American Diplomacy
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February 2000

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  Previously by Walter McDougall in American Diplomacy:

On Religion in Diplomatic History:
"Americans have been especially prone to justify their behavior abroad in Protestant Christian terms, however much they may disagree about what constitutes right and wrong."
[Spring 1999]


On The Place of Words in the Arena of Power:
"Even scrupulous historians have a way of fooling themselves. When confronted with a daunting mass of memoranda, policy statements, and public speeches, they may read too much, or not enough, into the words of historical actors."
[Winter 1999]



Other Articles in this issue of American Diplomacy:

Francis P. Sempa, on Mackinder's World:
"The geographic factor in world history is the most fundamental because it is the most constant. Populations increase and decrease, natural resources are discovered and expended, political systems frequently change, empires and states rise and fall, technologies decline and advance, but the location of continents, islands, seas and oceans has not changed significantly throughout recorded history. That is why great nations neglect the study of geography at their peril."

Caligiuri and Figueroa, on Los Principios de Primacía y Operatividad en el Derecho Comunitario como Fundamentos para la Integración de Latinoamérica:
"Aún no existen semejanzas reales entre un sistema de integración política, económica, y social como el europeo con los sistemas de co-operación comercial y económica emprendidos en América del Sur."


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By Walter A. McDougall

American Diplomacy takes pleasure in offering to its readership the text of Professor McDougall’s thoughtful keynote address at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s annual meeting held in Philadelphia in November 1999.

Several people, including our host Ron Naples, whose burden it was to introduce this lecture, have asked me what exactly I meant to discuss this evening inasmuch as my title was hopelessly vague. That, I confess, was by design, so as to leave me free to say pretty much whatever was on my mind, come November 10, about U.S. foreign relations at the turn of the century. And it seemed to me that I could take any of three approaches. I might, for instance, choose to look backward, reviewing the evolution of American diplomacy and suggesting what lessons to draw from it. That approach would have put me on safe ground, but I rejected it because to talk history would just give you all an excuse not to read my latest book.

Alternatively, I could have chosen to look ahead and prophesy regarding the dire global trends that may shape world politics in the future. But that, I realized, would only send you home gloomy, your heads filled with nightmarish visions of failed states, famines, ethnic violence, financial meltdowns, rogue states with nuclear weapons, terrorism on American soil, an angry Russia, a threatening China, and a unified Europe becoming a competitor, rather than partner, of the United States.

It is even possible that the United States will cease to exist as we know it over the next century, either because Mexican immigrants reconquer the Southwest, or because American society fragments into hostile ethnic and special interest groups, or because of some unforeseen breakdown in our constitutional government. Conversely, the U.S. may cease to exist as we know it by merging into some larger entity, for instance a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Association uniting the European Union and North America. In that case, Ambassador Strausz-Hupé’s vision of America’s destiny as transcending itself in the cause of global federalism would be realized, although I leave it to you to decide whether or not that would be a dream or nightmare come true.

Thirdly, I could have taken this centennial as an occasion to mix history and futurology by recalling the many predictions made around the year 1900. Pessimists, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and German socialist August Bebel, foresaw a 20th century tortured by world wars made all the more hellish by modern technology. At the same time optimists, such as Andrew Carnegie and Norman Angell, foresaw a 20th century in which war would become progressively obsolete through the workings of free trade and democracy. Call it ironic or in the logic of things, but when the century was done, both camps were right!

Now, with the year 2000 approaching, we have again been teased by contradictory prognostications about the world of the 21st century. Francis Fukuyama has pronounced an end to ideological conflict and predicted the gradual but nonetheless certain triumph of democracy and free markets. But Robert Kaplan has warned of two 21st century worlds—a zone of peace and wealth and a zone of chaos and despair—that cannot coexist for long. Samuel Huntington, the realist, believes that the bipolar Cold War world is being replaced by a clash among civilizations, with the Islamic and Chinese those most likely to cross swords with the West.

The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which just last month published the first installment of its New World Coming project, outlined four possible futures for the world: first, the Democratic Peace, in which national sovereignty survives, but the major powers cooperate to secure peace and free trade, and eventually bring Russia and China into the club; second, Globalization Triumphant, in which national sovereignty erodes, and multilateral institutions and above all multinational corporations lead the world to greater and more equal prosperity, but also to a more uniform and commercial McDonald’s/Disney/Microsoft culture; third, Protectionist Nationalism, in which cooperation and free trade break down and the Great Powers compete for military and commercial power in a poorer and more dangerous world; and finally, Mayhem triggered by a global depression, environmental disaster, or ethnic violence, a world characterized by wars, refugee floods, and terrorism.

Such speculations are fun, but what good are they? Our leaders cannot craft policy on the basis that the future will pretty much resemble the past, because then any new challenge will come as a shock for which we are ill- prepared. But to assume that the future is bound to be wild and unpredictable is also no use, because even the sole superpower cannot prepare for every conceivable disaster.

And that is why I rejected all three of the above approaches, and decided instead to speak of mundane things: not mundane in the sense of boring or trivial, but in its true sense of worldly, hear-and-now, real. Henry Kissinger’s precept holds that the most any statesman can aim for is to build the foundation for a generation of peace, anticipating the most likely challenges that world affairs may present over the next twenty or twenty-five years, and what America can do to meet them. That task may suggest some laundry list of problems and goals, and indeed, Joseph Nye of the Kennedy School recently prepared A, B, and C lists of national interests and goals for the future. But with compliments to Nye, whom I esteem, I think the best way to prepare for a mysterious future is to stress, not our ends or even our means, but our assets. That is because the strength and flexibility of our foreign policy assets will determine America’s ability to employ various means in pursuit of multiple goals, adjust to unanticipated threats and challenges, and—not least—lead other nations to adjust to them, too.

Today, at the end of America’s second century in foreign affairs, it may appear that little agreement exists about the nature of the post-Cold War international system and what America’s role in it ought to be. We see Republicans, who were bold interventionists so long as the Soviet Union existed, criticizing President Clinton’s diplomacy as opportunistic, unrealistic, inconsistent, or simply incompetent. The Administration, in turn, accuses anyone who resists its foreign initiatives of that wickedest of heresies: isolationism. In truth, however, the leaders of both parties and most foreign policy experts display a surprising consensus in favor of continued American leadership in pursuit of similar goals. To be sure, there is much disagreement over priorities and tactics in a given case such as Kosovo or the Test Ban Treaty. But I think almost everyone, even Patrick Buchanan and Madeleine Albright, would agree on the following four basic goals of American foreign policy:

  1. Security for the territory, citizens, and property of the United States, and security for those other nations whose welfare directly affects our own;
  2. stability in as much of the world as possible, because the more stable our environment, the more we can anticipate possible breakdowns and the less we will be called upon to fix;
  3. an open, transparent, and fair system of trade, both to increase our prosperity and to increase the stake that all nations have in security and stability; and
  4. the promotion of respect for those inalienable rights with which, Americans believe, all human beings have been endowed by their Creator, not only because it is just, but because the more governments respect their own people’s rights, the more likely they are to respect those of others.

Rather, the debates we hear are less over goals than over the best means to pursue them and the priority to be given to each whenever two or more goals seem to clash. Should we rank human rights in China above or below commercial interests—and should we define the word should in moral or practical terms? Should we occupy the Balkans, police the Persian Gulf, and support Taiwan because of the moral and commercial stakes involved there, or are those gratuitous entanglements that spread our military too thin, manufacture enemies, and thus harm our security? Should the U.S. take the lead in trying to abolish nuclear weapons through treaties, sanctions, and controls, or is preserving our nuclear arsenal the best way to deter implacable adversaries who covet weapons of mass destruction?

Continue reading McDougall  1 23

Walter A. McDougall is the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of Orbis. His most recent book is Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

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