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John Glaser joins us to discuss our fragile national ego and his new paper on the illusion of American decline.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

John Glaser is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, basing posture, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the role of status and prestige motivations in international politics.

Matthew Feeney is the director of Cato’s Project on Emerging Technologies, where he works on issues concerning the intersection of new technologies and civil liberties. . Before coming to Cato, Matthew worked at Reason magazine as assistant editor of Rea​son​.com. He has also worked at The American Conservative, the Liberal Democrats, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. Matthew is a dual British/​American citizen and received both his B.A and M.A in philosophy from the University of Reading in England.



00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Mathew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney.

00:11 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is John Glaser, the Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. Welcome back to Free thoughts, John.

00:16 John Glaser: Thanks.

00:17 Trevor Burrus: You say that the US, despite being in a state of security, at least since the war, I guess, has never the less pursued a “Grand strategy of primacy.” What is primacy? It seems like you’re using it as a technical term in the literature of foreign policy, but in both technical and then the sort of overall, what does primacy mean in that?

00:42 John Glaser: Primacy is the name for a grand strategy, which is a sort of broad set of ideas about how a state achieves security for itself from which narrower foreign policies flow. And primacy borrows from what’s called hegemonic realism, that there should be one major power in the world that can tamp down on conflict spirals and kind of police the world, that pacifies the international system, allows for the freer flow of sort of trade and open economies. And that’s what makes the world much more peaceful.

01:21 Trevor Burrus: Is the term mostly just about America since the war, or does it… Would it also include the British Empire and Habsburg, or the theory all kind of developed with America’s hegemonic status?

01:33 John Glaser: Yeah, the term of primacy is more relevant to what the United States has pursued. It emphasizes military predominance, so we have to have the biggest military, we engage in all these security guarantees with far off countries to take care of their security, deter adversaries, reassure allies, make sure people don’t get into conflict spirals and arms races. We claim to keep the high seas open for freedom of navigation and vital trade routes and this kind of thing. So yeah, primacy itself, the term is a recent invention, but hegemonic realism is the sort of theoretical basis for it.

02:18 Trevor Burrus: And when you’re analyzing the question, I guess, that you’re dealing with in this paper, which we’ll put a link up to in the show notes, is why?

02:27 John Glaser: Right.

02:28 Trevor Burrus: Why has America pursued primacy? And it seems that the obvious example is because it keeps the world safe and it’s important for there to be such a hegemonic thing, very pro America answer. But I think a lot of people would give that answer, but you give a different answer.

02:46 John Glaser: Yeah, that’s an answer that’s extremely popular, I think, with some parts of the American people, but definitely in the policy community in Washington DC. It’s not an answer that has a lot of support in academia. There’s certainly leading theorists, John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth and Stephen Brooks, who have laid out the case for primacy and why it works this way, but they’re definitely in the minority, at least in the academic community. And this has been a source of debate and conversation among foreign policy experts, why doesn’t the policy realm more reflect the consensus views in academia? But I think there are several problems with it. First of all, there are other explanations for why we live in a relative state of peace and calm. First of all, this period also coincides with the inauguration of nuclear weapons. Once great powers and some not so great powers have nuclear weapons, it means the prospect of great power war, which used to be the most destructive form of warfare in the past is… The costs are just too high to engage in that kind of thing. And so that leads to mutually assured destruction and lots of deterrence.

04:05 John Glaser: There’s also explanations for just conventional deterrence, what’s called defense dominance. The conventional power of modern, industrialized militaries is so destructive, that we saw in the First and Second World War, it can upend entire empires and just destroy societies, and that alone, some people say is, leaving aside nuclear weapons, enough to deter general warfare. There’s also explanations originating from economic interdependence. So, states these days have become so rich and we’re more globalized and economically interdependent these days that they just decided we can better serve our interest by just staying at peace and trading with the world. Some people also argue there’s been a dramatic normative shift over the past, say 100 years. You go back to around the time of World War I and before you can find leaders in America and Europe talking about war as something to aspire to, as a kind of cleansing national experience that made us manly and virtuous.

05:07 John Glaser: And these days, even the war mongers among us talk about war as something of a last resort. And that might go some way to explaining why war is no longer as prevalent. And then there’s democracies have proliferated in this period, and for some reason democracies tend not to go to war with each other. And so there’s a lot of trend lines for why the international system is more peaceful and more stable these days. And the evidence just doesn’t weigh, I think, in the favor of primacy.

05:42 Matthew Feeney: So, is it possible to be a critic of US primacy while also accepting the fact that absent a US hegemony that someone’s gonna fill that space? Wouldn’t a critic say, “Well, it’s all fine in the abstract to say that the US shouldn’t be the primal or the hegemon. But if we withdraw, then China or Russia will just step into the fold.” And it isn’t that something worth avoiding?

06:09 John Glaser: So the argument that the Russia would step into the fold to fill a hegemonic role in the world, I’m deeply skeptical of. Their economy is roughly the size of Spain’s, they don’t have power projection capabilities in their conventional military that can hold a candle to what the United States can. China may get there one day but that’s still, I think, many years, perhaps many decades away. And from what I know about the Chinese conception of its role in the world, at least right now, they’re not looking to replace the United States as the policeman of the world. They’re very reluctant to get too deeply involved in the internal affairs of other countries, they have a history of what they call “the century of humiliation”, where they were taken advantage of by US and European meddling. They have this strong culture of non intervention in the affairs of other countries.

07:06 John Glaser: They might even, if they do one day come to supplant the United States, it might not look that much different, the order that they prefer, the international order that they try to set up, from what the United States does. And if it’s the case that other countries wanna step in and fill that role, they should go ahead. To me, the role of primacy has been a net cost on the United States. It’s entangled us in wars that we never needed to fight in the first place. It’s required enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to sustain this kind of thing. It also has contributed to this ballooning effect of our national security state, which has problems for civil liberties, and checks and balances on war powers. And so I’m happy to forfeit all those dastardly costs if somebody else wants to come in and unnecessarily get dragged into unwinnable wars in the Middle East, or guarantee the security of other rich and powerful nations that can and should defend themselves.

08:11 Trevor Burrus: So when it comes to pursuing primacy, if we take aside those traditional explanations that it works and it creates a peaceful world, as you just discussed, you argue that sometimes it’s a little bit more, I don’t know if that means… If it’s mundane or just sort of primal, that just status and prestige drive this general grand strategy of primacy more than people generally argue. As opposed to real strategic goals that makes sense, it’s just people saying, “We need to be the best nation or a better nation.” How does that work out? Is that individual people wanting status or status as a nation, or is it voters, or is it all those things?

08:54 John Glaser: Yeah, it’s an accumulation of those things. Before we get into status, I might wanna just say that there are other explanations for why we haven’t retrenched in this era of peace. There are other explanation for why we continue to have an excessively interventionist foreign policy, despite the fact that it’s really costly and tends to be counter to our interests.

09:16 Trevor Burrus: And sometimes like unpopular, as it is.

09:18 John Glaser: And sometimes unpopular.

09:19 Trevor Burrus: Seems to be now, yes.

09:20 John Glaser: So there are, what are called structural explanations, that’s to say that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, we’re the unipolar power and the structure of the international system is unipolar. And so when you don’t have external constraints on your power, like we did in multi‐​polar settings or the bipolar setting of the Cold War, you’re kinda free to roam, no one can stop you. The costs of making really reckless interventionist decisions are less because no other power that can hold a candle to the power that you have, can make it really costly for you and deter you from doing that. And that’s one explanation.

10:02 John Glaser: Another explanation is, more parochial interests drive interventionism and primacy and prevent retrenchment. There’s private interests that have an interest in making sure our defense budget stays really big, the military industrial complex. There’s also bureaucratic interests. In the postwar era, the size of our national security state has gotten so big. Truman set up the National Security Council, it used to be this small team of advisors that helped the president make foreign policy decisions, and it’s ballooned into this mini think tank within the executive branch of 300 to 400 people. There’s also huge bureaucracies like the CIA and the NSA, and the intelligence community. The Defense Department has ballooned to be so big. And nobody at the end of each fiscal year goes up to their superior and says, “You know what, I think we’re really safe. We don’t face that many threats, why don’t you fire half of my staff and demote me and cut the budget significantly.” Bureaucracies tend to grow.

11:05 John Glaser: And then the last explanation is this Hegemonic Stability Theory, that policy‐​makers believe that the state of the world is because of American authorship of the order and policing of the world, and therefore we don’t retrench. My status argument, essentially, I try to unpack what is a relatively small but growing pocket of the international relations literature that focuses on status and prestige motivations that states fall into, and most of the work has been done on rising powers or former great powers. So there’s a lot of work on how Russia thinks status is really important, it’s a driver of its actions, because they’re butt hurt from their failure in the defeat in the Cold War. And China also, it’s a rising power, it’s eager to gain respect and recognition. I argue that status and prestige drives us to primacy and prevents retrenchment.

12:04 John Glaser: Now, status, what is it? Right? We pursue status in a multitude of ways. Building up nuclear stockpiles, for some countries is a point of status. The space race that the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in during the Cold War had a lot of status motivations behind it. Club membership is really important in international relations. So, being a part of the G7, used to be the G8, is really important. It makes countries feel involved. Sometimes states engage in what’s called “conspicuous waste”. In the same way that individuals will buy a designer pocketbook, or a high‐​end watch, or a luxury car, even the crappier versions of those things do the job, but it’s a high status symbol if you buy the high‐​end ones. And some states develop or purchase huge aircraft carriers, even though they’re not that relevant to their security, as a symbol of their status in world affairs.

13:02 John Glaser: And in our current era, the United States has been really obsessed, over the past 30 years in particular, with its status as the indispensable nation, the policeman of the world, and this kind of stuff. It’s this period where I think status has played the biggest role in our foreign policy, and it’s also this period that we’ve been the most interventionist. I mean, just over the past 30 years, roughly since the end of the Cold War, we’ve been at war for two out of every three years since the end of the Cold War. 46% of Americans have lived the majority of their lives in a state of war. In the past 30 years…

13:41 Trevor Burrus: You mean all Americans in the history of America, or do you mean just…

13:44 John Glaser: Currently living.

13:44 Trevor Burrus: Currently. Oh, okay.

13:46 John Glaser: People that are alive in America right now, 46% of them. And 21% have lived their entire lives with the United States at war. Over the past 30 years we’ve engaged in more individual military interventions than we had in the preceding 190 years of our existence as a nation. So it’s been extremely activist, this period, and I think status and prestige motivations have a lot to do with that.

14:10 Matthew Feeney: So, I guess, two points on that. Well, one point on that, and then a separate thing. So, the first would be, couldn’t someone just argue that’s purely because the nature of the conflict has changed? That it used to be wars would be against governments, and there would be flags taken down, and surrender ceremonies, and we would call an end to it. Whereas something like the ongoing War on Terror is a slightly different thing, where it’s not clear when we’ll be able to finally the close the book on that. And the second, I suppose, somewhat related to something you said earlier, was let’s imagine a world in which actually American politics does change and Pentagon officials do offer to fire themselves, and to cut budgets. And there’s a big change domestically, but isn’t there also a risk of there being outside pressure, that other countries will still seek American intervention and help, even in a world where America is undergoing some sort of political change at home? Especially when there’s humanitarian crises and interventions, like Bosnia, things like that.

15:11 John Glaser: Yeah. So, on the first question, does the new era of conflict, which is mostly focused on non‐​state actors, influence this status argument that I’m making? I argue that it’s still pretty relevant. For example, I see a lot of parallel for why we didn’t pull out of Vietnam much earlier, for why we’re not pulling out of Afghanistan right now. So, the security argument for why we’re still in Afghanistan is that if we withdraw, the Taliban will take over and it’ll become a territorial safe haven for non‐​state actors, terrorist groups, to conduct transnational terrorist attacks. Scholars refer to this as the safe haven myth. It’s just not all that true that territorial safe havens have any operational utility for the success of terrorist attacks. There’s a lot of talk about Al-Qaeda’s presence with the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, and how that helped a successful 9/11 attack. The attacks were planned in Afghanistan, but they were also planned in Hamburg, Germany, in Florida and Boston, and Malaysia.

16:27 John Glaser: Territorial safe havens, in the realm of instant communications and border‐​less immediate communications, is just not all that important. In fact, there’s an argument that the reason Bin Laden was in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 was to draw the United States in there, because he learned from the ‘80s that the Soviet Union bled itself dry in its war in Afghanistan, and he wanted to do the same for the United States. But we’re still in Afghanistan, and I think that security argument is baloney. And so the question is, why are we still there? And I think, largely so we can avoid the humiliation of defeat. In other words, a loss to our prestige. And that was an argument for why we didn’t withdraw from Vietnam much earlier, as well. It wasn’t a public argument. Nobody made that argument publicly, but in internal discussions, documents that were released in the Pentagon Papers, for example, officials were talking about withdrawal being a hit to our prestige, and we wanted to avoid that. 70%, I think, they said was the justification for us, avoiding the humiliation of defeat in Vietnam.

17:41 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. The 1965 internal Defense Department memo described US aims in Vietnam as 70% to avoid a humiliating US defeat.

17:50 John Glaser: And I think that’s still relevant for Afghanistan. There’s also an argument that although there was a lot of security and norm‐​oriented justifications for Iraq, the Iraq war, some people, I think, argued that it was more of an expression of rage because we were so… 9/11 was such a hit to our honor and our prestige and our status as a kind of impenetrable fortress in the world, that we needed to show our strength and show our supremacy by engaging in a war that had kind of been on the menu prior to 9/11. But now we needed to do it, to show that we weren’t defeated. So status still drives a lot of what we do. And it’s not the case that most of the problem of US Foreign Policy has to do with terrorism. It’s a big problem, but it’s still the case that we have to spend lots of money and have four deployed forces to defend Europe, for example, from threats that, somebody can tell me what they’re threatened with, I’m not quite sure.

18:57 John Glaser: Same with rich and powerful countries in Asia, we’re defending them even though they’re rich and powerful enough to defend themselves. That kind of stuff still involves a… It would be psychologically deflating to us if we were to retrench from that role. And that’s part of the big problem with primacy.

19:15 Matthew Feeney: So there’s clearly pressure internally for the US to maintain primacy. And that might be because of the current state of affairs in government and the military industrial complex. But what about pressure from the outside, where other countries want a primal… So I was thinking specifically of, that Europeans might look at this and be like, “No, I want America to be the hegemon in the world, means we’re spending less on the military and it’s good to know that there’s someone out there who has our back, especially when there are crimes against humanity like we saw in the Balkans.” But that’s the sort of thing I was asking about.

19:48 John Glaser: So definitely there’s pressure from the outside for us to continue to serve in this role, as policeman of the world, and have the grand strategy of primacy. And why wouldn’t they want us to take care of their responsibilities for them?

20:03 Trevor Burrus: At least until they’re afraid of us.

20:06 John Glaser: And that might be happening to some extent among our European allies. It might be more costly to them and more trouble than it’s worth to have the United States lord over them with security guarantees and try to influence their policy. Right now we’re threatening to sanction European countries and companies for doing business in Iran, despite the fact that less than a year ago, we were… A little bit more than a year ago, we engaged in a agreement that was working with, under the Obama Administration and Iran, that said, “Yes, you can now do business,” and we’re putting European companies at risk. That’s just one example. There’s also trade war stuff. They just might think that this is time for a change. So yeah, I think there is outside pressure, but I think that we should focus on tangible threats to our security and our own national interests and our own economic interests to inform what kind of foreign policy we should have, and not what other countries want from us.

21:05 Trevor Burrus: How much do you think Americans, either just the average American citizen, and also people in the military, overestimate the capabilities of our military in a way that is… That goes with the status prestige argument, that if America comes in there and really puts it down, like no one could beat our technology or any of this stuff. And then something like Vietnam was kind of shattering, it would seem. It was like, “Okay, well, maybe they actually can do that.” But still, you watch a bunch of Rambo movies, and you watch a bunch of things that say American military might is unparalleled, that we can fight any war with one hand tied behind our back. It still seems to be almost an animating premise. Not only can we defeat anyone, but we can do it with one hand tied behind our back. And that seems to be a part of your thesis too, and an ongoing problem.

21:56 John Glaser: So it’s definitely a driver of our heavily militaristic foreign policy, but we’re also in an age right now, kind of like what we were in the aftermath of Vietnam, where I think most of the American public thinks that, “These wars that we engage in, I don’t see what benefit we’ve got from them, it doesn’t seem like we won any of them in the post 9/11 era. Why are we continuing do this?” And I think that actually goes some way to explain why Obama won in 2008, and at least partially why Trump might have won in 2016. There is a kind of public fatigue with this role of being the policeman of the world. What I think in a related sense, though, is more prevalent these days is the fact that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And it seems like we use the military, and military force, to solve lots of problems in the world simply because we have no better ideas.

22:56 John Glaser: So for example, if you think about the Syrian Civil War, the Trump administration engaged in two symbolic military attacks against the Assad regime in 2017 and again in April 2018, and the attacks didn’t achieve anything tactically, they didn’t achieve anything strategically, they didn’t alter the reality on the ground. They didn’t deter the Assad regime from further attacking its own citizens. The prompt for each of those was chemical weapons attacks, but chemical weapons are far less lethal than bombs and bullets, and hundreds of thousands of people have died in the conflict as a result of conventional means, and a small sliver have died from chemical weapons. And what do we do about the problem? And there’s frustration in America and the rest of the world about how to solve such a terrible civil war that’s killed so many people and seems to be no end in sight.

23:54 John Glaser: And so when you don’t have sensible viable diplomatic options or humanitarian options, it just seems like, “Well, let’s bomb them,” ’cause that’s a low cost way to make us feel like we’re doing something. And it also goes a long way to explain, this is about status and prestige. We can bomb another country ’cause we are the indispensable nation. It doesn’t matter that it has no tangible impact, but we’re showing the world that we’re doing something. And that is really boosting our own psychology about ourselves.

24:22 Matthew Feeney: It might not just be, of course, defeat on the battlefield that people are worried about. So there’s the fact that the US Navy maintains a presence in the Southern Pacific reassures allies, and is notice to others in the world that we help guarantee maritime trade, and that without that, it’s not as if China is going to be necessarily invading countries or starting wars, but they’re gonna be flexing their muscles in that part of the world. And I suppose the question will have to be, is that a price worth paying for retrenchment?

25:00 John Glaser: So I think we should look for evidence of claims of terrible ifs. I don’t see any evidence that China wants to shut off sea lanes. It relies on the South China Sea, where it has been flexing its muscles, as you say, for about 40% of its imports and exports. It’s roughly $1.5 trillion per year at this point. More likely, it’s flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, not to close off vital sea lanes, but to keep them open. Because it fears the United States potentially interdicting shipping lanes. All of their energy comes from the Malacca Strait. If we really wanted to contain China, which they sometimes feel like we are, since we’re allied with all of their neighboring rivals along the Asian Littoral, we’re the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan. We engage in lots of rhetoric about the rise of China, where domestic politics right now are in the process of attacking Confucius institutes on campuses.

26:08 John Glaser: This can seem terribly threatening, and they view their interests as keeping sea lanes open. And so do we. I think even if the worst were to happen, and I think the chances are so infinitesimally small that you don’t need to worry about them at this moment in time, but even if the worst were to happen and China tried to shut down sea lanes in the South China Sea, Cato published a paper last year that calculated how much it would cost additionally to just avoid that route, and it actually wouldn’t be that bad. But that’s even the worst case scenario. It doesn’t require us to boost our naval presence in the Asia Pacific, that’ll just cause greater fear in China and potentially lock us into a new cold war in the 21st century.

26:54 Matthew Feeney: So one of the, I thought, very interesting parts of your paper was, citing a 2010 study by Richard Ned Lebow, who’s at the International Political Theory… Sorry, a professor of International Political Theory in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He found that of the 94 interstate wars between 1648 and 2008, 58% were fought for status and prestige, which is higher then I would have guessed, I suppose.

27:32 Trevor Burrus: You know, to finish the rest of that quote, “Another 10% for revenge, while 25% were motivated purely for security or economic interests.” That’s an interesting stat overall too.

27:43 Matthew Feeney: It’s a fascinating piece of data. And looking at American history, what would a good example of an American war of, say, revenge or security be? So we’ve spoken a lot about ones of prestige and status.

28:03 John Glaser: Oh, security. So yes, I think our intervention in World War II was about security. We were terribly fearful of a German hegemon in Europe. We were also attacked by Japan, that was definitely for security reasons that we declared war. And so, that’s definitely example about security and economic interests. Revenge is kind of a tough one, although Iraq might fit in it, because it was less about the existing security issues. Frankly, if Saddam had nuclear weapons, as Dick Cheney claimed that he had them, he wasn’t about to incinerate himself by using them on us or our allies. Nuclear weapons are kinda useless, they’re just big dumb bombs. And it was the fact that he didn’t have nuclear weapons…

28:52 Trevor Burrus: I mean, they’re useless in offensive. They’re useful to keep people from attacking you.

28:56 John Glaser: They’re useful for one single thing and that’s deterrence. They don’t add coercive leverage to states in getting their way. They don’t prompt states to engage in more low level conflict. There’s a minor amount of disagreement about that in the academic literature. But, the good book on that, that we featured at the Cato Institute last year, called Nuclear Weapons in Coercive Diplomacy, that I recommend. So it’s more that he didn’t have nuclear weapons that we went in. He was a rogue state. He was an easy target. It was a long‐​standing thing that we had on our menu of foreign policy demands prior to 9/11. But, we were so in a new world of threats and so deflated from 9/11 that we needed to show our supremacy and show our force and show that we could… So that might be an argument for revenge.

29:53 John Glaser: One of the wars I point to in the paper for more in the status realm is the Spanish‐​American War. This was more about our status in the hemisphere, pushing back against European imperialism, and then, once we won and we got involved in this, we got many colonial assets that McKinley said it’d be dishonorable to seek escape from these obligations now, and that’s kind of what we’re facing now. So, there’s a lot of honor and rage and glory, and status and prestige, in many of our wars that we’ve fought.

30:34 Matthew Feeney: So where do you see American entry in to World War I in this rubric of security, revenge, prestige?

30:40 Trevor Burrus: I feel like, dude, it’s like lightning round, like we’ll go through every war.


30:44 Matthew Feeney: I’ll promise this will be the last one.

30:45 Trevor Burrus: No, no, no, I’m not criticizing, I’m just…

30:47 Matthew Feeney: The Mexican War is next.

30:48 Trevor Burrus: 1812 is total status, the Mexican War is territory. No, I agree with Mathew’s question, World War I?

30:52 John Glaser: The security argument was basically out of a difficulty of remaining neutral, given German submarine warfare. But I can see a historical counterfactual where we don’t intervene in World War I and the European powers batter themselves into submission on all sides, and a kind of roughly equivalent end to it comes about. I don’t think it was for our security, we could have maintained neutrality for an extended period of time and been able to stay out of it.

31:30 Trevor Burrus: But there was an idea of also wanting to be part of… I mean, this idea of looking to Europe and being part of their wars and helping out Britain and establishing status for Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations, and being part of that discussion in the postwar world.

31:46 John Glaser: And the role of America to create the world safe for democracy was a huge status motivation of Wilson and Americans at that time. We were coming to save Europe from self‐​destruction, and that definitely did give us a psychological boost.

32:06 Trevor Burrus: Which is interesting in light of… I mentioned the War of 1812, which I kept thinking of when I was reading your paper, because it’s one of these that I think that…

32:15 Matthew Feeney: Those damn Canadians.


32:16 Trevor Burrus: I guess according to Trump. It’s one of these where I think that it puts a little bit of a wrinkle in the thesis of whether or not, is it always bad for nations to pursue status and prestige, and things that could be spillovers of status or prestige. If you take… I think the generally accepted explanation for why we fought that war is that after we won our freedom from the British Empire, they just spent about 20 years not respecting us whatsoever, conscripting our soldiers, never paying into… Like trying to get us involved in the French, and this whole thing. And at some point the American State was just like, “We’re just sick of you guys treating us like not a real country, and we’re gonna fight because we are a real country.” And that was an important status war, but you could argue if you have so little status that people don’t even recognize that your seamen are not gonna be conscripted into the British military, then maybe sometimes you should fight wars for status or prestige.

33:15 John Glaser: Yeah, the War of 1812 seems like a good candidate for an honor war. I just read a recent… I recently read a history of the War of 1812, and given the war in Europe at the time, the French were messing with our ships on the high seas more than the British were at the time. But it was more relevant to us, coming out of the Revolutionary War, that Britain was doing this to us, and it was definitely more of a psychological thing. Did we need to fight the War of 1812? I don’t know if I can answer that question…

33:54 Trevor Burrus: No, no, need is a hard one, yeah.

33:54 John Glaser: I think I would need another decade of looking into it, but I’ll sort of plead ignorance on whether it was worth fighting. There was lots of failures on the battlefield on the part of the United States and it was kind of embarrassing, and we got our White House burned down and that kinda sucks. But it certainly put Britain on its heels with regard to messing with us anymore, and they had their hands tied in Europe at the time as well.

34:26 Trevor Burrus: With Napoleon, yeah. But I guess the question is more about spillover effects of status, or not having status or prestige, that sometimes, if you think about very much developing nations and if they feel that they’re being messed with… Just think about if America doesn’t… Let’s say America’s out there in the world interfering in a bunch of different countries’ foreign affairs and maybe one reason we’re doing that is ’cause we just don’t respect them enough or their sovereignty enough or whatever, and maybe they need more status or prestige. If you are a comparatively weak country, that trying to achieve status and prestige as a nation is not obviously wrong in all instances.

35:08 John Glaser: Sure, but my preference would be that we try to seek status and prestige in ways that are peaceful. So, Switzerland has a lot of status as a center of European civilization and diplomacy and peace and neutrality, and it has its own set of status indications, but they don’t have a foreign policy like ours. Actually, one of my favorite Cato blog posts ever, is from Trevor Thrall, last year, and he said the Switzerland test, in other words, he would prefer the United States to apply the Switzerland test to any foreign policy proposal; does Switzerland do it? Then the United States probably shouldn’t.

35:51 Trevor Burrus: WWSD, is that the question?

35:55 John Glaser: Yeah, exactly.

35:57 Trevor Burrus: Okay. On that on that point, though, the Switzerland’s test, they didn’t get involved in World War II. Would that have made any sense for us to not get involved? Even if we hadn’t been directly attacked by the Japanese, in Europe, at least, we should have probably been involved with World War II. It would seem most people agree on that. I don’t know if you do or not, but you said there was actual security concerns in not wanting Hitler to take over. Switzerland did not get involved. So maybe sometimes it’s not WWSD.

36:24 John Glaser: Sure, but I think the point is that there are other ways to gain status other than wielding a big stick and ruling the world and going to war a lot. And status can be important, but we can gain status by trying to be a leader in diplomacy. We can gain status by promoting human rights. We can gain status by what John Quincy Adams said, which was being an example to the world, as opposed to imposing our will on others, being the well‐​wisher of freedom to the world, but the champion and vindicator only of our own. That’s a way to gain status too.

37:05 John Glaser: At the end of the day, I think status, John Mercer, one of the people who has written about this, calls it an illusion. It’s extremely hard to measure. Mostly it seems like status is just a reflection of how the people in that country and its leaders feel about themselves, and oftentimes that status doesn’t translate to other countries. So for example, one of the paradoxes of, say, the Vietnam War is that we stayed in for status reasons. We were too unwilling to pull out of a lost war because it would hurt our prestige, but it actually damaged our status around the world. Opinions of the United States sunk. Same thing with the Iraq War. Opinions around the world of the United States sunk as a result of those things that arguably had a lot to do with status. And so we should de‐​emphasize the role and importance and value of status in general. And especially if you’re someone who prefers limited government with a limited role in society and therefore a limited role in the world, you ought to just focus on tangible economic and security interests to justify and inform your foreign policy.

38:17 Matthew Feeney: So how does this look in the age of Trump? I do think what was quite noticeable during the President’s campaign was his, I suppose, unapologetic pro‐​American militarism, right? That we’re not going to apologize for America anymore. A lot of his supporters would claim that Obama had humiliated us on the world stage and that the Obama administration had given concessions that it really, really shouldn’t. So it looks like primacy is here to stay, for the moment, and I’d be interested to get your takes on the recent meetings between Trump and Kim Jong Un, because those seem to be two players that are very interested in maintaining status and prestige. What is your take on that, and the hope of Trump dialing down his primacy rhetoric?

39:11 Trevor Burrus: A man who has cared about status his whole life.

39:14 Matthew Feeney: Whole life, yeah.

39:15 John Glaser: I started to research this paper long before I thought Trump could ever win the presidency, but it’s been interesting to see how it intersects with the rise of Trump during the campaign and his presidency. Cards on the table for a moment, one of the problems with my argument is that sometimes it approaches unfalsifiability. That is to say, exactly contradictory policies can both be described as status motivated. So Trump’s “America First” sort of argument that during the campaign he criticized our free riding allies, and we shouldn’t guarantee their security anymore, we should think of ourselves, we shouldn’t engage in all these multilateral institutions and this kind of thing. Now, the foreign policy commentariat in DC thinks of that as a huge problem, because it’s a forfeit of our role as the leader of the liberal international order.

40:23 John Glaser: And I would argue that what they’re really arguing is that this is a harm to our status and our prestige as the world’s sole hegemon and order builder. At the same time, I think Trump’s approach is also status‐​driven. It’s more individualistic and less nationalistic, it’s about his own status. And here’s another problem. Prior to Trump’s opening to North Korea, and this was published prior to that, there’s an argument to be made that not talking to your enemies is a status motivation. You don’t wanna give them the legitimacy or prestige that they’re then afforded if you meet face to face with them, and setting preconditions on negotiations, which has a long history in US diplomacy, making sure the other side capitulates to some extent before you give them the favor of meeting them face‐​to‐​face and giving them legitimacy of talking, that’s all status.

41:23 John Glaser: On the other hand, Trump’s opening to North Korea is hugely about status, because he’s convinced that he can make a deal that his predecessors didn’t, and he’ll be in the history books forever and possibly win the Nobel Prize, as the South Korean president Moon Jae‐​in has been eager to flatter him with that prospect in order to grease the wheels for diplomacy. But yes, the pageantry of high stakes diplomacy is really all about status, especially when you consider this latest summit. I don’t think there was much tangible that was achieved at that summit, the 400 or 500‐​word joint communique is really vague, it’s about aspirations, the details will have to be hashed out in the coming months and years. But it was very much about; here are these two leaders coming together, lots of analysis about their body language and what this means for America’s place in the world and North Korea’s place in the world, entry into the Community of Nations, and so on. It’s a lot about status.

42:38 Trevor Burrus: Given that it seems that the role of status and prestige, as you pointed out, it’s historic in many ways. You pointed out that before World War I, going to war was honorable, and Winston Churchill, what was the quote about bullets whizzing by his ears and…

42:58 Matthew Feeney: “There’s nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”

43:02 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s the quote. And you had a shift away from that, at least war is not necessarily a good thing, but you still have countries wanting status and individual people wanting status, and a pretty big agreement in Washington DC that it’s important that America maintains its world policeman role. Do you see any realistic way of trying to mitigate the effects of this sort of very human nature part drive, and especially America, a very American drive to be the best, trying to mitigate the effects that the drive for status and prestige has on our foreign policy?

43:36 John Glaser: Well, it’s a tough thing to try to overcome, since these are so embedded in human psychology, but also in foreign policy tradition. It’s a very challenging thing to try to overcome. The best way I know how, is to do what I did in this article, which is to point out that the intangible image maintenance that drives us to engage in really costly wars, or massive defense budgets that are really costly, and so on. You don’t want intangible symbolism to have really tangible costs to no greater effect. What we want is to serve our own interests and to have our foreign policy improve our situation, or at least keep it the same, as opposed to draw from it and make things worse, and counterproductive, and so on.

44:33 John Glaser: I hope one day the tangible impact of our economic and security situation will have a greater play than the intangible image maintenance and symbolism behind status and prestige. I think the right way forward is to just think about foreign policy in a more rational way, as opposed to the illusion of prestige.


45:05 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate and review us on iTunes. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.