Elsewhere in this journal the reader will find an extended essay on what the author, Dr. Chris Dolan, terms the Bush Doctrine and its relationship to longstanding traditions in American foreign policy. I commend it to your attention, whether or not it strikes you as an argument you can agree with.
In that general connection, here in these lines we might usefully take a look at the United States’ basic national goals in this post-Cold War, war-on-terrorism age. Those national objectives can be defined today precisely as they were close to a decade ago, at a time when the threat of international terrorism had not yet emerged as paramount. The nation’s objectives and essential requirements over the Republic’s more than two centuries of existence, as listed in a comprehensive study of U. S. foreign relations* published in 1997, have consisted of:
Survival and independence were assured by the close of the War of 1812, leaving aside the special case of the Civil War a half century later. Significant territorial integrity and expansion questions were settled by the early decades of the twentieth century in the view of nearly all but revisionist commentators. The 1903 Platt Amendment foregoing a claim to Cuba was followed in 1934 by legal provision for the Philippines’ transition to independence.
Victory in World War II, and then more recently in the Cold War upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, assured military security in the usual sense of the phrase. While we came to appreciate that mortal dangers were still to be found from the plague of terrorism, nonetheless the United States emerged as the globe’s only military superpower.
Economic security, the fourth national objective noted above, in a changing modern world may now be more problematic and elusive than any of the other listed national objectives. The nation, with the world’s largest, most productive economic system, survived a severe test back in Great Depression times, a crisis that dissipated only with the onset of global war. In more recent years the furtherance of globalism has had uneven results. The rise of the European Union and of China pose economic challenges. And America, while possessing enormous energy reserves, continues to depend heavily on imported petroleum. The picture is mixed at best.
Democratic values and ideals as basic U. S. objectives and standards make up the final item for consideration under the above formulation.
Sometimes with success and often explicitly, the nation has long promoted its image of exceptional political values and norms. (See in particular Prof. Dolan’s arguments noted above.) From its earliest settlements in the New World down to the present, America has stood for representative government. It has seen itself as the epitome thereof —a peaceable nation with a unique responsibility for showing to the rest of the world the worth of democratic ideals. The nation fought in the First World War to make the world safe for democracy, in President Wilson’s phrase, and in the Second, to eradicate encroaching totalitarianism in Europe and Asia that was anathema to democratic systems. The United States has put its political ideals on the line in the two most dreadful wars in history.
That being said, the demonstration effect of democracy heretofore has more often been the key element in this national conviction. John Quincy Adams, sixth President and formerly the secretary of state, is famously quoted to the effect that the United States’ purpose should be to lead by example at home, not to venture forth abroad “seeking monsters to destroy.” Such an approach—focusing on showing others democracy’s efficacy—has given rise to complications in launching initiatives that hinge upon internationalist views. This is so especially given the fact that the United States has commitments in nearly every part of the globe.Adams’ early nineteenth century admonition to the nation nonetheless bears recalling, especially in Washington these days. We recall in this connection Gandhi’s words quoted at the beginning of this piece.
Finally, another Adams, John Quincy’s father, the second U. S. President, bequeathed to America another thought worth our attention. In the 1790’s, at a time when he as President was under pressure to launch a war against France, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail: “Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.” In the event, he managed to avoid taking the new nation into the looming conflict, one that he viewed as unnecessary.
The father and the son were not unlike in this regard. Same place, another era, different circumstances.
—Editor Henry E. Mattox
*Jentleson, Bruce W. & Thomas G. Paterson, senior eds., Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations. (New York: Oxford, 1997). Vol. I, pp. xvii-xxiii.