Trump is wrong - America needs its foreign policy elite

No one, not even Donald Trump, vilified the Eastern elite more than Richard Nixon. He particularly railed against Harvard. "None of them in the Cabinet, do you understand? None of those Harvard bastards!" he bellowed at his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. Yet when it came time to pick a national security adviser, he chose Harvard professor Henry Kissinger, who today embodies the East Coast foreign policy establishment.

Mr Trump's foreign policy stance operates on two levels: America First isolationism in content, slotted within an ardent anti-establishment, anti-expert frame. The two are inextricable - in Mr Trump's world, the foreign policy elite in both parties have forced us into expensive alliances and wars. Get rid of them, and America will be great again.

In fact, he has that backward. As much as his neo-isolationism frightens our allies, it is Mr Trump's anti-establishment stance that most threatens international security. As even Mr Nixon recognised, since its emergence as a global power in the late 19th century, America has relied on a highly trained corps of diplomats, worldly financiers and academics to steer it straight. Get rid of them, as Mr Trump seems intent on doing, and chaos will follow.

Mr Trump's anti-elite chatter is nothing new. On the stump in 1952, Mr Nixon, then Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, delighted in referring to Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, a Princeton graduate, as an "egghead" - an effeminate intellectual.

But it was obvious, even then, that this was campaign bluster. President Eisenhower played the genial, folksy man of the people, but his secretaries of state John Foster Dulles and Christian Herter were prominent members of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr Nixon followed suit; besides Dr Kissinger, he tapped Wall Street lawyer William Rogers as secretary of state and Boston Brahmin Elliot Richardson as secretary of defence. He understood that the world was a complicated place that required experience and expertise, even if it had to come from Harvard. He knew that to open up Communist China and negotiate an arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, he needed a policy expert and diplomat like Dr Kissinger.

And while "elite" has an obvious anti-democratic meaning, today the foreign policy establishment looks more like the America it guides... Today's foreign policy establishment is heavily populated by graduates of elite schools, but many of them are minorities and the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

Of course, the "best and the brightest" of the 1960s administrations - academics like Mr Walt Rostow and Dr Kissinger, corporate titans like Mr Robert McNamara - were far from perfect, to put it kindly. They bear the blame for Vietnam and the 50,000 American soldiers who died there, not to mention the millions of Vietnamese people.

But they also strengthened a world order balanced precariously on the edge of nuclear war. They expanded trade, deepened alliances and underwrote billions in foreign aid. None of this was cheap, but they understood - as Mr Trump seems not to - that the global stability bought with such efforts is worth far more.

And contrast the mistakes of the 1960s to times when Washington allowed foreign policy to be set by public consensus. In the 1930s, Congress closed off free trade to protect American industry and listened to voters who wanted a smaller, less costly military with no entangling alliances. The results? The Smoot-Hawley tariff contributed to the Great Depression, and the failure of the League of Nations allowed the rise of fascism and global war.

Even then, some members of the East Coast elite knew better. A small group of mostly Ivy Leaguers met at the Century Club in New York to work up a semi-secret plan to push America towards greater involvement with Britain in its stand against Hitler.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt listened and chose Republican Wall Street lawyer Henry Stimson, from Yale and Harvard Law School, as his secretary of war; later, Mr Stimson became a kind of patron saint of the postwar bipartisan foreign policy establishment. If America had heeded Mr Stimson and his ilk from the beginning and worked harder to build up European alliances before Nazi Germany became unstoppable, American soldiers might not have needed to fight their way onto the continent.

Fortunately, dalliances with anti-establishment, populist isolationism tend to be short-lived. Over the years, voters wisely turned away from naive beckoning to create "Fortress America", as senator Robert Taft advertised in the early 1950s, or to "Come Home, America", Democratic nominee George McGovern's presidential campaign slogan in 1972.

And while "elite" has an obvious anti-democratic meaning, today the foreign policy establishment looks more like the America it guides. The Eastern establishment was exceedingly insular in President Eisenhower's day: white, male, Protestant, preppy.

But by Mr Nixon's time it had loosened up to include Dr Kissinger, a Jewish refugee. Today's foreign policy establishment is heavily populated by graduates of elite schools, but many of them are minorities and the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

No doubt, the modern foreign policy establishment can be criticised for stale or lazy thinking, or parochial self-interest. But it still includes many men and women with a sophisticated knowledge of the world. To ignore them and their counsel is foolish.

NEW YORK TIMES

The writer is the author of Being Nixon: A Man Divided.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'Trump is wrong - America needs its foreign policy elite'. Print Edition | Subscribe