Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Appeasing Putin: The Claremont Institute's "America First" Foreign Policy and Its Betrayal of Harry Jaffa


Neville Chamberlain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler after signing an agreement on September 30, 1938, which provided "cessation to Germany of the Sudeten German territory" of the Czechoslovak Republic.  Previously, in March, Hitler had annexed Austria.  Hitler had argued that he was expanding Germany to include all German-speaking people in a "Greater Germany." He promised that his taking of the Sudentenland would be his last territorial claim in Europe.  Many people across Europe and North America praised this Munich agreement as the only way to prevent a major war in Europe.

Even after the war in Europe began in September of 1939, after Hitler had invaded Poland, many Americans supported the "America First Committee" in arguing that the U.S. should stay out of the war because Hitler was no threat to American interests.  The "American First Committee" disbanded on December 10, 1941, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and one day before the German declaration of war against the U.S.

Today, the American proponents of an "America First" foreign policy say that the U.S. and the European powers should reach an agreement with Vladimir Putin to allow the cessation to Russia of Ukraine, with Putin promising that this will be his last territorial claim in Europe.  Donald Trump has suggested something like this.  At a G7 summit in 2018, Trump told the leaders at the meeting that Putin had persuaded him that since all Ukrainians speak Russian, Ukraine is part of Russia.  He also told them that they should lift the sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea.  Now Trump says that Putin has shown himself to be a "genius" in invading Ukraine.

Surprisingly, many American conservatives are endorsing this position.  One prominent example of this is the Claremont Institute.  On March 3rd, the Claremont Institute posted on its website an essay by Angelo Codevilla, which is an excerpt from his forthcoming book America's Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams.  Codevilla finished this shortly before his death last year.  The book originated in response to a request in 2019 from Trump's Department of Defense that he lay out what a truly "America First" foreign policy ought to be.  He wrote the memo as presenting what John Quincy Adams might have recommended.  The editors at the Claremont Institute praise Codevilla for his "characteristic incisiveness and perspicacity on the most serious matters of foreign relations."

Codevilla condemns American political leaders because "they pushed NATO to Russia's borders in the Baltic states and interfered massively in Ukraine."  Then, "when, in 2014, Putin took Crimea, Obama imposed economic sanctions, meddled even more in Ukraine, and agreed to station token NATO and American troops in Poland and the Baltic states."

Codevilla insists that Russia is no threat to the U.S. because "we have no clashing interests with it."  According to Codevilla, John Quincy Adams

"would be confident that Russia realizes it cannot control Ukraine except for its Russian part, or the Baltics, never mind the states of Eastern Europe.  He would reassure Russia that the United States will not interfere with Russia joining the mainstream of European affairs and will not use normal relations with Ukraine or any of Russia's neighbors to inconvenience Russia. . . . He would trust in Russia's actual acceptance of its inability ever again to control this Ukraine.  This would be Adams Ukraine policy."

According to Codevilla, Adams would also have removed all sanctions punishing Russia for taking Crimea and the Donbass.

"In sum," 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."

Remarkably, Codevilla and the Claremont Institute are taking the side of the socialist left!  The International Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America has issued a statement condemning any sanctions against Russia for threatening Ukraine.  They blame the U.S. and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine:  "NATO is a mechanism for US-led Western imperialist domination, fueling expansionism, militarization, and devastating interventions."

The Claremont Institute was originally founded by students of Harry Jaffa, who were devoted to advancing Jaffa's conservative political philosophy.  But I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is not in America's interest to fight against the "evil empire" of Russia in defense of freedom.  Consider this passage from Jaffa's "Decline and Fall of the American Idea" (The Rediscovery of America, edited by Erler and Masugi, p. 209):

"The moral rationality of the distinction between freedom and despotism articulated with transcendent lucidity in the Declaration of Independence was the ground of the righteous cause not only in the Revolution and the Civil War, but in all the great wars (hot and cold) of the twentieth century.  When Ronald Reagan pronounced the Soviet Union an 'evil empire," he needed not many counselors to say so. . . . The Declaration of Independence stands squarely against tyranny, whether of the one, the few, or the many.  Every single human being is entitled by the moral law, whether of reason or of revelation, to be considered an end in himself, to be governed, under the laws of God and of nature, by his own consent.  Any exception to this can only be a harbinger of reappearing tyranny."

I cannot believe that Jaffa would have said that it is no longer in America's interest to fight for the freedom affirmed in the Declaration of Independence against the despotism of Putin's Russian Empire. 

Codevilla invokes the Monroe Doctrine in arguing that as long as Russia does not interfere in the Western Hemisphere--he calls it "our backyard"--Americans ought to reciprocate by not interfering in Russia's backyard, which includes Ukraine.  But doesn't this deny the Declaration of Independence in its affirmation of the right of every people to declare their independence from despotic imperial rulers?  And didn't the American revolutionaries ask the French to intervene on the American side against the British?  Don't the Ukrainians have the same natural right to seek the protection of NATO and the U.S. against conquest by Russia?

If the Claremont Institute is now rejecting the principles of the Declaration of Independence, then they are rejecting the fundamental principles of the American Founding, which were Jaffa's principles.

If I am wrong in my interpretation of the Claremont Institute or of Jaffa, please correct me.


Glenn said...


We've always gotten along well, but I must object strenuously to these extreme misrepresentations of the theory of the Declaration of the Independence, and of Jaffa. As you know perfectly well, nothing in the Declaration suggests that the American people are obliged to go to war to vindicate anyone's rights except those of Americans.

Its not clear to me whether your critique of Codevilla is also a critique of John Quincy Adams, but he surely represented the views of the founders (and the foreign policy of the Declaration) when he declared that the U.S. "is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." (July 4, 1821)

Nothing in your quotation from Jaffa remotely justifies a moral obligation by the American people to go to war with Russian to defend the liberty of Ukrainians, or Russians. If you think that such an obligation exists, why stop there? Should we go to war with China to bring freedom to that country? That's a serious question.

As I note in my new book, The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America:

Jaffa strongly opposed Wilsonian adventurism, by the way, writing in a letter to Commentary in 2006, “the idea of bringing democracy to Iraq, or any country like Iraq, is simply utopian. [George Bush’s] frequently repeated assertion that democracy is the aspiration of all peoples, and that to free any people from tyranny is to free them for democracy, has no foundation in history or political philosophy.” (

Glenn Ellmers

Larry Arnhart said...

In my March 16 post, I argue that the Monroe Doctrine is not sufficient for American foreign policy today. I think Jaffa agreed with that when he said that America's fight in the Cold War against the "evil empire" was rooted in the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Jaffa was also right to oppose the Iraq invasion as "utopian." American and European aid to Ukraine, without invading Ukraine, is not utopian. It is a prudent policy for checking Russian aggression. We are not trying to build a liberal democracy in Ukraine. The Ukrainians are doing that for themselves in their brave resistance to Russian autocracy.

The Friar said...

I would add briefly, that, JQA in the same lengthy speech noted approvingly, that, the USA “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings…”

In his letter of 5 July 1820, JQA writes: "it may be observed that for the repose of Europe as well as of America, the European and American political systems should be kept as separate and distinct from each other as possible.”

Is Ukraine fighting for the same rights as ours? This is highly questionable. Even if it were so, JQA would counsel staying out of it, while, maybe being in sympathy with them. As JQA concluded, “She [the U.S.] might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

This was also where Grant stood against the same war spirit we see today and in the past for intervention in Cuba in 1869. He resisted this unholy temptation, but expressed sympathy with the belligerents.

Over the last few decades, with all of America’s interventionism, under the utopian delusion described by Jaffa, have not JQA’s words been vindicated? The more we have engaged in foreign conquest and setting up vassal states, the more we have lost that spirit animating our great republic.

Larry Arnhart said...

The "utopian delusion described by Jaffa" was the American invasion of Iraq and the attempt to build a new democracy there. By contrast, Jaffa supported America's role in the Cold War in fighting against the "evil empire" by aiding those countries striving to be free from tyranny, and thus checking the expansion of the Soviet Union and China. Thus Jaffa rejected the Monroe Doctrine as insufficient for American foreign policy today. Jaffa was right about that, and he would have supported the U.S. and its NATO allies in aiding the Ukrainians in fighting their own war. He correctly saw that isolationism was not in America's national interest today.

Larry Arnhart said...

Wouldn't it be best for the Claremont Institute folks to declare that Jaffa was wrong in not being an isolationist and that Patrick Buchanan got it right?

Unknown said...

Larry … Philip Jaffa checking in here. I would like to say that you are absolutely correct on this issue. My father would have rejected Angelo Codevilla’s latest work in its entirety. Angelo abandoned my father’s views pretty much across the board—quite some time ago.

Angelo was a personal friend. We hung out together, starting when he was in graduate school and continuing through the time his oldest kids were in High School. His views were always quirky—never quite matching up with my father’s. But everything changed after his heart transplant. He went through something of a personality transformation. He had always had a tendency towards conspiracy theories. After the transplant, every time I talked to him, he had gone down another wacky rabbit hole. Of course, this just made him increasingly popular in conservative circles. Conservatism today appears to be nothing but rabbit holes.

I like to say that when Angelo and I began hanging out together I was Methodist and he was Catholic. I converted to Catholicism and he converted to libertarianism.

My father lost influence at the Claremont Institute, starting around 2005. He had zero influence … and I mean that literally … after 2010. My father’s exact words, which he repeated over and over again, were: “They did not wait to bury the teaching with the teacher. What they are trying to do is put a top hat on Jefferson Davis and call him Abraham Lincoln … and put the dust cover of the Nichomachean Ethics on Atlas Shrugged and call it Aristotle.”

My father loathed libertarianism and isolationism—both before and after Angelo adopted those views.

At any rate, to turn back to the matter at hand, my father was a stern critic of the America First movement, including its latter day nativist descendants. The Claremont Institute has become one of the leading voices for immigration restriction. My mother and father were the most pro-immigration people you ever met in your life. They dug into their own pockets on several occasions to hire legal representation for illegal immigrants. No one ever dared to say a bad word about immigrants in our household. I remember my first visit to New York City, when I was 16. We visited the Statue of Liberty. When my father read aloud the plaque with Emma Lazarus words … “Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry, yearning to be free” … he broke down and cried. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know how to respond. I remained silent, as did he, until we were on the boat back to shore. Then he turned and pointed to the Statue of Liberty. “That,” he said, “is Europe’s version of the Lincoln Memorial.” My father then launched into a lecture on Lincoln’s immigration bill of 1864, which set the stage for the huge flow of European immigration that was to transform this country. And he added that the Civil War needs to be seen not merely as a fight over slavery but also as a fight over immigration. The same racial theories that were applied to blacks also were applied to immigrants. My father liked to point out that one quarter of the union army was foreign born, and if you include soldiers who had at least one parent who was foreign born, the number was 40%. After the Civil War, the fight to restrict the rights of black was matched by a movement to restrict immigration, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1923. My father referred to the Johnson Reed Act as “An Act to Prevent the Contamination of the Gene Pool from Jews.” Tom Cotton’s immigration bill is just Johnson-Reed revisited. Donald Trump (with a little help from the Claremont Institute) has reconstituted the Republican Party around four core principles: isolationism, nativism, protectionism, and nihilism. My father opposed all four.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thank you. This is an instructive statement about your father's thinking. With your permission, may I publish this as a post?