"On the surface, the Atlantic Council fracas and turf war appears as an ideological foreign policy fight between insurgent realists, generally powerless but newly vocal and platformed, and the dominant bipartisan US foreign policy elite, colloquially known as 'the Blob', which is often termed 'liberals' but actually comprises both neocons and liberal interventionists/imperialists", says Mark Sleboda, a US military veteran and international affairs and security analyst.
The verbal swordplay between members of the Cold War era-founded Atlanticist think tank was triggered by an article by AC newcomers Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows that was "slightly less anti-Russia than most of the Atlantic Council’s usual screeds". The report in question suggested "an alternate US foreign policy towards Russia where 'human rights' and 'democracy promotion' is deprioritised in favour of a realpolitik calculation of US national interests that assents to cooperation and compromise where and when necessary", explains the security analyst.
"This suggestion infuriated the AC’s Eurasia Center, which is usually responsible for formulating Russia policy at the Atlantic Council, which generally sees the Russian government as an unmitigated Manichean evil which must be aggressively confronted and contained at all turns and whose government should be 'regime changed'", Sleboda notes, adding that the spat "led to an onslaught of ad hominem social media and print attacks on the realist authors as 'isolationist shills' or even more ridiculously, 'pro-Russia'".
US Weapon of Choice: 'Human Rights' and 'Democracy'
However, in reality the fight is not really over "realism" versus "liberalism" per se, as the think tank's champions of human rights usually go silent when money talks or when US geopolitical interests are at stake, according to the US veteran: "They conveniently forget the principles of liberalism when it comes to the support of US-allied dictatorships", especially if these "dictatorships" inject money into the think tank, he remarks.
To illustrate his point, Sleboda cites a leaked May 2017 internal memo from US State Department senior adviser Brian Hook to Trump’s first secretary of state, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, instructing "how far to emphasize human rights, democracy promotion, and liberal values in American foreign policy".
The memo explained that: "Allies should be treated differently - and better - than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies", and that "we should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically".
According to Politico, the leaked memo was subjected to criticism from former US officials: they argued that the idea that the US should use human rights as a bludgeon against its adversaries, while giving a pass to repressive allies "utterly misse[d] the elemental fact that America’s moral authority is one of our main advantages in the world".
The problem is that the US uses "human rights" and "democracy" as a weapon to beat up its adversaries while letting its allies off the hook, highlights Sleboda.
A 4 May 2017 op-ed in The Washington Post titled "Embracing dictators is nothing new" in some sense echoes Sleboda's notion. The article said that the "soundtrack of the US foreign policy for a century" has been: "He may be a son of a b***, but he's our son of a b***", referring to Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, China's Chiang Kai-shek, and Saddam Hussein at the time of the Iran-Iraq War, to name but a few. The opinion piece also recalled that on the heels of the Second World War, the US recruited more than 1,500 scientists from post-Nazi Germany to assist in the Cold War against the USSR.
"The rhetorical chastising on 'human rights' and meddling 'democracy promotion' is thus more properly understood as a pretext and vehicle for demonising and justifying punitive measures against foreign states not aligned with US-led Western global hegemony", the security analyst says. "Thus 'human rights and democracy' are not are not truly the ends, but rather the means for policies of isolation, deprivation via sanctions, and regime change efforts".
US Hegemony and 'Pay-for-Play' Exercise
The Atlantic Council row boils down to a debate between opponents and proponents of the aggressive pursuit of hegemony, according to Sleboda.
"For the proponents of hegemony, any states not thus aligned are de facto adversaries and must be confronted, co-opted, or overcome", he explains. "It is even more fanatical and subject to groupthink when the pursuit of hegemony is based on a supremacist ideology of Exceptionalism. Realists, instead, often see the pursuit of hegemony as needlessly expensive in terms of funds and resources, and prefer a pragmatic balancing and engagement foreign policy with other Great Powers".
However, realists are definitely in the minority and have been largely locked out of power for decades, the US military veteran says, adding that recently some American oligarchs from both sides of the aisle seem to be donating money to "promote previously largely unheard realist perspectives". While their motivations for doing so are unclear, perhaps they are growing concerned of "the imperial overstretch and increasing national debt that the pursuit of global hegemony has resulted in", according to Sleboda.
"Normally, such an injection in political debate by oligarchs through cash injections is something to be regarded with trepidation", he notes. "However, the environment of DC think tanks where the foreign policy debate is held and policies generated is already entirely a 'pay-for-play' exercise".
It's oligarchs, the military-industrial complex, the US and other NATO governments, and the governments of states aligned with US-led Western global hegemony who are already defining the debate and policy with funding and have been doing so for decades, the security analyst points out.
"The loud, infuriated and vitriolic response from others in the Atlantic Council and across the Blob" to the realist report by Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, makes it clear that they represent a minority voice "in the wilderness" and still does not indicate any shift in US foreign policy thinking, Sleboda concludes.