Among those who closely follow American politics, we often hear about “the return of foreign policy.” This supposes that Americans don’t usually think much about global affairs except during occasional, often sudden, crises. It’s a characterization that’s now truer than ever. These days, domestic politics are infused with the kind of life-or-death bipolarity reminiscent of how we once thought about the Cold War or the fight against Nazi Germany. Never mind existential challenges from overseas; the threat to our democracy, we’re told, comes from within. And there’s more talk of civil war than of a potential military challenge from a foreign adversary.
Even when foreign crises do emerge, they’re often shrunk down and wedged into our intramural political squabbles. The new right, for example, paints supporters of Ukraine as dupes for the establishment, and the left’s Squad claims Iran’s female protestors as allies against pro-life Americans.
Unfortunately, while our attention is focused on internal politics, the 21st century is turning dark. An increasingly unpredictable Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear war in ways that cannot be dismissed as bluster. And a hostile China has expanded its reach into every corner of the globe—including our own—without even using its new advanced weaponry. This is to say nothing of the threats at our southern border, North Korea’s nuclear bombast, and a triumphant Taliban.
Worst of all, the U.S. has facilitated the forward march of our enemies by deliberately retracting American power abroad, stripping down our military, backing away from necessary fights, betraying our allies, and cutting bad deals with bad actors. China has risen on the back of stolen American technology and achieved frictionless infiltration of American markets. President Biden signaled irresolution to Putin in 2021 by easing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and by his calamitous withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
During it all, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has been a prescient voice warning against the dangers of American weakness. He wrote his new book, Only the Strong, to answer the questions “How did we get to this point?” and “Why doesn’t America win anymore?” We know right away that this is no typical politician’s book, as it eschews what Americans want to talk about—domestic politics—and takes on instead what we must face—U.S. defense in a dangerous new world. This not to say that Cotton’s book isn’t political. It is deeply so, and in the best sense: It deals with political ideas. Cotton, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, traces our current predicament to its roots in liberal foreign-policy thinking and argues that we must reclaim the Founders’ understanding of freedom and defense if we are to protect our way of life.
Cotton breaks down liberal foreign policy into its constituent parts. At its base is a distrust of America’s founding ideals. Whereas the Founders believed that our God-given rights demanded protection against our own fallible nature, progressives have always had faith in man’s perfectibility and believed that expert administration would ultimately make such vigilance unnecessary. This goes back to Woodrow Wilson, who said, “All that progressives ask or desire is the permission—in an era when ‘development,’ ‘evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.”
When applied to foreign affairs, this means, as Cotton puts it, that “the Progressives, imagining themselves more enlightened by the march of History, pursued a utopian foreign policy, dedicated to unachievable abstractions and detached from America’s national interests.” When the U.S. entered World War I, for example, Wilson claimed that “we have no selfish ends to serve,” and indeed he sought “only the vindication of right, of human right.”
Progressives’ pursuit of universal abstractions and their hesitancy toward American interests has manifested in two contradictory modes: utopian internationalism and anti-American isolationism. Throughout our history, liberal leaders have weakened America’s hand by acting on one or the other of these impulses. And they’ve further mangled the works by resorting to ineffective half measures in the hopes of pleasing everyone. Thus, we have the recipe for liberal foreign policy.
Cotton offers a compendium of progressive foreign-policy blunders, which makes for engaging, if infuriating, reading. To take a few in chronological order: There’s the Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which John F. Kennedy made the late decision to dramatically cut back American air support for anti-Castro forces, ensuring their defeat and our humiliation. There are Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s missteps in Vietnam. In 1963, JFK permitted the coup against South Vietnam’s pro-American and anti-Communist president Ngo Dinh Diem, which meant “we had assumed responsibility for the fight against advancing Communists.” Once in that fight, Kennedy resorted to half measures that failed to put down the North Vietnamese. Then President Johnson, guided by Wilsonian administrator par excellence Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, shied away from decisive action in hopes of “communicating” with the enemy.
In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter authored many great innovations in foreign-policy malfeasance. Among these, Cotton plucks out Carter’s handling of the Panama Canal as an example of “the progressive theory of treaties.” In 1978, Carter surrendered both the canal that we built and our sovereignty over the Canal Zone, an important strategic asset. In return, we were assured that the canal would be open to American ships. “But of course,” Cotton notes, “we already had these rights.”
On a far smaller scale than Vietnam, Bill Clinton’s disastrous Somalia operation in 1993 bears the hallmarks of Democratic faintheartedness. Clinton sent 450 American Special Forces to capture Somali warlord Farah Aydid and destroy his command structure. Aydid’s forces had recently killed four Americans and injured seven others. But the size of the American deployment was clearly too small for the job. As Cotton writes: “Our commander responsible for Somalia gave the operation only a 25 percent chance of capturing Aydid. But Clinton went ahead anyway.” It all went south when a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter was shot down and the operation unraveled. Eighteen American warriors were killed in the resulting melee, and images of their bodies being dragged through Mogadishu were broadcast the world over.
On it goes. In this century, Barack Obama exemplified the progressive who thinks of American interests as a form of bad manners. In his early apology tour, Obama expressed his regret over past U.S. action in the Middle East, Latin America, and beyond. Cotton also holds him up as a practitioner of foreign-policy utopianism. Obama entered the U.S. into the JCPOA agreement with Iran, which put the mullahs on a glide path to nuclear weapons and gave the regime some $100 billion to boot. And when Syrians rose up against Iranian (and Russian) ally Bashar al-Assad, Obama even played the isolationist. He refrained from helping Syrians topple the anti-American dictator lest it upset his Iran diplomacy.
And then, of course, there’s Joe Biden. Whatever one thinks of the Biden administration’s handling of the war of in Ukraine, Cotton’s book valuably catalogs the president’s consequential failings in the run-up to Putin’s attack. He extended the New START Treaty, which “allowed Russia to expand its strategic nuclear arsenal and ignored Russia’s large advantage in tactical nuclear weapons.” He waived Trump-administration sanctions on Nord Stream 2. In April 2021, when Putin first sent tens of thousands of soldiers and equipment to Ukraine’s border, Biden met with the strongman for a summit in Geneva. The occasion raised Putin’s stature, and he did temporarily pull back his troops. But that was before our catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Cotton writes that “Putin saw a feeble American president overmatched by events” in Afghanistan. “Just weeks after America’s humiliation in Kabul, Russian troops returned to Ukraine’s border under the cover of unusually large annual military exercises—and never left.” Even then, the Biden administration killed a tough bipartisan sanctions proposal aimed at stopping Putin while there was still time.
Cotton’s analysis of past mistakes will serve history well, but he also has worthwhile recommendations for what we must do next. His ideas are mostly commonsensical, which seems to be the point. In other words, let’s stop going out of our way to make things worse. He wants a defense budget of at least 4 percent of the economy, with annual growth of 3 to 5 percent over inflation. Cotton also proposes a border wall of some sort and a mandatory E-Verify program to keep employees from hiring illegals. Ending the war on fossil fuels and nuclear energy, he notes, will help move us toward energy independence and make us less reliant on untrustworthy foreign powers. Cotton additionally calls for renewed clarity in distinguishing America’s friends (the United Kingdom and Israel) from enemies (Russia, China, and Iran).
But Cotton offers his most bracing counsel on China. His recommendations here are both viable and effective, and they will undoubtedly unnerve those Americans who either fear a conflict with Beijing or are profiting from Chinese meddling. In pushing back on Beijing, he says, “the economy is the primary theater of conflict.” Cotton notes that “our misguided trade policies turned China into the world’s ‘factory floor’ and cost hardworking Americans more than three million manufacturing jobs and sixty thousand factories.” His long list of proposed economic policies includes, but is not limited to, revoking China’s most-favored-nation trading status; making Chinese companies follow our rules if they want to participate in our stock exchanges; banning Chinese investment in vital sectors such as farmland and food production; banning Chinese nationals who are linked to the Chinese Communist Party from studying in the U.S.; ending federal support for studios that allow China to ban their content; and providing incentives such as tax breaks and grants for companies that want to build factories in the U.S. and produce critical items such as semiconductors.
But our contest with China goes beyond economics, and Cotton offers nothing less than a blueprint for fighting a new Cold War. He believes we need to invest in weapons such as new submarines and drones that can be used off China’s coast. And Cotton calls for our supplying Taiwan with weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles and sea mines that will help it in an asymmetric war. “Instead of a chicken in every pot,” he writes, “Taiwan needs a Stinger in every attic.” Finally, Cotton believes it’s time for the U.S. to retire its long-held policy of strategic ambiguity on Taiwan and “tell Xi in advance that we will come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks—and China will suffer a grievous defeat.”
In his criticisms and recommendations, Cotton is guided above all else by an appreciation of the Founders’ aim to “secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution has it. In foreign-affairs terms, this amounts to fighting unapologetically to ensure our security, freedom, and prosperity. There is no room in this fight for isolationism, utopianism, or half measures. Every mechanism of the government they bequeathed us was designed to contend with the manifold dangers of our species. Tom Cotton is only calling upon us to remember that and act accordingly.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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