What would John Quincy Adams do?
In September 2021, America lost a great mind. In a world of conformity on both the left and right, Angelo Codevilla’s life and work stands out. Codevilla’s mastery of history, politics, religion, and foreign policy appears in every paragraph on every page of his posthumously published book, America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams.
Codevilla’s book asks “what would John Quincy Adams do” to create an America first foreign policy. John Quincy Adams was the sixth U.S. president and son of the second president, John Adams. He was president after America had been involved in a war for independence as well as the War of 1812.
In the early nineteenth century, there was an abundance of challenges to America’s national security. European colonial powers remained throughout the western hemisphere. These powers persistently threatened the safety of America as well as its neighbors. Thus, the foreign policy doctrine that developed under Adams was the Monroe Doctrine, which was named after America’s fifth president James Monroe. This doctrine established principles of non-interference in the western hemisphere principally Latin America. It applied to extra-hemispheric powers but was also self-applied by America to its affairs with Latin American countries too.
As a result, the foundations of the Monroe Doctrine established a foreign policy in which America minded its own business and would encourage other nations to do the same. This was the bedrock of “America first.” Codevilla asserts that Adams and the founding fathers would not even understand such a label. Of course, they would put America first. What serious country wouldn’t put their own nation’s interests first? Standby…
Woodrow Wilson and the Progressives Take Charge
After exploring the history of American foreign policy from Washington through Theodore Roosevelt, Codevilla offers an answer. He sharpens his pen to take aim at Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive movement, which radically changed America’s entire geopolitical framework. Codevilla makes clear that America’s entry into World War I began a sharp departure from Adams and his successors through Theodore Roosevelt. Furthermore, the Progressives began to formulate policy in terms of global interest. This amounted to spreading democracy to other nation’s whether they wanted it or not. Democracy became the catch-all for whatever Progressives thought was good. If people refused or voted against it, this was a threat to democracy. Sound familiar? Now we see where the incoherence of American foreign policy began to take shape.
While Codevilla’s criticism of Progressives was fun reading, it was also light on details. He touches the surface on Wilson’s push to establish the League of Nations, which became the precursor to the U.N. Nevertheless, perhaps others can pick up where Codevilla left off. The Wilsonian break with Adams could become a book on its own.
Describing the Progressive movement, Codevilla’s writing style is scathing. He has no remorse for the subsequent generations that have adopted the Wilsonian model. The Progressive establishment morphed into what he describes as America’s “ruling class.” Except for World War II, this ruling class has not won a war. At the same time, while World War II defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan, it did not account for the rise of the U.S.S.R. that quickly followed. As a result, Codevilla tears into this group. Clearly, he never worried about missing invitations to cocktail parties in Georgetown.
The “Ruling Class”
The quick definition of the ruling class is basically the college educated population clustered mostly on the two coasts. The ruling class is typically white-collar professionals i.e. lawyers, bankers, consultants, journalists, and what is commonly called “the laptop class.” We can also add people in academia. The ruling class considers itself elite due to its credentials from colleges and universities.
Additionally, the ruling class has also grown up around the nation’s capital and staffs the ranks of bureaucrats, lobbyists, think tankers, foundation workers, military servicemembers, intelligence personnel, contractors, and many other government functionaries. These members of the ruling class comprise what Codevilla calls the “administrative state.” The two overlap and the one thing that defines them is the uniformity of their education, which is typically Ivy League or Ivy League adjacent. Again, the credentials matter because it gets into the elites conception of themselves as being experts.
Codevilla’s contempt is rooted in the fact that the members of the ruling class believe that they have the expertise to run the country, yet they consistently fail in doing so. Instead, he sees them as self-serving. They are interested in perpetuating their own power and not acting in the best interest of the American people.
While Codevilla is broad in his denunciation of the ruling class, his depth of knowledge and sweeping analysis makes the reader think that he must know what he is talking about. To the frustration of his critics, he has the added benefit of being right. He has been the first to point out and even predict the myriad of foreign policy failures over several decades. Ironically, he also has a lot of credentials himself and an impressive resume in the military, foreign service, government and academia. Perhaps he can be critical of the ruling class because he is, after all, coming from it.
Look no further than the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, America’s inability to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rise of China, and North Korea’s capability to threaten America with nuclear weapons. Add in the failed wars from Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War (tactical success, strategic failure), Iraq, and Afghanistan, and one starts to see the pattern. There is also the rise of Iran, al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
America has lost thousands of lives and spent trillions of dollars over the last two decades in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein was once on the CIA payroll. America supported him in his war against Iran then proceeded to wage two separate wars against him. If U.S. policy seems to be sporadic and lacking in direction, that’s because it stopped being grounded in reason, practicability, and a relentless focus on America’s national interests. With all of these issues, Codevilla continually points the finger at American elites for their poor statecraft. Adams would not be pleased.
In a League of His own
Reading Codevilla is exhilarating. It also leaves the reader with a sense of melancholy. This feeling comes from the fact that it is hard to see things getting better. The ruling class is very much empowered and arrogant. One senses that Codevilla is probably a supporter of President Trump. If he did vote for Trump, he doesn’t fawn over him or withhold points of criticism. Codevilla is not wedded to any one party or politician. At least not any living politician. In this book, he calls balls and strikes. Furthermore, he always returns to the question of how Adams would handle current issues.
Adams on Ukraine and Russia
So how would Adams handle the war on terror, Russia-Ukraine, the People’s Republic of China, and other issues of the day. Codevilla offers his thoughts on all of these and more.
Looking specifically at Russia and Ukraine, Codevilla believes that Adams would say that America has no business being involved in the manner that the U.S. is currently involved. He writes, “Russia is no more willing to conquer Europe than it is able.” Seems true after their inability to conquer just Ukraine.
On Ukraine, he says, “Its independence is very much a U.S. interest, but it is beyond our capacity to secure.” Also proven to be true. However, critics would say that our financial support and imposition of sanctions on Russia has shown (at least for now) that the U.S. can help preserve Ukraine’s independence.
On Russia, he writes that John Quincy Adams “would know and sincerely convey to Russia that [Ukraine’s] independence depends on themselves, and that he regard it as counterproductive to try making them into American pawns or even to give the impression that they may be.” American statesmen clearly missed the boat on that latter part.
Finally, Codevilla concludes, “Nothing would be geopolitically clearer to Adams than that natural policy for both America and Russia is not to go looking for opportunities to get in each other’s way.” Reading this analysis is much more satisfying than the mainstream hysterics of “Putin is Hitler!” It all seems too reasonable and almost scary in its simplicity.
Moreover, Codevilla wrote this prior to Russia’s invasion. If U.S. politicians had been familiar with Adams, perhaps they could have used practical diplomacy to prevent war. They certainly are not using any diplomacy in an effort to end it.
America First statecraft
What are the principles of America first statecraft?
Codevilla believes that these principles were used by presidents from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt. He writes, “There is nothing new or sophisticated about them. They are on the homey level of ‘early to bed, early to rise,’ ‘don’t get into debt,’ ‘eat your veggies,’ and so forth. They boil down to minding our own business and minding it well.”
Can it be that simple? Don’t we need a degree from the Harvard Kennedy School or Georgetown School of Foreign Service? Hardly. In fact, Codevilla would probably say the opposite is true.
Codevilla also thinks that reliance on intelligence from the CIA has been a consistent mistake. He is extremely critical of the CIA overall. His blunt assessment is the unquestioned belief that the CIA possesses some unique insight that overrides common sense and prudential judgment. After all, the CIA has taken a lot of actions independent of the will of the American people and against good statecraft. These actions have frequently come back to hurt America.
Experts without expertise
His disdain for the the CIA is also part of his ruling class critique. It boils down to having a plethora of experts with no expertise. It’s not just in foreign policy, intelligence or the military either. We can see this everywhere in our society.
How is it that we have more mental health experts and therapists, yet the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to rise? Could it be that mental health like foreign policy has been complicated by over credentialed elites? Once upon a time the diagnosis for a kid’s “mental health issues” would also be “on the homey level”: Go outside, play with your friends, do physical activity, go to church, and listen to your parents. Now a mental health expert with a PhD will fill out a prescription drug and listen to the kid mope while the parents pony up a couple hundred bucks an hour. After all, the parents aren’t mental health experts!
Whether it is a mental health “professional” or a CIA analyst, they are probably smart and went to a lot of fancy schools. Just because they are smart doesn’t mean they are wise. Furthermore, their cures are usually worse than the disease. However, you can’t question them because you are not an expert like they are. So you and your kids can take happy pills and let the CIA figure out new ways to funnel money to third world dictators. You didn’t vote on that policy, but experts say its in our best interest.
We have lost Angelo Codevilla too soon. Thankfully, we have his writing to continue injecting sanity into the madness. America’s Rise and Fall among Nations will be relevant for many years.
To the enduring question of can foreign policy be as simple as John Quincy Adams makes it appear? Yes and no. Issues are very complicated with multiple second and third order considerations. Foreign policy will always be messy and difficult to figure out. It will take a lot of work. No, foreign policy is not simple.
But, yes, in that John Quincy Adams and the founders followed a remarkably simple set of principles. The model doesn’t require AI-powered software. So here is the algorithm. Start with minding one’s own business and minding it well as the general operating system. Within the code, determine the nation’s interests and what issues do and don’t affect those interests. Then consider how practically these interests can be enforced and defended. Run the code with an enduring sense of honor and also prudence. This is how John Quincy Adams would approach statecraft in the 21st Century. American leaders should wisely follow Adams’ lead. Codevilla’s book will help them start.
Find the Book at Encounter Books here.