A leading expert in foreign policy, Walter Russell Mead believes his lack of a PhD — and interest in actually going places — has helped him avoid academic silos and institutional groupthink that’s rendered the field ineffective for decades. Mead’s latest book, which explores the American-Israeli relationship, is characteristically wide-ranging and multidisciplinary, resulting in
“less a history of U.S.-Israel policy than a sweeping and masterfully told history of U.S. foreign policy in general”, according to a New York Times review.
He joined Tyler to discuss how the decline of American religiosity has influenced US foreign policy, which American presidents best and least understood the Middle East, the shrewd reasons Stalin supported Israel, the Saudi secret to political stability, the fate of Pakistan, the most likely scenario for China moving on Taiwan, the gun pointed at the head of German business, the US’s “murderous fetishization of ideology over reality” in Sub-Saharan Africa, the inherent weakness in having a foreign policy establishment dominated by academics, what he learned from attending the Groton School, and much more.
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I’m very happy to be here in person with Walter Russell Mead. Walter is a professor at Bard College, foreign policy columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. And he has a new and excellent book called The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. Walter, welcome.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: It’s good to be here, Tyler. It’s really great to see you.
COWEN: A simple and very general question: What does an average working-class American actually gain from American hegemony?
MEAD: Well, you can ask yourself maybe better, what do they lose if we don’t have it? For example, World War II — when Germany and Japan tried to break the international system, working-class Americans in the millions were conscripted into a war, had their lives disrupted.
COWEN: But now we have nuclear weapons, so that won’t happen again. Say we kept half our nuclear weapons, cut the defense budget in half.
MEAD: Right. Well, if you believe that people are rational actors, perhaps. When I think about nuclear weapons, I ask myself, if Adolf Hitler had had a couple of nuclear weapons in the spring of 1945, would he have used them? He absolutely would. I think the idea that the existence of nuclear weapons means that we can all forget international politics just doesn’t work.
COWEN: How has the decline of American religiosity influenced US foreign policy?
MEAD: Well, I think the most important way is that it has diminished our coherence as a society and undermined the psychological strength of individuals in our foreign policy world.
What do I mean by that? If you think about what it’s like to do foreign policy, or even think about foreign policy in today’s world, what are we looking at? Existential threats to human existence. You led us off with nuclear weapons. In the book, I talk about how, as a 10-year-old, my friends and I used to stand around on the playground, debating whether our town, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, would be destroyed in a nuclear attack.
COWEN: The answer is no. Not Chapel Hill.
MEAD: Well, we believed that we would be, because the vital UNC planetarium is where they trained NASA astronauts. The playground consensus was that we were targeted.
In any case, the fear of nuclear war has been around since the time of Hiroshima, but also, there are other fears. If we don’t get climate policy right, will we all be cooked? Or will climate-induced disruptions lead to great power war, nuclear conflict? Will changing technology — the AIs — take over? Whatever, we live in a time of existential fear, and foreign policy and all kinds of national policy questions get invested with these ultimate questions.
Politics is less about, if we raise the sales tax half a percent, is that a good thing or a bad thing on balance? It’s more about, can we save the planet? Can we save human civilization? When people face those kinds of questions without some kind of grounding in some kind of religion, faith, it’s actually . . . There are individual people who can keep their psychological balance in the face of that. There are not many.
In terms of mass societies and democracies and large cultural groups, it’s profoundly destabilizing. You have that problem, that existential fear, which some people respond to by denial, some people fall into extremism — lots of responses, but you can see that.
Then the other thing is that, in a large democratic society like ours — 300-plus million people — if political power was divided equally among all 300 million Americans, it would mean that no one had any power. And American society, the American government would simply be a force that you couldn’t impact no matter what you did. There are just too many of us.
What makes democracy work under those circumstances tends to be senses of identification with elites, with different social-political groups. The glue that holds a democratic society — the cultural glue, intellectual glue, spiritual glue — becomes much more important. I think, in our society, the ebbing of religion among some, certainly not all, Americans has tended to dissolve these bonds and leads, in all kinds of ways, both on the left and the right, to some of the sense of suspicion, of paranoia, a lack of trust, and declining support for democracy.
All of that together makes it much harder for the United States to do foreign policy well, at least in my judgment.
COWEN: If we put aside the immediate partisan divisions of the current day, which can be quite path-dependent, but just try to think in terms of overall worldview, what’s the biggest foreign policy difference between the two major American parties?
MEAD: I think, to some degree, you can say it’s historical that the Democratic Party believes in — as people like President Biden or Secretary Kerry would say — learning the lessons of Vietnam, that our over-reliance on hard power is dangerous, that soft power really is where it’s at, and that America needs to accommodate two different regime types and so on, around the world.
Of course, again, both parties are contested. There are different groups in both parties. The Republicans — Vietnam did not have as great a consequence for Republicans. If you think about people like James Baker, George Shultz, the great Republican foreign policy figures of the last 30, 40 years, the legacy of Vietnam for them was quite different, that sort of cultural impact.
Democrats tended to lose . . . A class of liberal Democrats saw their faith in American ideology permanently wounded by Vietnam. I don’t think that was as true among Republicans.
COWEN: Is it a good thing that Biden has significantly cut back on drone wars?
MEAD: I think time will tell. In general, am I happy that fewer people are dying as a result of attacks, especially civilians? Absolutely. But is the terror threat to the United States and other countries on whom we depend diminishing? Well, that depends.
Certainly, in the Arab world, the Middle East, Islamism, and jihad — just call it jihadi ideology more broadly — is seen to have failed. Like socialism, like Arab nationalism, it’s one more in a long list of failed ideological movements. Not that there still aren’t terrorists, or for that matter, Arab socialists, but it’s not the same.
However, if you look at sub-Saharan Africa, what we’re seeing is state after state — and these are fragile states to begin with — they’re being undermined or being assaulted. We’re seeing larger-scale conflicts developing. These are not of no interest to us. For example, many of the resources that you need for any kind of EVs [electric vehicles] and battery technology are in places where these conflicts are very real.
So, we are not winning against jihadism on a global scale, but it’s also true that a reduced American military presence in the Middle East is not the worst thing I can imagine.
COWEN: Now, some questions relevant to your book, which again, is called The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. Which American president has best understood the Middle East, and then worst?
MEAD: Interesting. Nobody’s gotten it totally. I’d say George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon probably are the two, in my mind, who best understood what they were dealing with.
COWEN: What is it they had that maybe the others didn’t?
MEAD: What they saw in the Middle East is that America has both hard-power goals and what you could call soft-power, idealistic goals in the Middle East, that our hard-power goals are vital, and they are achievable. Our soft-power goals are important but largely unachievable. What they did was, they set about dealing with what was essential, and they both did it pretty successfully.
COWEN: And the worst?
MEAD: There’s more competition for that spot.
COWEN: Everyone is tied.
MEAD: In some ways, Eisenhower was deeply delusional about the Middle East, thinking that somehow there was a way the US and Nasser could become the cornerstone of a Middle Eastern order, but the consequences were not great of that mistake.
I would think nobody really thought, in 2008, as George W. Bush left office, that you could possibly mess up the Middle East worse than the Bush administration. But President Obama proved that that was wrong and that you could actually take the Middle East at the end of 2008 and make it almost infinitely worse, both for American interests and for the safety and happiness of the people in the region. So, I think probably President Obama wins the crown.
COWEN: Does the State Department or the CIA understand the Middle East better?
MEAD: There, I think you have to talk about individuals. In both institutions, there are some of the smartest minds in the country, and people who’ve studied the region deeply and think hard about it. One of the interesting consequences for me of the WikiLeaks cables was you see, actually, just how good a lot of the State Department observers are. The cables they’re sending home are really quite perceptive.
But institutionally, to some degree, I think both institutions are troubled by a problem that goes far beyond them, the problem of the bureaucratization of knowledge. If you compare the world of American foreign policy today with what it was like, say, before World War II, in those days you had really quite small institutions where an individual genius or someone like George Kennan could really have an influence.
With the ballooning of the national security bureaucracies in the Cold War and then even beyond, we now have these ossified institutions. There’s always the question, how many analysts of China do you need? The answer is one — if you can find the right one. Bureaucratic groupthink, I think, tends to dominate the products of both the State Department and the CIA in ways that often obscure the best of the thinking that’s being done inside them.
COWEN: Why didn’t America take in more European Jews during World War II and before?
MEAD: Well, during World War II, there weren’t many options.
COWEN: But ships came and were turned away, right? Why did that happen?
MEAD: That was before the war. I’m just saying, there wasn’t that much transatlantic travel in the war, but —
COWEN: Say there were some number of Jews in Switzerland — we could have opened the doors. They were maybe safe in Switzerland. It turned out they were safe, but we didn’t exactly —
MEAD: Well, no, right. Again, the main problem is the ’20s and ’30s, really. In some ways, actually, German Jews had better access to the US than Jews in other parts of Europe at that time, particularly Poland.
The problem is that mass immigration to the United States, which really begins around 1880 . . . We’ve always been a country of immigrants, but in 1790, the immigrants who got here got here on very small sailing vessels that required several weeks to cross the Atlantic and couldn’t come during whole seasons of the year because of the weather.
Once you had these steam-powered ships that were much, much larger and could travel much more quickly, it became much cheaper for immigrants. Plus, you started having railroad networks across Europe so that people could get from central Russia to Hamburg and to the United States in 1880 in a way they just couldn’t in 1820.
This mass immigration, which changed the demographics of the US, came at just the time US society was experiencing a major economic shift. The Industrial Revolution and the decline of the family farm were leading a lot of people to think that the era of American affluence was over, that American institutions couldn’t cope with these new things.
You have the combination of the cultural pressure, the economic pressure of immigrants. Labor unions originally were very much in favor of immigration because many of the members of the labor unions were from these countries and wanted their friends and relatives to come over. But by 1920, labor had shifted strongly against immigration because of cost competition from new immigrants. So, you had this long controversial immigration culminating in really draconian restrictions in 1923, 1924.
Then, once you hit the Depression, as European persecution of the Jews gets worse, and the Depression with unemployment in the United States of 25 percent, it’s really, really hard to get any political consent for migration generally.
Meanwhile, you might say, “Well, okay, fine, but what about Jews in a special category because of their persecution?” What you then have is, people would say, “Well, wait a minute, my relatives are in Greece, and things are terrible in Greece, and they’re starving in Greece. Are the Jews going to jump the line?” That was the expression a lot of people used.
There was zero support for more immigration and even less than zero support for prioritizing Jewish immigration in the ’20s and ’30s in the United States.
COWEN: 1947 to 1953 — why did Stalin and the Soviet Bloc support Israel as much as they did?
MEAD: Well, there were a lot of reasons. Stalin was a clever guy. One of the things I say in the book, Arc of a Covenant, is that, actually, Stalin had a lot more to do with the independence of Israel than Harry Truman or the United States. Soviet policy was significantly more influential. This came out of Stalin’s vision of Russian Soviet interests at the start of the Cold War.
First place, the US, at that time, was not actually a major Middle Eastern power. We were a global superpower, but in the Middle East, Britain was far more important than the United States. We had a good relationship with Saudi Arabia, but the other Gulf states — Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and others — were essentially almost British colonies at that time.
The Soviets correctly saw the British Empire as the weak point in the potential of a containment from the West. They also saw that, in the US, political opinion was sharply divided between people who were worried about the Soviet Union and thought we needed an alliance with Britain and France in order to counter the Soviet Union, and people who thought that, actually, an alliance with Britain and France would commit us to colonialism, imperialism, and basically wreck our future in the developing world, open doors to communism, but also thought that we could win Stalin over, could gain Stalin’s trust, and thought that the United Nations should replace great power politics.
We had World War I and then World War II, which ended with nuclear weapons. World War III would be a disaster. The UN is the only possible place to fight it, to prevent it. Instead of engaging in imperial schemes with Great Britain against the Soviet Union, we needed to work with the Soviet Union in the UN to make peace possible.
That was the big controversy in America. Stalin saw that, by pushing the question of the emergence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, he could drive a wedge between the US and Britain and basically destroy British power in the Middle East.
On the one hand, in America, support for Zionism was pretty strong among Jews and non-Jews at that time. There was real support for it. When Britain is seen as banning the desperate survivors of Nazi concentration camps pleading to go to Palestine, and the British are literally turning them away and keeping them, essentially, in concentration camps, this was so damaging to US-British relations that Stalin was rubbing his hands in glee.
At the same time, the fact that the British were basically unable to prevent the rise of a Jewish state in Palestine radicalized Arab public opinion throughout the Middle East and resulted, ultimately, in Egypt in the fall of the pro-British monarchy, and everywhere undermined the British Imperial position. Stalin hoped to gain quite a bit from it, and he did.
COWEN: Do you watch Israeli TV? If so, what do you learn from it?
MEAD: I don’t watch Israeli TV. I’m sure I’d learn a lot if I did.
COWEN: Srugim — you should watch. It’s a great show. Shtisel, Valley of Tears, Prisoners of War.
MEAD: Tyler, I wish I had time for more TV in my life.
COWEN: Is Israel’s promotion of Pegasus spyware ethical?
MEAD: Good question. Yes and no. It’s a technology used — in some cases, I think it’s being misused, as is much technology. I think a better thing to say would be, is Israeli’s promotion of technology like Pegasus fundamentally that different from what everybody else is doing? I would say the answer there is no.
The United States sells a lot of weapons around the world. Russia sells a lot of weapons around the world. India sells a lot of weapons. Do we always control the way these things are used effectively? No. I would say it’s pretty much in the ballpark with the rest of us.
COWEN: How pro-Israel are American Mormons compared to American evangelicals?
MEAD: Well, again, we’re talking about millions of people in both cases, and nobody’s a homogenous block. But in general, I think American Mormons have consistently seen the rise of the state of Israel in many ways as confirming some key Mormon tenets. In the same way, many evangelicals in the US have seen the rise of Israel as confirming some of their theological ideas.
In both cases, what you have is people supporting the state, not necessarily for traditional foreign policy reasons, but because they think it’s a sign of God working in the world. And this both reassures them in our very dangerous and terrifying world that there is a benign, omnipotent deity is in charge of our destinies, but also, “Well, we believe that in these latter days, God is doing great things and new things.” If you’re a Mormon, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, it means the LDS is on the right track.
That’s also what American evangelicals, going back 200 years, have been arguing, that the Bible prophesies a return of the Jews to Palestine at the climax of history. In a time that feels a lot like the climax of history — nuclear bombs, et cetera, et cetera — the Jews return. Whoa, whoa, whoa, this Bible, written 2,500 years ago, must know something. Only a supernatural intelligence could have revealed 2,500 years ago what’s happening today. In both cases, the rise of Israel is seen as underwriting the truth of their core religious faith.
COWEN: Circa summer 2022, why haven’t the Saudis stepped up and pumped more oil to keep the price down? Isn’t that part of their implicit contract with the US? We defend them, they cooperate on global oil markets?
MEAD: Well, they would say, “Have you been defending us lately?”
COWEN: Has anyone taken them over lately?
MEAD: Well, what they would say is, “Iran is our biggest threat. What are you actually doing?” In their view, we’re not doing enough. We might say, “Your view is crazy,” but it’s still their view. That’s part of it.
Also, Biden comes into office saying, “I’m going to make MBS, by name, a pariah. I’m going to end our relationship. This relationship with Saudi Arabia is a disaster. It needs to fundamentally change.” Then a few months later, he looks at the price of gas, and this is the key to his reelection. He comes to the Saudis: “Help me stay in office. Return to our eternal friendship.” They don’t trust him at all, nor should they, really.
Also, we should look at the way that two developments have changed the relationship. One is fracking, where the US is now a price competitor with the Saudis in a way it didn’t used to be, where our production, actually, in some years is higher than their production.
But also, the Biden administration’s attempt to be a leader in climate-change action, which is aimed specifically at driving fossil fuels out of the market. If American policy is to make Saudi Arabia’s one valuable source of income worthless as quickly as possible, what are the reasons for them to help bail us out?
I actually think we need Saudi Arabia. We need a balance of power in the Middle East, and they’re an essential part of that balance. I think the relationship can be reconfigured, but we’ve got some work to do on our end.
COWEN: Why has Saudi Arabia been so stable for so many decades? I feel I’ve been reading my whole life, “Oh, this can’t continue.” And so many other countries in the region have not been stable. What’s the Saudis’ secret?
MEAD: I know, it’s amazing. The American political-studies belief since World War II has essentially been, democracy is the only stable form of government. Everywhere democracy is inexorably rising, and every other form of government is incredibly unstable. This bears very, very little relationship to the facts outside of Western Europe, let’s say the world of NATO plus Japan and Australia.
Look, I think it’s a combination of two things. One is that the monarchical tradition in Saudi Arabia and in some other Arab countries has been one of the king acting as a power broker among different tribes and clans, maintaining a balance of power more like a feudal leader in medieval Europe than a modern dictator or something like that. They’re very good at understanding, “Oops, the people in the northeast are unhappy,” or “Oops, this tribe is unhappy.” And they figure out, “How do we rebalance? What do we do?”
Then when you add that political sensitivity to a large flow of oil income, so that you actually have the resources that you need to respond to people’s grievances, it’s not that surprising that they’ve lasted this long.
COWEN: Will the UAE prove equally stable?
MEAD: Well, Yogi Berra says that history is . . . what is it? Prediction is always dangerous, especially when it involves the future. I think the UAE, so far, has shown itself to be a very resilient state. In some ways, being a small, insecure country is very good for your political intelligence because when you feel you have an immense margin of error, then you don’t really care that much, but when you feel that your survival is on a knife edge, you think hard about what you’re doing, and you really ruthlessly weed out incompetent people from your national security structure.
I think the UAE is worried when it looks at the world, and that gives them an edge.
COWEN: Elsewhere, will Pakistan remain as one geographically intact nation? Was it just stitched together, and eventually, it’s just going to fall apart?
MEAD: I think I would put that, Tyler, in the context of a much larger question — which is one of the things that my research for The Arc of a Covenant put in my head — was that from 1850 to 1950, you see these large, multinational states crumbling away into individual ethnic, almost monocultures, and at the cost of enormous wars, fanaticism, all kinds of things. But this re-sorting of Europe and of the Ottoman Empire into smaller, more coherent units — it’s still continuing.
The war in Syria today, the war in Libya today. It’s moving past its old heartline. The wars in Ethiopia and Sudan today, the conflicts in Nigeria today are all reflecting the reality that, as societies develop, different groups of people are less content to live in large, multicultural, multiethnic units and want to be ruled by people who they feel understand them.
Now, Pakistan is an interesting case, where they’ve tried to hold the very disparate elements of Pakistani culture. Pakistan had never been a geographical unit before partition, and the tribal differences are enormous. Again, it’s a little racist to say “tribal differences.” If these people were in Europe, we would call the Punjabis a nation, not an ethnic group or something. These national differences were deep. In Pakistan, they tried to overcome them by emphasizing Islam as the unifying factor of Pakistani national identity.
As the strains in Pakistan have grown greater, there’s been a fanaticization among some elements of Pakistani society around Islam, again, trying to double down on this point of unity. Now, what we are seeing is that none of this has prevented a massive failure of governance in Pakistan. It’s not all their fault. The Afghan war brought a lot of trouble, a lot of refugees to them, but Pakistan has been badly governed for a very long time. Now, the schools don’t work, the flood control doesn’t work, the economy is in terrible shape.
For a long time, their relationship with the United States was keeping them afloat. They had turned to China, hoping that China would keep them afloat. China doesn’t seem that interested in propping up expensive, money-losing regimes. Now they’re in real trouble. Where this goes, I can’t tell you. It’s a constellation of factors, but we should not forget that the strongest single institution in Pakistan is its nuclear-armed military. This military has a strong institutional sense of coherence and a strong loyalty to the Pakistani state. We can’t keep that out of the mix when we try to think about what’s going to happen in Pakistan.
COWEN: What does it look like for the northeast of India to break away from the Indian state? You look at a map — it doesn’t make sense, right?
MEAD: Well, it would immediately lead to its annexation by China, which is something that I think very few people in northeastern India want. I think there are very good reasons why the Indian northeast is not a total hotbed of separatist sentiment, and I think that’s likely to continue.
It remains a really complicated part of the country — very sensitive set of issues there. But I think the Indian interest in preventing China from moving in there, and in supporting its own national sovereignty, plus the very sound argument you can make to a lot of people in the northeast. “You may not be happy with New Delhi. Do you think Beijing is going to pay better attention to you?” That’s likely to keep northeast India in the fold, but I don’t know — it’s the future.
COWEN: Here’s a real softball. If China were to move on Taiwan, what’s the most likely scenario? Is it a blockade? They start by taking the small islands, they send a small amphibious force, they bomb everything? Or?
MEAD: That will entirely depend on the Chinese assessment of their own capacities and of the international political situation. What we’ve seen so far is that China prefers what people have called the cabbage-leaf strategy. The idea is that a cabbage starts very small, and it keeps growing one leaf after another, getting incrementally larger, but none of its expansionist moves quite trigger an overwhelming response.
If we think about how China has gone from “Oh, we’re just going to build a few peaceful islands in the South China Sea. Don’t worry, there’s nothing there,” to militarizing those bases, to then using those to further extend Chinese power that we now see in the Solomon Islands, where they’ve recently refused to receive new naval visits from the US or Australia. China is now basically emerging as the lead partner of a strategically located set of islands that would cut Australia off from the US to some degree and from the rest of the region. We’re seeing very incremental opportunistic moves.
I think we can say that the future of Chinese policy toward Taiwan will reflect that same kind of thinking, which would suggest nibbling and nibbling before you finally take the big bite.
COWEN: What was your dissertation on, and how has that work shaped your understanding of the current war in Ukraine?
MEAD: I didn’t do a dissertation. All I have is a BA in English literature, and we didn’t even have to write a senior paper. In fact, I was so lazy that one of the reasons I majored in English rather than history was that history required a senior paper, and English let you off with a senior seminar. So, can’t answer that one, Tyler.
COWEN: Sorry. Is Germany still part of the Western Alliance?
MEAD: Well, in the sense it’s been for some time. I remember that Kennan’s goal for Germany was to have a united, neutral, disarmed Germany at the heart of Europe. In some ways, [laughs] Kennan’s goal looks, maybe, closer than ever.
Look, I think Germany is a country whose basic economic model is now under question. The German model — and it’s very important in understanding that country — is based on the availability of cheap energy from Russia and large markets in China.
Again, let’s remember that the German establishment is more terrified of ordinary German public opinion than even the American liberal establishment is terrified of the Trumpists. You don’t have to look all that deeply into history to see why that would be the case. Providing stability, affluence, and employment for the mass of the German people is a key test of the legitimacy of the German state.
Really, ever since we failed to break up the large German corporations after World War II, that German establishment has been the motor of the astonishing success of postwar Germany. Now, suddenly, that engine is running out of fuel on the one hand, and its key customer, China, regardless of anything about human rights or geopolitics, the goal of the Chinese economic development strategy is to end its dependency on capital goods imported from countries like Germany by becoming an exporter of high-tech capital goods.
China’s development plans, much more than its Taiwan policy or its human rights, is a gun pointed at the head of German business. So, where do they go? It’s not clear where they go. I don’t think it’s clear to them where they go. That means that a fundamental element of the American alliance system is in a completely new place.
I think what we have to be doing in terms of analyzing where German foreign policy goes is to think a little bit less about ideology or things like the German anti-war sentiment or these kinds of things. Yes, these are all there, the Russian soul, all of that. It’s there, but really, how is Germany going to make a living? That’s the question that has to be answered, and that will drive Germany’s orientation in foreign policy.
COWEN: If there’s a new war in the Balkans, how is it most likely to start?
MEAD: Oh, so many ways. [laughs] So many ways. I think Serbia-Kosovo always remains a flashpoint. I think that if the war in Ukraine continues to drag on for Putin, diverting NATO’s attention and resources to the southern flank, to the western Balkans makes a lot of sense. It would probably consist of Russia, perhaps with a little quiet Chinese support, stirring the pot in ways that lead to a new outbreak.
COWEN: You’re asked to make an even-money bet, yes or no — 50 years from now, will Ukraine, as an independent nation, still exist?
MEAD: I would say yes.
COWEN: In more or less its current geographic form?
MEAD: Well, “more or less” is a wonderful term, and if you allow me to define those, I will definitely say yes.
COWEN: If the UN disappeared tomorrow, what, if anything, would change about world politics?
MEAD: Well, we would suddenly have a lot of conversation about, what will the successor institution to the UN look like?
MEAD: If the UN didn’t exist, we would actually need to invent it, not so much because the UN gets a lot of things done as the central political General Assembly and stuff, but there are all kinds of problems that no one else really wants to deal with, but still wants to have them dealt with, that it’s very convenient to have the UN to work on them.
COWEN: How should US foreign policy towards sub-Saharan Africa change? Can we do better?
MEAD: I think it’s much more complicated than . . . I don’t think there’s a simple fix out there that just, “Oh, okay. Turn this switch from on to off, and goodness and joy will flow.” I’m glad that we are engaging, but I do think we probably need to de-fetishize democracy promotion. Not that democracy isn’t a good thing, but I read about it in a recent election in the DRC, the Congo, that helicopters were flying ballots to remote villages.
When I think of all the people that die in the DRC due to medical problems that simple medical treatment could fix, this seems to me, frankly, an insane misuse of resources, a murderous fetishization of ideology over reality.
I think the key to sub-Saharan African development is economic success. Not that this will make all problems go away. It’ll make, I think, things like tribalism potentially get worse. But giving people more opportunity to improve the quality of their lives through their own efforts — so far as our foreign policy can do it — I think is a very positive thing.
We do also need to look a little bit more seriously at the potential of jihadi groups to destabilize large sections of the continent.
COWEN: Here’s a sociological question. I think you’ll follow what I’m getting at. I’ve noticed that so many anti-Trump neoconservatives — they seem to have flipped almost entirely into just flat-out Democratic positions, like Bill Kristol. You could just call him a Democrat, and if you didn’t know the history, you wouldn’t see any contradictory evidence at this point. You haven’t done that. Why the difference?
MEAD: Well, first of all, I’m not actually a Republican. I shifted from Democrat —
COWEN: But you were somewhat of a neoconservative, right?
MEAD: I don’t think so. I never thought of myself as a neoconservative. I would say at the height of neoconservativism, I would tell people, “I’m not a neoconservative.” Because, fundamentally, I’ve always been much less enchanted by the idea that promotion of democracy is a solution to America’s great power problems. That has never appealed to me.
There are places where you can do it — great. Eastern Europe after the Cold War — a lot of good things happened, but I never believed in the end of history thesis. In that sense, I was never enchanted, so I was never disenchanted.
COWEN: How would you change or improve the training that goes into America’s foreign policy elite?
MEAD: Well, I would start by trying to draw people’s attention to that, over the last 40 years, there’s been an enormous increase in the number of PhD grads engaged in the formation of American foreign policy. There’s also been an extraordinary decline in the effectiveness of American foreign policy. We really ought to take that to heart.
COWEN: Do you think of it as an advantage that you don’t have a PhD?
MEAD: Huge advantage.
COWEN: How would you describe that advantage?
MEAD: I don’t really believe in disciplines. I see connections between things. I start from reality. I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual here. You need ideas to help you organize your perceptions of reality. But I think there’s a tendency in a lot of social science disciplines — you start from a bunch of really smart, engaged people who have been thinking about a set of questions and say, “We’ll do a lot better if we stop randomly thinking about everything that pops up and try, in some systematic way, to organize our thinking of this.”
I think you do get some gains from that, but you see, over time, the focus of the discipline has this tendency to shift. The discipline tends to become more inward navel-gazing. “What’s the history of our efforts to systematize our thinking about this?” The discipline becomes more and more, in a sense, ideological and internally focused and less pragmatic.
I think that some of the problem, though, is not so much in the intellectual weaknesses of a lot of conventional postgrad education, but simply almost the crime against humanity of having whole generations of smart people spend the first 30, 35 years of their lives in a total bubble, where they’re in this academic setting, and the rule . . . They become socialized into the academy, just as much as prisoners get socialized into the routines of a prison.
The American academy is actually a terrible place for coming to understand how world politics works. Recently, I had a conversation with an American official who was very proud of the way that the US had broken the mold by revealing intelligence about Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, and pointed out how that had really helped build the NATO coalition against Russian aggression, and so on.
So far as he goes, it’s true. But I said, however, if you really look at the total message the US was projecting to Russia in those critical months, there were two messages. One is, “We’ve got great intelligence on you. We actually understand you much better than you think.” It was shocking. I think it shocked the Russians. But on the other hand, we’re saying, “We think you’re going to win quickly in Ukraine. We’re offering Zelenskyy a plane ride out of Kyiv. We’re pulling out all our diplomats and urging other countries to pull out their diplomats.”
The message, actually the totality of the message that we sent to Putin is, “You are going to win if you do this.” It would certainly undercut — not that there may have been any — but any voices inside Russia telling Putin, “No, no, no, this thing is a lot harder than you think. It may not work.” What they’re hearing is, “The Americans, whose intelligence is really, really good, and they know us better than we think — they certainly know the Ukrainians better than we do — and they think we’re going to win fast.”
That is a miserable, miserable combination of policies. The thing is, there was no political mind in the administration that thought in terms of, what’s the overall impact of what we do? That’s, I think, what comes of people who’ve spent their lives in universities rather than spent their lives in the real world.
COWEN: Why do foreign-policy think tanks seem to have so much less influence these days?
MEAD: Different reasons. First of all, I don’t think they ever had that much influence.
COWEN: It does seem less, right? Or maybe not.
MEAD: I don’t know. I think —
COWEN: The earlier role of RAND, say, compared to today?
MEAD: Yes, but RAND has always been a little bit different.
One thing is that the government has grown. It has its own in-house think tanks. This really starts with the policy planning in the State Department after World War II. Once you set that thing up, which is basically where the Marshall Plan comes from, you don’t need the Council on Foreign Relations when you have your own little in-house thing.
The institutionalization of these internal think tanks, I think, has a lot to do with it. What is the CIA if not a very large think tank, at least the analyst side of it? And naturally, these folks have access to classified information that we humble think tankers don’t.
So there’s that, but also, I think it’s partly . . . but the role of think tanks was less, I think, in terms of influencing government than of influencing public opinion. Here, it’s just the generic decline in the ability of the educated American professional elite. the fact that the folks out there don’t believe in us or trust us very much.
Again, the message from the think tank world was, “Free trade will make China democratic and Americans rich.” That was the message. Americans look at that, and they think, “Really?” They also think, “So why should we listen to you now?”
What you don’t hear from people in think tanks much is, “This is why we, the educated elite, were so wrong about so many things for so long. We’ve done a lot of soul searching. We’ve really hashed into it. We’ve actually gotten rid of a lot of people who haven’t changed their thinking, and so, here’s why we are now credible in a way we didn’t used to be.” I think this is fundamentally it. The American educated elite has gotten so much wrong for so long that public trust in it has declined across the board in both the left and the right.
COWEN: For our final segment, a few questions about the Walter Russell Mead production function. How much did growing up in South Carolina influence your views on foreign policy?
MEAD: I think it’s affected my views of America, and that, in turn, affects my views. Growing up in the segregated South during the civil rights era, where, on the one hand, my father actually knew Martin Luther King and marched with him and was involved in a lot of things; but then I had relatives, older relatives who were very much on the other side. That gave me a certain sense of I could love my grandfather even though he voted for George Wallace.
COWEN: My grandmother voted for George Wallace.
MEAD: Yes. All right. The fact that I could love him while really disliking his politics helps me understand . . . I think it helps understand some of the divisions in America even today and gives you a more human rather than a strictly ideological look.
But there’s also this: that the South and the White South — which, of course, is where I come from — has had the experience of both being defeated and being wrong. That’s something that a lot of American political culture doesn’t have — your WASP Yankee patricians. I think neoconservatism reflected a sense of people who’ve never been wrong and never been beaten, at least in their own minds. There’s a hubris that comes with that.
Historically, one of the roles of Southern politics — think of William Fulbright during the Vietnam War — both for good and bad reasons, doubt that this American ideological project can be transferred, partly because they know America is bad at reconstruction. The failure of reconstruction, both in terms of the White South and the Black South after the Civil War, is a lesson that you get growing up in the South. And so you have an inherent sense of the limits of America’s ability to transform societies. That’s important.
COWEN: Your foreign policy understanding — what did it learn from going to Groton?
COWEN: Groton, sorry.
MEAD: Well, I learned a lot there. On the one hand, Groton is a place that prides itself on its tradition of producing foreign policy leaders: Dean Acheson, the Allsopp brothers, Averell Harriman, Franklin Roosevelt. That wonderful book, The Wise Men by David Halberstam — actually, my history teacher is in there. There’s a whole scene that could be from our fourth-form 10th-grade history class.
You got the sense of being part of a tradition, and you got the inside view. The way we were taught American history was in no way idealized. Just, say, reading something like the 1619 Project didn’t come to me as a shock. “Oh my gosh, there was slavery, there was injustice in America.”
In fact, one of the teachers at Groton used to take aside some of the boys — it was an all-boys school at the time — and explain to them how their family fortune was made. He might say, “Well, George, we’ve been reading a lot about war profiteers in World War I. You need to know that your grandfather . . .” Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, none of my grandparents had participated in such things, so there was no need to explain to me the family fortune, as there wasn’t one.
You got a sense of the American system from the inside, and a much less ideologically blinkered one than I think that many people have in public education. That has meant, for one thing, that I’m less rattled by “America’s got racism.” Yes, now let’s talk about what do we need to do.
More than that, though, I was at Groton ’65 to ’70. Those were the years of the Vietnam War. The national security adviser at the time, McGeorge Bundy, was the chair of the Groton Board of Trustees, so I had a close-up look at the aggressive self-confidence of the WASP establishment meeting the Vietnam War and beginning to come to grips with what was going wrong.
Those two visions of the inner workings of the American foreign policy elite, and then the ringside seat at the crisis of the old American foreign policy elite, have been profoundly important in my thinking about the world.
COWEN: You meet young people all the time. How do you spot the next Walter Russell Mead? What do you look for?
MEAD: Well, first of all, I’m hoping for somebody who’s a lot better than me. I’m looking for someone — what is it? Whose sandals I am unworthy to buckle. And I would say that I look for, first of all, curiosity, intense curiosity. I look for an understanding that the personal and the political are mixed, that character matters. You can learn about the world by coming to understand your own psychological flaws and distress, and vice versa.
That history matters a lot, and that you can’t know too much history. Now, you have to digest it, but you can’t know too much history. A hunger for travel. I think too many foreign policy types don’t actually get out into the field nearly as much as they should. Curiosity about other cultures. A strong grounding in a faith of your own, which can be a secular ideology, perhaps, in some cases, but more often is likely to be a great religious tradition of some kind.
I’m a Christian. I could wish that everyone was, but my friend Shadi Hamid is a Muslim, and I think his Muslim faith actually helps him navigate and understand the world, and I certainly have lots of Jewish friends in the same circumstance. Again, we’re ending up where we started, maybe, but a religious faith, connected to one of the great historical traditions, gives you a degree of insight and potential for self-criticism that are absolutely crucial to foreign affairs.
COWEN: You mentioned travel. It brings us to our very last topic. Put aside all the trips you have to do — I’m sure there are many of them — but where do you wish to travel to next, and why?
MEAD: First, any place I haven’t been, I want to see.
COWEN: You’re just like me, but where is that, at this point?
MEAD: At this point? I’ve been to over 100 countries over the years.
COWEN: Same here.
MEAD: I would like to see more of sub-Saharan Africa. I haven’t been to Lusophone Africa: Angola and Mozambique. I don’t really know Francophone Africa, so I think those would be high on my list.
COWEN: Walter Russell Mead, thank you very much. Again, Walter’s new and excellent book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.