Samuel Moyn was working as an intern at the Clinton White House as the United States intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo.
“I was in my 20s. It was after 1989. And it seemed as if we’d lived through the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama told us,” he explains to New Lines magazine’s Faisal Al Yafai. Post-Cold War triumphalism was at its apex, and in those heady days, it seemed that there was nothing left to stop the United States from spreading democracy and human rights around the world. “And that was incredibly appealing to lots of Americans, especially young people like me.”
But today, Moyn, now a professor of law and history at Yale University and one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, is a fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a cross-partisan think tank urging restraint in U.S. foreign policy. It’s a significant shift from the politics of his youth. Like many Americans, he watched neoconservative American interventions turn repeatedly to catastrophe in Iraq, Afghanistan and, he contends, Libya. “And so I began to conclude that maybe great powers, using force for a good cause — allegedly — always made the world not better, but worse,” he says. “I think a lot of us made a big mistake in identifying America with humanity.”
“The Republican Party has completely given up neoconservatism.”
The shift in Moyn’s views reflects a growing discontent within American politics on the use of force abroad — and not only among the left-of-center. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump became the first major Republican politician to condemn the invasion of Iraq. In doing so, he paved the way for the rise of the “America First” wing of the party — a far-right, illiberal faction that has risen to dominance in recent years.
“It’s an incredibly interesting moment,” says Moyn. “I think the Republican party has completely given up neoconservatism, and really no major force in the Republican Party anymore backs those sorts of ideas, which is why neocons for many years now have been reorienting to the Democratic Party.”
Though they share a deep suspicion of American power, Moyn sees himself as having little in common with the new ideals of the Republican right. “If you’re on the left, like me,” he says, “you resist the idea that when you call for less war that you’re committed to isolationism. You might be committed to a better internationalism.”
“One of the attractions of the isolationist views that the Republicans are embracing is that they’re simple,” he adds. “It’s easier to sell that position to a fickle public, on Fox News.”
Produced by Joshua Martin