In July, Joe Cirincione, a progressive foreign policy expert and the former president of the prominent anti–nuclear proliferation group the Ploughshares Fund, resigned from his position as distinguished nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in protest of what he called “the institute’s position on the Ukraine War.” While this incident on its own may not be particularly newsworthy, it could signal a more important dynamic that has been developing in elite foreign policy circles in the six months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.
Over the last few years, largely in response to failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a bipartisan effort in those precincts to fundamentally rethink U.S. foreign policy and to push it in a less militaristic direction. The movement, which has been broadly labeled as a push for “restraint,” is perhaps most interesting because it created strange bedfellows out of a political coalition that spans a number of political ideologies: anti-war progressives, libertarians, Buchananite paleoconservatives, and realists, among others. Dating back to at least 2016, when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both offered rhetorical critiques of the prevailing conventional wisdom on foreign policy, the restraint coalition has made inroads in Washington—both in terms of the prevalence of its voices within mainstream media, think tanks, and academia, and with respect to some significant policy victories, most notably the military withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021.
But the war in Ukraine presents the biggest stress test to this coalition to date and challenges whether that alliance of convenience has staying power. In a nutshell, the Ukraine debate concerns to what extent the United States was responsible for creating conditions that made Russia’s invasion possible and how much of a role the U.S. should play in supporting the Ukrainian cause. And the tension shows that while it was relatively easy for these figures to unite in opposition to U.S. aggression, things get trickier when the aggressor is someone else. “What seemed very clear in something like the Iraq War, which is really where a lot of the political energy was coming from, now seems quite complicated,” says Beverly Gage, a professor of history at Yale, who pointed out some of these potential tensions in a 2019 New York Times Magazine article about the emerging left-right coalition.
The Quincy Institute was founded with the explicit goal of forging a transpartisan alliance to counteract what the group’s leaders saw as a bipartisan effort from liberal internationalists and neoconservatives that led to a reckless, militarist foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Neoconservatives are the right-wing block of a foreign policy establishment that has tended toward militarism and hawkishness, typified by the George W. Bush administration and people like Bill Kristol, John Bolton, and Lindsey Graham. “Liberal internationalist” is the corresponding term for liberal establishment figures like Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton, who have often advocated for humanitarian interventions in international conflicts. Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists typically have a shared belief in American exceptionalism and in the responsibility of the U.S. government to use its military power ostensibly to promote democracy and protect human rights.
The Quincy Institute is funded primarily by conservative megadonor Charles Koch and the liberal billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.