President-elect Joe Biden will soon finish selecting the men and women who will staff his incoming administration. The first announcements comprise the core of his foreign policy team, including the nomination of his longtime confidant Antony Blinken to be the next Secretary of State.
Blinken, as both a former deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state under Barack Obama, is highly qualified for the position. But as the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison explained on this website, experience does not equal judgement. For over two decades Blinken has been a proponent of escalating U.S. involvement overseas, both in flexing soft power and using military force.
Antony Blinken is more likely to recommend sending the U.S. Army to Damascus than he is to have his own “Road to Damascus” moment from which he emerges as an apostle of realism and restraint. But he should be aware that there is an alternative, one that befits an older, more traditionally American ethos.
Looking back to the nineteenth century, we find a secretary of state whom the writer Bill Kauffman labeled “quite possibly the most anti-imperialist diplomat in the history of the republic.” No, not the oft-quoted John Quincy Adams — but the unappreciated Walter Q. Gresham.
Spending most of his career as a judge in his native Indiana, Gresham also served briefly in the cabinet of President Chester Arthur, first as postmaster general and then secretary of the treasury. Despite being a lifelong Republican, by the 1890s he felt increasingly out of step with the party’s devotion to prohibitively high protective tariffs. A lifelong free-trader, Gresham broke ranks and endorsed Democrat Grover Cleveland in his successful return to the White House.
Cleveland rewarded this pivotal endorsement by offering Gresham the cabinet’s most preeminent office: secretary of state.
Reactions were hostile, with Democrats displeased at seeing the job given to a party newcomer, while Republicans forever resented the turncoat. “Possibly no other cabinet appointment ever caused so much comment and criticism as that of Judge Gresham to the office of Secretary of State,” wrote historian Martha Alice Tyner.
And then there was the question of experience; unlike Blinken, Gresham had no background in foreign affairs. Woodrow Wilson, then a Professor at Princeton, had low expectations and surmised that Gresham would be “a novice in adjusting the foreign relations of the country.” Dismissing the judge’s skillset as befitting a lower office, Wilson jabbed that it was a pity “to lose so fine a Secretary of the Interior.”
Gresham’s ability would be tested early. In January 1893, a group of American businessmen organized a coup d’état in Hawaii, overthrowing the indigenous monarchy. The plotters’ efforts were buttressed by a company of U.S. Marines under orders from John W. Foster’s State Department. It was in effect the first regime change operation performed under the auspices of the U.S. government — and it would be Foster’s grandsons, John and Allen Dulles, who would organize more coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s.
Hawaii’s new provisional government — headed by a “Committee of Safety” composed mostly of U.S. citizens — immediately sent a proposal of annexation to Washington. With less than a month left in his term, President Benjamin Harrison signed the proposal and delivered it to the Senate, which did not act before Cleveland’s inauguration.
The first act of Cleveland’s presidency was to rescind the treaty, and for Gresham to repair the international damage caused by Foster. “Can the United States consistently insist that other nations shall respect the independence of Hawaii while not respecting it themselves?” asked Gresham. “Our government was the first to recognize the independence of the islands, it should be the last to acquire sovereignty over them, by force and fraud.”
Adhering to the traditional American opinion that “a free government cannot pursue an imperial policy,” Gresham believed that if acquired, Washington could only govern Hawaii as “Rome governed her provinces, by despotic rule.”
To “satisfy the demands of justice,” Gresham attempted to negotiate the restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy, but arbitration broke down when Queen Liliuokalani — then under house arrest — refused to grant amnesty to the American plotters. The provisional government remained in place until Hawaii’s annexation in 1898 under President William McKinley.
Gresham rejected the idea that Hawaii — an archipelago located 2,000 miles from the Californian coastline and closer in distance to Tokyo than Washington, DC — could be of any material interest to a continental power like the United States. Instead, he discerned his own explanation for the attempted annexation. In a private letter to a senator, the secretary of state wrote that “the armed power of this country [had been used] to destroy an innocent and helpless people in order that New England corporations (forty of them) might get possession of their property, own their sugar plantations, and wring out of the pockets of the American people a bounty...”
While Gresham understood pernicious corporate influence, Blinken is a biproduct of corporate power. In 2018 he cofounded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors, whose purpose was to advance the interests and profit margins of defense contractors. Is that preferential treatment expected to end when Blinken arrives at Foggy Bottom?
The Indianapolis Journal described Gresham as “blunt [and] aggressive,” and his counsel to men like Antony Blinken, who would exploit American strength to perform gratuitous meddling overseas, is pertinent. He said, “Every nation, and especially every strong nation, must sometimes be conscious of an impulse to rush into difficulties that do not concern it, except in a highly imaginary way. To restrain the indulgence of such a propensity is not only the part of wisdom, but a duty we owe to the world as an example of the strength, the moderation, and the beneficence of popular government.”
Gresham believed that “the only safeguard against all the evils of interference in affairs that do not specially concern us is to abstain from such interference altogether.” If Americans did not “stay home and attend to their own business,” then “they would go to hell as fast as possible.”
And can’t our foreign policy be described as a kind of hell? That’s what it must feel like for the Yemeni, Iranian, and Venezuelan families who suffer from hunger and sickness as an effect from U.S. sanctions. Or for the people of Iraq, who have endured almost continual American bombardment for 30 years.
Walter Q. Gresham died from pneumonia halfway through his term at the age of 63. Judging his record, The Nation magazine wrote, “Mr. Gresham has been a great success and has made American honor, capacity, and courtesy mean more in the eyes of the world than they had meant for many a day.”
Honor, capacity, and courtesy. Are those not qualities American foreign policy is in desperate need of? Honoring the sovereignty of other nations and their right to construct their own political and social systems. Understanding the capacity of American power, and not overextending our commitments beyond our capability. And replacing belligerence and poison pill preconditions with diplomatic courtesy and outreach.
When Antony Blinken fails at enacting a foreign policy that places the needs of the republic before those of the empire, it will not be for lack of precedent.
Hunter DeRensis is an editor at the Libertarian Institute, a former senior reporter at The National Interest, and a regular contributor to The American Conservative. His work has also appeared at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Antiwar.com. He is a resident of St. Augustine, Florida, and a graduate of George Mason University.
Walter Q. Gresham circa between 1870 and 1880. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/public domain)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.