Codevilla's last words on America's Asia-Pacific policy

Encounter Books has just published (posthumously) Angelo Codevilla's last book, America's Rise and Fall Among Nations, which is a fierce and unvarnished criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Codevilla, who worked for U.S. senator Malcolm Wallop in the 1980s, taught international relations at Boston University, Georgetown, and Princeton, and served as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, urges U.S. policymakers to return to the foreign policy realism and restraint of George Washington and John Quincy Adams.

Washington and Adams promoted a foreign policy that sought good relations with all nations, except when those nations threatened U.S. interests.  Washington warned against perpetual alliances with any power but understood that temporary alliances for specific circumstances may be necessary.  Adams warned Americans against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also authored the Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed America's primary, if not exclusive, interests in the Western Hemisphere.  In general, both U.S. statesmen counseled restraint, prudence, and a focus on concrete national interests, and eschewed policies based on emotions or sentiment.  Codevilla, borrowing from former U.S. president Donald Trump, characterized the Washington-Adams approach as "America First." 

Codevilla contends, for example, that NATO has been obsolete since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that NATO expansion has exacerbated tensions with Russia and, more important, pushed Russia into the arms of China.  But one region where Codevilla counseled America's leaders to be more forward-leaning is the Asia-Pacific.  Here, he advises U.S. policymakers to form an alliance with Taiwan, which he calls the "geographic" and "military" key to containing China.  This is reminiscent of James Burnham's description of Taiwan as the "key link in [America's] western frontier, which runs from the Aleutians down the Japanese Islands, the Ryukyus ... to the Philippines."  Abandoning Taiwan to China, Burnham wrote in the 1950s, "would be a staggering disaster for the U.S."

Codevilla harshly criticized the Carter administration for de-recognizing Taiwan.  But for Codevilla, an alliance with Taiwan is not enough by itself to stop the advance of China.  U.S. naval power in the region must be significantly increased, and the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent must be modernized and strengthened.  He feared that the U.S. was edging toward a situation where China could effectively deter an American defense of Taiwan, and he was convinced that China could win a conventional war against the U.S. in the western Pacific under current circumstances.

Codevilla lamented that fact that America fought two lengthy wars in the Middle East that drained resources and sapped U.S. will for at most peripheral American interests — mainly because the military-industrial complex benefited from those wars.  America's "ruling class," Codevilla wrote, acts in its own interest, not America's.  Meanwhile, a distracted America failed to understand that NATO expansion and Russian collusion hoaxes pushed a resurgent Russia into a strategic partnership with China.

Interestingly, Codevilla traces the decline of American foreign policy to the abandonment of the Washington-Adams approach in the 20th centuries' two world wars and the Cold War, especially the Cold War struggles in Asia.  In World Wars I and II, Codevilla wrote, American leaders portrayed the conflicts as existential fights for democracy instead of wars to restore balances of power in Europe and Asia — as Washington and Adams would have done.  But it was in the Korean War, according to Codevilla, that the United States established a paradigm that sought stalemate instead of victory in wars.  And this paradigm has manifested itself in virtually every U.S. war since then.  The "endless" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just the most recent examples of the Korean War model of fighting wars to achieve something other than victory.

The real roots of the Korea paradigm, however, and what historians may one day identify as the pivotal event of the 20th century, was the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s.  The American foreign policy establishment that Codevilla ridicules so much has established as conventional wisdom that nobody "lost" China — certainly nobody in America.  If someone is to blame for "losing" China, according to the conventional wisdom, it was Chiang Kai-shek.  This conveniently lets the "ruling class" in America off the hook.  It also serves to obscure the detrimental influence of American communists on U.S. foreign policy throughout the Franklin Roosevelt and Truman administrations, especially with regard to Asia policy.  But even to suggest that possibility is to risk charges of "McCarthyism."

The so-called "wise men" who receive all the credit for the post–World War II containment policy in Europe, somehow receive little, if any, blame for the utter failure of containment in Asia.  What Codevilla called the Korean War paradigm was repeated in Vietnam (and Communist China fought against the U.S. in Korea and supported U.S. enemies in Southeast Asia).  And a new book on the first Vietnam War by Christopher Goscha (The Road to Dien Bien Phu) shows conclusively that the Vietnamese communists could not have won that war without China's support, and that Ho Chi Minh's goal was not "nationalism," but rather a communist empire in Southeast Asia.

Codevilla understood that America's most important alliances are now in the Asia-Pacific.  Washington and Adams would have focused U.S. foreign policy there instead of Ukraine, an area of at most peripheral interest to America.  It is not Vladimir Putin who threatens to upset the global balance of power (he has neither the capability nor likely the intent to do so); it is Xi Jinping.  The potential existential threat to the United States is centered in the western Pacific, not in Eastern Europe.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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