How to stop needless wars,
without American isolationism
“A GREAT idea. Kennan would be supportive.” - Professor Frank Costigliola, author of Kennan: A Life between Worlds
There’s a great problem in the West. Our leaders don’t seem to be in control. The world feels as though it’s descending into a period of ever more violence – and we’re not ready. The relative stability of the past three decades hasn’t prepared us for this.
But study foreign media for a few months, and you begin to discern that there is, in fact, a kind of “invisible media firewall” between our Western press, and the rest of the world.
“There are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue.”
When the second longest-serving Foreign Minister in Turkey’s history said, in August 2022, “There are NATO member countries that would like the [Ukraine-Russia] war to continue – this is a fact”, why was he never once interviewed by Western press to discern what happened in April 2022 from a Turkish perspective (given they were the lead mediators)? And when a former Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, in February 2023, gave a very detailed account of his negotiating directly between Zelensky and Putin at the outset of Russia’s 2022 invasion, why did we also hear next to nothing about it?
Substack is great, and X under Elon is a sizable corrective to this. But they’re also both focused on the new. The weight of their attention is on breaking news and new writing. And neither are naturally structured to compound historical knowledge – in the way, say, of Wikipedia.
On X, it’s easy for things that happened as recently as 18 months ago to get forgotten and lost – or “memory holed”, to take the phrase from Orwell’s 1984. Meaning: people turning on a dime and entirely changing what they’ve said, as if to imply they’ve been saying that new thing all along.
This isn’t mere Twitter intellectual dishonesty. Even the most senior leaders in the West are prone to a kind of “democratic amnesia”. We in the United Kingdom (where I am from) have had three different Prime Ministers just since Russia’s most recent February 2022 campaign into Ukraine. And we’ve had a huge amount of turnover – both in political figures, and civil servants – in that time.
People at the top of government are quite conceivably not briefed as to what actually happened at the outset of Russia’s invasion. I have worked in 10 Downing Street. I say this with some insider perspective.
My leaving 10 Downing Street (resigning of my own accord), having worked with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s then-chief advisor, 2020–2021.
We need a remedy for this – built from first principles.
We need a new Council on Foreign Relations. A “Council on Foreign Relations – for a multipolar world”, if you will. Here are some principles I consider it should adhere to:
1) We need a new architecture for information that accumulates institutional memory. Not to be “school children playing soccer” – meaning everyone running after the shiny new ball. Rather, structure and designated positions. Consistency on the most pressing conflicts – not chasing daily what’s deemed to be newsworthy.
Mockup of a proposed site structure.
2) Writing should be assembled for practical people. For decision-makers. “Features style” writing is not optimally helpful to decision makers. Bullet points should be encouraged. Information should lead with its conclusion upfront, and be digestible consumption for someone in the melee of beginning in a new administration – not to add to one’s reading pile, and have them feel yet further behind.
3) There should be no print product. Digital-only. This is because most print publications, lovely as they are, are really a hangover from being a once-effective conduit to sell advertising. This, of course, isn’t working so well for most any more, and most print publications continue out of tradition and obligation, rather than from any capitalist incentive. But their incentive-from-inception remains: the only reason to write at such length is to sell more advertising space – and a magazine of sufficient weight to charge a premium. This begets the publication of continual new information, and propels a “flywheel of overwhelm” for readers.
Right now in magazines, the stuff in the latest issue is no wiser than the prior issue. It’s often just new stuff and different opinions. And quite often the material of wisdom six issues back gets entirely forgotten and drowned out. There are no “pinned comments” in magazines. And of course books can’t be written and published quickly enough to deal with the rapidity of our now changing landscape.
An ideal new structure would be:
[*] A core stated chronology for a global issue that, with brevity, offers the array of credible interpretations as to what has happened. This to be pinned atop a website, and continually updated and gradually added to as events unfold – and more information comes to light to ever-further-correct it. Have readers critique this, and crowdsource feedback.
Aspirationally for each topic, something approximating George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”. But as Kennan’s biographer Professor Frank Costigliola has noted, Kennan “overcooked” the telegram, and later wished he’d been able to amend and clarify it. (“One of his problems was he was such a powerful writer, he over-shot his goal… he was making such persuasive arguments that he ended up with something extreme.”)
[*] Below this pinned history, have articles branching off of the core chronology, that explore and analyse new information – and opinion-based assertions as to what to do.
Much in magazines and newspapers today is rehashing – and often bastardising – what should be in a Wikipedia-like pinned chronology that a majority of people broadly agree on. The focal point of a site actually built for decision-makers should not be continual new reporting. It should be a series of world-leading chronologies – on the most important issues – that continually get updated and refined.
[*] Further integrate a search box for a Large Language Model focused on, and to be able to query just the material from each chronology – at lightning speed. (There are companies close to solving “hallucination” for a specific corpus.)
The website should not be optimised to maximise visitors to the site; nor visitor time on the site; nor page-views for any article; nor YouTube likes; nor podcast ratings; nor magazine subscribers. It should be optimised for bringing incisive clarity to decision-makers.
Drawing inspiration from Professor Graham Allison, founding dean at Harvard’s Belfer Center, articles should further offer a solution menu: what are all of the conceivable ways this thorny problem could be remedied? And, where possible, a recommendation.
The publication should make minimal claim of original thinking. It should rather aggregate the web – Western and foreign sources – and give an extremely well-organised synthesis of primary source information, with due hyperlinked attribution. It should aim to guide policymakers to be less foolish. This would be a worthwhile aim.
It needs to do all this while aspiring to build the authority and prestige of a Council on Foreign Relations – which, of course, takes decades of superlative insight and world-class scholarship to build.
It should aim to become the resource any decision-maker, new administration official, or keenly interested observer goes to to get authoritative geopolitical context, written with brevity, providing informed and balanced illumination.
A few last principles:
[*] This outlet should not be trying to “win debates”, or cause verbal slip-ups from perceived opponents. Rather, it should earnestly try to refine the accuracy of determining what’s happened, and improve the menu of plausible creative solutions – ultimately advocating for its best solutions such that they’re taken up by decision-makers. Not “debate”, but dialectic. Not “win an argument”, but: arrive at the best outcome.
[*] Some diplomacy ends in compromise. But in opposing sides being frank and actually listening to one other, and even being open-minded to acknowledging where they might be wrong, occasionally there are creative, unforeseen “third” ways to achieve an outcome – that aren’t merely either side making trade-offs.
John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruchchev. In the middle of two strongly held views, there is sometimes a creative third route.
[*] We should listen directly to foreign leaders – even, or perhaps especially, ones who are at war with our allies. Ceasing dialogue helps nobody. In the reverse of everything I argue here about cooperation, this is how we stop mad-men. Here’s Ryan Holiday writing on the outbreak of WWII:
“Churchill was likely one of the only British leaders to take the time to sit through and digest Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If Chamberlain had, perhaps Hitler could have been stopped sooner.”
Why I am the right person to help found this:
I’m not a foreign policy expert. I make no claim to be. But having just turned 31 years old, I have an unusual combination of:
2) I’ve worked at the heart of British government: in 10 Downing Street. And working with the Prime Minister’s then-chief advisor, I have plausibly spent more time sitting around the Cabinet Room table – observing decision-makers – than anyone alive my age or younger. I’ve seen what kinds of briefs are helpful to decision-makers, and which are not.
Letter from the Prime Minister on my leaving 10 Downing Street.
3) I have some training in journalism. The editor of The Spectator has kindly said of me: “Edward is one of the most influential interns ever taken on via The Spectator’s CV-blind scheme.” This was in 2016, and it was following my leaving school aged 17, despite being an A student, to pursue entrepreneurship. (Internships with The Spectator are more competitive per place than either Harvard or Oxford.)
4) I have a deep interest in geopolitics. In 2019, whilst running my startup, in evenings and weekends I was doing things like entering contests run by Professor Graham Allison to propose Grand Strategies for US-China tensions, outlined in Professor Allison’s book.
I’ve further read a huge number of biographies of founders of now-legacy media institutions. Some of my favourites: Henry Luce & Time magazine. (It was Luce, incidentally, who first coined the term “The American Century”, in 1941.) Harold Ross & The New Yorker. Irving Thalberg & M-G-M. And slightly more recent, David Ogilvy & Ogilvy & Mather.
A great number of prestige media institutions today were founded roughly 100 years ago, by people in their mid-twenties and early thirties, who were far from world-leading authorities in what they were publishing. Harold Ross was a miner’s son and a high school drop-out. David Ogilvy had been a chef in Paris, sold Aga cooking stoves door-to-door, and been a tobacco farmer with the Amish prior to starting Ogilvy at age 38. (He also never made it through college.)
And should anyone wish to study the quality of my journalism, here’s a video chronology I put together in October 2023, on Ukraine/Russia 2022 peace negotiations:
A video chronology I published in October 2023, arguing we would be wise to learn from March/April 2022 diplomatic attempts. Despite my having extremely authoritative written endorsement direct from the Turkish and Israeli diplomatic teams involved, I could not get the written version of this published in any mainstream outlet. (I was turned down by more than 20.)
Professor John Mearsheimer has said of it: “This is excellent. I actually learned a lot.”
The Spectator’s Russia correspondent noted: “Your video is far better sourced and footnoted than more or less anything I have seen on the subject or indeed on Ukraine in general – a very thorough piece of work.”
And Jared Kushner wrote to me on my summary of his book: “You did a better job summarizing it than I would have done!”
I, thus, consider I am well placed to do this.
Diplomacy and military deterrence
There are grave challenges the West currently faces in its defence readiness, to be sure. This is especially notable in NATO’s inability to manufacture artillery at nearly the rate of Russia – despite the difference in respective nominal GDPs. But there has been an even more glaring atrophying of our diplomatic capabilities. And the disproportionate amount of taxpayer money, and intellectual firepower, going into engineering and weaponry (Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex”) versus diplomacy, is immense.
I welcome, and readily support, attempts by companies like Anduril to rejuvenate military-tech and Western defence procurement processes. Just: we need to be rejuvenating our diplomatic capabilities in lockstep.
If this message speaks to you, and you are interested in supporting such an endeavour:
2) Consider applying to get involved as a writer or team member. You can be anywhere in the world to do so.
3) If you might be interested in helping finance this attempt at diplomatic journalism, please write to me at [email protected]. As the .org URL should give away, this will be a not-for-profit. Provisionally: a 501(c)(3).
I’m going to spend the next six weeks, following the publication of this blueprint, having as many conversations as I can with people of influence in this world: getting input, hearing where I might be wrong or mistaken, and getting further insight as to what could help make this the very best thing it can be.
This is a first draft. I’m taking an entrepreneur’s “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach to get something out. I don’t know if anyone will care about this. And I don’t know if anyone will be willing to fund it. But this is my best attempt at laying out the beginnings of a plan that I believe is deserved of support.
If I get sufficient interest and backing, I intend to build something and expand as quickly as great people can be hired, and balanced writers can be brought in to cover conflict areas – while allowing for sufficient and robust quality assurance.
Thank you for reading,
Edward M. Druce
4 February, 2024
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