The Wrong Turn in U.S. Foreign Policy

An interview with Charles Hill reveals the extent to which Americans understimate the changes wrought by the Cold War's end.

Yale professor Charles Hill’s impressive mind was on display last weekend in the Wall Street Journal’regular interview in the Saturday/Sunday issue. He was interviewed by the paper’s editorial features editor, Robert L. Pollock, who probed Hill’s thinking on the state of the world and bundled it up into a provocative article. The piece offered much to ponder—but also a key to the wrong turn America has taken in its foreign policy since the Cold War’s end.

Hill’s background includes extensive experiences in the U.S. Foreign Service, with particular emphasis on China and the Middle East. U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have solicited his counsel, and he was a consultant to UN secretary-general Boutros-Boutros Ghali. His courses at Yale, filled with real-world observations as well as academic depth, are highly popular.

As outlined by Pollock, with abundant quotes from Hill, the professor’s views can be summed up along the following lines:

One of the great turning points in history occurred following the awesomely bloody Thirty Years War in seventeenth-century Europe. That was the Treaty of Westphalia, which sanctified the state in international dealings and set it above empire in the global value system, at least in the West. Hill explains that that religious war pitted the Catholic Holy Roman Empire against a number of emergent Protestant states, and it "was so awful that it produced Grotius," the Dutch philosopher of international law.

Grotius’s thinking and the Westphalia treaty, says Hill, "put in place what would develop into the international state system . . . a work of genius." Essentially, he explains, the state replaced the empire as the fundamental unit of world affairs.

It was solidified further at the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna, where the big European powers amplified the criteria of international opprobrium and established more extensive laws governing dealings among states.

Says Hill: "My view is that every major modern war has been waged against this international system. That is, the empire strikes back." He cites World War I, "a war of empires which comes to its culmination point when a state gets into it"—namely, the United States, which under President Woodrow Wilson turned that struggle into a moral crusade for democracy promotion.

World War II, he adds, was "a war of empires against the state system." Hitler wanted to expand eastward into a powerful land empire encompassing the heartland of Eurasia, while Japan wanted to dominate what it called the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere."

Here’s where the historical narrative gets a little ragged. Pollock asks, "Is the story uncomplicated?" He answers: "Of course not." One problem is that one of those anti-German and anti-Japanese nations was Great Britain, which was also an empire. But, says Hill, Britain’s empire had established the rules-based system that prevailed through much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth—"committed to abolishing slavery and to free trade and free movement on the seas."

And then, when it faded, the United States stepped in to assume that role. As Pollock puts it, the U.S. grand strategy since Harry Truman "has been the establishment of a rules-based system built on institutions like the UN and NATO. It’s a system designed to protect the rights of states to Wilsonian ‘self-determination,’ not to subject them to the will of the strongest." Explaining Hill, Pollock adds that the UN only serves its purpose when it is used as an instrument of the state system, not when it goes off on its own, even at the invitation of the state system, to act as some kind of global governing authority.

Under this state system over many centuries, writes Pollock, there emerged "a great era of human rights and democracy promotion the likes of which the planet has never seen." As Hill puts it, the world has "been increasingly tolerant and increasingly trying to eradicate racism and increasingly trying to expand freedom." And at the center of this development has been the United States.

But Hill worries that this era could come to an abrupt end. What would replace it? Hill’s answer: "Spheres of influence," which Hill equates to "empire."

He elaborates: "The whole system has been defended by the leadership of the U.S. and its allies. And the idea of open expression and open trade is the American way of seeing the world improve itself in the future. If America is not gonna do that, nobody else is gonna do it. And that’s what’s happening now."

One culprit, in this view, is President Obama, who has abandoned an American commitment that stretches back to the beginning of the Cold War. As Pollock puts it, "What amazes Mr. Hill is how much of a break the Obama foreign policy represents compared with the bipartisan consensus stretching back to Truman." That consensus culminated in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, which Hill equates to an "emancipation proclamation for the world."

To sum up for purposes of analysis, Hill is saying that the Westphalian state system set in motion centuries of global development and progress that found its most distilled expression in George W. Bush’s call for his country to take on "the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." And now Barack Obama has caused an utter break from that centuries-long development vector and imperiled the globe with a possible re-emergence of empire.