Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Charles Beard, Properly Understood

Mini Teaser: It is time to readmit Charles Beard's critique into the canon of permissible opinion.

by Author(s): Andrew J. Bacevich

Rather than constructing foreign policy around grandiose expectations
for peace, isolationists emphasized realism and restraint as the
touchstones of sound diplomacy. Those tagged as isolationists, wrote
Beard, "do not propose to withdraw from the world, but they propose
to deal with the world as it is not as romantic propagandists picture
it"("Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels," p. 351).

To avoid over-reaching itself, a nation should define its own interests with clarity, concentrating its resources on matters vital to its own well-being. "Instead of wasting its energies and talents in vain efforts to impose its culture on other races," wrote Beard, a prudent nation "channels and concentrates them on the building of its own civilization...." (The Open Door at Home, p. 301). Beard's emphasis on the role of national interest in formulating policy was not a device to justify radical, head-in-the-sand isolation. He endorsed "collaboration" where the interests of two or more nations coincided--so long as collaboration did "not make world-wide claims"(The Open Door at Home, p. 301). Objectives should not outstrip available power. Although a Beardian foreign policy would not be passive, it would be informed by an awareness of the risks inherent in overcommitment. "The very essence of statecraft," according to Beard, lay in maintaining "a sense for the limitations of power and for the consequences that may follow from the exercise of power...."

From more than one point of view, therefore, the avoidance of war itself struck Beard as a worthy objective for American policy--an objective that he viewed as becoming more difficult than in the days when "the American people had not yet been conditioned by propaganda to the idea that the Government must favor one side or the other in every European or Oriental quarrel" ("Dr. Beard's Rejoinder," p. 164). A prerequisite for avoiding unnecessary war was to retain freedom of action, allowing the United States to remain neutral in controversies that did not involve clearly discernible American interests. To those who derided the feasibility of remaining neutral in an interdependent world, Beard responded that neutrality was "no more chimerical than belief in the power of our words or our arms to heal the wounds of a mad world."

Beard Today

OTHER THAN THE tepid prospect of America-as-exemplar, did isolationists like Beard have anything positive to offer? To listen to their detractors one would hardly think so. In the words of one distinguished historian, their views were "devoid of political, economic, or social content." Yet, isolationists like Beard did not simply take internationalists to task for their excesses; they prescribed alternatives. Beard advocated a policy of "Continentalism," best understood as a proposal to transform the Monroe Doctrine from a bulwark against intrusion into a system of self-contained development. Granted, whatever merit it may have once possessed, events have long since rendered Continentalism obsolete. This is to be expected: as a model for American diplomacy in the 1990s, Wilson's Fourteen Points or FDR's Four Policemen look equally stale.

The broader issue is one of principles and assumptions. Do the Wilsonian under-pinnings of American diplomacy retain their cogency? Despite a great to-do about the need to recast United States policy for a rapidly changing world, that question is one that American elites have shunned. As a result, the debate over post-Cold War foreign policy has been largely a sham. The nearly invisible points of disagreement between Bush and Clinton, or between Republicans and Democrats, during the most recent presidential campaign tell the story: although purporting to offer fresh or provocative thinking, pronouncements issued from on high about future American diplomacy only dusted off the internationalist parable and gave it a new name. That will continue to be the case so long as American elites condemn as heresy any departure from the faith to which they have subscribed since taking up the sword against Hitler.

It is in this regard that what for the purposes of this article we have argued to call "isolationism" might at last come into its own: in toppling the pedestal that has kept the Wilsonian premise beyond serious scrutiny since World War II. Recent events make it clear that the critique of internationalism devised by Beard and others remains as apt today as when it was first formulated: the Somalian mission, where messianic intentions--remember Bush commending the troops for doing "God's work?"--have given way to would-be saviors being stalked by those whom they were sent to save; the paleo-Wilsonian clamor for intervention in Bosnia where American airpower will presumably untie the knot jerked tight by centuries of animosity; the extraordinary belief that a few billion dollars will forestall the disintegration of Russia--despite the manifest failure of spending on a much larger scale to alleviate disintegration on a lesser (but still disturbing) scale at home; the missile attack on Baghdad devised as much to allow a fumbling commander-in-chief to look momentarily presidential as to serve any discernible military purpose.

One can imagine the sulfurous contempt with which Charles Beard would have greeted such undertakings. One need not imagine--because Beard's writings make the point explicitly--that it is precisely such fecklessness to which internationalism has consistently been prone. Deprived of the discipline of a clearly discernible proximate threat, the United States finds itself today more than ever susceptible to such tendencies. The resultant spasms of missionary activism promise much and cost more but typically yield little. Beard would tell us that when the United States bases its policies on the presumption of superior moral insight, such results are inevitable.

Moreover, with modern-day disciples of Woodrow Wilson finding echoes of the Thirties or Forties in every grim turn of the 1990s, the isolationist critique reminds Americans that while some problems justify extraordinary exertions, most do not. Then is not now. The third-rate dictators of current vintage are not to be confused with Hitler. However odious their policies, countries like Serbia are not to be mistaken for the Third Reich. However welcome the West's triumph in the Cold War, the demise of Soviet totalitarianism does not signify that Lasting Peace is at hand if only we will try a bit harder to grasp it. On the contrary, as Winston Churchill foresaw several decades ago, ending the war of the giants has led not to peace but to an era in which pygmies vie to settle long-simmering grudges.

In these circumstances, a dose of Beardian skepticism would be salutary. It is time to readmit his critique into the canon of permissible opinion.

A.J.Bacevich is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Essay Types: Essay