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Welcome to Entanglements

First, Entanglements. As we sat around searching for the right word, a friend remarked that Entanglements abraded even his own frankly coarsened sensibilities. Why? Entanglements, after all, neatly summarizes the foreign policy challenges to which one administration after another has provided no adequate response. But the word also has a toxic resonance. Casting a glance backward to George Washington’s farewell address, my colleague knew the admonition against foreign entanglements, and its historical abuses, all too well. So, too, did John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Harry Truman, the last of whom complained, quite correctly, that “for the isolationists this address was like a biblical text.”

In truth, Washington’s warning about entanglements doubled as a conceit to gain room to maneuver for a weak nation, to buy time for “our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.” Yet once America commanded its own fortunes, and the world’s along with it, there was little reason to suppose that our first president, convinced as he was that Providence had given “mankind the too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence,” would have budged from the subsequent habits of American statecraft.

Let’s be clear: Whether one thinks that these habits are a good thing or a bad thing is entirely beside the point. Public expectations, the trajectory of American history, the requirements of world order—all of these things have made our missionary and expeditionary impulses a constant theme. Just ask the long line of American presidents who have vowed a “decisive break” from their predecessors only to settle for more of the same.

Much as the international scene still privileges the old, brutal verities, American exceptionalism sets the terms of this country’s foreign policy debate—as even those most insistent that America is not exceptional concede. There is an obvious and unbending logic at work here, and the contributors to Entanglements, all writers and scholars of intellectual distinction, know the tinkering comes at the margins. Attempts to unshackle ourselves from this iron logic, to devise new “mindsets” that supplant the American style, really aren't even worth the effort.

Does this mean that American foreign policy debates have been over-determined, that ideas no longer have any consequences at all?  The past decade ought to have put that idea decisively to rest. If Iraq, a war this writer vigorously championed for years and from which he grimly reported during several more, taught anything, it was that ideas need to be debated, urgently and thoughtfully, and scrutinized rather than guarded. If they propose a historical narrative with a concrete destination, or mistake for wisdom the heat and noise they generate, or reject the world when the world fails to respond to their demands, they need to be quashed, quickly.  But if ideas have inarguably advantageous consequences, they ought to be embraced, also quickly.

Hence the truest purpose of Entanglements: to have an argument, to become entangled in an argument. It may comfort the sensibilities of its adherents, but orthodoxy, the currency in which so many bloggers traffic, really doesn’t amount to evidence of heightened moral awareness.  Neither does dissent. In championing not one idea, but many, the heterodox flavor of Entanglements will, we hope, encourage an honest accounting of the world around us. Realists, liberals, neoconservatives, even a foreigner or two—the more the merrier, the blunter the better.  Readers typically know what to expect when they flip through a foreign policy journal or plug themselves into its digital outlet. But the day that Entanglements begins to tout a party line should also be the day you finish with it.

Which brings us to the machine delivering these words. Acceleration is not the same thing as illumination. Entanglements will not contribute to the everyday pollution of public discourse. It will feature columns, not blog posts. At the same time, and because we believe that ideas, not places, ultimately decide America’s fortunes abroad, generalists will outnumber specialists. Yet, here, too, we will not advertise contempt for expertise as if it were a virtue: Entanglements will not lack for regional scholars, particularly students of Afghanistan, where America truly has become entangled.  

We hope you will enjoy and, as we already have, learn a thing or two from our contributors. On behalf of executive editor Amy Finnerty and myself, welcome to Entanglements: Arguing America and the World.

Lawrence F. Kaplan