Seth Cropsey (SF72) Keeps an Eye on Foreign Policy
September 2, 2021 | By George Spencer
Seth Cropsey (SF72) makes headlines. He is regarded as one of America’s leading experts on maritime and defense strategy, and publications that range from The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard to The Hill and Foreign Policy Magazine seek out his views on military issues and global affairs, especially with regard to the U.S. Navy.
Cropsey, a retired lieutenant commander in the Navy, served as a deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Today, as director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute, he devotes his time and energy to a somewhat unexpected endeavor: immersing himself in the study of ancient Chinese philosophy and history.
“Chinese writers for thousands of years, especially Sun Tzu, have emphasized the importance of achieving strategic objectives without fighting. That idea remains important to Chinese leaders today,” says Cropsey, who earned his PhD in philosophy at Babeş Bolyai University in Romania, where he wrote his thesis on the history of U.S. strategic culture.
The son of a University of Chicago professor, Cropsey chose to attend St. John’s because of its rigorous approach to the study of Western civilization. “The structure of the Program was centered around the most important books we have, and I thought that was a good fit for me,” says Cropsey, who also played intramural soccer as an undergraduate.
The sport taught him an important life lesson: “Stick with it,” an attitude that proved valuable when he took up the cello at age 44. He counts Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as his favorite composers and played for years in amateur string trios and quartets in the Washington, DC area.
His government career began as an assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in the early 1980s. “We got along famously. But he was a very difficult person to write speeches for. He was his own best speech writer,” recalls Cropsey, whose role included preparing the Secretary of the Defense Annual Reports, which gave overviews of the department’s strategic plans.
Later on, during the Bush Administration, he oversaw the training of Special Operations forces, such as the Navy SEALS, and the policies that governed their use. He spent “not a few evenings and early mornings” in the Pentagon’s situation room advising senior leaders on Special Operations missions as they unfolded.
Such experiences inform Cropsey’s views on present-day foreign policy and military operations. The U.S. is going through “a rough patch,” according to him. Though he agrees with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, he believes “the way it was handled will reverberate to the United States’ discredit for a long time to come. I don’t think we’ve seen the consequences yet.”
However, Cropsey holds a gimlet-eyed view of America’s future. “I'm not pessimistic. I’m not optimistic,” he explains. “I saw the country go into the doldrums after Vietnam and come out of them in the final years of the Cold War—and come out quite strong. We’ve done this in the past. I don’t see any systematic reasons why that’s not possible in the future.”
“We’re still living with the ghost of Vietnam and under the specter of having spent 20 years in Middle Eastern wars,” he adds. “Those sins have had a depressive effect on leadership and the quality of candidates who have sought the presidency. I don’t see that we’re sentenced to this indefinitely in the future.”
Despite his faith in America’s ability to reverse course, Cropsey believes more than good planning will be required, especially regarding U.S. naval strategy in the Pacific. “Luck is definitely needed,” he predicts. “Divine fortune, I would say.”