Printer Friendly

History repeating itself: liberalism and foreign policy.

Just as there has been no genuine alternative to the liberal political tradition in America, as Louis Hartz pointed many years ago, so in foreign policy both the higher principles and the baser urges shaping America's relations with the rest of the world have always been informed by a liberal worldview. Certainly no competing foreign policy tradition, whether one calls it conservative, "realist" or something else, has ever posed a serious challenge. No American statesman has ever conducted international relations without regard to liberal ideological considerations. Even Henry Kissinger, America's high priest of real-politik, did not in office attempt to fashion a foreign policy in which American liberal principles were somehow excised from a definition of American interests. Kissinger may have tried to make American foreign policy less ideological; he did not attempt the impossible task of making it non-ideological.

Much less did any of Kissinger's historical predecessors believe that such a separation could be made between American interests and American liberal ideals. The eighteenth-century Anglo-American settlers who spread out from the Atlantic littoral carried with them the Enlightenment liberal's convictions that nature was something to be conquered, that land was something to be cultivated and improved, that ownership of property was the cornerstone of human freedom, that progress was possible and desirable, that stubborn human nature could be channeled in beneficial directions, if not "perfected" by the proper political institutions, that civilization--by which they meant Anglo-Saxon civilization--could and should be advanced by the cumulative efforts of individuals seeking their own happiness. The Americans who celebrated the early stages of the French Revolution, which included everyone from Jeffersonian Republicans to such stalwart Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, believed that the well-being of liberalism at home was linked somehow to the fate of liberalism abroad, that the American revolution itself had been fought not only for Americans but also for all men everywhere, and that the day would come when liberalism would be spread around the globe.

These liberal convictions manifested themselves in the making of foreign policy. In the early republic, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton in their own ways attempted to implement liberal visions of American empire. The injunctions of the Farewell Address aimed above all at safeguarding the future of such an empire, and Jefferson's proclaimed vision of an "empire of liberty" spoke for itself. Even Hamilton's desire to emulate the greatness of Britain was stimulated to a large extent by his desire to emulate, if not surpass, that example of a great liberal nation wielding vast influence on the world stage. In the early nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine contained within it not merely the idea of separating the new world from the old--which itself had ideological as well as strategic implications--but also a vision of an American economic and political order in the hemisphere.

The settling of the continent from the eighteenth century onward was an exercise in liberal expansion, driven forward by the aspirations of individuals infused with a Lockean understanding of the world and with a consciousness of manifest destiny that aimed at the conquest of an untamed, barbaric world by liberal civilization. The opening of Far Eastern markets in the 1890s was driven both by liberal acquisitiveness and by faith in the uplifting and civilizing effects of commerce. In the Western Hemisphere, strategic and economic motives intermingled with liberal goals from the 1890s onward. And in the twentieth century, from Theodore Roosevelt, through Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and on into the Cold War and beyond, liberalism, in both its commercial aspects and its world-transforming ideological aspects, was the driving force of American foreign policy.

As a result of the revolution and its enunciation of universal principles, American foreign policy could never be just about America. The universalist credo linked Americans to the rest of the civilized world and gave them a stake in the direction that world took. A world dominated by tyrannies would always look askance at the liberal democratic experiment which by its very nature threatened their existence. The American conviction that all peoples desired freedom, after all, was shared equally by the enemies of liberalism. As Metternich was to ask as the wave of "liberal" revolutions crested in Latin America in the 1820s, "if this flood of evil doctrines and pernicious examples should extend over the whole of America, what would become ... of the moral force of our governments, and of that conservative system which has saved Europe from complete dissolution?"

Nor did most Americans doubt that other peoples could profit from liberal government as much as the Anglo-Saxon race did. As the eighteenth-century diplomat Joel Barlow declared, "If the Algerines or the Indoos were to shake off the yoke of despotism, and adopt ideas of equal liberty, they would that moment be in a condition to frame a better government for themselves." And even if other Americans were less optimistic than Barlow, and doubted that Catholics, Negroes, Indians, as well as "Indoos," were capable of exercising their rights responsibly, they were nevertheless loathe to claim that the rights they cherished were naturally the exclusive birthright of some but not others. In their state of weakness in the eighteenth and for most of the nineteenth century, Americans could not make the spread of liberty beyond the continent of North America a central or even a very prominent part of their foreign policy. But this did not mean they intended never to do so, or that they did not perceive the spread of liberalism to be fundamentally in America's interests as well as in the interests of all mankind.

But foreign policy liberalism, like political liberalism, has always contained inherent tensions between opposing impulses, some thrusting the nation outward, others imposing limits on that outward thrust. The same elevation of individual over state interests that made the expansion of territory and overseas influence a political imperative for a government devoted to furthering individual happiness could also hinder the conduct of foreign policy when it concerned issues only indirectly and distantly related to material gain and personal security. Lockean man, when he looked at his nation's relations with the rest of the world, had a tendency to ask, where is the benefit to me? Liberalism, therefore, posed a challenge to the consistent conduct of an outward-looking foreign policy even as it served as the driving force behind it.

The day-to-day wielding of power and influence on the world stage might or might not appear to address mundane material interests and so could be a matter of indifference, or worse, to citizens consumed by their quotidian effort to fulfill Adam Smith's injunction to save a penny and better their condition. The expense of financing military forces, not to mention the expense of sacrificing one's life in the service of foreign policy goals, could appear not only excessive but also violative of liberalism itself --even if those expenses were incurred in pursuit of liberal ends, both material and ideological. In short, Americans wanted what they wanted in the world, and their liberalism both created and justified those wants. But they were not always prepared to pay for what they wanted with blood and treasure, and liberalism both inspired and justified that unwillingness as well.

The moral dimensions of liberalism also cut in two directions. Americans might want to expand their territory and the reach of their power and influence overseas in pursuit of material gain. They might hope, in the process, to transform the world, or at least those parts of it with which they came into contact. But they could not avoid facing the fact that in so doing they were in varying degrees imposing themselves and their morality on others--in the most extreme form by taking their land, in the most subtle form by making them dependent on American commerce. The moral price of liberal expansion was to impinge on the individual autonomy of others, to deny others the right of untrammeled self-determination.

The drama of American foreign policy over the past two centuries, and perhaps the key to understanding the sources of American conduct in the world, can be found in the effort by Americans to find some way of reconciling these tensions and contradictions, not only within liberalism itself but also between liberalism and those abiding characteristics of human nature which Americans shared with the rest of the human race. For indeed, such enduring characteristics of human nature as ambition, the &sire for honor, such human emotions as pride, love of clan or country, and hatred and disdain of others were also powerful determinants of American behavior. But they existed uneasily alongside American liberalism. What constituted honorable behavior for a liberal nation? Obviously the answer was different from what it had been for European monarchies or Greek and Roman city-states and empires. What was the relationship between liberalism and nationalism? Did Americans even possess a nationalism that was distinct from liberalism?

And then there was the problem of power. Suspicion of power lay at the heart of American politics and was a main theme of America's revolutionary republican ideology. In theory, at least, American power and American liberalism could on occasion seem to be at odds. In their domestic arrangements, Americans had managed to find ways to balance the daily exercise of power with the preservation of liberalism. But similar arrangements were not available in the international arena, though some Americans dreamed of a day when they would be.

For most of the first century of American history, however, these tensions were submerged. National weakness in a world of aggressive great powers kept many of the foreign policy questions that would later dominate American discourse from forcing themselves on the people and their leaders. It was the rise of the United States to the status of a great power at the end of the nineteenth century--a rise due more to the growing strength of the American economy than to any decision by American statesmen--that exposed the contradictions and exacerbated the tensions that had always been inherent in the American character but which had lain dormant and unexamined as long as the young nation was weak.

The significance of power, and its interaction with the enduring traits of the American character, and especially with American liberalism, has been a surprisingly neglected subject in the historiography of American foreign relations. Even the realists, who ought to be attuned to the impact of growing power on a nation's behavior, have failed to weave the growth of American power into their analysis of the changing nature of American foreign policy. The founders made no such mistake. In his Farewell Address, Washington anticipated that "the period [was] not far off" when the United States would possess the power and the freedom to "choose peace or war, as our interest guided by our justice shall counsel." Hamilton, Jefferson, and many other leading Americans always assumed that America would become a great world power and that its manner of conducting foreign policy, indeed, the very purposes of American foreign policy, would change in proportion to the influence America was able to wield on the world stage.

The acquisition of great power during the two centuries after independence interacted with the enduring traits in the American character in different but important ways. Growing power, for instance, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century, fueled already extant ambitions for national greatness. Certainly men like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge did not invent an American ambition for power, prestige, and even glory; indeed, they self-consciously and quite legitimately drew upon the writings of Hamilton and Washington in making their case for greatness. To be sure, not many American leaders after Roosevelt's time spoke in the blunt language of greatness and glory. For reasons discussed below, the use of such rhetoric actually declined as American power grew. But pride in American power and prestige lurked just beneath the surface of American policies throughout the twentieth century. The notion that the United States was replacing Great Britain as the world's leading power, for instance, or that destiny had placed upon the United States the burden of global responsibilities which had once fallen on the British Empire was shared by policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine that American statesmen did not view this historic development with pride as well as trepidation. The "national egoism" that realists such as Robert Osgood have decried in the actions and rhetoric of Theodore Roosevelt and his cronies long predated and long outlived them.

Growing power, especially growing economic power, also shaped the persistent American search for individual opportunity and material gain. With the growth of American economic power, notions of international free trade considered utopian in the eighteenth century had become by the second half of the twentieth a widely agreed-upon national interest.

Nor did the widespread American desire to see repressed populations liberated, as in Cuba, represent a new departure in America in the last years of the nineteenth century. It was not as if Americans suddenly adopted an "ideological" foreign policy to further their "political, social, and religious beliefs" rather than their national "interests." The liberal, democratic ideals that shaped American policy from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth had always been present in the American character (except perhaps in the antebellum South) and had manifested themselves on many occasions, from the time of the French revolution to the struggles over Greek and Polish independence, to the advent of the French Third Republic in 1870. What was new in the late 1890s was not American idealism but the growing appreciation of American power, including but not limited to the existence of a powerful enough navy to put muscle behind those ideals.

The growth of American power did not only put new force behind already existing goals and ambitions. It also raised new and difficult problems for American foreign policy. A strong United States was compelled to make different calculations about what constituted honorable behavior on the world stage. A strong United States had to confront the gap that necessarily existed between its professed ideals and its conduct of foreign policy. Finally, for a liberal nation heavily shaped by the teachings of Christianity, power itself posed problems that needed to be reconciled if Americans were to justify the strength that they had acquired and which they very much wanted to use and enjoy.

It should be axiomatic that what constitutes honorable behavior for a weak nation may often seem dishonorable if practiced by a much stronger nation. During the wars of the French revolution, Americans suffered severe indignities and impingements on their ability to trade freely with the belligerents. This was a blow to their honor, but not an intolerable blow. To suffer indignities at the hands of stronger powers was permissible, if not desirable. More than a century later, however, when another European war imposed similar indignities and similar impingements on America's ability to trade freely, the calculation of what constituted honorable behavior had changed. Conscious of their new power and influence in the world, many leading Americans considered it an affront to the nation's honor to follow the course of pacific toleration proposed by William Jennings Bryan. Put simply, because a powerful United States did not have to tolerate depredations against its trade with Europe, it had become dishonorable to tolerate them.(1) More was involved than narrow judgments about "interest" For an increasingly powerful United States, judgments about honor and interest often merged.

Nor were Americans unusual in this respect. Thucydides made rather a large point about honor being one of the three motives that spur nations to war. Some studies of Winston Churchill's views have emphasized the extent to which his and other British statesmen's attitudes toward the preservation of the British Empire were intimately bound up with questions of honor. But it is also true that for Americans, calculations of honor involved issues more complex than merely the attainment of respect and due regard by others. As a liberal nation, the United States also had its own unique conception of honor which, though usually unspoken, heavily shaped its foreign policy throughout the twentieth century.

Since the very existence of the United States was grounded on liberal principles that Americans assumed to be universal, American foreign policy from the beginning contained within it a tension between ideals and practice. Americans had declared that the principles of individual liberty and equality were the birthright of all men, yet for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they lived in a world dominated by autocracies with whom they had to maintain respectful and even friendly relations. They might celebrate popular revolutions espousing liberal principles, in France and other parts of Europe, or in Latin America, but they could do little or nothing to aid such popular causes abroad without endangering their own survival. For most of the first fifty years of the republic, therefore, the inherent tension in American foreign policy did not pose a serious problem. The manifest weakness of the United States effectively absolved it of any responsibility to act on its principles if doing so threatened at home the very institutions of liberalism they hoped to preserve.

As American power grew, however, the inherent tension between ideals and practice grew more severe and more troubling. Even as early as the 1820s, the debate between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay over the proper American response to liberal revolutions in Latin America and in Europe brought this tension to the fore. Adams might declare that the United States was the defender only of her own freedom, but the debate with Clay demonstrated that American unwillingness to use its growing power to assist those struggling for freedom, especially in the Western hemisphere, was coming to appear less honorable to leading Americans. Indeed, for all the attention historians have paid to Adams's famous declaration of American disinterest in the fate of liberal causes abroad--`does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy'--Adams's view was more the last gasp of an earlier era of American weakness than a harbinger of a future characterized by American strength.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the growth of American power had made it difficult for American statesmen to explain why the United States should not close the gap between its professed ideals and its actions. The historian William Widenor has described well the view of Henry Cabot Lodge and others in his circle, including Theodore Roosevelt, that America's rise to great power necessarily carried with it certain responsibilities and moral obligations. Whereas in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the main task had been to secure the nation and its character as a democratic republic, by the end of the nineteenth century "the success of that policy could be gauged by whether the United States actually stood for something in world affairs." For Lodge, honor or "securing a proper rank among the nations" meant trying to close the gap between ideals and practice. "[W]hen the U.S. could influence events, as in Cuba, then failure to act was an admission that the country's vaunted morality was only pretense." As Lodge put it, "The continent has been conquered, and now the people's mind is turning to the fact that while we were engaged in this great work other things have been neglected." Honor, power, and America's liberal ideals had, in short, become intimately connected.

The conviction that increasing American power imposed an increasing obligation to support where possible the democratic aspirations of others, and that not to do so was a dishonorable betrayal of American ideals, was an important factor shaping American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century. This did not mean that the United States was always true to its principles or that it did not either ignore or sometimes even connive in the suppression of democratic forces abroad. But it did mean that such behavior was usually attended by a guilty conscience and by a sense that it was, indeed, dishonorable for a great democratic nation to assume a disinterested posture while others who professed liberal principles were crushed by tyrants. Pressure to make practice conform more closely to ideals grew as American power grew and as the United States became more engaged in the world.

Historians have erred in depicting the increased American concern for liberal principles and democratic movements abroad in the twentieth century as a sharp departure from an allegedly non-ideological, "realistic" foreign policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It may be equally misleading to view the shift in American priorities as merely a rejuvenation of a long-dormant American "mission." It is less the case that Americans suddenly set out to transform the world than that their consciousness of great power at the end of the nineteenth century inevitably forced them to consider the moral implications of possessing such power.

For a nation committed to liberal principles, which included the rights of all peoples to live free from coercion, and which therefore placed a premium on self-determination, the exercise of great power was fraught with moral complexity. The United States had itself been born in an act of national self-determination, throwing off the yoke of an imperial master. But a little over a century later, it was the United States that wielded power, coercing other, weaker nations, and exercising an increasing hegemony in the Western hemisphere, especially in the Caribbean basin. This turn to hegemony was not a choice, moreover, but an inescapable fact of life: To be the most powerful nation among a group of weaker nations was to be hegemonic and. to exert powerful influence over others. Yet this reality of power raised a problem for a liberal democracy.

That problem was compounded by the fact that the United States was also a nation of Christians (though it was not a Christian nation), and the wielding of great power was by nature contrary to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. The great Christian powers of earlier centuries had reconciled this problem by claiming to employ their power for the advancement of Christianity itself, as an instrument of divine will. But this course was not available to a nation built on a fundamentally modern, nonsectarian foundation. American presidents, unlike European monarchs, did not derive their authority from divine right. Nor could a modern, liberal, and nonsectarian nation claim that a goal of its foreign policy was to bring Christianity to heathen populations. America's rise to great power came at a time when the Western world no longer accepted religious justifications for the exercise of power.

Americans, therefore, had to provide new answers to old questions: How to wield power without being un-Christian? How to impose one's will, as powerful nations must do, without violating the tenets of liberalism, which included the right of self-determination? How to employ power honorably, when the American definition of honor could not be Greek or Roman or, indeed, even Christian, but modern and liberal? One answer, the relinquishment of power, was not seriously considered by most Americans. They enjoyed the material benefits that came from power and the opportunities it opened for their individual enrichment. They sought the greater security that the exercise of power made possible. They appreciated the international respect that came with power and influence. And, like other nations, they enjoyed possessing power for its own sake. But, like other nations, too, they needed to justify the exercise of power in terms that had meaning for the kind of people they were.

Another solution to the conundrum was simply denial. Americans wanted to reassure themselves, perhaps even more than they wanted to reassure others, that they did not seek to wield power as other great nations had wielded it in the past. Their natural approach to the world was one of isolation and repose, not expansion. They had no grand ambitions in the world but wanted only to be left alone. They did not seek national greatness, only justice. They would not use power to influence others to conform to American desires but only to defend themselves against encroachments on their legitimate, defensive interests. As American power grew throughout the twentieth century so, too, did the self-abnegating rhetoric about American aims in the world. The "egoistic" rhetoric of power, greatness, glory, and honor which was used so freely by the founders and later, briefly, by Theodore Roosevelt and his ilk, diminished in proportion to the rise of American power. The more it became clear that America was emerging as the world's most powerful and influential nation, with ambitions to match, the more this had to be denied in American public rhetoric.(2) This denial, in fact, became the core of the traditional narrative of the history of American foreign policy, which depicted Americans as amassing great power without actually seeking it and wielding great power only when external threats compelled them to do so.

But denial had its limits. The myth of a passive, isolationist America was repeatedly exploded by the reality of expanding influence, growing power, and an ever more encompassing global hegemony. The wielding of great power still required an honorable and principled justification that conformed to the American character. Americans, therefore, tried to resolve the moral conundrum of power in two ways. First, they proposed to use that power to serve liberal ends, much as the earlier Christian great powers had claimed to use their power to serve Christian ends. Second, they attempted to construct an international system--whether in the form of a concert of great powers, the League of Nations, the United Nations, or the NATO alliance--in which the wielding of American power could receive the blessing of other nations and could be depicted as advancing not only, or even primarily, the narrow interests of Americans but the broader goals of an international community of civilized states.

The experience of the Civil War had an enormous impact on Americans' thinking about the relationship between rights and responsibilities. Although the North fought initially for the preservation of the Union and in defense of northern rights and liberties, over the course of the war the purposes and rationale shifted. By the end, many Americans, following Lincoln's lead, had come to the conviction that it was not enough to preserve one's own rights within a national system that denied those rights to others. Indeed, for many the painful lesson of the antebellum years was that disinterest in the preservation of American liberties in the South had come to threaten those liberties everywhere. It was not enough to have a society based on rights if those rights could not be exercised by all the people. Such inconsistency was dishonorable as well as pernicious. At the end of the war and through the period of reconstruction, therefore, most leading northerners, which is to say most Republicans, came to embrace a positive responsibility to defend liberties throughout the nation. By the end of the nineteenth century, the generation of leaders that included Roosevelt and Lodge, both of whom looked upon the Civil War as America's finest moment and upon the Republican party as the great moral force of the nation, carried that sense of responsibility into foreign affairs.

The central transitional figure in introducing the idea of responsibility into American foreign policy was not Woodrow Wilson but Theodore Roosevelt--a president long admired by realists for his keen grasp of power politics. But Roosevelt's understanding of the importance of power led him in a direction that realists, to the degree they understood it, ought to have found troubling. For it was Roosevelt who first offered an answer to the moral conundrum of power and who launched the United States on its twentieth-century project to reconcile power, honor, and liberalism.

Roosevelt believed that the United States, having acquired great power, had also acquired with it a great international responsibility to help advance the cause of civilization. This meant, in the first instance, creating a liberal order in the Western hemisphere, just as the other great civilized powers had the responsibility of bringing about order in their spheres of influence. Because of its power, Roosevelt believed, the United States had no choice but to "assume an attitude of protection and regulation in regard to all these little states." And because the United States was a democratic great power, protection and regulation also meant helping them acquire the "capacity for self-government" to assist their progress "up out of the discord and turmoil of continual revolution into a general public sense of justice and determination to maintain order."

Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Caribbean served as an early laboratory for the exercise of American hegemony in pursuit of liberal ends. As it was to do in various parts of the world in the latter half of the century, the United States brokered non-aggression pacts among the Central American states, tried to impose the principle of non-recognition against those leaders who seized power illegitimately, and generally sought to promote democratic government in often hopeless circumstances. More was at work here than idealism. As would be true later in the century and in different parts of the world, efforts to further a liberal order sometimes came after interventions undertaken for very different purposes--to protect American investments, for instance, or to defend against perceived threats to American security and hegemony. The furtherance of liberal goals in these cases provided ex post facto justification for the wielding of power on less idealistic grounds. But this did not mean that American policymakers were cynics or hypocrites. The United States may not have sent troops to Nicaragua to establish democratic government, for instance, but once in Nicaragua Americans like Henry Stimson, following the Rooseveltian tradition, believed passionately that they had a duty to leave a democratic government behind when they left.

The effort to make the exercise of power conform to the requirements of a liberal conscience shaped American foreign policy throughout the twentieth century, first in the Western hemisphere, later in Europe and Asia--and, as the democratic revolution which swept the globe between 1975 and 1992 revealed, with rather surprising success. John Lewis Gaddis has noted that "The American empire, like other empires in history, brought about profound changes in countries that came into contact with it." But that depiction of the United States as a passive carrier of the liberal virus, though accurate, is also incomplete. Americans may not have set out on a "mission" to make the world democratic, but when the exercise of power brought them unavoidably into contact with other nations, American policymakers often felt compelled to pursue liberal ends. Years before Woodrow Wilson promised to make the world safe for democracy, Roosevelt declared it America's "duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can free them only by destroying barbarism itself."

Nor did Wilson invent the view that the use of American power, for whatever purpose, could best be justified as serving the broader interests of an international community of civilized states. The idea of an international league to enforce peace and defend civilization had germinated in Republican circles long before Wilson campaigned for u.s. membership in the League of Nations. In the 1890s William McKinley's Secretary of State, John Hay, had entertained hopes of bringing the world's great powers together in what Henry Adams called a "combine" of the civilized states. Hay's friend Henry Cabot Lodge saw the U.S. acting in concert with other great powers as a necessary step toward a more peaceful, liberal international order, and William Howard Taft was co-founder of the League to Enforce Peace in 1915. Inherent in all these conceptions was the idea that the interests of Americans were intimately bound with the interests of other peoples in the civilized world, and that parochial and selfish interests, while legitimate, would have to be pursued in the context of this more cosmopolitan understanding.

The idea that the United States might make league with other great powers to advance the cause of an ordered, peaceful, and progressive civilization was conceived most clearly in the mind of Theodore Roosevelt. For Roosevelt, according to the historian Frank Ninkovich, "America's greatness in the coming centuries would be determined largely by the degree to which it contributed to sustaining the forward momentum of Anglo-Saxon culture, which [he] placed at the cutting edge of history" And to make such a contribution required that the distinction between American interests and the interests of civilization be blurred, though not erased. Narrow, selfish interests had to be supplemented, if not subsumed, by a more enlightened definition of self-interest--one that encompassed the interests of civilized humanity. For Roosevelt, this meant that even the most hallowed of traditional American national interests, the Monroe Doctrine, had to be justified not only by historical precedent and by the needs of the nation, but also as serving "the true interests of Western civilization." American interventions in the Caribbean had to be understood not as the acts of a hegemon, free to do as it liked with its power, but as an exercise of an "international police power." Roosevelt, as Ninkovich notes, sought nothing less than "the reconciliation of American and global destinies."

This Rooseveltian solution was the supreme attempt to reconcile the tensions within American liberalism, and between liberalism and the natural human desires for power and honor. Paradoxically, the most important element of Roosevelt's appeal for an internationalist foreign policy lay in his appeal to nationalism. It was a nationalism, however, of a uniquely American variety, not an insular, blood-and-soil nationalism, but one that derived its meaning and coherence only from its being rooted in universal liberal principles. Roosevelt wanted Americans to share his pride in the special role their country had to play on the world stage and for which they were uniquely suited as the exemplars of Western liberalism, a role as leader of the onward progress of civilization. Roosevelt's project was to build American foreign policy on this seeming oxymoron, a nationalist internationalism that linked America's fate with that of the rest of the civilized world. For Roosevelt, there was no paradox: American nationalism was in its essence internationalist.

By appealing to American pride and honor in this way, and to the American belief in the universality of liberal principles, Roosevelt hoped to overwhelm and suppress those elements of liberalism which had historically tended to hinder America from achieving what he and his colleagues and disciples viewed as its great destiny. Roosevelt and Lodge had always held in contempt the purely commercial aspects of liberalism, the insistence by so many American businessmen that the chief purpose of foreign policy was to expand trading opportunities for American merchants. Roosevelt constantly feared that Americans would become "isolated from the struggles of the rest of the world, and so immersed in our material prosperity, so that we shall become genuinely effete." He sought to trump the love of commerce with the love of country, with the desire for honor, which meant the assumption of responsibility, and by inspiring Americans to the grander task of advancing civilization.

Roosevelt had equal contempt for the utopian idealists so prevalent in his time and who have risen to shape the national debate on so many occasions since, those who believed the international environment could be so transformed as to rid the world of war, put an end to international conflict and, indeed, put an end to the nation itself. Roosevelt's idealism was "an idealism without a utopia." The Rooseveltian solution did not attempt to wish away the realities of power, but on the contrary rested on the exercise of power by the defenders of civilization against its opponents. "Warlike intervention by the civilized powers," he insisted, "would contribute directly to the peace of the world." Nor could Roosevelt hold with those who believed that the world was naturally progressing toward a more civilized future, irrespective of the actions of the United States. Destiny was to be made, not waited upon.

Neither, however, was Roosevelt's understanding of power a realist understanding. Much as the realists have tried to claim him as their own, Roosevelt did not worship at the shrine of the balance of power. After the outbreak of World War I, Roosevelt favored American intervention on grounds that had little to do with narrow considerations of realpolitik. "[L]ong before a collapse of the balance of power was threatened by the total triumph of one of the coalitions," Ninkovich notes, "or even before it became clear that American interests would be severely harmed by submarine warfare, Roosevelt took his interventionist stand in response to an issue that disturbed many cosmopolitan sensibilities: the German invasion and brutalization of Belgium." Germany's behavior had made it the enemy of civilization. The war, Roosevelt declared, was "in its essence one between militarism and democracy." Roosevelt's vision was not of perfect peace and the obsolescence of power, but neither was it devoid of idealism about the prospects for human perfectability. Roosevelt's foreign policy was liberal, but it was an armed liberalism, ready and willing to meet force with force when the onward progress of civilization was challenged, as he believed it inevitably would be.

The Rooseveltian solution provided the broad outlines of the foreign policy the United States would follow, with some notable and catastrophic exceptions, for the remainder of the twentieth century. Indeed, the story of the past hundred years is in some respects the story of Americans gradually internalizing this broader view of their interests, increasingly equating the national interest with the preservation of the liberal international order. And, much to the surprise of many, Americans also hewed closely to Roosevelt's conception of an armed liberalism. The brief retreat from the "Rooseveltian solution" in the 1920s and 1930s, followed as it was by the horrors of World War II and the quick initiation of the Cold War, only served in the end to strengthen American commitment to the idea that preserving the liberal international order was a goal worth seeking even at the expense of some other, more narrowly defined interests, even if it meant foregoing short-term opportunities for material advancement, and even if it meant spending significant portions of the national wealth on the military and sending Americans to die in conflicts that were not directly related to the immediate security and economic well-being of the homeland. Some leading Americans at the beginning of the century, and a much greater number after World War II, came to regard the preservation of a liberal international order, for all its seeming abstraction, as a profound national interest, of greater importance to America's long-term well-being than the more tangible interests which it subsumed.

Twentieth-century Americans remained as selfish and as self-interested as other peoples. They wielded their power much as other great powers in the past had wielded theirs, and for many of the same purposes. The need to reconcile this behavior with their liberal principles, however, led Americans to a truly novel conception of what constituted their national interest, one that looked beyond traditional national interests to the broader interests of "civilization" one that favored practical idealism over mere practicality. Continuing the Rooseveltian tradition were such men as Stimson, Elihu Root and, though with characteristic inconstancy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose formula for the post-World War II world was ultimately less Wilsonian in design and more, well, Rooseveltian. FDR's version of the League of Nations, after all, had at its core a concert of great powers comprising the all-important institution of the Security Council. During the Cold War, the tradition was preserved and extended most notably by that quintessential practical idealist, Dean Acheson, and by his friend and pupil, Harry Truman. And the man most clearly their descendant in this respect was Ronald Reagan. These men, too, were believers in armed liberalism. They, too, sought American support for the grand effort to rebuild and strengthen the liberal international order by appealing to the American nationalist conviction that the fate of liberalism at home was inseparable from the fate of liberalism abroad.

Indeed, for men like Acheson, this was no abstraction. Especially during the early years of the Cold War, they feared that in the absence of a liberal international order, in a world where the law of the jungle prevailed, the United States would be compelled to change its character. An America wielding its power in such a world would have a difficult time remaining a liberal power, both in its behavior abroad and in its domestic institutions.

The American attempt in the twentieth century to build and sustain a liberal international order was not, as some realists have argued, an inherently utopian effort that set aside national interests in the service of global do-goodism. The attempt to reconcile American interests and the broader interests of an international community of civilized states was never intended, by Theodore Roosevelt or by most of his successors, as an exercise in self-abnegation. Neither in Roosevelt's day nor in the century to follow did most Americans believe that the liberal international order they sought to build and uphold would in any significant way impinge on their right or their ability to pursue their own interests and ambitions on the world stage. To the contrary, the liberal order they sought was designed to allow Americans to pursue the full panoply of their "interests" both of the material kind emphasized by realists and revisionists, including security and economic opportunity, and the less tangible but nevertheless important American desires for honor, ambition, and the spread of liberalism.

The spread of "civilization" and with it a more open economic order based on free trade and capitalism would provide even greater opportunities for individual material gain. The creation of a league of civilized states would offer greater guarantees for American security, and at the least cost to American citizens, since American partners in the grand global coalition would shoulder their own responsibility for civilizing and policing parts of the world where American power was lacking. Such a world would, by definition, permit the flourishing of democratic and liberal ideals across ever-greater expanses of the globe, as civilization conquered barbarism. It would permit Americans to seek greatness of the most palatable kind, not as an un-Christian and un-liberal lust for nationalist glory but as an agent of civilization's onward progress. And, not least, it would provide a solution to the Americans' problem with power itself, by allowing them to wield power in a manner that was at once honorable and least in conflict with their liberal principles.

Nor did Americans in the Rooseveltian tradition generally insist upon a perfect marriage of principle and power, or expect the liberal international order itself to emerge on its own as a glittering utopia. Throughout most of the twentieth century, American leaders and policy-makers followed more or less faithfully the dictates of practical idealism. With some notable exceptions, Americans generally responded realistically to the obstacles that lay in their path. When other great powers, like Germany and Japan, and later the Soviet Union, whom they hoped or expected would help shoulder the burden of advancing liberal civilization, proved instead to be bent on its destruction, Americans marshaled their forces to fight them through traditional great-power means. When, after World War II, their British and French partners proved too weak to rely upon in the hoped-for concert of great powers, Americans increased their own strength and assumed a vastly disproportionate share of the burden of upholding the liberal order against the single greatest threat to it, the Soviet Union.

Far from being irrational or utopian, America's practical idealism proved a surprisingly effective foreign policy for securing both of its seemingly contradictory aims, managing somehow to advance American interests while also advancing the interests of a broad segment of humanity. And perhaps herein lies the principal explanation for why the United States has been such a successful world power in the twentieth century and why it today enjoys an unprecedented and as yet unchallenged global hegemony.

Whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen. From the beginning the challenges to the Rooseveltian solution have come from all sides, including from within the Rooseveltian tradition itself. Lodge, who favored a league of nations long before Wilson tried to put one into practice, helped defeat it and, with the coming of the Republican ascendancy in the 1920s and 1930s, opened a path to precisely the kind of commercialism and international abstention which Roosevelt, and Lodge himself, had abhorred. The liberal dream that commerce alone could secure both American interests and American ideals around the world, that commerce alone was an agent of global transformation, a conqueror of war, and a destroyer of the barriers between nations --these, even more than any genuine isolationism, were the ideas that dominated during the 1920s and 1930S, in both Europe and the United States. And since the end of the Cold War this faith in unarmed liberalism which so stirred the eighteenth-century physiocrats and the nineteenth-century Manchester liberals has returned again to dominate the thinking of a surprising number of conservatives and liberals alike, who see commerce as the solution to all problems, from a rising China to a falling Russia.

But it is the tradition of Wilsonian internationalism that has posed the most consistent and pervasive challenge to the Rooseveltian solution, and especially over the past quarter-century. The distinction between these two brands of internationalism has often been lost on most observers of American foreign policy, and for understandable reasons. Both chronologically and substantively, the Wilsonian tradition built on foundations erected by Roosevelt. Wilson, too, aimed to reconcile America's power with its liberal principles. Wilson, too, asked Americans to take a more enlightened view of their national interests and to equate those interests with those of a liberal community of nations. Wilson's policies in the Western Hemisphere differed little from those of Roosevelt's: Where Roosevelt spoke of helping Caribbean peoples acquire the "capacity for self-government," Wilson spoke of teaching Latins to "elect good men" His interventions in Mexico and Haiti were not qualitatively different from Roosevelt's interventions in Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

But the differences between Wilsonian internationalism and Rooseveltian internationalism were, in the end, far more important than their similarities. Both at a theoretical and at a practical level, Wilson's internationalism aimed not merely at the reconciliation of power and liberalism but ultimately at the triumph of liberalism over power. Where Roosevelt and his followers believed they had discovered the formula for reconciling American liberalism with the enduring reality of power, and hoped that power could be used in the service of advancing liberalism, Wilson saw this reconciliation as a mere way-station on the road to a future where power would no longer be an instrument of international competition, at all. Wilson foresaw a day when liberalism would no longer have to be an armed liberalism. Unlike Roosevelt's grand idealistic vision, Wilson's idealism was an idealism with utopia.

Wilson's means of accomplishing that utopian vision, moreover, required a rejection of the core element of the Rooseveltian solution. For Wilson saw all too plainly that the enemy of the international utopia he sought was the nation itself. Unlike Roosevelt's internationalism, which derived both its strength and its principles from American nationalism, the Wilsonian view regarded nationalism as the ultimate source of war and aggression. Roosevelt had sought to channel those enduring attributes of human nature that Americans shared with all other peoples--pride, ambition, egoism, the search for honor, the appreciation of power--into a responsible internationalism. Indeed, Roosevelt saw no conflict between American national ambition and a moral, internationalist foreign policy. Wilsonian internationalism, on the other hand, sought to negate and to transcend these attributes of human nature. And unlike Roosevelt, who aimed only to subsume the pursuit of America's parochial national interests within a broader and more cosmopolitan understanding of enlightened self-interest that linked "American and global destinies" Wilson's internationalism aimed to do away with the concept of national interests altogether. Talk of national interest, and even of the American national interest, was in the Wilsonian view atavistic. Wilson's goal was a de-nationalized internationalism.

Although Wilson's rhetoric before, during, and after World War I found its theoretical basis in a Kantian intellectual tradition, it also had origins that were distinctly political. Wilson was neither anti-American nor a consistent opponent of the use of power. As president he was, if anything, an amasser of executive power and no stranger to the use of American military strength abroad. Still, at the core of his foreign policy lay a suspicion of power, including American power, inherited from a decades-long Democratic tradition to which he was heir.

American participation in World War I presented a daunting challenge to this Democratic tradition. This southern-dominated party's view of the Civil War and reconstruction was, needless to say, rather different from that of the Rooseveltian Republicans. And as a beleaguered opposition party for the better part of two decades, the Democrats had done what opposition parties usually do: oppose. They had opposed not only the power exercised by Republicans around the turn of the century, but also the various rationales which Republicans had offered as justification for the use of power. To Republican appeals to nationalism and celebration of armed liberalism, Democrats had responded with their own appeals to utopian internationalism and liberal pacifism.

When in 1912 these Democrats came to power, in all senses of that phrase, they remained trapped in their opposition rhetoric. Wilson's party was still, after all, the party of Bryan, in which pacifists and anti-imperialists had united to oppose American policy at the turn of the century for its unjust oppression of other peoples' right to self-determination. Wilson had to justify American entry into the war in the only terms that could be acceptable to early twentieth century Democrats and to anti-imperialists of both parties who, after all, thought they had re-elected Wilson in 1916 to keep them out of the European war.

Under the circumstances, it is little wonder that Wilson had to justify American entry into the war, paradoxically, on pacifist grounds. Nor is it surprising that he tried to defend alliance with the European imperial powers on anti-imperialist and, indeed, on anti-nationalist grounds. How else was the party of Bryan, once in office, to exercise power in the world? For these reasons, alone, Wilsonian internationalism had to be very different from the kind of internationalism proposed by Roosevelt.

History does repeat itself, and sometimes with surprising faithfulness to detail. Fifty years after Wilsonian internationalism seemingly destroyed itself on the rocks of the League of Nations treaty ratification debate, it began its re-emergence in the Vietnamized Democratic Party. The transformation progressed by similar stages. The main difference was that before 1968 the Democratic Party had generally embraced Rooseveltian internationalism to put force behind its liberal idealism, appealing to national pride, and of course fear of Communism, as a spur to responsible internationalism. But as a result of the Vietnam debacle, after 1968 and throughout the 1970s the Democratic Party became once again the party of Bryan, this time masquerading as the party of McGovern. The same suspicion of power, and specifically American power, gave birth to the same utopian pacifism. The same liberal trepidation about trampling on the self-determination of foreign peoples led to the same desires to negate power altogether, and with it American pride, ambition, and honor, which were once again seen as evil and atavistic.

Added to the mix this time, however, was a more genuine and explicit anti-Americanism. For now the peoples who needed to be rescued from American power were not poor Filipinos led by the freedom-fighting Aguinaldo, struggling in their own way to achieve both independence and, they claimed, liberal government, but the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge, the Sandinistas, and other Communist movements the world over--all of whom were self-proclaimed opponents of liberalism itself. In the hands of McGovern Democrats in the 1970S, liberal principles were now to be placed in the service of liberalism's most deadly enemies. Liberal hatred of the exercise of American power slid all too easily into hatred of American liberalism itself. Wilson, it is fair to say, would have been shocked by this turn of events, but he could not honestly disown the intellectual tradition which produced it.

The final stage of re-emergent Wilsonianism came with the election of Bill Clinton and the end of twenty-four years of Republican ascendancy.(3) The election of 1992 raised the same question as the election of 1912. How was the party of McGovern to exercise power in the world? The answer, not surprisingly, was more Wilsonian than Rooseveltian. For the past seven years, Clinton and his advisers have tried to overcome the legacy of the past twenty-five years. In some respects, they have had an easier time of it than Wilson, for they at least have the earlier legacy of Truman and Acheson to guide them. And it is too simple to say that where Clinton and his team have gone wrong, it has only been a consequence of their Wilsonian approach to the world. There are, after all, many ways to fail in foreign policy.

Still, the Clinton administration's evident discomfort with the use of power, even on behalf of idealistic goals, its stated preference for international action over effective American action, its inarticulateness when it comes to discussing national interests, its inability to explain to the American people how their parochial national interests are linked to the international interests of the civilized world, its unwillingness to appeal to American national pride, and much less to the more exalted conception of national honor--all these failures can be traced to the Wilsonian brand of internationalism, which can never quite escape its core conviction that both nation and power are dirty words.

The answer to this new Wilsonianism is not foreign policy realism, with its impossible demand for a de-ideologization of American foreign policy. Realists are in their own way both as utopian and as anti-nationalistic as the Wilsonians they abhor. What could be more unrealistic than to demand of America that it cease behaving as a liberal great power and adopt instead the foreign policy of Metternich's Austria or Bismarck's Germany? Realists do not seem to understand, or do not wish to understand, that the American national interest, its raison d'etat, can no more be divorced from American liberalism than could the raison d'etat of the monarchical states be divorced from the interests of the monarchs. The realists would have Americans pursue their "national interest" but at the expense of their national identity. Even if this course could be followed, it would, at least as much as the Wilsonian project, be a very serious betrayal of liberalism, indeed.

Realists are at their best when they point to the limits of what can be achieved in the real world. But in the real world, America's liberalism is as much a fact of life as the enduring reality of power and the immutable character of human nature. It is the messy and inevitably imperfect attempt to reconcile these conflicting realities that provides the great challenge for American statesmanship, now as in the past. It is trite to point out that the task is not an easy one. Practical idealism, idealism without utopia, nationalist internationalism, armed liberalism--these may all appear as logical impossibilities. Perhaps all we can do is note, with appropriate awe and astonishment, just how successfully the United States has accomplished the impossible.

(1) This is not to deny the many other motives that led Americans to war in 1917, but I would argue that considerations of honor were important and perhaps even decisive.

(2) This argument is, of course, similar to that made by Kennan and other realists, who criticized Americans' unwillingness to accept the hard realities of power in the twentieth century. Where I differ from the realists, however, is in tracing the origins of this behavior. Whereas the realists suggest that the moralism and legalism of twentieth-century Americans were the products of an American predisposition to irrational utopianism, divorced from considerations of power, I argue that, to the contrary; they were an understandable response to the problem of power itself, a problem that other great powers in history had also had to confront and resolve in their own way.

(3) Jimmy Carter, it might be said, was to the Republican ascendancy of the late twentieth century what Grover Cleveland was to the Republican ascendancy of the late nineteenth century.

Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Foundation for Cultural Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kagan, Robert
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Previous Article:Notes & Comments: April 1999.
Next Article:"No other book": Randall Jarrell's criticism.

Related Articles
The moral consequences of impatience.
Louis Hartz and the Liberal Tradition: from consensus to crack-up.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |