contradictory statements. A friendly press conference between Russia and America’s heads of government would be countermanded by renewed sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department. Attempts to remove troops from Syria were often elided by subordinates with firm commitments to keeping them there, even if it meant lying to the president about the number of troops stationed in the country. The Pentagon, now the target of a final all-out assault by the president (who appears to finally understand the gravity of the situation) spent the duration of the administration’s tenure slow-walking orders to plan for withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. In the administration’s early months, it successfully raised the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan. Now, however, witness the vehemence with which Republican officeholders denounce a proposed troop drawdown in Afghanistan, even as they continue to stick by outlandish claims of election fraud. A fealty to America’s security commitments runs deep. The same beliefs motivate the Blob in its apparent belief that it can operate independently of the commander-in-chief it serves.

For those with an axe to grind, this may not seem all that problematic. After all, the ascendancy of Trump’s movement marked a peculiar moment in history where a movement achieved power before the substance of its agenda could be precisely defined. There was no intellectual infrastructure championing a foreign policy “Trumpism” prior to his victory. For the national security bureaucracy to impose restraints on a president who disdains and disregards institutional norms and procedures might not seem like such a bad thing. But consider that President Obama and the coterie of advisors who shared his realist inclinations perceived that informal power was being wielded against them when it came to Syria.

A bureaucracy that presents options and imposes guardrails designed to push presidents towards escalation and not de-escalation is one that has moved beyond its function to assist the president in implementing the administration’s agenda. Such an elite consensus implicates the mass media as well. In their hysterical opposition to an unorthodox president, they have taken to manufacturing consent for policies they once opposed.

The Blob believes itself to be eminently rational and apolitical. It believes itself to be above partisan debates over the future of American foreign policy. If it perceives that the decision of a president may put America’s interests abroad at risk, a perception that is dependent upon their own subjective notions about how best to pursue America’s interests and preserve its power, then it will act to restrain the president from making such decisions.

Any future president, progressive or populist, will face the same headwinds when attempting to alter the course of American foreign policy. In the face of an outwardly irrational president, it has been able to present itself as the defender of American ideals, the last line of defense against a would-be authoritarian, and the defender of a “responsible” (read: rational) foreign policy. It is unaccountable to the voters, its positions are not elected positions, it sees its job as protecting the country from its elected officer and the agenda chosen by its people. The threat that Trump’s presidency posed to governing institutions forced them to demonstrate their ability to subvert decisions from the inside for the first time. The precedent that has been set should concern anyone along the political spectrum simply because the national security bureaucracy believes itself to be above politics. What is to be done?

American historian Richard Hofstadter, writing about the unique inflection of paranoid tendencies that seem to mark many of America’s homegrown political movements, once remarked that as irrational ideas could be articulated in a rational style, so could rational ideas be articulated in an irrational one. That is precisely what has occurred here. The core tenets of the American foreign policy establishment are eminently irrational, they are designed to keep American blood and treasure mired in far-flung places where their continued expenditure can no longer serve any useful purpose, they are in thrall to a technocratic mindset that pursues quotas and statistics divorced from any understanding of facts on the ground, and they have been known to alter the facts when they refuse to conform to expectations and desires, as was the case in Iraq.

Trump himself on the other hand has attempted to pursue a rational recalibration in his efforts to effect withdrawal from entanglements upon which rests little at stake and in his instinctive distrust of an intelligence community that has blundered its way through the past twenty years, insulated from the disastrous consequences of its mistakes, the perpetrators of which never appear to suffer the consequences. As one perceptive Atlantic writer once wrote: “In D.C., expert status is never taken away for being repeatedly, catastrophically wrong.” One should take care to recall how “expert advice”, divorced from historical perspective, can rebound so destructively to the detriment of its propagators. When George Bush and his advisors decided upon an invasion of Iraq, they were seemingly blind to how the resulting power vacuum would undermine their own interests vis-a-vis Iran, who found in Saddam Hussein’s ouster an opportunity to wield unprecedented influence over a regional rival.

Trump has pursued recalibration in haphazard fashion, as attested by the frequent and sudden shifts in policy and the marked disconnect between the president and the executive agencies under him. Advisors’ attempted appeasement of the president in their addition of soft “realist” language to landmark documents such as the administration’s National Security Strategy, which lends rhetorical support to the notion of restraints and limits on American power, while in actuality stressing values-based policies and a shift to great-power competition, has gone unnoticed by a president who does little reading himself and seems more content with formulating policy by e-diktat. The soft-masculinism of Trump’s foreign policy, which can at once champion the destruction of the caliphate and also withdrawal from Syria before its total elimination, is essentially in keeping with what Walter Russell Mead described as the “Jacksonian tradition” – a tradition that is wholly transactional in its approach to the world and narrow prioritization of US material interests.

So be it. Trump’s belated realization that it was the Pentagon that was resisting him all along has come too late to change much. Future American presidents must internalize the lessons of the past four years. Namely, they must recognize that both the liberal internationalism that undergirds the Blob’s presumptions and the realism that its contenders propose to supplant it with are both insufficient. The United States must recognize that it has few to no material interests in the world outside of its borders, that any positive stake in global affairs is therefore null, and that as a consequence it must unmoor itself from the liberal principles which have led it time and time again into disastrous entanglements that often enough exacerbated violence and instability. American foreign policy must, in short, extricate itself from the faulty reason that runs it. At a minimum, this ought to begin with a full withdrawal of American soldiers and equipment from Syria. As Trump himself has noted, every actor currently operating within the Syrian conflict, regardless of their attitude towards the Assad regime, has a vested interest in ensuring that the Islamic State is unable to operate again as a conventional force. Leave the fighting and dying to the Russians and Iranians. Whether Assad remains or goes is not a core national security concern nor has it ever been. A frank consideration of the facts ought to make this evident.

But how can America afford to give up everything? One must consider what it has already given up. After all, it was autarkic self-sufficiency and disregard for foreign affairs that transformed China into a civilizational state. When King George’s ambassador traveled to the Qing empire to establish favorable trading relations, Emperor Qianlong delivered a gentle rebuke that was at once humorous and insightful: “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.” An autocrat rattling his saber in the Levant or a border clash between India and China in the Himalayas can be of no possible interest to us. Historically, interdependency has fueled insecurity. The case of the German Reich in the first half of the 20th century is particularly instructive. Beset by enemies real and imagined, it triggered two world wars in an attempt to alleviate itself of its insecurity and was instead brought to ruin. Insecure states lash out in unpredictable ways. The longer America feels its credibility is bound to its performance as a global hegemon, the longer it will continue to somnambulate into conflicts in defense of immaterial interests. One must recall Jefferson’s refrain not to seek out abroad “monsters to destroy”.

Political historian Sam Lubell, writing on the structure of American isolationism, concluded that the reason for isolationism’s historical association with the Midwest was not because of its geographical distance from cosmopolitan urban centers, but because its essence was a product of the “ethnic and emotional” composition of its inhabitants. Studying voting patterns in nine Democratic counties during the 1940 election between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, Lubell found that the defection of German and Irish voters to the avowedly anti-war Willkie was due first to “the existence of pro-German and anti-British ethnic prejudices and second “to the exploiting of these prejudices by an opposition party". This is not terribly hard to understand. Germany and the United Kingdom had spent the previous three decades at bitter odds, while the Irish had an even lengthier catalogue of grievances against the British. It is important to note that the ultimate question of the wisdom of intervention was set aside by these groups. If these groups did not have the historical encounters with Britain that they did, perhaps their response to the question would be different, or perhaps there would be other reasons to feel the same. Rational consideration of the issue was hardly at play. Their vote was motivated by vindictiveness and it overrode even traditional party loyalties. The American interior, particularly the Midwest, is where many German-Americans ended up settling. It is hardly a coincidence that Robert La Follette's third-party insurgency in the election of 1924 was built on similar isolationist sentiment, that a large share of his vote came from this region (he was a veteran of Wisconsin machine politics), and that he performed best in rural and working-class areas that had borne the costs of the First World War.

Similar grievances propelled Trump to the presidency, where his irrational style has clashed with the irrational substance of the foreign policy establishment. The conclusion, however unwelcome, is that irrational sentiments may, at times, lead to rational policy outcomes, and that a foreign policy built on pure sentiment, grievance, and rage may well be a fine substitute to the irrational pieties that mask themselves as being reasonable and responsible. If we are to punish China and Germany for their improprieties on trade, isolate ourselves from the Middle East, or wreak havoc on security commitments in Europe and East Asia, in what would amount to the exercise of a “vengeful memory”, then it is the emotive forces inherent in these decision-making processes and their satisfaction that will be the end in itself. Such a foreign policy would go even beyond Jacksonianism in its abandonment of grand strategy and embrace of spite as a regenerating force. But the fact that Jackson’s portrait hangs now in the Oval Office speaks to the irrepressibility of a certain emotional energy that, when properly mobilized, can extend from the man-on-the-street to the most powerful office in the world.

American foreign policy exists to serve its people, its people ought not to exist to serve it. A future Biden administration would do well to understand this, but the signals coming from the transition and the likely picks to occupy future foreign policy roles are hardly encouraging. Whatever the case, the transition from idealism to realism, and thus the beginning of the end for false reason, is being motivated by structural continuities that predate Biden’s interregnum and will long outlast him. The 21st century will be the century of American illiberalism.

Keiton Grundfast is a first-year graduate student studying Foreign Policy, Security, and Politics. He is a staff writer at the Agora.

Image courtesy Anas Aldyab, Creative Commons


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