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Justin Logan comes back on the show to discuss realism in foreign policy.

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

Justin Logan is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is an expert on U.S. grand strategy, international relations theory, and American foreign policy. His current research focuses on the shifting balance of power in Asia — specifically with regard to China — and the limited relevance of the Middle East to U.S. national security.


The foreign policy establishment in D.C. is stubborn. In fact, there is so much consensus about America’s interests’ abroad that it’s rare that meaningful debate occurs. But, it shouldn’t be like that. There should be room for realists and restrainers in foreign policy. Justin Logan comes back on the podcast to discuss how foreign policy should be regularly scrutinized because right now that doesn’t happen enough.

Who is in the foreign policy establishment? How is the debate on foreign policy different in DC compared to academia? What is realism in foreign policy?

Further Reading:

Foreign Policy Is Supposed To Be Transactional, written by Justin Logan

Why Washington Doesn’t Debate Grand Strategy, written by Benjamin H. Friendman & Justin Logan


0:00:07.2 Aaron Powell: This is Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

0:00:09.8 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

0:00:11.6 Aaron Powell: Our guest today is Justin Logan. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and today we’re talking with him about the problems with Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Justin.

0:00:23.4 Justin Logan: Thanks so much.

0:00:23.9 Trevor Burrus: I think he was on the 53rd episode, if I remember correctly. It’s been a little bit of a hiatus, but… Yeah, yeah. We’re at over 350 now. So welcome back.

0:00:32.0 Aaron Powell: Who is the foreign policy establishment?

0:00:37.2 Justin Logan: Well, it’s a term of art, and one that I think is unavoidable, though Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama, famously used the term “the blob” to describe the foreign policy establishment, but the way I use it is the sort of great breath of the foreign policy debate, where there’s a tremendous amount of agreement. So if you look at abortion or the environment or tax policy, it’s a pretty serious debate between, on the one hand, conservatives and on the other hand, liberals, but if you look at the foreign policy debate, there’s a lot of hue and cry, there’s a lot of epithets that get passed back and forth. But one of the things that raised this puzzle for me was as a sometime passer‐​through of academia, there’s a real serious debate about American foreign policy in academia that in many ways is much broader than the debate in Washington DC.

0:01:28.5 Justin Logan: And one of the most prominent and I think intelligent and hard to deal with critics of my own views, William Wohlforth, mentioned that he even thought that the debate in Washington was sort of pinched and that having a serious, broad debate about grand strategy and foreign policy was important. And so that raises this puzzle, you have a lot of people in Washington DC in think tanks, that have advanced degrees from top schools, and in the academy, you have people who have advanced degrees from top schools and why doesn’t the debate in Washington look like the debate in the academy?

0:02:03.5 Aaron Powell: That seems odd, because when we look around as voters watching presidential debates, they talk about… The [0:02:08.9] ____ talk about foreign policy all the time, we’re always hearing criticisms of the President entering this war or pulling out of that war. It seems like there’s a debate happening and it certainly makes the news. So what’s going on there? What’s the disconnect?

0:02:28.5 Justin Logan: Well, in the last presidential debate, there was almost no mention of a foreign policy at all, the last presidential campaign, I should say, remember there was some tension between the Trump camp and the Biden camp about whether there would be a single debate dedicated to foreign policy entirely. And I think there’s this article that Ben Friedman and I, our former colleague, wrote, called The Operational Mindset that points to there is debate about American grand strategy and about American foreign policy, but it’s conducted in a very narrow breath, that is to say, if you look at the debate about the entering the Iraq war, for example, there really wasn’t a discussion about whether we should start the war, there was a question about whether we had gone as far as we could at the United Nations, whether we should do more to stroke our allies, etcetera, etcetera.

0:03:19.5 Justin Logan: But at these broad levels of abstraction, what kinds of problems in international politics should the United States care about, for example, there’s a really broad consensus, whether you’re at AEI, the Brookings Institution, CSIS or the Heritage Foundation, and that was the sort of central animating puzzle. So I find that there is debate, but it’s on these more sort of tactical and operational issues that are beneath broad principles.

0:03:46.3 Trevor Burrus: Now, as you mentioned, these big players, and of course, if you look at the broad foreign policy community, and this includes the State Department, so ambassadors, like all the people, if America is not forward deployed and we have… We’re more retrenched in our dalliances overseas, then there’s a lot of people who could lose their jobs. And at one level you could just say these are just the people who are self‐​interested and then the people who go to the holding tanks to wait for those jobs when the administration switches, that this large set of jobs that exists because of the nature of our foreign policy. Does that have anything to do with it?

0:04:27.5 Justin Logan: I think it has something to do with it. I don’t want to make an argument that the debate is structured the way it is because everyone is this sort of self‐​seeking, crude, Marxist caricature necessarily, although I do think that money matters, right. And so it’s not to say that we have the debate that money has purchase, but we hear the views that we hear because someone pays salaries, right, so there may be… You could envision any subject, not foreign policy, but any subject and a variety of views about its importance or what to do on the public policy issue involved, but if there’s a particular point of view that has no interested parties or no ideological donors that fund that, you’re less likely to hear that view.

0:05:13.0 Justin Logan: So I do think in a very elemental way, it’s pretty hard to say that the array of donors to foreign policy think tanks, funders of foreign policy think tanks, don’t have some influence over the process, but there are a number of other things going on, there’s sort of an ambition, right. So think tanks get notoriety on the basis of of policy relevance, the appearing close to the exercise of power. And power wants certain views, like the presidents and secretaries of state and defense have their own views, and that’s understandable and as it should be, but what rarely happens is those individuals bring in people who disagree with them to explain to them why their views are wrong, and so the sort of self‐​seeking analyst that says, I’d like to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense some day, finds himself or herself to gravitate toward the sort of views that are conducive to that, so there’s a sort of career ambition that goes on there.

0:06:15.3 Justin Logan: And then there’s just also a sort of socialization, it’s a peculiar sort of person, and I can say this because I am one, who selects into the Foreign Policy Studies Department at the Cato Institute. I sometimes joke that I didn’t come to Washington to make friends, and so far that’s going pretty well, but someone who styles himself or herself as a sort of slayer of great sacred cows is not likely to sort of ascend to the commanding heights of the foreign policy establishment. So money plays a role, but sort of socialization, ambition and the desire to appear relevant to donors and other audiences is sort of how individuals in the foreign policy establishment and institutions there get esteem.

0:06:56.8 Aaron Powell: We’ve mentioned a handful of these, but maybe before continuing the conversation, it might be helpful for you to give us kind of a broad topology or maybe ecology of the foreign policy debate and its players. So who are the… Let’s say if I want to be a part of the foreign policy debate, what are my options, who are the major players and how do decisions get filtered up through them and get made?

0:07:22.3 Justin Logan: The latter part of the question is harder and more involved to answer than the former. So from the point of view of the sort of ecosystem of foreign policy ideas, obviously there are think tanks, there are also journalists, opinion and otherwise, there are lobbyists, there are for various weapons producers for various consultancies that get overseas contracts through the State Department, the intelligence community or the Defense Department, and there’s a lot of cross‐​pollination between those organizations. But I think that if you want to be relevant to policy, relevant to power, what you want to do is figure out the terrain on which you’re navigating, so imagine the sort of… If you want to use left and right, the furthest left Democrat and the furthest right Republican, that’s the sort of relevant spectrum of opinion that you want to evaluate.

0:08:16.9 Justin Logan: Well, as we’ve learned sometimes very bipartisan policy initiatives are dramatically flawed, tragically flawed. And so there are a lot of people who don’t enter these intellectual exercises saying what are Republicans saying and what are Democrats saying, and where do I lie on this continuum. Rather they say, what is the sort of order of battle, what do we know about international politics in terms of what sorts of problems the United States ought to care about, what sort of solutions work to deal with those problems, what sort of problems exist but may be best ignored, and so those, sort of starting from a sort of tabula rasa point of view, is something that from a career perspective in Washington, you probably shouldn’t do.

0:09:02.0 Justin Logan: And I would leave to others whether that’s true on issues other than foreign policy, but I think if you want to be relevant to policy, you want to offer answers not about whether the United States should invade Iraq or not, or things of that nature, and rather, what’s going on in Anbar Province, who’s who, who you think the crucial players are and which screws need to be turned to get him to do what it is that you want to do. And just selfishly, those questions I think don’t interest me terribly much at the sort of granular level, but also I think that there are big essential problems with American foreign policy that cry out for scrutiny. And I think it’s a great testament to Cato that before my professional life through hopefully much after my professional life, Cato has really been a repository of correct answers to important questions that don’t get asked in Washington.

0:10:04.3 Trevor Burrus: A while back, about a year ago, we had Stephen Kinzer on to discuss his great book, The True Flag, of which the focus of that book is the significant debate that happened about our involvement in the Philippines during the Spanish‐​American War. And then we have the League of Nations and the Senate not ratifying that treaty, and then we have post‐​war era, and it seems like after that it becomes agreed upon, like we don’t have debates anymore about whether or not we should be the biggest, ’cause post‐​war, we have the Soviet Union, and then we have post‐​Soviet Union. So that’s sort of my back of the envelope history of this debate, but I mean, has it kind of moved in a direction where they all coalesce to this point that everyone agrees that America has to be the most important player in the foreign policy realm, and that privacy view is not even challenged, but it didn’t always be that way.

0:10:54.2 Justin Logan: I think 1947 is a point where you could pretty easily say that the die was cast, for very reasonable, understandable concerns, you had a Soviet Union that really did menace a devastated European continent, but even at that juncture, there was a debate, there really was… There were Taft Republicans, there were others who said, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. Do we really want to be on the hook for the defense of Germany forever, is that something that we want to do? You heard Eisenhower in the 1950s saying, if NATO lasts more than 10 years, we should judge it as having failed. And then really the end of the Cold War is, for a crotchety realist like me, just the constraints are loose, right. In my view, structural pressures push on countries, small weak countries don’t invade big, powerful ones for a reason, because that’s a dumb thing to do.

0:11:50.0 Justin Logan: But when you’re the United States and you’re looking at 35% to 40% of world GDP, no conceivable what’s called peer competitor to the United States in the 1990s, in the early 2000s, it really is conducive to a view that says the world is your oyster, and imagination is really the limit of what you can come up with in terms of foreign policy. So we heard all of these arguments in the ‘90s and the ‘00s about this permissive set of conditions facing the United States and why shouldn’t we spread the advance of freedom across the Middle East or what have you, and there were lots of people in the academy and a few people in the Beltway that we’re saying, well, there are important distinctions about how the world works that you’re failing to draw here.

0:12:35.2 Justin Logan: But it was sort of understandable for somebody like me, although frustrating, that the view that the world was really our oyster, and we should just let it know we mean business and try to do good in it won the day. And I think as we go into the 2020s and the 2030s, as resource constraints become somewhat more tight, I think as, if China continues to become wealthier, those constraints, international and domestic, will start to pinch defense budgets and people will start to say, is Aunt Sally’s Medicare more important than the marginal F-35, and those sorts of trade‐​offs will re‐​enter, but we were really pushing on an open door for 20‐​plus years there, and that led to a lot of mischief and mayhem.

0:13:24.5 Aaron Powell: You referred to yourself as a realist and the theory of foreign policy that you just talked about as the dominant one you called primacy, can you flesh out a bit more about what realism is, and maybe also just what the major grand strategy or grand theories and foreign policy are that we might be debating?

0:13:50.0 Justin Logan: If anybody’s still awake out there, I’ll do my best to put them to sleep. So I call myself a realist in the sense that the central view of realism is that balances of power tend to recur. So if you want the thumbnail sketch of realism, international politics is different than domestic politics, because there exists a state of anarchy, if you will, in the sense that if two countries come to blows with each other, there’s no 911 that you could call, whereas if you come to blows with your neighbor, somebody calls 911 and the police come. In the sense that there’s a sort of hierarchy, you can take on the government if you’d like, but that’s rarely a good idea to do in a sort of martial way, and whereas in international politics, there’s the United Nations and the WHO and the WTO, but they don’t constitute a sort of 911 line that can come adjudicate disputes between states.

0:14:40.0 Justin Logan: So realism basically says that we live in an anarchic international system. That states seek to survive, that’s another sort of a key assumption of realism, that’s pretty basic, and after that it gets really messy, you have offensive realists that say maximizing your power is the best way to produce security, you have defensive realists that stop short of that and say that at the point that you reach a balance of power, those can hold without constantly seeking more power, etcetera, etcetera. But I think that the primacy view, and again, it was not a coincidence, I think, that this really sprouted during a point where the realists’ story didn’t have a lot to say, right, because it was tempting to think that we had transcended anarchy, in the sense that we saw no one that could produce a balance of power against us, and there was a lot of realists groping around in the 1990s and the 2000s for something that looked like a balance of power.

0:15:39.0 Justin Logan: There was a term drawn up called soft balancing, where it was like normal diplomacy between sort of second tier powers should constitute balancing against the United States. But the reality was, we were the only major power in the system, the only great power in the system. And so primacy basically held that we should try to transform the world to our liking. And I still think that that holds sway in Washington, that view that pretty much every major region of the world is of the utmost importance to the United States in terms of its national security is a very powerfully held view. So you have things like the grotesque and barbarous civil war in Syria being explained to Americans as though not it’s a sort of humanitarian consideration, but it’s actually about our security. You have disputes over uninhabited rocks between China and Japan being described as central to US national security, and so I think there’s almost like a solipsism that happens where anything in an international security sense that happens somehow redounds back to the United States.

0:16:49.6 Justin Logan: And if you take that view, you’re going to have a really big military, you’re going to have lots of alliances, lots of enemies, and not coincidentally, a goodly number of brush fire wars, as we’ve found ourselves in.

0:17:01.4 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting too, because we hear the stories about what happens when people leave posts, say Deputy Secretary of State or some Pentagon post, and they go into the non‐​profit sector and they’re going to go to Brookings or Heritage or CSIS, and maybe they’re career military or career State Department and they have risen through the ranks, and you kinda mentioned this too, with the acculturation, where you’re… That if you have the ability to rise through the ranks of the State Department or through the military, you probably are not against American primacy, as a general rule. And then you go out into Brookings, let’s say, who just put out a press release that says, we now have the former Deputy Secretary of State, so that’s how important we are, and you get this kind of revolving door where Brookings becomes important because of the title of the people that they hire who came out through the State Department and no one at any point is saying, well, maybe we shouldn’t have primacy.

0:18:03.9 Trevor Burrus: It kind of reminds me of stuff from John Miller’s book, Chasing Ghosts, where there is an acculturation… If you’ve ever looked at classified briefings of all of the threats against the United States, that will make you never diminish the threats against the United States again. And so they just say, well, you don’t know what it’s like. And then they turn around and they go to the academics, who probably didn’t do that, and say, you’ve never served, you’ve never seen classified briefings, and so that was what gives them the leg up. Is there something to that kind of revolving door view that goes on there?

0:18:39.0 Justin Logan: I just think it becomes… These broader questions become background noise, right? So there’s a prominent academic at Duke University, Peter Feaver, who worked in the Bush administration, and who has, I think it’s fair to say, a pretty hawkish bent, worked on the Iraq War, etcetera, etcetera, and he is deeply immersed in the academic literature return and debates about grand strategy, but sort of substantively agrees with the sort of Beltway consensus, if you will. And so to him, the idea that realism and restraint should be represented in Washington think tank world is like asking that there be a Marxist Leninist Washington think… This is an approach that has been tried and disproved and is littered with mounds of corpses, etcetera, etcetera, and it’s sort of paradoxical from my point of view, because it’s actually the primacists that are the Marxist Leninists in this model, where we’ve tried this approach for 20 years, and it has led to just catastrophes from the Middle East.

0:19:46.0 Justin Logan: We have a terrible situation happening in Venezuela in this hemisphere, and we’ve had a really just spendthrift model in Europe and East Asia where, again, to crib from my old colleague, Ben Friedman, we agreed to defend a number of countries and they agreed to let us, and that’s just not as a good deal for the United States. And I think the crude, boorish, Trumpian version of this, I think you’re going to hear sort of liberal internationalists and primacists in DC try to say to realists and restrainers, Trump was your guy, and he’s gone now, so you’re not going to… You’re not going to come to the fore again. And I just think the fact that that man settled on a particular sentence at any given time is not indicative of the veracity or use of those views broadly.

0:20:48.7 Justin Logan: So I do think that there’s just a sense in which… Or I’ll give you another example, Steven Krasner, who’s a prominent academic, in I believe it’s Stanford, and also worked in the State Department of George Bush, said that a lot of questions that academics look at aren’t relevant to policy makers, because they examine factors that policy makers can’t manipulate. And that’s an interesting view in the sense that, in my view, there are all sorts of things that policy makers can’t manipulate that are important. Not everything is manipulable by the State Department or the intelligence community or what have you. If you want to use the metaphor of engineering and architecture, right, there are all sorts of things, you can’t manipulate gravity, you can’t manipulate physics, etcetera, etcetera, and you want people who are steeped in those non‐​manipulable factors to build your buildings and bridges and things of that nature.

0:21:43.6 Justin Logan: So there’s this weird bias to activism where you have someone saying it’s not relevant to policy if it can’t be manipulated. Well, sometimes things that can’t be manipulated are immensely relevant to policy and would suggest that, you know, if it’s something bad that can’t be manipulated maybe stay away from it.

0:22:03.1 Aaron Powell: I’m going to quickly pick up on something that Trevor mentioned in passing, which was, he said there might be this, oh, you don’t know what I know because you didn’t have access to the classified reports. And I’ve wondered about this from the field of foreign policy research, because if you’re doing your… One of our colleagues at Cato who does Medicare policy or housing policy, you can gather all the data and you can process it and nobody’s trying to hide it, really, and so you have access to it. But with a lot of foreign policy, it seems like a lot of what’s going on is closed off to think tankers and academics and the general public because it’s classified, potentially for good reasons. And so how do you go about doing high quality analysis and ultimately giving good and meaningful advice if you’re in a field where a lot of the relevant information is kept secret from you?

0:23:02.3 Justin Logan: Yeah, it’s a great question. So the first sort of broad analytical question that I would have is that when information of that dangers comes to you from people who are charged with protecting you from those dangers, would you expect a bias in one direction or the other. So if information about crime comes to you from the police and prosecutors, they’re going to give you a picture that’s different than an academic assembling data might. And we really don’t have many independent sources of information about dangers other than leaks, which is those people have their own particular axes to grind in many cases. So it is true, and it’s fair to say, we had these debates in the 2000s, how can you know that this is true or not, and I think you could look at history and see that people who want to engage in activist policies and have the goods can sort of show you that there’s a danger there. We’ll find a way to do it.

0:24:06.7 Justin Logan: There was a famous example where, I can’t remember the particular fact that Vice President Cheney was trying to air, whether that was the meeting in Prague with Mohammad Hatta, I think it was, but it was classified. So someone leaked it to Judy Miller at The New York Times on Friday or Saturday, and then he went on Meet the Press on Sunday and cited the leaked piece of information that had been published in The New York Times. He didn’t leak it himself, of course, he just cited the leak that showed up in The New York Times. So I think we should ask for more information, it’s not the case that everything, every piece of information that justifies action is wrong. There’s not everything that has been done in the global war on terror I oppose, that have been drone strikes and soft raids, they picked up Bin Laden, so it’s hard to sort of go piece by piece and say this raid yes, this raid no, until until after the fact.

0:25:06.9 Justin Logan: So it is hard on a sort of granular level to green light, yellow light or red light any particular operation. But in the broad sense of threat assessment and how grave the dangers we face internationally are, we can look at history, we can look at, again, the information provided to us by people who are charged with protecting us about how tough it is to protect us, and draw some inferences about tendencies and biases. So I think on bigger, broader questions, you can get inferences from broader data that are easier to discern, but should we do this or that raid in Western Pakistan is a question I frequently don’t weigh in on, because of that, because I’m not privy to the particular intel and having a blanket policy of yes or no is just sort of foolhardy.

0:26:01.0 Trevor Burrus: How much does public opinion play or what role does public opinion play in this? It seems to me that Americans might generally enjoy the fact that we… That the American primacy is some sort of almost arrogant aspect, but also Iraq in Afghanistan haven’t really been PR successes, at least now, maybe 15 years ago, and Trump to some extent said, I’m not going to do any wars and it seemed to give him some popularity. It’s also fascinating to me that the popularity of wars for Americans seems to be very related to whether or not they know anyone who died in it, which as we fight more and more wars with robots from the sky, you’re going to be less likely to have a neighbor kid that you know who died in the war. So it kind of seems like American foreign policy opinion, public opinion, is a jumble, but it definitely isn’t all for fighting laws and primacy all the time.

0:27:02.5 Justin Logan: No, it’s definitely not, and our other colleague, Trevor Thrall, pointed out that, and this seems, for those of us who are old enough to remember the era after September 11th and before the Iraq War, it was a crazy time. Radio stations were banning Cities In Dust by Siouxsie and The Banshees because we were all snowflakes, if you’ll forgive the term, so much that we couldn’t afford to hear that, or REM’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It. It was a crazy time in American society, and yet public opinion did not crest 50% supporting in earnest of 2002. So I agree with you that it’s not the case that American foreign policy or American public opinion, rather, is just always and everywhere in favor of war and expansion.

0:28:00.5 Justin Logan: The message that I would give broadly, and I think this is supported pretty well by the public opinion literature that we have, is that public opinion follows elite opinion, it doesn’t generate it. So partisan Republicans and partisan Democrats take what are called cues from elites in their parties, and they believe what the elites tell them to believe. And a source of evidence of this, a couple of sources of evidence of this, is that Republicans in the span of a decade can go from thinking that Dick Cheney is a sort of a hero and putting him in this sort of… If you think about these silly Trump portraits of him with an eagle on his shoulder and a big flag behind his back, that was Dick Cheney less than 10 years before it was Donald Trump, and the rhetoric, although unfortunately not the policies, as much as I might like, of Trump versus Cheney were pretty fundamentally different. Donald Trump was saying no to forever wars and NATO is… We’re being taken for Uncle Sucker here, etcetera, etcetera, and Dick Cheney was the 1% doctrine, we need to go out there and kill bad guys, they’re everywhere, and onward and onward.

0:29:06.7 Justin Logan: And I think that Republicans didn’t pay a lot of attention independently adjudicating the claims of respectively either Bush and Cheney or Trump, they just sort of I’m a Republican, this is the sort of thing that Republicans say, and that’s sort of constrained, right, like it would be really weird if Republicans became earnest liberal internationalists all of a sudden. There is a sort of pugilistic nationalistic America First essence that permeates Republican thought no matter the substance of it, but that’s a long‐​winded way of saying that public opinion will follow elite opinion. And one of the things that drives me crazy about the foreign policy discussion is that people who want to do or not do X will point at a poll and say we have to do or not do X because it’s what the public wants.

0:29:58.4 Justin Logan: Foreign policy is rarely salient in presidential elections, to say nothing of Senate or congressional elections, and policy makers can and should do what they think is right and explain it to their constituents in terms that are conducive to them, so you will have Democrats making more gestures in international institutions in cooperation with allies and Republicans doing a little bit more chest‐​pounding, etcetera, etcetera, but this genuflection of public opinion is just something that drives me nuts, because you can shade things to make it look like the public wants or doesn’t want basically anything. And policy makers have a wide purview and should maximize that, and I may be eating these words three years from now when policy makers clearly violate public opinion on something I think the public is right about. No president certainly should be cowed by fear of public opinion, there’s really a lot of room to run on foreign policy, and presidents should avail themselves of that.

0:31:03.2 Aaron Powell: Think tanks like the Cato Institute, but every think tank in Washington, is able to do its job because it talks donors into giving it money to pay salaries and cover its expenses and so on. And it’s pretty common, I think, for people to believe that basically all of us in the think tank world are pay‐​for‐​play, that we sit there in our offices and we wait for a donor to call us and tell us the check’s on the way if you will say the following thing, and then that’s what we say. And that’s of course not true, and most of us wouldn’t do that even if we were asked, but there is a sense in which donors give money to organizations that are expressing views that they agree with, because most of us wouldn’t hand over large sums of money to someone who’s saying things that we totally disagree with.

0:32:00.8 Aaron Powell: So there is an alignment between what a think tank is saying and donor interests or opinions, and in light of that, why are so many think tanks in Washington with a foreign policy focus or a foreign policy department not more realist or anti‐​war, because if the donor class in America is largely wealthier people with investments, businesses and so on, it would seem like those are the kinds of people who don’t, unless they’re in the defense industry, don’t really benefit from the United States being involved in conflagrations overseas. But think tanks seem to be, as you said, Brookings and AEI and all these people are more pro‐​war than we might expect if donors were donating in their own interest.

0:32:53.7 Justin Logan: Yeah, I think it’s true that there aren’t great benefits that redound to wealthy individuals from lots of the things that we do overseas, but in many senses, there aren’t great costs either. The United States has had the luxury of deficit spending and debt to take on to finance our wars overseas, so it’s not the case that a dollar for a war overseas means a dollar in tax increases, so we’ve been able to disguise the costs of our wars. Many of those costs are going to be deferred years or even decades into the future for healthcare for soldiers, service members who are injured overseas, and so it’s hard to see the costs. So I think, and this pains me as somebody who’s deeply interested in foreign policy and thinks that foreign policy is important in a lot of ways, it’s rational in some cases, for people to care about things that affect them more. And I would say that one example, to take this out of the, again, sort of crude Marxist story, is that people do care deeply about abortion, and people do care deeply about the environment, it tells them that they’re a certain sort of person, that there are certain values.

0:34:08.0 Justin Logan: They want to be part of a country that is a certain way, in essence, and I think that is an aspect that we at Cato have really tried to do to say, look, there is this small r republican tradition of foreign policy, that is a great heritage in this country that has been forgotten, it needs to be revived, that emphasized geography is important for international politics, that we really do have this luxury, whether we want to call it the New Zion or whatever, of being insulated from the intrigues that permeated European politics through the latter half of the second millennium. And this is something that should be utilized for liberty, that it gave us the opportunity to opt out of a lot of those great power politics, and to revive this idea that there is an American foreign policy tradition that is good and worthy and confers benefits on us that we should revive.

0:35:07.6 Justin Logan: And again, to point to the more mercenary, if you will, justifications in the sense of all these costs that are coming down the road, the dead kids that you may not know, but that pay taxes to the same government that we all do, etcetera, etcetera. So I think it is true that it is rational in some cases to ignore this stuff, because the costs are deferred and there hasn’t been this sort of reified identity centered around the issue, like there has been with abortion or the environment or what have you.

0:35:38.7 Trevor Burrus: When it comes to academia, you mentioned a couple of times that the debate is different there, would you describe it as kind of uniformly dovish? Is there a consensus in academia about American foreign policy to some extent, that would kind of mirror or be inverse to the blob in Washington?

0:36:00.9 Justin Logan: It is more dovish than the Washington debate is, and I think it is less because of its detachment from the day‐​to‐​day pull and haul of politics, it’s a little bit broader and a little bit deeper. So William Wohlforth, who I mentioned before, who I admire tremendously as a scholar, although I disagree with him vehemently on American strategy, pointed out in one of his articles defending the sort of status quo primacy approach that most scholars in the academy who write about American strategy favor something along the lines of, if you want to call it realism and restraint, I forget the particular term that he used, but I guess I would say that the broad structure of views that you’ll hear out of the Cato foreign policy defense policy department have much more cachet in the academy than they do in Washington.

0:36:52.5 Justin Logan: Now, what to make of that, I don’t know, but I think it’s also a debate that welcomes dissent, so it’s not the case, that sort of… So I did grad school at the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer is there, John has his particular set of views on the Middle East and on China, etcetera, etcetera. When he would invite someone to, you know, a professor from another university to give a talk, he never invited people that agreed with him, he always invited people who disagreed, because what’s the point of debate? How do you discover anything that’s true that you don’t already know by talking to people who think the same thing that you do? And it’s certainly true of people like Wohlforth at Dartmouth and elsewhere, that there’s a much more collegial, sharp at times, but… And it may just be that the stakes are lower, right, we can talk about academic politics in that sense.

0:37:45.5 Justin Logan: But I found it much more edifying because it wasn’t the… The people that I disagreed with would engage seriously with the views that I or whoever advanced. And so it was more rollicking, I think it was more conducive to realism and restraint, although I don’t think that view is monolithic, by any stretch. If anything, I think probably some flavor of liberal internationalism less hawkish than the Beltway establishment is probably the prevailing view in the academy.

0:38:17.4 Aaron Powell: Back when I was taking the metro into the Cato office, and hopefully when I get to start doing it again, I would go through Crystal City, which is in Virginia, just across the river from DC, and you’d pass these big buildings with defense contractor names emblazoned across the top of them. What role do defense contractors play in driving or influencing this debate?

0:38:44.2 Justin Logan: Again, I think it’s not determinative, but it matters. It’s not the case that the United States starts over anew every budget season and says, “What do we need to defend ourselves from the dangers of the world?” And part of that is that to design a new… A sixth generation fighter airplane or to decide what to do about Chinese carrier killer missiles, takes time, it takes more than a budget cycle. And so, to defend defense contractors here, the job that they do is hard, it does take time but I do think that, look, if you think of it in terms where there aren’t trade‐​offs between defense programs, so you may have two contractors or three contractors vying for a particular contract and they win that contract. It’s sort of a done deal at that point, in the sense that they have the golden egg, and that’s the end of it.

0:39:46.9 Justin Logan: I think if you had people who think that naval competition with China’s very important, vying with people who think that… See lines of communication coming out of the Middle East are more important, and that debate, to get to your question previously, about information that’s provided about these things, many people who work on China can tell you better than I could about why this whole Middle East business is very stupid and destructive, but they won’t unless they have to. There’s a log‐​rolled coalition in the Pentagon where, if everyone’s slice of the pie gets bigger, there’s not very much fighting about whose slice got relatively bigger than whose other slice. And I think that when we get information, and we do from time to time, from people in the defense establishment about what’s wrong with other players in the defense establishment, that’s very useful.

0:40:42.6 Justin Logan: But I think in terms of the debate in DC, it certainly is the case that contractors, both defense programs and consultancies, etcetera, etcetera, do pour a lot of money into Washington. And again, I don’t think it’s the case that they walk in to think tank X and say, “Here’s a check for $700,000. Can you give me a report that says, ‘My program is really important?’ ” They’re smart. [chuckle] They know which think tanks have particular use and if it’s a think tank that’s been writing very favorably about a particular THAAD missile defense system, or the F-35, or what have you, they’ll come and drop $700,000 on that think tank and say, “Can you give us a report on the F-35?” Knowing in general terms what that report is going to look like.

0:41:36.6 Justin Logan: And I want to be clear. It’s not clear… [chuckle] I’m not trying to say there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, but knowing that this is going on would help us to understand some of the gaps in the debate in Washington, and why we hear certain views and we don’t hear contrary views. I want to be clear that it’s not the case that money determines answers, but in some cases, it does determine questions that get asked. And more to the point, questions that don’t get asked.

0:42:08.8 Trevor Burrus: It seems that in the last two years in particular, China has taken a, at least here in the Western world, a reputation hit for the kind of moves it’s been making, whether it’s with the Uighurs or moves against its own citizens to create a social network or a social accountability system, moves against its citizens to clamp down on the movie industry, moves against the MBA, all this stuff has China moving for something that would be like primacy. And if you look at Xi Jinping’s writings, actually that’s essentially what he says. He wants China to be the global hegemon by 2049, which will be the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party. In the face of that, do we see even more incentives now that America has sort of… We have a new big super power to contend with, like we did with the Soviet Union, that primacy will just be… Is it going to be even more entrenched as the necessary component of American foreign policy, basically, ’cause everyone will say, “But China… ” Like on anything that you say, they’ll say, “What about China? But China… It’s on the move against the South China Sea. China’s on the move against Taiwan. What is America going to do?” Our only choice is primacy to… That seems to me like what’s going to happen in the next two decades.

0:43:33.2 Justin Logan: I think it’s a real danger. If you look back just 50 years ago, the United States convinced itself that a civil war in South East Asia was actually about competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and spent an ungodly amount of money, 58,000 American lives, countless lives of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, especially in Laos, for nothing. Nothing was won in that conflict. And I think you do… Just to look at the delineations of the views on China and the rest of the world, you’re beginning to hear two separate views. One, and I think this is a little bit of an older view, is somewhat quietly sympathetic to my views about withdrawing from the Middle East, that says this is a sideshow. It’s just a money pit that we keep pouring diplomatic attention, money, arms, men, women into to no good end, but you’re beginning to hear the Vietnam‐​type arguments that we can’t leave the Middle East to China or else they’ll scoop up all the great prizes we’ve won ourselves there over the last 20 years. To which I say, nothing better could happen, couldn’t happen to a nicer group of guys than the Chinese for them to pick up the Middle East project and run with it.

0:44:58.1 Justin Logan: John Mearsheimer has a funny riff about people freaking out when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. What are we going to do about it? And John said, “This is the greatest thing that could happen. Let them jump in there,” and lo and behold, not 10 years later, you have the Soviet Union disintegrating. So I think one thing that people should watch is the extent to which this debate happens, number one, and who appears to be winning. I give succour to the side that says we need to divest ourselves of these ridiculous enterprises in a region that constitutes between 3% and 5% of world population, and 3% and 5% of world GDP. You can do the oil argument, etcetera, etcetera. This is a sideshow, it’s a waste of time. Then I worry if we win that discussion, what the China people will do with the winnings from divesting there. But I think within the China hawk community, you’re really starting to hear two separate views, one which says we can’t leave the Middle East to China. They’ll, again, take all of our winnings there. And the other that says, this is good money after bad. It’s a complete waste. It’s small, weak countries without offensive military capability. Oil can’t be used as a weapon as you think it does. Just stop and give us the money so that we can get in China’s face. But that debate is going to be one to watch over the years and decades to come.

0:46:24.4 Aaron Powell: Trump gestured in the direction of being anti‐​war during his campaign and still talked that way during his presidency, but in actual practice was not even remotely anti‐​war. Biden has already begun bombing people just a little over a month into his presidency. Do you think that we’ll ever get a truly anti‐​war president?

0:46:50.4 Justin Logan: You can ask me that question if it’s going to be the last one. It’s tough to say. So my somewhat Trumpy friends will say, look, Trump is a historic president. He didn’t start any new wars. There were a couple scares there that had been in the news lately, but he withdrew some troops from Afghanistan. And I say, well, look, Obama took US troops in Iraq from… I forget what it was, 150,000 down to 5. He withdrew more troops. Yes, he did the Libya war, which was this just completely ideological flight of fancy, but it didn’t cost the United States that much. So you get into these interpretive hair‐​splitting endeavors.

0:47:37.2 Justin Logan: I think that as constraints continue to tighten around the United States, both domestically and internationally, it should, and I’ll find some wood to knock on here, focus the mind a little bit about what we want to spend on. And again, those domestic constraints, I think are going to be the biggest challenge in the sense that if we stop being able to print what seems to be an infinite amount of money for an infinite amount of time, guns versus butter is going to become a real discussion. And if Chinese growth continues, which is an open question, Chinese defense budgets are going to continue, Chinese technological advances are going to continue. And the question is going to be can we do everything at the same time that we try to counter Chinese advances.

0:48:26.9 Justin Logan: And so I suspect that if we do get a bona fide genuinely anti‐​war president, and maybe this says something about us as a people, it will be by necessity rather than by virtue of persuasion, because in an environment in which we can do what seems like anything we want, you can do a lot of things that you don’t need to do. And I think in an environment where a dollar spent on one thing is a dollar not spent on something else, it forces a little bit of harder thinking than we’ve engaged in over the past two decades.


0:49:18.7 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.