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By Walter A. McDougall

American Diplomacy takes pleasure in offering to its readership the text of Professor McDougall’s thoughtful keynote address at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s annual meeting held in Philadelphia in November 1999.

Several people, including our host Ron Naples, whose burden it was to introduce this lecture, have asked me what exactly I meant to discuss this evening inasmuch as my title was hopelessly vague. That, I confess, was by design, so as to leave me free to say pretty much whatever was on my mind, come November 10, about U.S. foreign relations at the turn of the century. And it seemed to me that I could take any of three approaches. I might, for instance, choose to look backward, reviewing the evolution of American diplomacy and suggesting what lessons to draw from it. That approach would have put me on safe ground, but I rejected it because to talk history would just give you all an excuse not to read my latest book.

Alternatively, I could have chosen to look ahead and prophesy regarding the dire global trends that may shape world politics in the future. But that, I realized, would only send you home gloomy, your heads filled with nightmarish visions of failed states, famines, ethnic violence, financial meltdowns, rogue states with nuclear weapons, terrorism on American soil, an angry Russia, a threatening China, and a unified Europe becoming a competitor, rather than partner, of the United States.

It is even possible that the United States will cease to exist as we know it over the next century, either because Mexican immigrants reconquer the Southwest, or because American society fragments into hostile ethnic and special interest groups, or because of some unforeseen breakdown in our constitutional government. Conversely, the U.S. may cease to exist as we know it by merging into some larger entity, for instance a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Association uniting the European Union and North America. In that case, Ambassador Strausz-Hupé’s vision of America’s destiny as transcending itself in the cause of global federalism would be realized, although I leave it to you to decide whether or not that would be a dream or nightmare come true.

Thirdly, I could have taken this centennial as an occasion to mix history and futurology by recalling the many predictions made around the year 1900. Pessimists, such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and German socialist August Bebel, foresaw a 20th century tortured by world wars made all the more hellish by modern technology. At the same time optimists, such as Andrew Carnegie and Norman Angell, foresaw a 20th century in which war would become progressively obsolete through the workings of free trade and democracy. Call it ironic or in the logic of things, but when the century was done, both camps were right!

Now, with the year 2000 approaching, we have again been teased by contradictory prognostications about the world of the 21st century. Francis Fukuyama has pronounced an end to ideological conflict and predicted the gradual but nonetheless certain triumph of democracy and free markets. But Robert Kaplan has warned of two 21st century worlds—a zone of peace and wealth and a zone of chaos and despair—that cannot coexist for long. Samuel Huntington, the realist, believes that the bipolar Cold War world is being replaced by a clash among civilizations, with the Islamic and Chinese those most likely to cross swords with the West.

The U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which just last month published the first installment of its New World Coming project, outlined four possible futures for the world: first, the Democratic Peace, in which national sovereignty survives, but the major powers cooperate to secure peace and free trade, and eventually bring Russia and China into the club; second, Globalization Triumphant, in which national sovereignty erodes, and multilateral institutions and above all multinational corporations lead the world to greater and more equal prosperity, but also to a more uniform and commercial McDonald’s/Disney/Microsoft culture; third, Protectionist Nationalism, in which cooperation and free trade break down and the Great Powers compete for military and commercial power in a poorer and more dangerous world; and finally, Mayhem triggered by a global depression, environmental disaster, or ethnic violence, a world characterized by wars, refugee floods, and terrorism.

Such speculations are fun, but what good are they? Our leaders cannot craft policy on the basis that the future will pretty much resemble the past, because then any new challenge will come as a shock for which we are ill- prepared. But to assume that the future is bound to be wild and unpredictable is also no use, because even the sole superpower cannot prepare for every conceivable disaster.

And that is why I rejected all three of the above approaches, and decided instead to speak of mundane things: not mundane in the sense of boring or trivial, but in its true sense of worldly, hear-and-now, real. Henry Kissinger’s precept holds that the most any statesman can aim for is to build the foundation for a generation of peace, anticipating the most likely challenges that world affairs may present over the next twenty or twenty-five years, and what America can do to meet them. That task may suggest some laundry list of problems and goals, and indeed, Joseph Nye of the Kennedy School recently prepared A, B, and C lists of national interests and goals for the future. But with compliments to Nye, whom I esteem, I think the best way to prepare for a mysterious future is to stress, not our ends or even our means, but our assets. That is because the strength and flexibility of our foreign policy assets will determine America’s ability to employ various means in pursuit of multiple goals, adjust to unanticipated threats and challenges, and—not least—lead other nations to adjust to them, too.

Today, at the end of America’s second century in foreign affairs, it may appear that little agreement exists about the nature of the post-Cold War international system and what America’s role in it ought to be. We see Republicans, who were bold interventionists so long as the Soviet Union existed, criticizing President Clinton’s diplomacy as opportunistic, unrealistic, inconsistent, or simply incompetent. The Administration, in turn, accuses anyone who resists its foreign initiatives of that wickedest of heresies: isolationism. In truth, however, the leaders of both parties and most foreign policy experts display a surprising consensus in favor of continued American leadership in pursuit of similar goals. To be sure, there is much disagreement over priorities and tactics in a given case such as Kosovo or the Test Ban Treaty. But I think almost everyone, even Patrick Buchanan and Madeleine Albright, would agree on the following four basic goals of American foreign policy:

  1. Security for the territory, citizens, and property of the United States, and security for those other nations whose welfare directly affects our own;
  2. stability in as much of the world as possible, because the more stable our environment, the more we can anticipate possible breakdowns and the less we will be called upon to fix;
  3. an open, transparent, and fair system of trade, both to increase our prosperity and to increase the stake that all nations have in security and stability; and
  4. the promotion of respect for those inalienable rights with which, Americans believe, all human beings have been endowed by their Creator, not only because it is just, but because the more governments respect their own people’s rights, the more likely they are to respect those of others.

Rather, the debates we hear are less over goals than over the best means to pursue them and the priority to be given to each whenever two or more goals seem to clash. Should we rank human rights in China above or below commercial interests—and should we define the word should in moral or practical terms? Should we occupy the Balkans, police the Persian Gulf, and support Taiwan because of the moral and commercial stakes involved there, or are those gratuitous entanglements that spread our military too thin, manufacture enemies, and thus harm our security? Should the U.S. take the lead in trying to abolish nuclear weapons through treaties, sanctions, and controls, or is preserving our nuclear arsenal the best way to deter implacable adversaries who covet weapons of mass destruction?

These historical myths must be cleared away before a constructive debate can commence over how the United States should conduct itself abroad in an unprecedented era—an era which, by definition, has no past analogs.

   The first myth is based on a reading of history that posits America’s diplomatic default mode (if you will) to be isolationism. To be sure, Woodrow Wilson tried to reinvent U.S. diplomacy as liberal internationalism, but his rejection only proved how stubborn our isolation was. It took Pearl Harbor to shock Americans out of their illusions, permitting FDR during the war, and Truman in the late 1940s, to invoke the lessons of Versailles, Munich, and Pearl Harbor, and persuade Americans to take up global leadership and global responsibilities. According to this reading what would risk World War III was not getting involved in the world, but trying to avoid getting involved. And this simple history served well throughout the Cold War. But it has a worrisome corollary today, because if totalitarian threats were what pushed America into a leadership role, then it follows that the disappearance of such threats might induce America to fall back into an isolationist mood. But those who see every vote in the Senate on U.N. dues or African trade pacts as proof of creeping isolationism are just spinning the straw in a straw man. As Fareed Zakaria of the journal Foreign Affairs, H. W. Brands in The Wall Street Journal, and I myself in Orbis have written, American internationalism long predates World War II, isolationism of the 1930s head-in-the-sand variety was the exception, not the rule, and in any case Americans today know that they have never had it so good as during the past fifty years, so why rock the boat by resigning their membership in international clubs? Polls show that the public is keenly aware of the stake it has in global stability and prosperity, and that so-called isolationism is just not an option.

The other prevalent myth, by contrast, teaches that the deepest wellspring of U.S. foreign policy was not isolationism, but militant idealism as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Open Door policy. According to this liberal myth, Wilsonianism is best understood, not as a repudiation of past isolationism, but as the culmination of American congenital idealism. Jumping ahead to the Cold War, the Soviet threat thus appears not as the main motive for American leadership of the Western alliance, but as the main barrier to American leadership of the whole world! Hence, the ebullient corollary of this reading of history is that today, with the Soviets gone, America is finally free to enlarge without limits the spheres of democracy, markets, and human rights.

Accordingly, secretaries of state Christopher and Albright have urged that the Atlantic Alliance go out of area, devote itself to ethnic conflicts, peacekeeping and state-building, and pursue a worldwide political, economic, and humanitarian agenda. In 1999, President Clinton promised a Marshall Plan for the Balkans, to help its people build multiethnic democracies, uphold human rights, open borders to people and trade, and make war unthinkable. The secretary general of NATO now names Macedonia and Albania pivotal for European security—something that wasn’t even true during the Cold War, and which echoes the domino theory that inspired the Vietnam War. Prime Minister Tony Blair celebrates Kosovo as the first battle of the humanitarian war, and Clinton proclaimed a doctrine as universal as Truman’s when he promised, “if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, ethnic background, or religion, and it’s within our power to stop it, we will stop it.”

But turning the Balkans into a NATO laboratory for multicultural experiments is only the tip of the iceberg. In its 1999 report on “The Future of Transatlantic Relations,” the Council on Foreign Relations called for “a global U.S.-European partnership” to:

  • Manage the Asian economic crisis and overhaul the world’s financial architecture;
  • dismantle Russia’s nuclear weapons and promote Russian democracy;
  • suppress all Balkan conflicts and keep it that way;
  • forge a single transatlantic market with open investment and trade;
  • preserve Turkey’s pro-Western orientation;
  • broaden NATO strategy to include the whole Middle East, and present a united front toward Iran, Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli peace process;
  • make Europe abandon its purely commercial orientation toward Asia and help the U.S. manage conflicts among China, Japan, Korea, India, and Pakistan;
  • make a larger American, and much larger European, defense effort in order to modernize and project military force worldwide;
  • and, finally, forge common stances toward weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the environment, drugs, health, crime, and human rights.

Those are all laudable goals, to be sure, but together they verge on utopianism.

     First, any effort to arrogate to the Western alliance the roles of world policeman, nanny, and civics instructor will be denounced by other countries as neo-imperialism.

     Second, such a rapid expansion of missions will multiply points of discord within the alliance, and thus weaken cooperation even on matters the allies do agree on.

     Third, such a global agenda in the absence of genuine burden-sharing by Europe and Japan may erode the American will to sacrifice for the commonweal.

And fourth, it risks causing collateral damage—from the destruction of Serbia’s civilian economy to relations with Beijing and Moscow—that far outweighs whatever ephemeral good it may do.

Let’s see now: a domino theory that makes almost anything into a vital interest of national security; reliance on massive firepower that destroys the village in order to save it, but is still too little, too late to topple the enemy leaders, much less save their victims; erosion of the foreign policy consensus in Congress; alienation of our allies, and strained relations with Russia and China. No wonder that some critics have charged that our post-Cold War policy-makers, many of whom were opponents of the Vietnam War, seem bent on repeating its errors.

Well… if talk of a new isolationism is paranoid, but the hyper-Wilsonian agenda is self-defeating, where do we look for answers to our original question: how should Americans prepare for the most likely challenges facing them in the next generation?

How should Americans prepare for the most likely challenges facing them
in the next generation?

First, by getting their history right, which in my judgment shows that Americans are by nature neither ostriches nor angels: they are control freaks. And that is not meant pejoratively. What nation would not want to control its own destiny and environment if it had the power to do so? And thanks to fundamental facts of geography and demography Americans have from the start possessed the potential, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, to dictate the terms of their relationship with the Old World. Thus, during the first American century in foreign affairs, say from Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 to the election of McKinley in 1896, U.S. foreign policy was designed to prevent the outside world from perturbing the unique experiment that was America. The country was not isolationist—it had constant and intense dealings with the outside world, and it could never have grown so rapidly without the immigrants, trade, capital, and technology it absorbed from abroad. But the U.S. did remain wisely aloof from Europe’s alliances, wars, and imperialism, thereby leaving itself free to control events in the Americas and the Pacific.

But starting in 1898, U.S. diplomacy changed in response to the growing stake America had in foreign markets, in response to the surge of revolution, first in Cuba and Mexico, then in China, Russia, and around the world; in response to World War I, which threatened to rend the fabric of civilization itself; and finally in response to America’s own power, which had increased to the point that the U.S. might hope to control events, not only over here, but over there. So Republicans and Democrats, from TR and Wilson to Charles Evans Hughes, Herbert Hoover and FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy presided over an ongoing search for ways to employ American power to control events overseas. Why? Because Americans were imperialistic? Altruistic? Realistic? Idealistic? No, although we have been all of those things at one time or another during the twentieth century. The root cause was our need to manage seemingly out-of-control events that were happening far away, but could have damaging consequences at home and undermine that most basic of American rights: the right to control our own fate, the right to build America as we see fit without interference from any damned furriners. In that sense, Lyndon Johnson was right about one thing at least, when he said American foreign policy is always rooted in domestic policy.

Throughout the 19th century, the best way to control our own fate was to keep America off-limits to the games played by the Great Powers elsewhere. But in the twentieth century it seemed that the best way to control our own fate was to go overseas, end wars, crush or support revolutions, lower trade barriers, promote our own values, and fashion institutions under our leadership. American tactics differed radically as we lurched from Progressive imperialism to Wilsonianism, to the business-oriented approach of the Republicans in the ’20s, to the United Nations and the dollar-backed financial system established by FDR, to Truman’s and Eisenhower’s containment, nuclear deterrence, and the CIA, to Kennedy’s foreign aid, counter-insurgency, and state-building in the Third World. But all were driven by an urge to control.

And that is why the British upper classes resent us, French Gaullists have contempt for us, Germans and Japanese are sullen toward us, Muslim fundamentalists call us Satan, Chinese accuse us of seeking hegemony, Indians call us hypocrites, and the Russians wish they knew our secret. We have exercised control, more or less, over them and played a big role in shaping their histories. They have had far less control over us, and when they succeed for a time in disturbing us, they generally pay a terrible price.

What is the lesson of this? That we should stop trying to control our environment because other nations resent our intrusions? Of course not. They would resent the U.S. just as much if we turned inward and did not intervene when crises occurred. Our power exists, and we affect events elsewhere by refusing to use it as much as if we assert it. What is more, the U.S. has every right to throw its weight and influence around when its clearly defined and enunciated national interests are being threatened or trampled upon. But nothing is so damaging to a great nation as overbearance, overextension, and overkill, especially in the pursuit of alleged interests that are not clearly defined and enunciated, or are not really being threatened or trampled upon. For by attempting to control everything you eventually lose the power to control anything, because you will squander the capital, the assets that endow you with power in the first place.

And that is what leads me to conclude that the best way to prescribe an approach to U.S. foreign policy in the unpredictable era to come is not to draft A, B, and C lists of our various goals and interests—we all pretty much agree on what a perfect world would look like—but to concentrate instead on the assets that make any sound foreign policy possible. Here, then, is an A list of conditions that make everything else possible:

  1. A strong U.S. economy subject only to mild recessions and modest inflation.
  2. A robust military boasting technological superiority, a full complement of well-trained and well-rested personnel enjoying high morale, able to project force worldwide, and sufficient to fight and win at least one regional war while supporting (but not dominating) U.N. peacekeeping: in short, a military designed to deter or defeat major threats to the U.S. and its allies, but only to assist in operations other than war.
  3. Presidential leadership, which is to say a commander-in-chief with an ambitious, consistent, and prudent vision of America’s role in the world, skilled at communicating that vision to the public and foreign leaders, and self-confident and patriotic enough not to mortgage U.S. foreign policy to a political, much less personal, agenda.
  4. A bipartisan internationalist consensus in Congress, which should not be difficult for a strong president to revive, but which is easily dissipated by an executive that is too arrogant, insecure or distracted to give Congress the attention and consultation it needs.
  5. Sturdy regional alliances, because not even the United States can do everything that needs to be done by itself—but alliances, like Congress, require care and feeding, and nothing harms alliances more than taking them for granted, invoking them only when crisis erupts, asking them to do too little (as if their members really had few interests in common), or insisting they do too much (as if their members shared everything in common).
  6. Engagement to promote balances of power in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, which means American efforts to help manage relations among Russia, China, Japan, India, Iran, Iraq, and their neighbors, because the prevention of war among the big powers is the most moral task the U.S. can undertake, and because we can scarcely hope for peaceful solutions to future crises over Korea, Taiwan, Central Asia, the Caucasus or Eastern Europe if Washington is not even on speaking terms with Beijing, Moscow, Delhi, or Tehran.
  7. Finally—and this may surprise you—the U.S. must wield the asset of strong Pan-American institutions, including a broader and deeper NAFTA and Organization of American States, because the most predictable and direct challenges are liable to stem from the invasion of the U.S. by illegal immigrants and drugs on our southern tier or by the prospect of civil strife tearing Colombia, Mexico, and the lands in between, to shreds.

Note that nowhere on that A list does human rights appear, or free trade, or public opinion. As to public opinion, it is clay, made to be shaped by presidential leadership backed by Congress. As to human rights and free trade, they are goals that cannot be advanced in the absence of the seven assets on the A list.

Just remove any of them—one by one—and try to imagine progress toward our four goals of security, stability, free trade, and human rights. You can’t do it. A U.S. economy in reverse, a weak or demoralized military, a floundering president, a divided, partisan Congress, a crack-up of our alliances, a Europe or Asia gripped by wars cold or hot, with China or Russia checking U.S. diplomacy at every turn, or an America fixated on its own ethnic tensions and relations with the Hispanic world: if only one or two of these conditions exist, then America’s sermons and sanctions will suffice to control very little abroad.

It is on this questions of assets, therefore, that the realist and idealist positions ought to converge, and a new bipartisanship ought to emerge. Without ideals the United States of America would be just another selfish empire, standing for nothing and bound to decay. But without leadership, power, and unity America would become a ridiculous caricature of itself.

Mark Twain, ever the cynic, said statesmanship was a matter of getting the formalities right, and never mind the moralities. Edmund Burke expressed a similar principle when he defined statesmanship as “a disposition to preserve and ability to improve.” But the most telling observation, perhaps, is that of historian Arnold Toynbee: great empires, he wrote, do not die by murder, but suicide. And the moment of greatest danger is their moment of greatest strength, for it is then that complacency and hubris infect the body politic, squander its strength, and mock its virtues.

To be sure, we cannot know just what challenges will arise. But no nation in history has possessed more foreknowledge of how it needs to prepare, or more resources with which to prepare. We need only exercise the wisdom and will to prepare. And if, this time, we do it, then we may finally put to rest Winston Churchill’s dictum to the effect that Americans always do the right thing, but not until they have tried all the alternatives.

Republished from the FPRI WIRE, Vol. 7, No. 12, Dec. 1999, by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684. Telephone (215) 732-3774.



Walter A. McDougall is the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of Orbis. His most recent book is Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
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