In 1936 C. S. Forester published The General, a savage takedown of British military policy during what was then known as the Great War. The narrative recounts the career of Lieutenant General Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO, a mediocre career soldier vaulted to prominence as a senior commander organizing the slaughter of British troops on the Western Front.
Although a work of fiction, The General captures the essence of the “lions led by donkeys” school of World War I British historiography, depicting Curzon not as an evil man but as a stubborn fool. While coveting promotion and welcoming responsibility, he possesses none of the moral or intellectual qualities required to address the challenges posed by modern industrialized warfare.
Curzon is personally brave and utterly out of his depth, genuinely devoted to King and Country and a positive menace to his own troops. In the book’s climactic episode, at the very moment of maximum danger, Curzon mounts his steed and charges into battle. The results for horse and rider are predictable.
Of Britain’s overall conduct of the war, Forester writes that “men without imagination were necessary to execute a military policy devoid of imagination.” When I recently reread The General for the first time in several decades, that passage struck me as capturing the essential defect of U.S. national security policy since the end of the Cold War. Imagination? In Washington, D.C., it has gone missing in action.
Lacking this quality, the people charged with formulating basic foreign policy reflexively fall back on what they consider tried and true. They perceive history as an us-against-them proposition, pitting American-style freedom and democracy against its enemies, whatever form they may take. To read Rajan Menon’s essay is to understand that this is not the case on the ground and to appreciate the daunting complexities of the Ukraine War—both its origins and the barriers to ending it.
To be sure, the identity of the United States’ enemies has changed over time. During the 1930s and into the ’40s, the enemy was fascism. After World War II came global communism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, first “rogue states” and then “terrorism” served as transitional threats. But throughout these decades, the us-against-them duality persisted, coupled with the persistent notion of American exceptionalism, reassuring in its simplicity and therefore easy to sell to a credulous public.
Today, if we are to take President Biden seriously, a new duality has emerged. This one pits freedom and democracy—old standbys now refashioned almost beyond recognition from what they signified in the prior century—against what the Biden administration refers to as “authoritarianism.” Biden would have us believe—and may himself actually believe—that the outcome of this contest is likely to be definitive. The president has, after all, repeatedly declared that history itself has arrived at an “inflection point,” a phrase for which he has shown a particular liking.
Much as General Curzon and his peers promised that one more “push” would produce decisive victory over the Germans, the current U.S. commander in chief insists that one more push against anyone obstructing the onward advance of freedom and democracy will “fundamentally determine the direction our world is going to take in the coming decades.” This time for certain, it will be winner take all. Or so at least does President Biden want ordinary Americans to believe, with the fate of humankind ostensibly hinging on the outcome of events in Ukraine.
Leading figures in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including members of the prestige media, appear to find this line of reasoning persuasive. They do so, in my view, less because they credit Biden with possessing unique talents as a seer than because of his proven affinity for the reassuring cliches that have defined the canon of American statecraft ever since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Unlike, say, Donald Trump, Biden knows his lines and recites them with apparent conviction. This does not spare Biden himself from establishment criticism regarding this or that action—fist bumping Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, for example, or taking too long to approve Abrams tanks for Ukraine—but these are complaints directed at someone known to be sound on the issues that actually matter.
You can take it to the bank: as long as he remains in office, Biden will sustain U.S. military preeminence and pursue unquestioned leadership on a global scale. And he will never, ever commit the sin of appeasement. He will thereby keep faith with the tradition of statecraft to which every president since Franklin Roosevelt (with one exception) has adhered.
Biden thereby offers the establishment a great gift: he saves its members from having to think. By extension, he saves them from having to critically examine habits and routines that for decades have defined the practice of American statecraft. In other words, he spares them from having to consider the possibility that the nation—the qualities that defines us as a people—may have changed fundamentally, and with it the entire international order. Like General Curzon following the epic failure of the Somme offensive of 1916, Biden has faith that persistence will ultimately deliver his desired end. Like Curzon, he believes that established methods will eventually work.
“In the battle between democracy and autocracy,” Biden has declared, “democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.” Now this could be read as a bit of vapid sentimentalism or a serious affirmation of the president’s worldview. In fact, it is both: utter tripe and an accurate rendering of what passes for sound thinking at the highest echelons of the U.S. government.
Menon examines the gray area not only of the Ukraine War, but its possible end. I feel confident that when Biden meets with his senior-most advisers in the Oval Office, they acknowledge the complexities of the war. Yet when they speak to the American people, they routinely resort to pap.
The entire U.S. national security apparatus is now gearing up to confront authoritarianism. In Washington, the hunger for a new Cold War pitting the United States against China is palpable. So too is the desire to inflict a decisive defeat on Vladimir Putin’s Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine, “as long as it takes.” A protracted new round of us-against-them beckons. But does this prospect of a new Cold War (with no guarantee of it staying cold) serve the interests of the American people?
Since 1989 two overarching assumptions have formed the underlying basis of U.S. policy. According to the first, American-style liberal democratic capitalism offers a model for universal embrace. According to the second, perpetual U.S. military primacy holds the key to ensuring global peace and security.
Facts have not dealt kindly with these assumptions, with two in particular standing out. The first relates to the precarious health of U.S. democracy. The second relates to the results achieved in recent wars involving U.S. forces since 9/11, which have been disappointing, to put it mildly. While well-intentioned citizens may dispute these broad judgments, they are whistling in the dark.
By all appearances, President Biden is one such whistler. Unlike his predecessor, Biden is well-qualified for the position he holds. Unlike his predecessor, he appears to be making an actual attempt to govern. Even so, Biden is to the presidency what Herbert Curzon was to early twentieth-century generalship: he is what you get when a nation’s leadership class exhausts its last stores of imagination. Mere doggedness supplants intelligence, and the perceived needs of the moment eclipse any serious consideration of the future.