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7/1/19

The oligarchs won't give you peace

George Soros and Charles Koch have announced "a new foreign-policy think tank" - the Quincy Institute - that "will promote an approach to the world based on diplomacy and restraint rather than threats, sanctions, and bombing." What can we actually expect?

First, consider Charles Koch. On one hand, the Kochs have long promoted themselves as antiwar libertarians - literally:
The Koch Institute's foreign policy page is very clear that while it supports a strong military, it's opposed to the sort of interventionist adventures associated that have defined our activities in the Middle East for years now...Disclosure: David Koch sits on the Board of Trustees for the Reason Foundation, which publishes this site.
But on the other hand, as Yasha Levine noted in The Exiled, "the Kochs have milked the U.S. war machine for about $170 million, all while funding libertarian groups, organizations and media outfits with anti-war positions." And that was eight years ago; god only knows how much they've made on the same "forever wars" that they are now decrying.

Soros is a more complicated figure. Like the Kochs, he has often promoted himself as a critic of US military interventions, particularly in books like The Age of Fallibility and The Bubble of American Supremacy. But Soros is far from a principled pacifist: in the name of democracy, Soros has also supported various military interventions over the years, most recently suggesting that both Europe and the United States should arm Ukraine against Russia.

More often, however, Soros has preferred to fund a "battle of ideas" - which has meant, in practice, funding NGOs, academics, media outlets, and other groups that oppose various political rivals. Consequentially, Soros funded groups have been implicated in instability and revolutions all over the world - particularly in former Soviet states, which have often tried to legislate his organizations out of the country.

Despite their conflicting conflicting partisan alignments, then, I think that Soros and Charles Koch share plenty of political ground:
  • Shared opposition to much of our foreign policy in the Middle East: they consider Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and so on to be "bad wars," as opposed to other "good wars" that they have historically supported.
  • Shared concern about our foreign policy with China. Soros and the Kochs have criticized the Trump administration's trade war with China; both share a radical commitment to market liberalization, which both have openly characterized as an antidote to socialism. (In April 2018, for example, Charles Koch characterized Trump's tariffs as "a cancer on society" and "a contributing factor to so many young people being socialists".)
  • Shared commitment to aggressive private-sector activism. This of course is why they are famous in the first place: both are obscenely wealthy capitalists who have actively and openly used their riches to advance their political agendas. And both have a positively Randian view of their democratic responsibilities as capitalists - that's why the Kochs have no problem reconciling their antiwar posturing with their ongoing war profiteering. Even Soros, supposedly the more "progressive" of the two, infamously responded to questions about his role in the late-nineties Asian financial crisis by insisting  "I'm engaged in an amoral activity which is not meant to have anything to do with guilt."
What seems likely to me, then, is a foreign policy two-step which de-escalates hot wars in the Middle East and trade wars with China while escalating private sector activism in the latter. Soros for example has been particularly concerned with the role that Chinese telecoms could play in domestic and international surveillance, and has argued that "Instead of letting ZTE and Huawei off lightly, [the US] needs to crack down on them." How that call translates into policy remains unclear.

It's also unclear what role the left will play in all of this. In the Sanders era, left-flank foreign policy is often articulated as a general "fight against the oligarchs," often including sanctions against "the international oligarchy as the connecting link between domestic economics and foreign policy." Will Koch-funded scholars be permitted to argue that Big Government should "pick winners and losers" with, say, sanctions targeting ZTE and Heawei? Will left scholars be willing to risk their Koch-and-Soros-funded grants and find out? And as the Quincy hype machine begins scheduling its Koch-and-Soros-approved antiwar fellows, will radical critics from outside the Institute be able to get a hearing?

It is with more than a hint of despair that the US left has taken to calling our attacks on other countries "forever wars" - so it would be absurd to regret that now, at long last, these particular wars could be coming to an end. But with Charles Koch and George Soros at the helm, we are unlikely to see a lasting peace. Even if both maintain their posture of restraint, both have histories of private sector activism that have managed to destabilize countries all over the world - including, one can argue, the United States. Expect that to continue even if they manage to displace the infamous beltway blog. And if they manage to capture what remains of America's antiwar left...well, that could cause some instability too.