Like so many other people, I felt I had gone through a time warp as I watched Ambassador William Taylor and George Kent testify two days ago. These men had descended directly from the foreign service officers that I had known during my father's diplomatic service in the 1960s and 1970s and my own summer stints in the U.S. State Department. In calm and measured tones, they put their particular job--encouraging the growth of a democratic Ukraine--into a long-term historical context. They identified Russian expansionism as a new threat, similar to the cold war threats with which we had grown up. (The hearings also struck a powerful chord with me because Taylor appears to be my exact contemporary.) Over decades they had accustomed themselves not to worry too much about changes in administrations, because both parties supported the principles behind these policies. They also obviously believed in facts, and understood the importance of a detailed knowledge of foreign nations and their history, and of a sense of the long-term significance of political events. They clearly felt very secure in their mission and their place in the world.
The contrast between them and the sycophants that now surround President Trump, such as Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, jumped off the screen. They belong to the reality based community, and one can't work for Donald Trump without sinking into denial. Yet I also felt that Taylor, Kent, and their colleagues in the bureaucracy now live in a bubble of their own. The tradition they represent dates from a completely different era, one in which the American people cared deeply about our role in the world, followed it closely, and made real sacrifices for it. That era is over, and our national security establishment has lost its connection to society as a whole.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, the American people became focused on war and the threat of war in Asia and Europe. In September 1937 President Roosevelt warned for the first time that ongoing conflicts, if not stopped, would reach the western hemisphere. After the fall of France in 1940, when many expected Britain to fall as well, nearly everyone recognized the potential threat to the United States itself, and Congress doubled the size of the Navy and instituted the first peacetime draft. 10 million men joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and in another three years American troops occupied Tokyo and Berlin. The Truman Administration was determined not to throw away the fruits of victory, and the Marshall Plan, NATO, and even the Korean War strengthened democracies and other friendly states within the territory that the US had liberated and created a system of alliances. The peacetime draft returned after the Korean outbreak, and for more than twenty years, young American men served all over the world. Nightly news broadcasts frequently led with stories about conflicts and threats on other continents, as well.
In a great turning point in American history--one that I described in detail two decades ago in American Tragedy--cold war foreign policy led us to the disaster of Vietnam. That turned a good portion of the Boom generation against US foreign policy, and brought the military draft to an end. But as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, the post-Vietnam challenge to the principles of US policy never amounted to very much. The establishment--and particularly the military establishment--learned that it had to defend America's informal empire and fight Communist advances without large-scale deployments of US troops. But cold war principles remained in force during the 1970s and 1980s, and seemed to be vindicated by the collapse of Communism in 1989.
In general, our national security establishment assumed after 1989 that the US could now pursue the same policies it developed during the Cold War, unhampered by the restraints of powerful adversaries. We enlarged NATO in Eastern Europe and sponsored democratic movements on every continent. A new turning point, however, occurred on September 11, 2001. The Bush Administration self-consciously adopted a new mission parallel, in its eyes, to the struggles against Nazism and Communism: the democratization of the Muslim world. For a brief moment in the next couple of years, that mission fired the imagination of the American people, and liberal as well as conservative pundits eagerly signed on. But the Bush Administration made no effort really to engage the American people at large in this new task, either with higher taxes or a new military draft. More important, it embarked on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it could never bring to a successful conclusion, meanwhile wasting trillions of dollars that the nation needed at home.
I have remarked many times here that despite its failures, the new Bush policies survived through the Obama Administration. The war in Afghanistan continued, the war in Iraq halted but then restarted, and the Administration repeated the Iraq regime change experiment in Libya and tried to do so in Syria, with more disastrous results. The financial crisis of 2008 did not shift Washington's focus away from these conflicts, but it certainly changed the attitudes of the American people. And then, the election of 2016 showed that our political establishments no longer commanded enough popular support to elect a new president.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, our foreign policy establishment has soldiered on, trying to create a new American ally on the frontier of Russia. This has involved Ukraine and the US in a new war--and I must admit that I, too, was surprised to hear that 13,000 Ukrainians have died in that war. I do not think, though, that the average American knew until very recently that that war was taking place, or felt any personal stake in the outcome. And even as I listened to Messrs. Taylor and Kent proudly talk about the progress Ukraine had made recently, I couldn't shake my doubts about the project in which they are engaged. Democracy has not taken firm root in most of the eastern European states of the former Soviet empire, or in much of the former USSR itself. The new Ukrainian President may, or may not, manage to do something about corruption in his nation. And meanwhile, it has become much more difficult for the US to promote democracy, simply because our own democracy has fallen into catastrophic disrepair. Men like Taylor and Kent have maintained a civic spirit and a sense of mission, but I'm not sure we can deploy it usefully in Ukraine at this point in our history. They are artifacts of an earlier age--a status with which I too am familiar. Only a genuine national project that engages our resources, our time and our attention can restore some of what that age gave us.