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A (quick) Interview with Derek Davison
A foreign policy expert answers questions on Ukraine, the inadequacy of American media, climate change, & more.
Today I had the honor of interviewing one of my favorite foreign policy analysts, Derek Davison. Derek writes the daily newsletter Foreign Exchanges and is the co-host of the podcast American Prestige, both of which I highly recommend.
Derek’s analysis of world events and diplomatic relations is a breath of fresh air from typical media coverage, which tends to support D.C.’s intervention-prone ideology while the lens of American hegemony. If you want an honest understanding of international relations, then Foreign Exchanges and American Prestige are for you.
Can you tell me about the beginning of Foreign Exchanges? What inspired you to start a daily newsletter covering THE ENTIRE WORLD? Did you see something missing from traditional media coverage that inspired you to get started?
I wish I could say I had some grand plan, but I started back in 2014-2015 covering the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and just expanded from there. Feedback from readers was positive and it seemed like I was doing something people were willing to support financially which, since I was barely scraping by as a freelancer at the time while also trying and failing to find a steady job, was a big deal. I don’t think I’m filling a gap in traditional media or anything like that, but I am offering a place where people who are interested in world news can go and get a sense of what’s happening without having to dig piecemeal through dozens of outlets. There’s a bit of commentary sprinkled in as well but I try not to be too overbearing in that regard.
I’m a big fan of your foreign policy analysis, which I find more thorough and introspective than mainstream outlets (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal) which tend to toe the line of the State Department and D.C. establishment. Why do you think it is that traditional media is much less critical and questioning of America’s foreign actions than its domestic policy?
I’m not sure traditional media is all that critical of domestic policy either. Most outlets seem to hover in a band from right-wing to a bit left of center, which is where most policy resides in this country, and when it comes to venturing outside that band they tend to be far more curious about the far right than the left. It’s perhaps worse in terms of foreign policy but I suspect that’s because outlets like those you mention are often dependent to some degree on establishment sources (in government and in the think tank community) for foreign policy analysis. Reporters could try to venture outside the establishment, but when you’re getting slick talking points emailed to you from organizations like FDD or CAP the tendency is to rely on those. There’s been some growth in the policy infrastructure of a “restraint” school but that infrastructure is still way behind the interventionist infrastructure and it’s atomized across a number of ideological frameworks (left, libertarian, anti-imperialism, etc.) that don’t necessarily work well together.
With the Russia-Ukraine War locked in a grueling stalemate, I’m left questioning America’s strategy of arming and encouraging Ukraine to “fight to the last man.” Had you had Anthony Blinken’s ear at the onset of the invasion, how would you have suggested America respond to the crisis?
The onset of the invasion was too late to alter what’s happened. I don’t know that more intensive diplomacy would have avoided an invasion–frankly, I tend to think it would not have–but in hindsight especially it’s clear there would have been nothing to lose by trying. In terms of arming the Ukrainians, I think there’s a real question at this stage, as Russia’s poorly planned initial invasion failed under its own weight and its focused campaign in the Donbas appears to be succeeding, whether Western arms have made all that much difference. Probably they’ve helped slow the Russian advance, but does that matter if the eventual outcome is the same either way? I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions. What does worry me, aside from the inevitable leakage of weapons out of Ukraine, is that arming Ukraine reinforces (both in money and stature) the defense contractor industry that already drives US foreign and military policies to a large degree. The ability to flood a country or warzone with arms is not an ability I want the US government to have, even if sometimes the target of those weapons is a sympathetic one.
As to the question of “fighting to the last Ukrainian,” that hasn’t yet played out. If the Ukrainians and Russians get to a stage where they’re both ready to negotiate, let’s see if the US and other NATO states are prepared to let the Ukrainians negotiate their own settlement or if they’re going to demand a veto over that process.
Speaking of Ukraine, American media tends to hyper-focus on one area while overlooking others. Is there a country or region you’re concerned about that isn’t getting enough attention? What should Americans be paying attention to that we currently are not?
We should be paying more attention to the real tangible effects of climate change that are already happening: the Arctic melting, drastic temperature increases across North Africa and the Middle East, more and more severe droughts, lakes and rivers drying up, etc. Broadly speaking, the US won’t feel the full brunt of these sorts of things for decades but they’re already happening now, and in some situations, it’s impossible to prevent their effects. For as little attention as climate change gets, it’s still almost entirely focused on prevention rather than managing impacts and frankly compensating those most severely impacted. The conversation needs to shift and expand.
Last question: How do you decompress? I find thinking and writing about politics and world events can be quite anxiety-provoking. What do you do to clear your mind and wind down after writing about such heavy topics?
No mystery, I take time off and stop following the news for a few days. When I am working I try to be as dispassionate as I can, both because it helps in terms of the sorts of things you mention here and because I want the newsletter to be an information resource, not a collection of my rants.