Two Thought Exercises in American Foreign Policy

With this post, I launch a discussion of two issues in American foreign policy relevant to the Rising Powers blog.  The first issue deals with two extremes that have driven foreign policy formulation since the early 20th century – Wilsonian idealism and assertive interventionism.  In today’s post, I open this topic by suggesting an approach that might avoid the policy swings between these two poles we have witnessed over the last hundred years.  The second thought exercise, which I will delve into in a subsequent post, deals with America’s preponderance in economic output, in GDP (over three times the size of the next largest economy – Japan’s), and whether this is an accurate proxy for relative power.  Should we reassess whether America is as mighty an economic giant as we have long assumed? Enough preamble:  let’s get cracking with a discussion of the two opposing tendencies in AFP.

Since its rise to globalism, America has swung almost erratically between two foreign policy extremes – Wilsonian idealism (sometimes known as liberal internationalism) and assertive interventionism (aka neo-conservatism, with the original “neo-con” not from the City University of New York, but rather, Theodore Roosevelt).   The foreign policy debate that began with Wilson and TR has continued up through Carter and Reagan, Bush (43) and Obama.   Self-righteousness and moralizing have characterized both extremes, with muted emphasis on analysis.  True, some American statesmen, including FDR, Nixon-Kissinger and others, sought to adopt realism as the touchstone of American foreign policy, through a careful assessment of American interests and the pursuit of a balance of power.   Yet as a policy principle, realism has been much less emotionally satisfying to the American public than have been the clarion call to arms on the one hand, or the sanctimonious appeal to our better angels on the other.  Like the patient with “borderline personality disorder,” America has swung between two unstable emotional states, instead of maintaining a consistent equilibrium. 

Overstating the argument, you say?  Perhaps.  To an extent, Wilsonians and neo-cons, in spite of their rhetoric, have maintained some policy stability.  Furthermore, there has been fluidity and overlap between the two camps, with neocons sometimes appealing to Wilsonian ideals to justify intervention (e.g. Iraq) and liberal internationalists utilizing brute force to pursue liberal ideals (e.g. Kosovo, Haiti).  Likewise, realism has been pulled off the shelf as needed by practitioners of both schools.  Isolationism, which as a movement in and of itself expired with World War II, has continued to fertilize foreign policy thinking as well. This can be seen in the desire of some to pull out of Iraq and leave the Middle East to its own devices, of others to avoid involvement in Africa where they see limited American interests, or of others to erect protectionist trade barriers.  

Nevertheless, one cannot deny that our two-party system has produced foreign policy volatility, at least in terms of the rhetoric of our leaders.  This confuses the rest of the world and can be ineffective at securing our interests.  Today, Iran’s leaders may very well wonder if the US is an implacable foe that will stop at nothing to prevent an Iranian nuke, or instead a sensitive giant, willing to discuss Iranian grievances, achieve a grand bargain, and perhaps tolerate nuclear-armed mullahs.  Equally, Brazilian leaders may wonder whether America’s free trade overtures represent an attempt at Yankee hegemony or another shot at being a “good neighbor.” And, with the transition to the Democrats, they may wonder about our commitment to free trade itself.

For the Rising Powers, emerging youthful and strong in a multi-power world, it would be useful to understand clearly what America wants and to have this remain relatively consistent over time. 

These two impulses in American foreign policy arise out of America’s unique historical and cultural experience, it is true.  I do not deny that America is different — unopposed on the North American continent, facing little challenge in this hemisphere, with two oceans separating the nation from other major powers, safe to pursue the ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment, the country’s instinctive crusading spirit, and its inevitable economic expansion. 

Still, the proponents of these two schools disagree philosophically –  about how the world works, about human nature.  According to the Wilsonian view, likeminded, democratic nations practicing open diplomacy are by nature peace-loving.  World opinion and collective security ensure that any would-be aggressor will be stopped.  By contrast, the neo-con world view sees rivals as would-be aggressors that must be stopped early, lest they seek conquest and infringe on American interests. 

My contention is that these two schools should spend less time arguing about human nature and more time engaging in the systematic analysis of the intentions of world leaders and the historical experience, public opinion, and capabilities of nations.  Certain countries at certain historical periods may fit the Wilsonian mold, while others may instead play by Churchillian rules.  It is easy to choose an analysis that fits one’s world view, more difficult to do the analysis and see which world view applies.  It would be worthwhile for American policy makers to undertake such a rigorous analysis of the ten or so Rising Powers on the world stage today.

During the thirties, many leaders in the countries opposing Hitler were animated  by Wilsonianism, to an extent that they sought proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hilter’s Germany was bent on conquest. Concerns about German aggression did not warrant other than appeasement, until the invasion of Poland finally proved to these ostrich Wilsonians that Germany’s aim was not German self-determination, but rather, conquest.   A reading of the writings and speeches of the Nazis and an understanding of the deep resentment of the German nation and their experiences of the preceding two decades should have led the rational analyst to reach a Churchillian conclusion. 

By contrast, a similar view of the Soviet Union would have been at odds with a careful analysis.  The Soviet leadership, while following a radical ideology, followed an essentially conservative foreign policy course since the Russian Revolution, determined to win small gains by careful chess moves, rather than bold actions. 

Without going into a discussion of whether or not we should have gone to war in Iraq, I will say that, while it was clear that Saddam Hussein was bent on the acquisition of the tools of power, including WMD, a psychological assessment of this dictator might have yielded an understanding of his defiance, the kind of defiance that led him to irrationally indicate to the world that he possessed WMD, weapons he did not have and which caused the U.S. to invade.  Moreover, the dismantling of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification undertaken by the Bush administration was an example of Wilsonianism infusing a neo-con world view. 

Today, the analysis of the beliefs, intentions, and capabilities of leaders, as well as the historical experience, current state of public opinion, and constraints of nations should be undertaken with regard to the Rising Powers.  It would certainly behoove the foreign policy establishment to undertake this work with respect to Iran.  Questions include:  Are the mullahs basically conservative or radical, or in other words, are they Nazis or Soviets?  Does the system promote realists?  What is the narrative the nation has come to believe and what does this mean for how far the leadership could go?  Does the Iranian government and nation simply require a recognition of past wrongs, respect on the international stage, and a good ego-massaging?  Does Iran desire conquest or satellites?  Would the leaders really contemplate an attempt to “wipe Israel off the map?”  Answers to these questions, while not easy to arrive at, should drive strategy – whether Iran should be opposed with sanctions and military force or be invited to the table to work out a bargain.

And, let us not neglect doing the same exercise with regard to China and Russia, and others.  It is one thing to call for a “reset” — very cute, very up-to-date language.  It is another to analyze Putin and his country, to understand why they attacked Georgia, what they feel the West has done wrong since the fall of Gorbachev, and how a great nation must rise again.   

I am not saying that no one in the halls of power has been doing this work at all. I am simply arguing that we should tamp down the Wilsonian and/or neo-con rhetoric, get these tendencies under control, and take the Rising Powers one by one, figuring out who and what we are dealing with. 

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