Sunday, August 14, 2011

Explaining American Foreign Policy

As I continue to work on my book, forthcoming from Potomac in 2012, I am trying to explain the suboptimal results of American foreign policy, in particular her foreign adventures after the Second World War.  This is a first draft of the preamble to the chapter that deals with the issue.

Early American statesmen warned America against becoming entangled in the world’s problems; that she should provide moral support for the values she upheld without providing physical aid.  Yet, as the country’s economic interests grew, so too did the expanse of her foreign policy outlook, first to the western hemisphere, then across the Pacific and into the Mediterranean, before becoming finally and inextricably bound up in the affairs of Europe and the world’s great powers.  The U.S. stepped into one world war in Europe, before retreating into isolationism.  After the Second World War, it was clear that the U.S. was a global leader and needed an expansive definition of foreign policy in order to reset the world after decades of catastrophe.  This concrete, temporal imperative was garbed in an ideological shroud that would not be lifted even once the world had changed.  This created a strange sense of insecurity: at times the threat is instability, at others it is contrary values.  The worst is instability that may give way to more contrary values, explaining why Washington sometimes suffered dictatorial allies:  the devil you know is better than what comes next.   The result was the “securitization” of American foreign policy even after the Cold War was over.
This worldview had American policymakers believing that they must spread democracy and liberal market economy to every corner of the globe in order to be finally secure.  This is a result of the broader “end of history” narrative, far predating Fukuyama’s rendering.  It predates even Hegel.  The Founding Fathers’ thoughts on the subject developed alongside that of their contemporary Immanuel Kant.  If democracy and liberal market economies were the teleological endpoint of human development and would result in perpetual peace, then hastening the arrival of this end was the only way to achieve decisive security.  America has gone abroad time and again in the quest for this utopia.  As we will see, however, the policies we pursue in these adventures are a schizophrenic mix ranging from the most cynical realpolitik to the most ideologically driven campaigns.  They have been undertaken unilaterally in the face of strong international condemnation and multilaterally with the backing of the world.  All too often, though, our best intentions are not well received by their target audience, undermining the legitimacy of our most idealistic visions.  As Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem lamented of the American assistance in 1963, “I never asked them to come here.  They don’t even have passports.”[1]  America treads on the sovereignty of those she seeks to help.
Therein lies the rub.  America has imperial economic reach and imperial security concerns, but does not want to be an imperial power.  Instead of making a world society by force, America has sought to create a hegemony of democratic and free market ideals.  When states and markets fail, her security paradigm forces her to intervene where she is not necessarily wanted.  This puts the two poles of her schizophrenic outlook into play, creating a dysphonic policy mix that often results in disaster.  What is more, these cross purposes make for incredibly wasteful interventions that bleed America’s strategic power to little effect. 
A key reason why the U.S. continues to involve itself unsuccessfully is a corollary of the democratic peace theory its foreign policy elite places so much stock in.  America’s relatively powerful executive branch, sometimes referred to as the “imperial presidency,”[2] has ready access to an incredibly powerful and willing military establishment with virtually immediate global reach.  Thus, America can enter wars with nearly the ease of a non-dictatorial power.  Often, this entry comes under contested terms.  Politicians downplay the costs, while generals acquiesce to minimal commitments with the knowledge that they can up the ante once the first chips are laid down.  Once the battle is joined, however, the president is increasingly beholden to public opinion.  As General George C. Marshall famously remarked, “A democracy cannot fight a Seven Years War.”  Before long, the public and their politicians are looking for the exit.  Add to this the complexity of the problems we ask the military to solve on limited resources and time, and the results should be no surprise.  Only by resetting the foreign policy narrative and our expectations can America recreate the conditions for hegemony and sustain leadership into the heart of the twenty-first century.

[1] Ngo Dinh Diem quoted in Gordon M. Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, (New York: Holt, 2008), 72.
[2] This is much used in the literature after Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973).


  1. A good read thus far. I get a sense of some Niall Ferguson influence i.e. the unwilling superpower. Interesting to see where this goes - particularly in your predictions for the coming decades and how that should shape our strategy (and our military too).

  2. Thanks. I'm struggling to roll all of this into a cohesive chapter then turn on to the conclusion. I'll post more when I get further into the editing.