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How should Americans prepare for the most likely challenges facing them
in the next generation?

 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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 First, by getting their history right, which in my judgment shows that Americans are by nature neither ostriches nor angels: they are control freaks. And that is not meant pejoratively. What nation would not want to control its own destiny and environment if it had the power to do so? And thanks to fundamental facts of geography and demography Americans have from the start possessed the potential, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, to dictate the terms of their relationship with the Old World. Thus, during the first American century in foreign affairs, say from Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 to the election of McKinley in 1896, U.S. foreign policy was designed to prevent the outside world from perturbing the unique experiment that was America. The country was not isolationist—it had constant and intense dealings with the outside world, and it could never have grown so rapidly without the immigrants, trade, capital, and technology it absorbed from abroad. But the U.S. did remain wisely aloof from Europe’s alliances, wars, and imperialism, thereby leaving itself free to control events in the Americas and the Pacific.

But starting in 1898, U.S. diplomacy changed in response to the growing stake America had in foreign markets, in response to the surge of revolution, first in Cuba and Mexico, then in China, Russia, and around the world; in response to World War I, which threatened to rend the fabric of civilization itself; and finally in response to America’s own power, which had increased to the point that the U.S. might hope to control events, not only over here, but over there. So Republicans and Democrats, from TR and Wilson to Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover and FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presided over an ongoing search for ways to employ American power to control events overseas. Why? Because Americans were imperialistic? Altruistic? Realistic? Idealistic? No, although we have been all of those things at one time or another during the twentieth century. The root cause was our need to manage seemingly out-of-control events that were happening far away, but could have damaging consequences at home and undermine that most basic of American rights: the right to control our own fate, the right to build America as we see fit without interference from any damned furriners. In that sense, Lyndon Johnson was right about one thing at least, when he said American foreign policy is always rooted in domestic policy.

Throughout the 19th century, the best way to control our own fate was to keep America off-limits to the games played by the Great Powers elsewhere. But in the twentieth century it seemed that the best way to control our own fate was to go overseas, end wars, crush or support revolutions, lower trade barriers, promote our own values, and fashion institutions under our leadership. American tactics differed radically as we lurched from Progressive imperialism to Wilsonianism, to the business-oriented approach of the Republicans in the ’20s, to the United Nations and the dollar-backed financial system established by FDR, to Truman’s and Eisenhower’s containment, nuclear deterrence, and the CIA, to Kennedy’s foreign aid, counter-insurgency, and state-building in the Third World. But all were driven by an urge to control.

And that is why the British upper classes resent us, French Gaullists have contempt for us, Germans and Japanese are sullen toward us, Muslim fundamentalists call us Satan, Chinese accuse us of seeking hegemony, Indians call us hypocrites, and the Russians wish they knew our secret. We have exercised control, more or less, over them and played a big role in shaping their histories. They have had far less control over us, and when they succeed for a time in disturbing us, they generally pay a terrible price.

What is the lesson of this? That we should stop trying to control our environment because other nations resent our intrusions? Of course not. They would resent the U.S. just as much if we turned inward and did not intervene when crises occurred. Our power exists, and we affect events elsewhere by refusing to use it as much as if we assert it. What is more, the U.S. has every right to throw its weight and influence around when its clearly defined and enunciated national interests are being threatened or trampled upon. But nothing is so damaging to a great nation as overbearance, overextension, and overkill, especially in the pursuit of alleged interests that are not clearly defined and enunciated, or are not really being threatened or trampled upon. For by attempting to control everything you eventually lose the power to control anything, because you will squander the capital, the assets that endow you with power in the first place.

And that is what leads me to conclude that the best way to prescribe an approach to U.S. foreign policy in the unpredictable era to come is not to draft A, B, and C lists of our various goals and interests—we all pretty much agree on what a perfect world would look like—but to concentrate instead on the assets that make any sound foreign policy possible. Here, then, is an A list of conditions that make everything else possible:

  1. A strong U.S. economy subject only to mild recessions and modest inflation.
  2. A robust military boasting technological superiority, a full complement of well-trained and well-rested personnel enjoying high morale, able to project force worldwide, and sufficient to fight and win at least one regional war while supporting (but not dominating) U.N. peacekeeping: in short, a military designed to deter or defeat major threats to the U.S. and its allies, but only to assist in operations other than war.
  3. Presidential leadership, which is to say a commander-in-chief with an ambitious, consistent, and prudent vision of America’s role in the world, skilled at communicating that vision to the public and foreign leaders, and self-confident and patriotic enough not to mortgage U.S. foreign policy to a political, much less personal, agenda.
  4. A bipartisan internationalist consensus in Congress, which should not be difficult for a strong president to revive, but which is easily dissipated by an executive that is too arrogant, insecure or distracted to give Congress the attention and consultation it needs.
  5. Sturdy regional alliances, because not even the United States can do everything that needs to be done by itself—but alliances, like Congress, require care and feeding, and nothing harms alliances more than taking them for granted, invoking them only when crisis erupts, asking them to do too little (as if their members really had few interests in common), or insisting they do too much (as if their members shared everything in common).
  6. Engagement to promote balances of power in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, which means American efforts to help manage relations among Russia, China, Japan, India, Iran, Iraq, and their neighbors, because the prevention of war among the big powers is the most moral task the U.S. can undertake, and because we can scarcely hope for peaceful solutions to future crises over Korea, Taiwan, Central Asia, the Caucasus or Eastern Europe if Washington is not even on speaking terms with Beijing, Moscow, Delhi, or Tehran.
  7. Finally—and this may surprise you—the U.S. must wield the asset of strong Pan-American institutions, including a broader and deeper NAFTA and Organization of American States, because the most predictable and direct challenges are liable to stem from the invasion of the U.S. by illegal immigrants and drugs on our southern tier or by the prospect of civil strife tearing Colombia, Mexico, and the lands in between, to shreds.

Note that nowhere on that A list does human rights appear, or free trade, or public opinion. As to public opinion, it is clay, made to be shaped by presidential leadership backed by Congress. As to human rights and free trade, they are goals that cannot be advanced in the absence of the seven assets on the A list.

Just remove any of them—one by one—and try to imagine progress toward our four goals of security, stability, free trade, and human rights. You can’t do it. A U.S. economy in reverse, a weak or demoralized military, a floundering president, a divided, partisan Congress, a crack-up of our alliances, a Europe or Asia gripped by wars cold or hot, with China or Russia checking U.S. diplomacy at every turn, or an America fixated on its own ethnic tensions and relations with the Hispanic world: if only one or two of these conditions exist, then America’s sermons and sanctions will suffice to control very little abroad.

It is on this questions of assets, therefore, that the realist and idealist positions ought to converge, and a new bipartisanship ought to emerge. Without ideals the United States of America would be just another selfish empire, standing for nothing and bound to decay. But without leadership, power, and unity America would become a ridiculous caricature of itself.

Mark Twain, ever the cynic, said statesmanship was a matter of getting the formalities right, and never mind the moralities. Edmund Burke expressed a similar principle when he defined statesmanship as “a disposition to preserve and ability to improve.” But the most telling observation, perhaps, is that of historian Arnold Toynbee: great empires, he wrote, do not die by murder, but suicide. And the moment of greatest danger is their moment of greatest strength, for it is then that complacency and hubris infect the body politic, squander its strength, and mock its virtues.

To be sure, we cannot know just what challenges will arise. But no nation in history has possessed more foreknowledge of how it needs to prepare, or more resources with which to prepare. We need only exercise the wisdom and will to prepare. And if, this time, we do it, then we may finally put to rest Winston Churchill’s dictum to the effect that Americans always do the right thing, but not until they have tried all the alternatives!  

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Republished from the FPRI WIRE, Vol. 7, No. 12, Dec. 1999, by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684. Telephone (215) 732-3774.


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