America’s Rise and Fall among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams
By Angelo M. Codevilla.
Encounter Books, 2022. 
Hardcover, $30.99, 288 pages.

Reviewed by John C. Chalberg.

Angelo Codevilla is no longer with us, but his erudite wisdom and earthy wit remain very much alive in the pages of this posthumously published book. Minus the earthiness, the same might be said of John Quincy Adams, whom Codevilla deploys throughout the book to attack the progressive—and progressively damaging—foreign policies of his adopted country over the course of the last century.

An Italian immigrant, Codevilla arrived in this country in 1955, not quite a teenager. An American by choice and dedication, he died in a car accident in the fall of 2021, not quite an octogenarian. In between he was a naval and a foreign service officer, a professor who often advised politicians, and a prolific author. Thanks very belatedly to Adams and his Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, Codevilla was also able to operate a vineyard in what became the American state of California. 

In many respects his final book serves as a capstone to Codevilla’s long standing argument with American progressivism. If his 2010 book, The Ruling Class, constitutes the essence of his criticism of the domestic policy version of American progressivism, this volume is his answer to those who subscribe to its foreign policy vision. At the same time, America’s Rise and Fall among Nations clearly has domestic undertones and implications.

To put matters quite succinctly, Codevilla’s main targets in both books are those progressive elites whose disdain for ordinary Americans has become more open—and much more dangerous—in the twenty-first century.  

For Angelo Codevilla the twentieth century was not simply the American Century. It was also the century of American progressivism and the century of America’s fall. And the twenty-first century? Codevilla might have nodded his approval to, say, the Century of the American Retrenchment, depending upon the thoughtfulness and conduct of such a course. 

For the time being, however, Codevilla prefers to regard the nineteenth century as the real American century, since it was a century of a consistently “America first” foreign policy. No president from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt labeled it as such. But no matter. America first was simply assumed rather than asserted.  

President Woodrow Wilson changed that. Without assuming or asserting an America first foreign policy, he instead insisted that the “interests of all nations are our own also. We must be partners with the rest.” Codevilla responds with a single word: “No.”

Only in the American Century has the term “America First” been deployed—and then only to be greeted with storms of criticism from progressive opponents. Most recently the term has been attached to those opposed to America’s wars in the Middle East, including Codevilla, who calls for his adopted country to leave that part of the world “to its own devices.” 

It is Codevilla’s general contention that the century of America’s “rise” to the verge of world power status was essentially a century of American foreign policy success, while the century of America as the world power was to a great extent a century of repeated failures.

Many of the nineteenth century successes, he concedes, were not necessarily the result of wise choices—“though they were mostly wise”—but rather a reflection of the character of a people who desired to rule themselves, not others.

Conversely, Codevilla associates America’s fall with the efforts of American progressives to “create a better world” and, therefore, to conflate America’s interests with mankind’s “improvement.” The American campaign to build that “better world” began in earnest with Woodrow Wilson’s decision to turn the Great War in Europe into a crusade to make not just Europe, but the “world safe for democracy.”  

Thus began a pronounced shift away from the foreign policies of virtually every American president from Washington to Theodore Roosevelt, including, not coincidentally, Codevilla’s historical alter ego, John Quincy Adams.

In Codevilla’s estimation the consequences of that shift have left the United States “both over-armed and impotent, over-allied and at odds with much of mankind.” And not coincidentally, Codevilla’s reference to “mankind” includes a large number of Americans with whom American progressives have long been at odds. 

Without question, ours is an America that John Quincy Adams likely would neither recognize nor understand; hence Codevilla always remains close at hand to guide this stranger in our midst, even as he calls upon that same stranger to help guide us now. The result is a joint history lesson and an owner’s (i.e., citizen’s) manual, courtesy of the combined wisdom of a politician who might have been a professor (Adams) and a professor who counseled politicians (Codevilla).

Surely their task is more daunting than anything Adams faced alone, if only because we are a far less united people than was the case early in the nineteenth century. Codevilla pins the blame for this condition on those very same progressive elites, whose own cosmopolitan interests and preferences have often, shall we say, trumped the interests of the country, not to mention the interests and preferences of great numbers of American citizens who would prefer to “refocus on America, not give up on it.” 

Much of the book finds Codevilla channeling Adams in order to determine just what might constitute an interest-based foreign policy for the United States in the twenty-first century. But theirs is not a joint plea for a return to an American isolationism that never really existed. Nor do they call for a mindless and honorless retreat.

Honor must never be lost, cautions Codevilla (no doubt with Adams’s blessing). But our establishment, he writes, “having banished the very concept of honor, has further advertised its incompetence” by this very act of banishment.

Codevilla died just after the debacle of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether he wrote those words before or after that catastrophe is not known. But he cautions that a nation’s abandonment of prior commitments is often more consequential than making them in the first place. There is no better—and more terrible—example of that than the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Here is Codevilla (with Adams likely nodding somewhere in agreement): “America has never recovered from calling peace with honor something that was neither peaceful nor honorable.”

Still, the chief villain here is, not surprisingly, Woodrow Wilson. If the first progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt, was the last of the nineteenth century foreign policy realists, then Woodrow Wilson was our first progressive president as foreign policy idealist. To be sure, John Quincy Adams was also an idealist, but for him America was to be a beacon, not a savior. 

For all his “bullyness,” TR had a sense of limits when it came to the deployment of American military might. There were moments when he regretted serving as president during what he called “undemanding” (meaning peaceful) times. And yet ironically it was his own policies and rhetoric that helped assure those peaceful times. TR, like Adams before him, asserted American dominance in the western hemisphere, even as he pulled back from potential war with Japan in the Pacific. Would TR have taken America on a crusade to redeem Europe? We will never know, but it is not at all likely.

Codevilla is at least convinced of this much: John Quincy Adams would have kept the United States out of the Great War or at least severely “limited its actions.” And Codevilla himself? Without American intervention, and without the victory that soon proved to be something other than that, he contends that the Central and Entente powers would have “worked something out among themselves.” In all likelihood, such a course would have steered the world away from the “rest of the twentieth century catastrophes.”

Codevilla—and Adams—have much more to say about the “catastrophes” that followed from our “thoughtless war” of 1917-1918. Included among them would be the “even more thoughtless war” that began for the United States in 1941, as well as a Cold War which found the Soviet Union doing its best to make itself our business “in the biggest of ways.” (To a “far more limited extent,” adds Codevilla, “so has Iran.”)

The Codevilla take on the American road to World War II amounts to the take of the original America Firsters—minus the anti-Semitism. Without Adams’s help, he contends that Franklin Roosevelt was slow to see Hitler for what he was, largely because FDR “sympathized with Hitler’s statism.”

Following the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, the pro-Soviet wing of the Democratic Party then “demanded support for Hitler because he had become Stalin’s ally.” As for Stalin himself, “American progressives—including FDR—never, ever condemned him for anything.”

In the Far East the United States did not contest Japan’s 1937 “uncontested invasion of China” before subsequently demanding that Japan exit China and then imposing a trade embargo that left a “starving Japan with only the choice of where to wage war.” Would either John Quincy Adams or Theodore Roosevelt have placed America and Japan in the bind that FDR did, he asks?

Such questions aside, Codevilla’s larger point is hard to dispute. The Wilsonian war of 1917 that had begun as a strictly European affair in 1914 ended in such a way that it made another great war virtually inevitable.

And today? For the anti-Wilsonian Codevilla, the western European leadership that mirrors the American ruling class, here defined as the “Europe of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron,” is little more than a “crumbling order.” At this historical moment Codevilla deems this Europe to be hardly worth saving—unless and until it reverses its declining birth rate and summons the will to halt the ongoing Muslim immigration.  

If the original John Quincy Adams admired Europe, Angelo Codevilla’s Adams would disdain what is left of Europe. Moreover, Codevilla contends that Adams would reject the notion that Europe wants or needs the United States to protect it from Vladimir Putin. To put matters in undiplomatic, but decidedly Codevillian terms, “Europeans have even less interest in defending themselves than Russia does in attacking them.”

Codevilla suspects that Adams knew what Codevilla knows, namely that Russia is an “indispensable” part of the West, although Russia’s “Westernism is not and never was an imitation or love of the West.”   

Codevilla asserts that Vladimir Putin’s initial rise to power was, in effect, the “reassertion of a bankrupt, humiliated, resentful Russian people.” He also suspected something that Adams could not know, namely that Vladimir Putin is “painfully aware of Russia’s limits.” That awareness may be even more painful today.  

Codevilla died before Putin’s war on Ukraine began, but he did not die before offering his Adams-inspired thoughts on the issues involved. “Nothing would be geopolitically clearer” to Adams than this: the “natural policy” for both Russia and the United States would be to “not go looking for opportunities to get in each other’s way.” In sum, a free and independent Ukraine may “very much” be in America’s interests, but it is “beyond our capacity to secure.”  

What we are witnessing instead in this war are the natural instincts of American progressivism at work. Codevilla would be neither surprised nor pleased to learn that American progressives seem determined to get in Russia’s way—and in the name of relying on an obsolete NATO to help create and advance nothing less than a democratic Ukraine. 

The final item on the Codevilla-Adams agenda is a “dictatorial China” that is busily at work “deindustrializing” America with the help of their progressive-minded “U. S. corporate partners.” While Codevilla would withdraw American troops from South Korea and Japan, Taiwan is a “special case,” leaving the United States with little choice but to “fortify Taiwan militarily and politically.”

In any case, an interest-based American foreign policy for the 2020s and 2030s ought to work toward creating the “kind of balance” in the western Pacific that we failed to achieve in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Such a “balance” would leave matters for China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan to, shall we say, work out among themselves.  After all, it is their backyard, not ours. 

Certainly, no Wilsonian-style crusade for democracy is the answer. Nor should we continue enriching China at our own expense. Ultimately, for Codevilla, it all comes down to “minding our own business and minding it well.”

This country, he reminds us, is not just a set of ideas. Once it was also a country determined to preserve a unique way of life. Over the course of the last century that very way of life has been under challenge and attack, courtesy of our progressive betters. Recall candidate Barack Obama’s boast a few days before his 2008 victory that progressives were on the verge of “fundamentally transforming” the country. It was a kind of bookend to Woodrow Wilson’s call to, in essence, fundamentally transform the world.

Tired and battered, we Americans might be in no condition to do much more than mind our own business in the years ahead. Whether we will be in any shape to “mind it well” remains the unanswered question.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota when not occasionally performing as Theodore Roosevelt.

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