By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
I had a letter in the mail the other week from someone named Barry Klein, who resides in Houston. I filed it knowing I would write about it, and now I shall.
Klein runs a group called ForeignPolicyAlliance.org. “Wars without end?” reads the accordion brochure Klein sent. “Americans on the left and right are uniting to ask, Why? A call to reform U.S. foreign policy.” This guy has endorsements that glow in the dark. Dan Ellsberg, Andy Bacevich, Sharon Tennison, Gordon Adams, Larry Wilkerson, and Peter Kuznick: These are big names in the alternative foreign policy business.
Klein included a one-sheet flier with the ForeignPolicyAlliance prospectus. “How to immediately spur a movement to stop the proxy war in Ukraine,” is the headline. Good enough, but what stopped me cold was a Post–It note Klein stuck in the right-hand corner. “A strategy to make foreign policy a local issue,” he scribbled.
Klein is onto a question that has preoccupied me for years. This is the sequestration of the foreign policy cliques. They are not so utterly immune from political oversight as the CIA, but the cliques are in that direction. Ever watch a Senate hearing wherein the Foreign Relations Committee questions someone from State or the White House? It is pro forma start to finish. I think they issue rubber stamps to all senators on the panel.
In a related development (and how I miss the old newspaper clichés), I had an email note last week from the sui generis Fritzi Cohen, the energetic co-owner of the Tabard Inn in Washington. Fritzi is a driving force behind a thoughtful group called the Chaucerian Foundation, which is dedicated to policy questions rather than 14th century English poetry.
Fritzi has made the Tabard a wonderful meeting place for paying-attention people of all sorts, just what Washington needs. Last Saturday she hosted a gathering in the Tabard’s bar—where an excellent Negroni is to be had, I should mention—on the topic, “Biological Warfare In the 21st Century? Addressing Pentagon-funded Biolabs Around the World.”
It is another urgent question, given revelations this spring of 30–odd biolabs in Ukraine, and if I had to name one group of corrupt ideologues who should not be allowed anywhere near biolabs, it would be the Nazi-inspired fanatics infesting the regime in Kyiv.
I was unable to attend the event at the Tabard, but the video can be viewed here. As with Barry Klein’s ForeignPolicy Alliance, Fritzi Cohen’s caught my eye for two reasons. One, it once again brings foreign policy into the purview of the American citizenry. Two, the speakers and organizers were of a variety of stripes, from the left (Garland Nixon, Sam Husseini) all the way over to Mollie Hemingway, who edits The Federalist.
“Tell me, what exactly is ‘an authentically progressive foreign policy.’” So a reader asked in the comment thread at the end of a column I published elsewhere many years ago. The U.S. had cultivated the coup in Ukraine a year earlier and it was just then coming to light that Washington was backing ISIS and other blood-soaked jihadist militias as it prosecuted its dirty war in Syria.
It was a good question, given the mess foreign policy had become in America’s late-imperial phase, which I date to the attacks of September 2001. I replied in a subsequent column.
Any honorable foreign policy dedicated to the betterment of the human condition, I wrote, must begin by wresting control of the policy process, from inception to execution, away from the elites who now control it. I counted this among the 21st century imperatives Americans must address if it is to alter course in the right direction.
It is as true now as it was then.
Something else occurred at about that time that is worth recalling in this connection. It makes an excellent frame for the Foreign Policy Alliance project and the succession of events Fritzi Cohen hosts at the Tabard.
This was 2015. Frank–Walter Steinmeier was Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister at that time. Alert readers will recognize the name: Steinmeier is now the Federal Republic of Germany’s president and is routinely subject to the abuses of Ukrainian officials simply because he insists that diplomatic channels between Moscow and the Western capitals should remain open.
Shame on Steinmeier. Curse him. A negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis that recognizes the interests of all sides: Nein, Herr Steinmeier. Niemals.
Steinmeier ran an extraordinary project during his years as FM, 2013 to 2017. As soon as he took office he authorized a study to determine how Germany could renovate foreign policy and the policy-setting process in response to a drastically changing global environment.
The broader objectives of “Review 2014—Foreign Policy Thinking Ahead,” as the ministry titled its working draft, was to establish the core principles by which Germany would conduct its relations with the rest of the world. In brief, Steinmeier and his people argued that German policy in the 21st century must rest on international law more or less as it is, no need to add much other than a stricter insistence on observance. It is to derive from a holistic community of thinkers, not merely the policy cliques in Berlin.
The third objective, arching over the others, is simply put. Steinmeier’s ministry proposed not less than the democratization of German foreign policy. I doubt it was lost on anyone that this was, in the climate of the time, an implicit challenge to the overweening, overstepping policy cliques in Washington. “It is almost certainly intended to be so,” I wrote then, “although those courteous Germans would never say as much.”
Steinmeier’s people identified three core challenges in the years ahead: There is crisis prevention, crisis management, and post-crisis stabilization; there is the maintenance of a world order worthy of the designation, and there is the European context in which Germany would fashion its policy. Let us consider these briefly in the order the ministry stated them.
As we go through these, let me invite readers to imagine, as I did, any American political or diplomatic figure, as in any, making these surmises and proposing this map into the future:
● Steinmeier saw crisis, much to the worse, as the norm for the two decades out from the time of his project. In response, the ministry was to create an independent department to anticipate crises, address them when they erupt, and help advance beyond them afterward.
The key intent was to gather all resources in one room. “We want to learn from the experience of our crisis response center,” Steinmeier explained when the ministry’s work was done. Political solutions are to be paramount, and not merely in word.
● As already suggested, Steinmeier’s ministry saw the future in stricter adherence to international law and regulation. On the bureaucratic side, this meant merging the ministry’s disarmament and U.N. departments—which would be much more that a rearrangement of the Federal Foreign Office’s furniture. “We thus create a place where the principle for international order that is closest to our hearts—multilateralism—fully applies,” as the FM explained it.
● There was for Steinmeier the question—touchy, this—of Europe and Germany’s place in it. Berlin must look beyond Germany from now on and embed its policy in the European context, the report argued. Translation: We will speak for Europe now and will act accordingly. Intent: “to give Europe more influence in world affairs,” in Steinmeier’s words.
I read this last as an argument that Germany must move beyond the boundaries imposed by its past and as a declaration that Europe must turn its own preferences into policies and advance them with more determination than it has to date: a call for a more independent Europe, in other words. Remember, the U.S. had just engineered the fateful coup in Ukraine and begun imposing sanctions on Russia that were not going to serve Europe well.
The truly innovative features of Steinmeier’s project concerned how foreign policies were to be developed and who would have a say in what was finally executed. Policy was to derive not from wonks and technocrats with narrow fields of vision, but from a holistic community of thinkers: Political experts, economists, urban planners, sociologists, historians, educators, aid people, military people, foreign advisers, and so on would gather with the policy people to shape the strategy.
Out of this, something like an 11th commandment: Military force would be re-rated as a last resort.
Most interesting to me are Steinmeier’s provisions for public participation in policy planning. This would be by way of elaborate provisions for town meetings, referenda, opinion surveys, and other administrative mechanisms—all with the intent to make foreign policy authentically an expression of the German citizenry’s aspirations—who they wanted to be, how they wanted the community called the Federal Republic of Germany to conduct itself in their names.
The foreign ministry’s final report, Crisis—Order—Europe, was named for the above-noted questions it sought to answer and was published in March 2015. Steinmeier was excellently forceful when he presented it in the Bundestag the previous month.
“Foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad,” the FM said as he introduced his ministry’s conclusions. “The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it.”
Much has transpired since then. Germany is learning to assert itself in a healthier manner, but the occasion for this is the West’s misguided determination to arm an objectionable regime in a proxy war against Russia. It is actively in search of a new foreign policy but it appears to be groping blindly for it, as Sylvie Kauffmann, the Le Monde columnist, put it in the FT recently..
These are not, surely, the outcomes Frank–Walter Steinmeier had in mind. And there is little sign that authority over German foreign policy has devolved downward to German citizens or that that holistic community of thinkers recruited to formulate policy has coalesced to any meaningful extent.
But let us not miss the larger point. There’s a long tradition in the West wherein foreign policy is the preserve of an elite not answerable to any electorate. This has been the case in the U.S. since it first had a foreign policy to speak of, in the late 19th century.
To propose subjecting policy to democratic processes by way of continuing national dialogue is thus a call to revolution of a sort. As Steinmeier and his ministry concluded, the globalization process makes policy everyone’s business now.
The columns I wrote on Steinimeier’s project are here and here. The foreign ministry’s report, in English, is here. An essay Steinmeier published in Project Syndicate on February 25, the date of his presentation in the Bundestag, is here.
I cannot think of one, even minor, aspect of Crisis—Order—Europe that the policy cliques in Washington are even remotely considering. But one of the key questions of our time, the control of foreign policy, now has substance and a framework within which we can think about breaking with the long tradition on this question.
It is impossible to predict how long this project will take—except to say a long time in all likelihood. The last time Americans made any such effort was during the Vietnam War, and the antiwar movement proved effective in asserting the popular will.
But too much has changed since then, especially in the matter of public attitudes, atomization, and the privatization of consciousness, for a comparison to be useful. And there is the media: A transformation of this kind would require media of integrity, balance, and situated the proper distance from power. The mainstream media as we have it has not one of these attributes.
The endeavor is more encompassing now, too: It’s not focused on a war but on a system and long-entrenched practices. All we know is that the process is set in motion. In the Steinmeier case, this was from the top down, in the cases of Klein, Cohen, and others making the same effort in the American context, it is bottom up.
This is no bad thing. When a fundamental shift in the policy process is at last achieved, it will belong to those who insisted on it. Barry Klein, Fritzi Cohen, and those who stand with them are taking an important step. I commend this column to them.