Pat's World

Pat's World

Mini Teaser: Until now, and the question of trade apart, foreign policy has not figured much in the Republican presidential primaries. But with Pat Buchanan setting the pace and tone, it is certain that it will do so before long.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

Until now, and the question of trade apart, foreign policy has not figured much in the Republican presidential primaries. But with Pat Buchanan setting the pace and tone, it is certain that it will do so before long. For he has strong and contentious views on the subject.

As it happens, the most extended and coherent statement of those views appeared in The National Interest. A few years ago, Mr. Buchanan, along with fifteen others, contributed essays to our symposium on what America's purpose should be in a post-Cold War world. His was a characteristically pungent and robust piece, showing an impressive familiarity with both American history and international politics, and it drew on a wide range of opinions--John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Byron and Macaulay, Acheson and Lippmann and Tuchman--to support its arguments. All in all, it is doubtful whether any practicing politician of national stature other than Senator Moynihan could produce as assured an essay with his own pen. (Senator Lugar's much touted mastery of the subject seems to consist mainly of a close acquaintanceship with the conventional wisdom, and he doesn't write particularly well.)

Given his temperament, it is not surprising that Buchanan approaches the question of national purpose largely by tearing into those he believes to be in error on the subject. The concept of national purpose, he says, "has become a vessel, emptied of its original content, into which ideologues of all shades and hues are invited to pour their own causes, their own visions." Extra-national ideals have been substituted for the national interest, and the Republic has been treated as a means to some supposedly larger end, rather than an end in itself.

He proceeds to spell out the kind of things he has in mind. While the United States had no option but to fight the Cold War ("You can refuse almost any invitation, but when a man wants to fight, you have to oblige him"), now that it is over we should not "defend wealthy nations that refuse to defend themselves." He advocates the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe and the Asian mainland, and the uprooting of the global network of "trip-wires" that was established during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War world, "our role is diplomatic and moral, not military", and nato should be left either to wither on the vine or to become a purely European organization.

Nor should the United States allow its purpose to be defined by the "guilt-and-pity crowd" that would exploit American altruism to make us responsible for mending the ills of the world. Foreign aid is an idea whose time has passed and the spigot should now be turned off. (Interestingly, Buchanan does not on this occasion attack the United Nations, the IMF, and other international institutions, though he does pause to characterize one proposal as likely to "set off onanistic rejoicing inside the Trilateral Commission." The World Trade Organization did not yet exist at the time he wrote.)

Buchanan also delivers a powerful polemic against those who represent "the democratist temptation", and who argue that a crusade to "wage democracy" throughout the world should be America's central purpose (a group that was more vocal in the heady days of 1990 than it is today). Buchanan will have none of it: "Like all idolatries, democratization substitutes a false God for the real, a love of process for love of country." For, he maintains, that is all that democracy is--a process for choosing rulers that says nothing about whether those rulers will be wise or good. Raúl Alfonsín, an elected president, led Argentina to ruin; General Pinochet, who seized power in a coup, set Chile on the road to prosperity and freedom. In any case, "how other people rule themselves is their own business. To call it a vital interest of the United States is a formula for interminable meddling and endless conflict."

With the ground thus cleared, Buchanan proceeds to give his own opinion as to how the question at issue should be answered. "A nation's purpose", he insists, "is discovered not by consulting ideologies, but by reviewing its history, by searching the hearts of its people. What is it for which Americans have always been willing to fight?" That is the simple and fundamental test of the nation's highest purpose, and anything that fails it--anything for which Americans will not fight--must be rejected. What, then, does Buchanan believe his fellow countrymen will fight for? The answer, it turns out, has actually already been given at the very beginning of his essay, in a sentence, that on first reading, could easily be dismissed as a preliminary rhetorical flourish:

On the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, dead half a decade, the president of the United States raised his glass and gave us, in a six-word toast, our national purpose: 'The Union', Old Hickory said, 'it must be preserved.'

The purpose of the United States, then, is its own preservation; nothing more.

The sensibilities of the Wilsonians among us set aside for the moment, there is much in the view of American foreign policy outlined above that will make many realists feel very uneasy. It will make them uneasy not because it conflicts sharply and obviously with what they believe, but because it is in many ways so similar, so close to their views--and yet so different in some essential respects.

Consider first the similarities. Buchanan, like any realist, bases foreign policy firmly on the foundation of the self-interest of his country. In an anarchic world, realists believe, nothing else makes sense. Realists also agree with Buchanan substantially in his rejection of idealistic crusades and altruism as unsound and often dangerous bases for a country's foreign policy, and tend to share his skepticism (though not his conspiratorial view) of supranational organizations. Again, Buchanan, along with all realists, is fully appreciative of the indispensability of power--and the crucial importance of relative power--in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. Even as he advocates withdrawal from Europe and Asia, he insists that "America should use her economic and technological superiority to keep herself permanent mistress of the seas, first in air power, first in space", and it is only in the case of the ground troops required for overseas expeditions that he is prepared to economize. Even what may properly be termed Buchanan's neo-isolationism has some affinities with the minimalist realism that Christopher Layne describes and advocates in this issue. Indeed, in the post-Cold War debate on foreign policy, many of realism's critics have insisted on treating the two as identical, and the labels as interchangeable.

But there are critical differences as well as similarities. The foreign policy views of realists derive from an appreciation of the fundamental importance of the anarchic state of the international society of states, and/or from certain unflattering conclusions about human nature. More particularly, they involve a close and rational analysis of circumstances, of costs and benefits, ends and means, alternative possibilities. It was in that way--by a careful and dispassionate consideration of interests, resources, and political environment--that George Washington and his colleagues originally arrived at their policy of isolationism in a very different world from today's, and that was truly a realist policy.

Buchanan, on the contrary, insists that the only way to arrive at a sound policy is to look inward, to consult the instincts and feelings--to "search the hearts"--of the American people, or to look backward, to consult America's history. It is not the condition of the world but the condition of Americans, not human nature but American nature, not today's international circumstances but the nation's past experience that are the decisive considerations for him. If the conclusions reached by these two utterly different processes occasionally coincide, it will be by pure accident. Buchanan's isolationism has more affinity with the emotional rejection of Europe by nineteenth-century immigrants than it has with Washington's cool decision in favor of "no entangling alliances." Given the importance he attaches to loyalty as a value, if Buchanan had been calling the shots in 1793 he would almost certainly have committed American power on the French side of the European war, in gratitude for the indispensable support that France had given the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

There are other differences. Realists are concerned to emphasize how the predicament and behavior of all states are fundamentally similar--it is what gives them the confidence to generalize and formulate their rules and "laws." Buchanan on the other hand affirms and extols American exceptionalism. Indeed, so exceptional is his America that even as he preaches its disengagement and withdrawal from the world, he insists that it is also "uniquely situated to lead the world. . . . The twenty-first century will also be the American century." While he does not elaborate on the direction in which America will lead, his comparison of the size, wealth, and military strength of the United States and its nearest rivals makes it clear that he has more in mind than mere moral example or civilizational pull. So we are left with the confusing image of a United States that simultaneously stands apart and leads.

Appeals to the wishes or beliefs of "the American people", routinely made by presidential candidates (and presidents), are dubious at the best of times. They presuppose a unity and solidarity of will that simply does not exist. All peoples, and the American people more than most, are characterized by internal diversity, variety, competition, and conflict. That being so, an alleged commitment to "search the hearts" of the American people for an answer to the question of America's purpose boils down to one of two things: either the banal process of consulting the polls to see what people say about their beliefs and then going with the results (the preferred option of most run-of-the-mill politicians); or the presumption of a special competence to divine and interpret the true will of the people, in Rousseauean fashion. What we know about Pat Buchanan suggests that he would scorn the first course (rightly) but that he would find the second to be highly congenial--and what we have experienced in this century of populist dictators who claim to have unique understanding of the soul of the people they govern and a unique capacity to interpret the real meaning of their history suggests that the results would be unpleasant and dangerous.

When Buchanan speaks of the American people it is clear that he does not have in mind all the people who live in America, or even all the people who legally live here and are citizens. Rather, he presumes the existence of an essential and elect American people, one that for him represents spiritual authenticity and historical continuity--a people composed overwhelmingly if not exclusively of Anglo-Saxons and Celts and Christians. (How else to interpret Buchanan's mantra about "taking our country back"? Who is it that the "our" covers? And from whom is it to be taken back?) Presumably, it is only the hearts of this elect that are to be searched for America's true purpose.

Resting as it would be on the incompatible pillars of isolationism, realism, populism, and romantic American exceptionalism, a Buchananesque "foreign policy of the heart"--really of his own passionate but resentful heart--would be erratic and dangerous. It might start out as an isolationist foreign policy, but given his pugnacious temper, as well as his genuine concern for America's dignity and honor as he interprets them, it would be the easiest thing in the world for an adversary to taunt and goad him out of that isolation--or, indeed, for a well-meaning but insufficiently sensitive state, or even an unprovoked spontaneous emotional spasm, to have the same effect. And, after that, who knows where we might end up? Probably in several wars--for remember, "when a man wants to fight"--or when you think he wants to fight--"you have to oblige him."

A Post-Script

All that said, there is no need to demonize Pat Buchanan or to treat him as unspeakable. While many of his views are indeed repugnant (and those on the Nazi regime and the Holocaust especially so), it is worth bearing in mind that any Caucasian who is over, say, forty-five today probably had a father who, to a greater or lesser degree, held some if not most of those views--not in his dotage but in his prime, and not only in the United States but in countries like Great Britain and Australia as well. Support for racial segregation, at least a mild form of anti-semitism, abhorrence of homosexuality, opposition to abortion, xenophobia, condescension towards women--all these were among the "smelly orthodoxies" of Caucasian life at every level, as recently as the 1950s. After all, several of them found expression in the law of the day. It is worth recalling that when one such law was finally changed in the 1950s and the federal government was obliged to send troops to Little Rock to enforce desegregation, Dwight Eisenhower--the nearest thing to the father of the whole nation at that time--was at pains to explain that he was doing so to enforce the law, and he pointedly refrained from making known his opinion on the substantive issue of segregation.
Those of us who do not think of our parents as moral monsters would do well to bear all this in mind before deciding to apply the word "evil" to Patrick Buchanan.

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