American Diplomacy

Highlight map


Support American Diplomacy RSS Mailing-list Subscription Email American Diplomacy Facebook



These historical myths must be cleared away before a constructive debate can commence over how the United States should conduct itself abroad in an unprecedented era—an era which, by definition, has no past analogs.

  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."

Elsewhere in
American Diplomacy:

  • Articles

  • Commentary


Send email to
American Diplomacy
American Diplomacy
by ordering books online at:

     The first myth is based on a reading of history that posits America’s diplomatic default mode (if you will) to be isolationism. To be sure, Woodrow Wilson tried to reinvent U.S. diplomacy as liberal internationalism, but his rejection only proved how stubborn our isolation was. It took Pearl Harbor to shock Americans out of their illusions, permitting FDR during the war, and Truman in the late 1940s, to invoke the lessons of Versailles, Munich, and Pearl Harbor, and persuade Americans to take up global leadership and global responsibilities. According to this reading what would risk World War III was not getting involved in the world, but trying to avoid getting involved. And this simple history served well throughout the Cold War. But it has a worrisome corollary today, because if totalitarian threats were what pushed America into a leadership role, then it follows that the disappearance of such threats might induce America to fall back into an isolationist mood. But those who see every vote in the Senate on U.N. dues or African trade pacts as proof of creeping isolationism are just spinning the straw in a straw man. As Fareed Zakaria of the journal Foreign Affairs, H. W. Brands in The Wall Street Journal, and I myself in Orbis have written, American internationalism long predates World War II, isolationism of the 1930s head-in-the-sand variety was the exception, not the rule, and in any case Americans today know that they have never had it so good as during the past fifty years, so why rock the boat by resigning their membership in international clubs? Polls show that the public is keenly aware of the stake it has in global stability and prosperity, and that so-called isolationism is just not an option.

     The other prevalent myth, by contrast, teaches that the deepest wellspring of U.S. foreign policy was not isolationism, but militant idealism as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Open Door policy. According to this liberal myth, Wilsonianism is best understood, not as a repudiation of past isolationism, but as the culmination of American congenital idealism. Jumping ahead to the Cold War, the Soviet threat thus appears not as the main motive for American leadership of the Western alliance, but as the main barrier to American leadership of the whole world! Hence, the ebullient corollary of this reading of history is that today, with the Soviets gone, America is finally free to enlarge without limits the spheres of democracy, markets, and human rights.

Accordingly, secretaries of state Christopher and Albright have urged that the Atlantic Alliance go out of area, devote itself to ethnic conflicts, peacekeeping and state-building, and pursue a worldwide political, economic, and humanitarian agenda. In 1999, President Clinton promised a Marshall Plan for the Balkans, to help its people build multiethnic democracies, uphold human rights, open borders to people and trade, and make war unthinkable. The secretary general of NATO now names Macedonia and Albania pivotal for European security—something that wasn’t even true during the Cold War, and which echoes the domino theory that inspired the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Tony Blair celebrates Kosovo as the first battle of the humanitarian war, and Clinton proclaimed a doctrine as universal as Truman’s when he promised, “if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, ethnic background, or religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.”

But turning the Balkans into a NATO laboratory for multicultural experiments is only the tip of the iceberg. In its 1999 report on “The Future of Transatlantic Relations,” the Council on Foreign Relations called for “a global U.S.-European partnership” to:

  • Manage the Asian economic crisis and overhaul the world’s financial architecture;
  • dismantle Russia’s nuclear weapons and promote Russian democracy;
  • suppress all Balkan conflicts and keep it that way;
  • forge a single transatlantic market with open investment and trade;
  • preserve Turkey’s pro-Western orientation;
  • broaden NATO strategy to include the whole Middle East, and present a united front toward Iran, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli peace process;
  • make Europe abandon its purely commercial orientation toward Asia and help the U.S. manage conflicts among China, Japan, Korea, India, and Pakistan;
  • make a larger American, and much larger European, defense effort in order to modernize and project military force worldwide;
  • and, finally, forge common stances toward weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the environment, drugs, health, crime, and human rights.

Those are all laudable goals, to be sure, but together they verge on utopianism.

     First, any effort to arrogate to the Western alliance the roles of world policeman, nanny, and civics instructor will be denounced by other countries as neo-imperialism.

     Second, such a rapid expansion of missions will multiply points of discord within the alliance, and thus weaken cooperation even on matters the allies do agree on.

     Third, such a global agenda in the absence of genuine burden-sharing by Europe and Japan may erode the American will to sacrifice for the commonweal.

     And fourth, it risks causing collateral damage—from the destruction of Serbia’s civilian economy to relations with Beijing and Moscow—that far outweighs whatever ephemeral good it may do.

Let’s see now: a domino theory that makes almost anything into a vital interest of national security; reliance on massive firepower that destroys the village in order to save it, but is still too little, too late to topple the enemy leaders, much less save their victims; erosion of the foreign policy consensus in Congress; alienation of our allies, and strained relations with Russia and China. No wonder that some critics have charged that our post-Cold War policy-makers, many of whom were opponents of the Vietnam War, seem bent on repeating its errors.

Well… if talk of a new isolationism is paranoid, but the hyper-Wilsonian agenda is self-defeating, where do we look for answers to our original question: how should Americans prepare for the most likely challenges facing them in the next generation?

Continue reading McDougall  123


white starAmerican Diplomacy white star
Copyright © 2012 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC