Listen: In Search of Monsters

Radio Open Source
4 min readJun 3, 2022
Ultimate monster: H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu.

If you’ve been following In Search of Monsters, our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, you’ve heard all kinds of conversation on the sorrows of empire. The series came about in a time of sorrow, too. As Russia invaded Ukraine, we focused on the moral, political, and cultural dimensions of imperial nightmares, prompted (as is the Quincy Institute) by John Quincy Adams’s notion that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

We’re nearing completion of the limited series now, and looking back on the conversations that brought us here. We hope you’ll revisit them, too, and stop by the Quincy Institute’s website to learn more about our partners and their work to move U.S. foreign policy away from endless war.

QI fellow Anatol Lieven helped us start In Search of Monsters four months ago with an argument to neutralize Ukraine in order to prevent a possible Russian invasion. Once the war began in late February, we looked at it from all angles — with views from Ukraine; from Latin America and Asia; from the field of international relations, with experts like Emma Ashford and Stephen Wertheim; and from history, with scholars recalling the wisdom of the diplomat George Kennan and the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

We kept coming back to the issue of foreign policy realism — the Machiavellian school of thought that prioritizes state power and the pursuit of state interests. Steve Walt gave us the course in Realism 101; Brandon Terry and Quincy Institute president Andrew Bacevich wrestled with the idea of Martin Luther King’s moral realism; and international relations scholar David Kang explained what realism can’t.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, we expanded our attention to parallel stories of empire. Scott Reynolds Nelson helped us see the war in Ukraine as part of a broader story of Russian imperial pursuit of Ukrainian grain and ports. Historian Caroline Elkins chronicled the gruesome history of the British Empire, how it ruled 178 countries over the last 200 years. And the philosopher Cornel West, with literary critic David Bromwich, connected America’s imperial violence abroad to mass shootings in the US.

Cornel West.

The war in Ukraine also initiates a new era of nuclear risk, and Quincy Institute’s Joe Cirincione worried with us about how the war could go nuclear. In another program, we looked back on a time when nuclear armageddon featured prominently in our popular culture. QI co-founder Trita Parsi also walked us through the history of the Iran nuclear deal and the languishing efforts to revive it. Global politics, it seems, will prevent an arrangement that would postpone another country from joining the nuclear club.

From Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll.

It turns out that talking about military restraint doesn’t mean restraint on conversation: We’ve brought an eclectic bunch of guests into these shows. The writer and historian Adam Tooze helped us see the money war around Ukraine and the effect of sanctions. Environmentalist Bill McKibben talked about the war as a chapter, maybe the last one, in the history of a planet we humans are burning. Diplomat Chas Freeman took us back to his historic trip to China, translating for Richard Nixon in 1972. Shireen Al-Adeimi and Quincy’s Annelle Sheline discussed the seven-year war in Yemen, the planet’s worst humanitarian crisis, which barely gets covered in the news. The war in Yemen, they told us, is one we can stop.

Along the way we talked with the Quincy Institute’s president, Andrew Bacevich, about how war became an American habit and what the Quincy Institute hopes to do about it. We heard Andy’s story about his life in and out of uniform as a personal parable of what the country has endured. He joined us again over Memorial Day, along with some veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — dissenters with stories of service in misguided wars.

As you can see, it’s been a journey. To keep exploring the big questions raised across this series, stop by the website of the Quincy Institute or their online magazine, Responsible Statecraft.

-Team Radio Open Source



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.