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Can the Quincy Institute Survive Putin’s War?

It was easy when foreign policy intellectuals of the left and the anti-neocon right got together to oppose U.S. aggression. But what about when the aggressor is someone else?

Joseph Cirincione
Cindy Ord/Getty
Joseph Cirincione in 2016

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. Shortly before the organization’s launch in 2019, its executive vice president, Trita Parsi, told The Nation that its members were interested not in “bipartisanship” as traditionally conceived in Washington but in “transpartisanship,” which, he explained, happens when “you have two sides, they disagree on a whole bunch of issues, but they have overlapping views. Neither side compromises. They’re just collaborating on issues they already are in agreement over.” For Parsi and the rest of Quincy, the need for foreign policy restraint is one of these issues.

The coalition was formed primarily in response to wars in the greater Middle East. Progressives and libertarians could agree that the global “war on terror” was costly, mismanaged, and ultimately counterproductive to U.S. goals. American-led democracy promotion projects consistently failed. And the desire to project U.S. military primacy at all costs led to arms races, militarism, and questionable commitments abroad. In many cases, liberal internationalists could agree with these conclusions as well. In 2019, two scholars from the Brookings Institution, one of the most established think tanks in the country, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs arguing “The Case for Doing Less” in the Middle East. In it, they asserted that “it is time for Washington to put an end to wishful thinking about its ability to establish order on its own terms.” The following year, Joe Biden’s future national security adviser Jake Sullivan co-wrote an essay in the same magazine outlining what America’s approach to the Middle East should be: “less ambitious in terms of the military ends the United States seeks and in its efforts to remake nations from within.” Restraint, as far as the Middle East is concerned, is a broadly popular policy position.  

But as the discussion moves beyond the Middle East and the “war on terror,” some disagreement was bound to arise within the movement. While the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a big win for the coalition, it did not go exactly as planned, to put it mildly. Members of the coalition have continued to defend Biden’s decision to end the war, but the botched withdrawal did give ammunition to those who already viewed the project with suspicion.

In addition, there is disagreement within the coalition of how to deal with the threat of China. As domestic politics grow more and more polarized, it becomes that much more difficult to solve any problem in a bipartisan manner. And while, for the most part, Parsi believes strongly in the potential of the coalition, he does acknowledge that the transpartisan nature of his organization is difficult to maintain.

In order to rethink American foreign policy, “you need to have support in both parties,” Parsi told me. “In the long run it is the best shot, if not the only shot, to shift America’s grand strategy. But in the short run, absolutely, everything from January 6 to the opportunity that GOP sees in opposing Biden, to the degree to which progressives who otherwise are always out there pushing a democratic solution have been uncomfortable to do so [with respect to Ukraine] because they don’t want to come across as being at odds with the administration—all of these things have made the transpartisanship more difficult than it was before.” 

Tensions are most stark around Ukraine. At the start of the war, there appeared to be widespread agreement among restrainers on two broad points: first, that U.S. and NATO policy since the end of the Cold War has been mismanaged and increased the chances of war; second, that Putin’s invasion was wholly unjustified and that at least a certain level of material support from the U.S. was necessary.

Now, however, there appear to be two primary debates taking place. One concerns whether questioning America’s and NATO’s role in provoking Russia’s invasion is a worthwhile exercise, considering the humanitarian disaster for which Russia alone is currently responsible in Ukraine. Multiple people with whom I spoke said that they believed that some weren’t willing to push back against U.S. policies because calling U.S. policy toward Russia incendiary is conflated with exonerating Putin. And facing such a charge can be difficult to deal with. Many voices, like the realist academic John Mearsheimer and journalist Robert Wright, have argued that it is imperative to understand the long-term causes of the war, even if they are uncomfortable. And it is equally important to question not only America’s role in this particular conflict but the mindset that has led the U.S. into so many military entanglements in recent decades. 

The second concerns to what extent the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine with aid and arms, and for how long. “Restrainers are supportive of the idea, by and large, that there should be support for Ukraine. This a country that has been invaded,” says Parsi. “But there needs to be pressure on other countries to provide support as well. The United States should not foot the majority of the bill every time something like this happens.” 

Cirincione, a prominent liberal foreign policy voice who has written several books on nuclear strategy, says that he left the group because he felt it wasn’t as squarely focused on Putin’s aggression as it should be. “I believe [the Quincy Institute is] making a mistake looking at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a continuation of America’s interventionist wars over the last 20-plus years,” he told me. “And I believe that’s their frame.” 

These are arguments that have been made in progressive foreign policy circles. The journalist Peter Beinart and Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy adviser Matt Duss have made the case that opposition to U.S. adventurism abroad and violations of sovereignty should naturally lead to opposition to Russian adventurism abroad and violations of sovereignty. “We should acknowledge absolutely that skepticism toward the kind of righteous sloganeering we’ve seen around Russia’s war is entirely reasonable,” wrote Duss in a June piece in The New Republic. “We should not, however, let all of this absurdity blind us to the instances when provision of military aid can advance a more just and humanitarian global order. Assisting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion is such an instance.” 

This principled objection to use of force and violation of international law is also what drives Ciricione’s position that the U.S. should continue to support the Ukrainian cause. “I come at this as a progressive,” he told me. “And progressives do not abandon people who’ve been invaded by dictators. We help them. We do not excuse in one nation what we would condemn in our own.” 

These arguments point to what has always been a tension within the restraint movement and is threatening to bubble over. In general terms, progressives tend to believe that the U.S. should have solidarity with victims of state violence and center the protection of human rights and democracy. This is at odds with the naked realism and privileging of a more narrowly conceived U.S. self-interest, which others in the coalition advocate. While those ideologies can often overlap or align, a movement built around contrasting worldviews is bound to have a clear ceiling.

Foreign policy observers who consider themselves part of the restraint movement listed a number of other reasons why it may be difficult for progressives to remain committed to principles of restraint in the case of Russia. In particular, many progressives consider Russia a hostile regime that was not only close to Donald Trump but was partially responsible for his victory in the 2016 election. Furthermore, others on the left have embraced Joe Biden’s rhetoric of world affairs being an existential battle between autocracies and democracies—a contrast that frames the war in Ukraine as a fight for democracy.

Framing the war in these terms “appears to turn the war in Ukraine into an existential struggle, and one that can never really end so long as Russia is not a democracy,” Stephen Wertheim told me. Wertheim is a founding member of the Quincy Institute who left it to join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he is now senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program. He authored a piece in The Atlantic in June that urged the Biden administration to emphasize Russia’s illegal war of aggression and its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty instead of the autocratic nature of Russia’s government in its response.

It’s clear that, particularly among elected officials, it has been easier for Republicans to oppose material support for Ukraine than it has been for Democrats, even those progressives who have generally been outspoken against American militarism. Though it is hard to separate ideological commitments from political calculations—“There are Republicans who voted against weapons and aid for Ukraine perhaps not out of a pure restraint position but because it was a Biden aid package ahead of a major election,” says Kelley Vlahos, editorial director of Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the Quincy Institute—no Democrat in the House or Senate voted against the May bill that allocated about $40 billion in funding for Ukraine, while 57 Republicans in the House and 11 in the Senate opposed the bill.

To be sure, the left is far from united in how the U.S. should respond to the invasion. Domestically and especially internationally, there has been widespread leftist criticism of the role that the American empire and NATO have played in both instigating and fueling the war, including from powerful left-wing voices like Noam Chomsky and Brazilian former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The restraint movement has so far avoided serious fracture. But the more important question is whether the momentum that it created in Washington before this war still exists. Before deciding to resign, Cirincione says, “I argued internally that the position Quincy’s leadership was taking on Ukraine was going to do irreparable harm to the restraint position. And I believe that it has.” 

A number of sources with whom I spoke—who associate with both the left- and right-wing elements of the broader coalition—questioned whether Cirincione was ever a natural ideological fit with the Quincy Institute’s mission or instead shared a focus on arms control without entirely buying into the larger strategy of restraint. But Cirincione maintains that he agrees with much of the work that it has done and considers himself an advocate for restraint. He says, however, that he worries that the reputation the think tank has built up will suffer. “The restraint coalition has defined itself so narrowly and has established these litmus tests for who’s in, who’s out, that it’s ended up isolating itself from the broader currents in national security thinking for those who favor more diplomacy and less military.”

Parsi counters that he and others at Quincy “were not pleased to see [Cirincione] leaving. He’s been very helpful to Quincy over the years,” but he added, “I don’t think Joe resigning was much more of an event than on Twitter.” If this was emblematic of a larger problem, Parsi said, “we would have seen additional resignations, we would have seen offices on the Hill not want to work with us, we would have seen donors backing off. We’ve seen none of that.” Quincy has surely had its fair share of critics, especially during this war. But it’s unclear how many have become disillusioned with Quincy as a result of its response to the war as opposed to a disagreement with the strategy of restraint writ large.

The restraint movement has made significant gains since getting its institutional footing in the nation’s capital. And in some ways, the fact that divisions among members of the coalition are making headlines is a positive sign for the movement’s influence. “I would not read too much into individual disagreements on Ukraine as a sign of the restraint of coalition fracturing,” said Dan Caldwell, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, the philanthropic organization that is part of the Koch network.

Any healthy political coalition should not only expect, but welcome, disagreement. And more importantly, on some of the crucial questions surrounding the war, restrainers have already witnessed the success of their movement. President Biden has been adamant that the U.S. will not be directly involved militarily in the conflict. Early in the conflict, his administration resisted calls from hawks to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “If you look at the specific actions that the United States has taken in support of Ukraine, there is a good case that they correspond pretty well to what the restraint movement advocates,” says Wertheim. 

All sides of this coalition can agree that they oppose U.S. aggression, but they’re divided on how the U.S. should respond to another actor’s aggression and whether U.S. power can ever be used for good. The foundation for a movement centered around a humbler foreign policy was easier to uphold in the aftermath of the George W. Bush era. Events in the world supported it, and people across the political spectrum could agree that American power had regularly been used to the detriment of both American interests and global stability. But as the world continues to shift from one of American unipolarity to one where other countries, namely China, are competitors, simply an opposition to military aggression may not be enough to maintain this coalition.