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America, Know Thyself

December 1, 1993 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: BusinessSuperpowerSlavic Countries

America, Know Thyself

Mini Teaser: For a policy to carry conviction, reality must precede allegory. The worry about the Clinton administration is that they do not know which is which.

by Author(s): Jonathan Clarke

After nearly a year of the Clinton administration there is still no consensus, either among the foreign policy elite or in the country at large, about America's role in the world. What are America's foreign purposes? Is America the world's leader, the global policeman, the default guardian of morality? Will America act unilaterally or only in company? Which counts more, national interest or humanitarian goals? Do economic objectives take precedence over all others? No one really knows, least of all in the White House or on Capitol Hill.

The Delphic Oracle instructed the ancient Greeks to "Know Thyself." This exhortation to self-knowledge is never more apt than today. One of the reasons for the present confusion is that the line between reality and rhetoric and the distinction between ends and means have become blurred almost beyond the point of clarification. As leaders seek inspiration to define the nation's new role, they themselves barely know whether they are drawing on fact or fiction. A look inward and into history may clarify the view outward and to the future. By returning to the historical roots of its national identity, America may be able to find a way out of its present disorientation.

This will be a formidable task. During the Cold War a set of policy assumptions and habits of thought established itself as eternally sacrosanct: projection of American values through world leadership, global responsibility, forward force deployment, and a large national security establishment. These assumptions performed as the disk operating system for three generations of American foreign policy makers. By their very success, they became second nature--in George Bush's words, "essential." In speech after speech, President Bill Clinton has shown that he is not the man to break the mold.
To combat any challenge to these assumptions, an opposite view came into being which stated that pre-Cold War foreign relations inhabited a world where, in Reinhold Niebuhr's words, "we lived for a century not only in the illusion but in the reality of innocency," or, in the more demotic phrasing of the Wabash Plain Dealer on the outbreak of World War I, "we never appreciated so keenly as now the foresight of our forefathers in emigrating from Europe."

This tradition acquired the label of "isolationism." Described by Bush as "folly" and by Clinton as "poison," it remains the trump card to be played by those who assert that the international system will collapse into anarchy unless America mounts an eternal "watch on the Rhine." Under this disqualifying rubric, it becomes possible to dismiss any deviation from the interventionist paradigm as, in the words of National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, "the rhetoric of Neo-Know-Nothings."

The fact that this factory-installed memory is seriously inadequate does not prevent it from being remarkably pervasive. UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, for example, has described American engagement in the world as a "tradition that goes back a half century." This is to suppress, distort, or forget pre-1945 diplomatic history. Self-knowledge will be impossible unless we recapture the truth of the past.

Two impediments stand in the way of this goal.

First, received wisdom teaches that prior to 1945 foreign policy wallowed in the primeval slime of isolationsism. In fact, throughout its history, the nation has been fully engaged in world affairs on the basis of policies that display a consistent theme of geopolitical realism. For the purposes of public presentation, however, this realist concept has become encrusted with various universalist and absolutist ideals. This has made the tradition difficult to discern and to identify.

Today, these notions have taken on a life of their own. Like discombobulated secret agents, we have come to believe our own cover stories or legends. We take at face value McKinley's protestations that the primary purpose for his annexation of the Philippines was to encompass the Christianization of the inhabitants (who, of course, had been Catholic for three hundred years) rather than to thwart German ambitions or provide a springboard for trade. We have forgotten the vital distinction between sentimentality and reality. The direct result is the contemporary fantasy that the nation is able to conduct a "selfless" or "humanitarian" foreign policy, as in Somalia, without connection to national interest. Unless this confusion is clarified, it will be impossible to formulate a rational foreign policy.

America as Arbiter

From the earliest days of the Republic, its founders foresaw an intimate engagement in world affairs by the United States. In 1776 Thomas Paine advocated independence from Britain so that the United States would be able to extend relations to all European countries. Writing in 1787 John Jay advocated the advantages of a single government for the United states precisely on the ground that he foresaw extensive involvement with foreign countries: "America has already formed treaties with no less than six foreign nations and all of them, except Prussia, are maritime and therefore able to annoy and injure us."
Washington himself did not object to these treaties. He qualified his Farewell Address warning about "permanent alliances" with the (usually overlooked) proviso, "so far, I mean, as we are at liberty to do it, for let me not be understood as capable of preaching infidelity to existing arrangements." Nor do the actions of the early Presidents provide any evidence of a wish to duck their foreign responsibilities. Adams expanded the navy and army to wage an undeclared war with France in defense of American commercial interests; Jefferson's first cabinet meeting in 1801 was devoted to debating whether to send a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from attacks from Tripoli; Madison went to war with Britain over the issue of the impressment of American sailors.

Instead of isolationism, a much more satisfactory characterization for the strategic approach of these statesmen is that they saw the national interest as lying in freedom of action. This careful analysis of American self-interest led to the policy of neutrality between the belligerent parties in the Napoleonic wars then raging in Europe. Not only was this the best safeguard for American independence in terms of avoiding attacks against the fledgling republic but it also brought substantial commercial advantage through the potential for trade with both sides.

Activism in the Americas balanced neutrality in Europe. In 1787 Alexander Hamilton wrote: "By a steady adherence to the Union, we may hope erelong to become the arbiter of Europe in America, and to be able to incline the balance of European competitions in this part of the world as our interest may dictate." In 1820 Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, continued this focus on hemispheric interests by urging early recognition of Latin American independence: "It is in our power to create a system of which we shall be the center...this country would become the place of deposit of the commerce of the world." These thoughts later found practical expression in the Monroe Doctrine, an extraordinarily vigorous assertion of American interests over those of the European powers in Latin America and of Russia in the Oregon country (albeit one dependent on British naval power for its execution).

This conception of national interest proved useful in cases analogous to those we face today between the contending poles of moral theory and rational prudence. For example, in 1823 then Congressman Daniel Webster, a future Secretary of State, counseled against military intervention, despite being a strong supporter of Greek independence aspirations from Turkey. Had the national interest been more immediate, for example in Latin America, he would advocate a different course on the grounds that "our duty to ourselves, our policy, and wisdom might indicate very different courses as fit to be pursued by us in the two cases."

It may be objected that, even if it is conceded that the early Republic was more actively engaged on foreign affairs than latter day commentators allow, its focus was defensive and parochial. Whilst this may have, as Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote in 1894, "befitted (the nation) in her infancy," this is too narrow a concept for a mature country engaged, in George Kennan's words, "as a participant in the affairs of the international community as a whole."

In an obvious sense this is clearly correct. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century America's relations with the outside world intensified by way of the annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, the completion of continental expansion, and the acquisition of imperial possessions in the Pacific and Far East. In the wake of these developments, foreign policy became more complex, though far from dominant in terms of government dispositions--in Cleveland's time, the State Department still numbered only sixty employees and the Navy ranked below that of Chile. An important continuity, however, was the survival of the geopolitical realism inherited from the early Republic. Unfortunately, in a development which haunts us today, this tradition began to be buried by slogans that have their home in marketing campaigns rather than in foreign policy analysis.

For example, a new journalistic concept, Manifest Destiny, sprung up to array the vast territorial expansion to the west coast in the splendid trappings of inevitability and divine ineluctability. In the words of Herman Melville writing to celebrate the Mexican war, "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people--the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world...God has predestined...the rest of the nations must be in our rear."

It is doubtful, however, that any of the political actors of the time actively shared this view. Equivocation over Texan annexation for reasons of sectional politics deprived respectively Martin van Buren of the Democratic nomination and Henry Clay of the Presidency in the 1844 election. Among those who favored annexation such as Andrew Jackson who declared, "Texas must be ours, our security demands it," the prime motivation was to fend off any reassertion of Mexican sovereignty or a back-door re-establishment of British influence which the scheming of the British Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen might have brought about in the form of a joint British-Mexican guarantee for a slave-free Texan republic independent of the United States. In 1845 President James Polk brought the matter home in his statement to Congress that he could not overlook "attempts by European powers to interfere with the independent actions of the nations of this continent."

Similarly realistic calculations underlay the western expansion put in train by the Polk administration. As Polk's emissary in Mexico, William S. Parrot, reported, the weak Mexican hold over the lush Pacific lands was arousing "great interest in everything Californian in English circles." There was talk that Britain might cancel the debt owed to it by Mexico in exchange for California. It was also believed that the French and British, both of whom were in the process of establishing Pacific empires, entertained designs on San Francisco bay.

To counter these threats, Polk first attempted to buy California but, when the Mexican refusal together with her negative reaction to the annexation of Texas made war inevitable, Polk proceeded with great subtlety. He quickly defied a significant body of congressional opinion to reach a deal with the British to fix the boundaries of Oregon along their present lines rather than the much larger American claim that extended up to Russian Alaska and that had formed part of his election platform to "re-occupy Oregon." The upcoming war against Mexico dictated a prudent sacrifice.

The successful consolidation of Texas and the West left expansion as the leitmotif for the rest of the century. William Henry Seward, Lincoln and Johnson's Secretary of State, remarked that "there is not in the history of the Roman empire an ambition for aggrandizement so marked as that which characterized the American people."

This was not, however, an irrational or uncontrolled impulse. Poets such as Walt Whitman could assert that it was in mankind's interest that American power and influence should be extended "the farther the better" and Darwinist books such as Our Country by Josiah Strong could trumpet the world mission of the Anglo-Saxon race. These views did not, however, enjoy broad support. Seward's own expansionist projects in Cuba, the Caribbean, and Hawaii came to nothing in the face of congressional opposition (largely based on a political reluctance to annex non-white peoples). In later opposition to Seward, James Bryce wrote that Americans, "have none of the earth-hunger which burns in the great nations of Europe." In the main the statesmen and the Congress of the day took sober, geopolitical calculation--commercial opportunity, great power competition, and the decline of British sea power--as their guiding principle.

In the last third of the nineteenth century these three factors formed a tight nexus at the center of American strategic thinking. Asian trade exercised a compelling lure. Senator Thomas Hart Benton remarked "whatever power controls the Asiatic trade was destined to world dominance" and Senator Marcus A. Hanna, a prominent Chicago business leader, declared, "we can and will take a large slice of the commerce of Asia." After the annexation of the Philippines Henry Cabot Lodge exclaimed enthusiastically, "we hold the other side of the Pacific and the value to this country is almost beyond imagination."

Burgeoning trade--exports tripled between 1870 and 1900--reinforced the arguments for a strong navy. Seward had earlier noted that "the nation must command the empire of the seas which alone is the real empire." Mahan now developed this argument further in his advocacy of a naval building program "to affirm the importance of distant markets and the relation to them of our own immense powers of production." The report of the Naval Policy Board in 1890 stressed the need for a fleet capable of protecting the "highways of commerce." By the end of the century the American fleet was the third most powerful in the world.

The same report also noted the need that the balance of power approach traditional in European geo-strategy now had "world wide application." The United States was being drawn into the great power scramble for empire. In Mahan's words, "the American people were forced to look outward, whether they willed or not." Henry Cabot Lodge noted "the great powers are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places on the earth. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march." Typical disputes were those with Germany and Britain over Samoa in 1878 and with Britain over Venezuela in 1895.

At the same time the increasing British pre-occupation with the rising German naval threat in Europe began to weaken her activities in the western hemisphere, a fact manifested by the British concessions over Venezuela. This led some to re-evaluate the traditional American distaste for international treaties. Mahan advocated an accord with Britain and Brooks Adams wrote, "the continent which, when Washington lived, gave a boundless field for the expansion of America, has been filled; and the risk of isolation promises to be more risky than the risk of alliances." Later Henry Adams wrote "We have got to support France against Germany and fortify the Atlantic system beyond attack; for if Germany breaks down England or France, she becomes the center of the military world and we are lost."
The rules of engagement for American involvement with the world that emerged from this period allowed for a broader interpretation of American interests than was the case in the early Republic. In Cabot Lodge's words, the American people "had begun to turn their eyes to those interests of the United States that lie beyond our borders." In hard reality, however, national interest and freedom of action remained the key principles, much as they had in Washington's day.

At the rhetorical level, however, policy was increasingly assuming the vestments of a moral mission. Mahan said that the American people were taking on the "inevitable tasks and appointed lot in the work of upholding the common interests of civilization" and Theodore Roosevelt wrote that it was "incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world." The war against Cuba, long the object of ambition for American slave holders, had been orchestrated in crudely moral terms by means of a press battle between the Hearst and Pulitzer newspaper empires. Victory against the Spanish led Senator Albert J. Beveridge to congratulate his countrymen on becoming the "master organizers of the world." There was much talk redolent of the urging of the arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling to "take up the white man's burden."

The Rhetoric of Redemption

America's emergence as a great power brought about a decisive shift in the psychology of the American approach to foreign affairs. From earliest colonial times, Americans had asserted their special status. The classic statement is colonial Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop's description of America as a "city on a hill." Jefferson proclaimed that the "last hope of human liberty rests on us." At this stage, however, this did not kindle missionary zeal. Instead, Americans were nervous that over-close connection with Europe would, in Benjamin Franklin's words, "corrupt and poison us." This led Jefferson to counsel that America should exert moral authority as a "standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of other countries." In 1841 John Quincy Adams said of America, "She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

As the United States became more actively engaged in the world this vision of America as passive role-model began to metamorphize. In 1786 the Spanish Ambassador in London counselled John Adams, "Sir, I take it for granted that you will have sense enough to see us in Europe cut each other's throats with a philosophic tranquility." By the end of the next century, this sentiment was reversed. The rhetoric with which statesmen now mobilized public opinion portrayed the nation as an agent of redemption. John Hay, McKinley and Roosevelt's Secretary of State, said that God had "marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the redemption of the world." The Reverend Washington Gladden justified the annexation of the Philippines with the words "in saving others, we may save ourselves."

This is the psychological legacy with which we are living today. Rather than the careful geo-political calculations which characterized the practical policy of this period, we remember Roosevelt's rhetorical flourishes which argued that "Chronic wrongdoing or impotence may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence to the exercise of an international police power." Enter the Global Policeman. Teddy Roosevelt also laid the cornerstone of pro-active world leadership by declaring "we have played a great part in the world and we are bent upon making our future even larger than our past"--a premonition of the idea of America as the World's Only Superpower.

The twentieth century has seen the historical pattern continue. Practical policy formation has placed geo-politics at the core. Wilson did not take the United States into World War I until unrestricted submarine warfare posed an immediate threat to American security; the United States remained reluctant to involve itself militarily in Europe in the inter-war years so long as this appeared to be British and French policy; Roosevelt kept the British war effort afloat; Truman understood the global threat posed by expansionist communism. At the same time, the rhetorical superstructure of foreign policy grew ever more elaborate--for some good reasons. As the country has become more diverse, as communications have improved, as Congress has demanded an increasing role in the international sphere, presidents have needed to muster support for their policies by presenting all decisions as simple and stark choices between good and evil.

Administrations of all persuasions have played this game. Wilson said that "the force of America is the force of moral principle" and Reagan spoke of the "evil empire." More recently Bush portrayed Saddam Hussein as "worse than Hitler." The Clinton administration is continuing this approach inasmuch as it applies negative labels to certain countries, such as Iraq, Libya, and Iran, as "backlash" nations beyond the pale of civilization, or characterizes complex phenomena such as Islamic fundamentalism as "threats."

This marriage of geopolitical realism and redemptive idealism was well suited to the period of territorial expansion and the fighting of two world wars. It reached its highest state in underpinning the conduct of the Cold War. It is, however, much less well adapted to contemporary requirements. Geopolitics, the credibility of the rhetoric, and the availability of resources have all moved on.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

A fundamental return to basics is required. The geopolitical rationale provided by the Soviet Union for fifty years has disappeared; public opinion is echoing Clinton's own campaign statements by displaying a minimal interest in foreign affairs; the American share of world production, which peaked at 40 percent in 1950 when the assumptions of the Cold War were put in place, has now returned to its 1870 level of 20 percent.

As if these changes were not momentous enough, policy makers are also having to cope with their own psychological disequilibrium. They have inherited attitudes based on America's "monopoly on power" or Colin Powell's comment about Somalia that "only America could do it." But the substance, whether of vital interest, public consensus, or national wealth, has drained away.

In their confusion, policy makers have made a further mistake in misreading the terms of their predecessors' will. The latters' legacy was the geopolitical insight that the Soviet Union represented a systemic challenge expressed to American interests on a global basis. From this an immensely complex set of actions followed: alliances, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, GATT, the IMF, and so on. To put these actions into effect the United States had, in Walter Lippman's words, to sound "the tocsin of an ideological crusade." The statement which became known as the Truman doctrine is an excellent example: "At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

"One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

"The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

"I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

This rhetoric is manifestly sincere. It is, however, not in any way to diminish this sincerity to note that it was preceded by a clear-headed analysis of American geopolitical self-interest.

This sequence of analysis is in danger of being lost. Today, rhetoric--whether in the form of Clinton's "conscience of the international community," Lake's "enlargement," or Albright's "moral dimension"--has come to precede rather than follow the identification of American geo-political interest. In part this has a trivial explanation. Like most other people, Americans feel squeamish about admitting that their overseas actions are self-interested rather than altruistic--despite the fact that self-interest has an excellent pedigree in American political thinking. Patrick Henry, no one's idea of a hard-hearted cynic, wrote that "the rock of political salvation is self-love."

A more serious development is that reality and rhetoric are becoming confused. The means through which the United States pursued its Cold War goals--world leadership, global responsibility, strategic alliances, declaratory morality, and so on--have become ends in themselves. Geo-political analysis is taking second place. When the President or other members of the administration speak about America's "vital interests" it has become unclear whether they are affirming something rhetorical or substantive. The key mistake made by the administration's foreign policy team and its academic cheerleaders is to fail to realize that incremental change is not enough. Nor is it enough simply to change the rhetoric. Contrary to Lake, foreign policy is more than a word association game.

As we have seen, this is not only contrary to the American historical experience, but makes it impossible to reform a national consensus on foreign policy. Mahan cautioned that "in our country, national policy, if it is to be steadfast and consistent, must be identified with public conviction." To date the administration has tried to produce conviction through rhetoric rather than fundamentals. The result has been, as Mahan foresaw, an erratic policy, that lacks credibility either at home or overseas. When in his inaugural address, Clinton asserted, with perfect Cold War cadence, that the United States would use force "when the conscience of the international community is defied," his audience did not hurry out to update their Reserve status. No one checked their maps to establish the location of Banja Luka, Huambo, or Tblisi. No strutting dictator quaked in his boots. Somehow there was a general intuition that these were mere words.

Plenty of complex issues offer themselves. How are American interests to be advanced in an era when military power seems inconclusive? Does a united Europe continue to be desirable? How will China's emergence as Asia's pre-eminent military and economic power affect American interests there? If anti-proliferation fails, what is America's place in a world of twenty-plus nuclear powers? What about immigration, over-population, and mass poverty? There are no easy answers. But the present approach which confuses image with reality is a blind alley.

This is where the self-knowledge that derives from an accurate reading of the past can be so useful. American foreign policy has seen its greatest successes when the link between geopolitical reality and public sentiment has been strongest, as in the western expansion in the mid-nineteenth century and the post-World War II international order. The converse may be seen in the War of 1812 and Vietnam.

Over the years, the consistent refrain from the American people in their response to foreign policy challenges is a demand for an answer to the question asked by Jefferson in 1801 in relation to his proposed Mediterranean naval expedition--"What shall be the object?" As we have seen, the answers have often been purveyed in terms of allegorical righteousness which have deliberately concealed the hard edge of geopolitical realism. There is no reason why this pattern should not continue. As we have also seen, however, sequence is all-important. For a policy to carry conviction, reality must precede allegory. The worry about this administration is that they do not know which is which.

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