NORFOLK, CONN.—When I began the two columns I now produce weekly—four years and some, two years and some ago—they weren’t my first outings in the foreign affairs scene. I had written one for three years at Bloomberg—a (politically) difficult engagement that ended in tears and the gnashing of teeth. And my expectations were more or less fixed in all cases: There’s a small audience for comment of the kind my professional life qualified me to write; and while all journalism concerns change, this would be more or less incremental, not to say subtle, in my columns.
How the world has turned these past few years.
One, foreign affairs and American policy abroad are more on more people’s minds than at any time I can remember quite beyond the duration of all the columns. This is a very excellent thing. Foreign policy has by tradition been the business of a small, East Coast elite representing banks and corporations with an interest in expanding overseas markets. The prospect of a policy-formation process more subject to democratic rule (such as we still enjoy this) is altogether positive.
It seems this may be a mark of our time, at least eventually: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister, assumed office in late 2013 and immediately began a project to put in place mechanisms through which Germany’s conduct abroad is to be the business of all Germans. I’ve written about this severally. One can’t say how far this line of thought will get—in Germany or anywhere else. But Steinmeier’s thinking is essential to grasp.
In the American case, one is very certain many of the things Washington gets up to in other people’s countries would not be possible were policy to be democratized. Coups, subversions, the backing of dictators, the arming of destructive insurgents with no constructive intentions: My understanding of Americans (not my “faith” in them) tell me the majority wouldn’t stand for these adventures. We would eventually come to question the ways of life that necessitates them—as the great Ap Williams encouraged us to do in his last book, Empire as a Way of Life.
Two, I’ve found myself time and again writing about developments far, far more than incremental. Events these past couple of years have been so large I’ve time and again had to check myself before proceeding: Is this or that so historic in its implications as it seems to me, or am I reading too much into it? Yes and no are my answers to these questions. Yes: As I wrote in one of the columns just posted, we’re always living through history, but few passages are as fraught—loaded with significance—as ours, now. And no: It’s always a struggle to see one’s time as history, but the magnitude of what we’ve lived through over the past two or three or four years is hard to miss.
I’m thinking of, say, Ukraine, and still more to the point just now, the Syria crisis. What I’m thinking is in the columns, and there’s no need to elaborate further, as my editors are generous with the space I’m allowed to develop my perspective and respectful of this perspective. Syria, especially, leaves me astonished. It’s an old device among commentators of my contrarian stripe to cite those people considered to be inside the tent pissing out on those occasions they agree with one’s views. Forget about this for now. I just cited Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired colonel and Colin Powell’s chief of staff when Powel was at State, simply because he hit the nail so squarely: We’re watching the collapse of an overreaching, over-extended state suffering from delusions of grandeur. This state happens to be the one we live within.
I FIND LIVING DAY TO DAY very weird in consequence of the events I write about. And I see no great turn in prospect of the kind that’s necessary among those who conceive of our nation’s goals abroad, shape policies intended to achieve them, and then execute the policies. So I find the writing itself a little weird, too. I never expected, at this (late) phase in my professional life, to be writing of things so momentous.
I was about to add that I never thought writing about them clearly and honestly would require stepping outside the tent and turning to piss in. But I can’t say this. I saw the necessity of an alternative press—and I dislike this term more all the time—as soon as I began learning the craft. It was a conviction I had back in my twenties, and it has never left me. There simply wasn’t such a press able to sustain serious, dedicated reporters, editors, and correspondents. Now I think we’re getting there. What I and some very honorable others write is no longer “alternative” to anything. It accounts for itself, if I do say so myself, without any implied reference to anything it is supposedly alternative to. That which the alternative press is supposed to be alternative to has very drastically lost its way. It doesn’t fulfill the essential function anymore.
WE LOST TWO GREAT THINKERS lately, and at some point I’ll take note of the passing of these two men in a column. Carl Schorske and Stanley Hoffmann were large, enlightened minds—the former professing at Princeton, the latter at Harvard. Hoffmann, an Austrian who emigrated to France before coming to the U.S. and who wrote a great deal in French as well as English, was a subtle critic of American policy. The big book for me among his numerous was (and is) Primacy or World Order, which came out in 1978. The apposition in the title was Hoffmann’s formulation of America’s essential choice as the Cold War drew toward a close. And has this not proven out times ten.
“Being a permanent denouncer of recurrent mistakes is, after a while, no fun,” Hoffmann wrote in that book. The line was quoted in Hoffmann’s New York Times obituary, which readers can find here. I wasn’t able to appreciate the thought when I first read the book, but I do now, certainly. Hoffmann escaped into studies of European politics, with which he was naturally at home.
For me, I see no escape at the moment. And in the end I wouldn’t avail of one (I don’t think). I am riveted by the commotion, desperation, wrongheadedness, and poor judgment now so plainly on display among our foreign policy elites. I look with an impossible mix of anticipation and anxiety toward the outcomes. So the columns go on, week in and out. Some readers find my themes predictable, or the weekly pieces repetitive. It’s not I: The policies are all too predictable and, as Hoffmann understood, all too repetitive.
But the reminder of Hoffmann’s remark on the occasion of his death came at a fortuitous time. I’m of a certain age and have long thought I must one day turn away from the public self—inward to the private. It may have once been a luxury for the writer to ignore public matters entirely, but if it was in earlier times (and I’m not sure it ever was) it isn’t any longer. The solution for a writer, at least the kind I am, is to divide one’s attentions between the public and private spheres. Render unto Caesar, render unto God (if that’s the way you think of it).
I have concluded this entry with strictly personal—private, indeed—thoughts. I’ll pick up this thread in the weeks and months ahead. That day I’ve anticipated for decades, when I’ve earned the privilege of writing from another place within myself, has arrived for me. There’s no assumption—and no real concern—that anyone else will take the slightest interest in this or what may come of it. And one’s responsibilities to others and to one’s public self never end.
Duly noted, I suppose is the point this week.