Angelo Codevilla (1943-2021) loomed large over American conservative thought. A former naval officer, diplomat, and senior staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he was the author of numerous books on conservative political thought and foreign policy, and translated an edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince, among other works. He was fiercely principled and independent.
I recall well his contributions to this site over the years, which never failed to elicit notes of support and indignation from various quarters. A native-born son of Italy who immigrated to America, he once told me that the great equalizer between him and his more numerous progressive opponents was his reason, the ability to counter their abstract gobbledy-gook with rational and concrete thought. Codevilla’s 2010 essay “America’s Ruling Class and the Perils of Revolution,” written while he was an academic at Boston University (later expanded and published as a book)—became a template for much of conservative thinking and practice over the last decade.
Codevilla’s long essay distilled into a stiff drink that America stands roughly divided between a court party of progressives and a country party of largely conservative and independent Americans. The court party mean to rule Americans in their exalted sense of egalitarian abstractions. Along the way, they endlessly reward one another with titles, lucre, contracts, and prestige, while endlessly doing battle against country party Americans.
These Americans tend to honor religious faith, family, home, and country, and have gratitude for life generally. They want to be left alone. The financial crisis policies that produced the Tea Party movement, the resistance to the Common Core education scheme, the intensity of the opposition to the Obama administration, and finally, the rise of the Trump campaign and his unexpected victory became understandable, per Codevilla, as an outpouring of love, pride, anger, and the memory of an America lost by Progressive pieties, well-intentioned or not.
Codevilla’s last book, titled America’s Rise and Fall Among Nations (recently published posthumously by Encounter Books), revisits much of his earlier foreign policy writing, but adds an insightful twist revealed by its subtitle, Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams (JQA). This book features Codevilla at his bombastic best, full of prophetic and searing judgments about the course of American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson.
Codevilla exposits the wisdom of JQA throughout the book, using it as a sober measuring rod for our past century of progressive foreign policy. That century is largely judged a failure by the author. His reasoning and analysis are bracing, if overstated at times. But even Codevilla’s excessive judgments lead us to a healthy unsettlement with the history we’ve been told about progressive statecraft.
Progressive foreign policies have harmed America also in domestic policy, as errors in international relations have blown back on America, making our domestic politics even more divided than they would otherwise have been. And the reasons, according to Codevilla, are not difficult to grasp. We stopped minding our own business and made ourselves a part of other’s peoples’ quarrels, and such business we wanted to manage according to progressive ideals and conceptions of how people should live together. Progressives assume nations the world over value equality, peace, democracy, and “progress” as much as they do, and have the desire to uphold these things. But what if they don’t? Consequently, America’s wealth and soldiers became instruments to achieve these unconstrained visions. We became in Codevilla’s words, “a party to other people’s quarrels” when our presence was certainly not required, either in the manner it was given, or at all.
Going to war changes nations, for good and for ill. Wars are lost, squandered, or continued indefinitely because progressive statecraft does not make victory and the achievement of peace to be the end of war, which cannot help but divide nations further into factions and dispirited citizens. Citizens grow angry at one another over failed policies and at those who failed to support such failed policies. Codevilla says to these varied groups of citizens, “you have been poorly governed.” For a model of superb statesmanship, he leads us through the prudential judgments of John Quincy Adams and his crowning achievements.
JQA did not provide us with a grand new set of principles and methods for American foreign policy, Codevilla observes. For those, we look to George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, among others. From the book’s opening, Codevilla outlines that “Presidents George Washington through Theodore Roosevelt would not have used the term [America First] to describe United States policy toward other nations—because they would have deemed any other priority to be mad or criminal.” JQA did provide through his wisdom, experience, and example a template for American leaders to follow in knowing what should matter to Americans, how to defend those interests, and how to pursue peace and mutual non-interference as the prized outcomes of foreign policy.
JQA also stressed that protecting America’s character, its collective and individual liberty, was foremost in his intentions. Codevilla notes “that any country’s foreign policy is less a choice between alternative courses of action than it is another expression of the character of the nation itself and of the persons who set its tone.” But who are we right now as Americans? The answer to that question, Codevilla intones, will answer the next question: “What kind of peace is America capable of today?”
We are greatly divided, with loyalties to our various subgroups and subcultures mattering seemingly more than our loyalty to the country. And this might be understandable given that the court party, “despises their fellow citizens, America as a nation, and our civilization itself.” Of course, the leaders of Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, et al., notice our self-loathing and lack of civilizational confidence. They seek to prey on it as much as they represent symbolically to their peoples their civilizational and cultural superiority to a decadent West. Weakness is always provocation to further pain.
But what does it mean to put America First, and why should we? Progressivism has looked down on such thinking, calling it provincial, selfish, bigoted, and short-sighted. Their goal has been to improve the world, assuming other governments would see things the progressive way and become similar versions of what America’s ruling class values. Most notably, they exchanged peace for progress, Codevilla dryly notes. The progressives, though, have given us neither. In fact, their failures have now led to “America’s own insecurity.” Thus does Codevilla seek to provide understanding of how U.S. foreign policy must change in a period where Americans know our place among nations must be better led and calculated if we are to survive intact.
The War to End All Wars
We can start with gratitude and appreciation for the principles of our ancestors if we mean to defend our country. Americans traditionally, Codevilla reminds us, thought “America was their final destination.” They believed themselves fortunate to be where they are, leaving behind ancient enmities. They did not come to America to fight grudges, “because they expected America to be different, a nearly empty land where they would have peace, freedom, and the bread that their hands earned.” We put America First because we are “putting a better, describably different way of life first.”
JQA’s brilliance was to comprehensively understand and communicate the founding generation’s “fundamental interest” in defending and strengthening America as a nation. We must know who we are as a people and what we love in order to weigh prudently any course of action we take in foreign affairs. If we would defend our country, we must know our interests, “the ‘causes’ for which Americans might fight,” and the reasons for evaluating why we should fight. And those reasons are heavily geographic, as to who threatens our territory, commerce, sea traffic, airspace, etc. We do not engage in grand expeditions to make progress happen in other nations.
The core of JQA’s foreign policy thinking is built on the Declaration of Independence. Here, “his father’s generation” declared their right “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle [Americans].” This document announces our independence so that we can secure the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” JQA likened these to “the truths of the Christian religion.” God provides self-rule to all people, but few can manage it or achieve it. Americans had been able, because of our adherence to these truths, to practice “civil liberty, self-rule, and reciprocal respect among nations.”
The foreign policy of such a people, Codevilla reasons, does not seek domination but peace and the preservation of a way of life that honors God. “The opposite notion (that Americans are to show their own exceptionality by doing things for or to other nations), is one that Adams and his generation would have judged insane.”
JQA’s great achievements were regarded by JQA in his extending the US border to the Pacific Ocean and what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. American independence and peace were secured by mutual non-interference in this 1823 message from President Monroe, which announced that the US would not accept the reimposition of colonial conquest in the Western Hemisphere, just as the letter also reminded European powers that America had not sought involvement in the many wars of Europe. America had remained neutral. The Monroe Doctrine takes cognizance of the islands, sea approaches, and nations nearest America whose hostile takeover by empires would threaten our peace. Monroe’s diplomacy does not attempt to create a new reality, but merely announces things as they are and what America will do to keep them that way. This is a document written in concrete and specific terms by those who take their country seriously.
Codevilla is scathing and relentless toward those whom he does not think have taken their country seriously, an almost unbroken line of presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Barack Obama. He excoriates the terms offered for our involvement in World War I by Wilson as the supreme moralization of foreign policy. There are no wars to end wars or to etch democracy into mankind’s political nature. While the Senate wisely rejected America’s entry into Wilson’s constructed League of Nations, the impetus behind such thinking would guide Washington policymakers in the coming decades, Codevilla notes.
A faith in treaties, notably the Washington Naval Treaties of 1921, left America unprepared for the Japanese onslaught in China and East Asia because we had pledged that America wouldn’t strengthen our bases in the Western Pacific. America and European signatories to the treaties abided by their commitments to refrain from rearmament, including battleships. But the Japanese did not; they knew their interests. They built aircraft carriers to support their plans for domination of Asia. President Hoover’s response to Japan’s invasion of China in 1931 was to appeal to the moral norms of the League of Nations. That attitude gets you killed every time. The Washington Treaties substituted the Anglo-Japanese alliance with an alliance of sorts among the U.S., Britain, France, and Japan. As Codevilla states, alliances guarantee little if they aren’t backed by actual interests. Even then, events and conflicts can change those alliances quickly. We can’t mind other people’s affairs or force them to see things our way, they won’t let us. But progressives have proudly persisted in going into the breech for over a century.
Guiding Our Foreign Policy Today
Codevilla overstates at times our failures in foreign policy. He gives little-to-no credit to President Reagan for challenging the Soviet Union and refusing to accept the progressive regime mantra that we had to coexist indefinitely with the “evil empire.” We also won World War II over two horrible murderous empires. Codevilla focuses heavily on FDR’s failures and his administration’s strange affinity during the war with Stalinist Russia, courtesy of its many progressive appointees. Duly noted. But it is also true that we secured Western Europe’s freedom, even though we left ourselves unable to achieve the same in Eastern Europe.
The book’s great truth and strength is its teaching of who we once were as a matter not only of sober and prudent foreign policy thinking but also the content of our national character. We could conceivably be such a constitutional people again who love freedom, righteous living, and peace. The moral deformation of America and its unavoidable consequences courtesy of progressive policies also manifest themselves in a slumbering, mindless foreign policy. We no longer are united in defending our peace because the underlying character of the regime is in decline. Codevilla states that our loyalties to the nation, to the name American, are no longer as strong as they once were. How we will choose to defend the American nation only gets more complicated.
Turning to JQA, Codevilla limns a path forward for America under these straitening circumstances. We should trim our obligations abroad. We need to think clearly and coherently about our interests and ends and the means to achieve those ends. On China, we arm Taiwan because we have a clear interest in not letting the Pacific become a Chinese lake, Codevilla urges. But we also recognize that China now owns the South China Sea and would destroy our forces in a Taiwan battle. On Russia, we recognize that they are unable to invade Europe and, ultimately, desire Ukraine to resurrect faded glory. Beyond that, they are a threat largely in their partnership with China.
The book came out before the Ukraine invasion, but his advice for Russia remains worth considering. Why expand the frontiers of NATO while the organization as a whole was permitted to become weaker and more vulnerable? What was in it for us? It’s the type of question that should always guide our foreign policy. More than self-interest, we are guided by a patriotic piety and obligation to the founders and to the political wisdom they gave us, which once governed us well. Nothing is lost, though much has been obscured. As Codevilla said countless times, the opportunity still exists for a new American statesman to rise and make real a foreign policy worthy of the name American.
This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty