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The author uses a framework of three philosophical beliefs to trace the course of U. S. foreign policy outlooks since the founding of the Republic. His discussion, while complex in nature, repays a close reading, and concludes with an assessment of how the diplomacy of the current administration fits into this frame. — Ed.

Sweeney | The Course of American Diplomacy: Theonomy, Autonomy, and Heteronomy


“Will the United States become again a theonomous society, will the existing heteronomy continue, or will autonomy become the cynosure of American life?”

There has been much mention of late of the evangelical impulses that presumably govern the actions of the second Bush administration. Mayhap some insight in that regard could emerge from applying the theory of history developed by the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich based his analysis of the historical process on the extent to which a society considers the theological truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition as either the foundation of all cultural forms, accepts instead the structures and laws of reality as they are present in the human mind, or attempts to turn the clock back to a more satisfying spiritual orientation. In consequence, applying his analysis to the American diplomatic experience may illustrate a perceived dissimilarity between the secular and the sacred.

Although it had its roots in the colonial experience, American isolationism came clearly and decisively upon the scene with the American Revolution. The Revolution was, of course, the supreme act of isolation, the cutting of ties with Europe by a society that perceived itself different in its composition and its aspirations. Even the Franco-American alliance of 1778 was accepted reluctantly, and the postwar years saw active efforts to divest the nation of that commitment. In the years that followed the Peace of Paris of 1783, the United States was, save in connection with the acquisition of Louisiana and the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine, content to play a lone hand. Thus, throughout the nineteenth century America was guided by a policy of isolation from international entanglements. Admittedly, this approach corresponded with “the interests of the U.S., the realities of international intercourse and even with American ideals.”2 Moreover, during this period Europe was, for the most part, at peace. It was, therefore, reasonable that the nation should devote itself to the “development of its own strength, to its own conceptions of liberty and progress,” to concentrate on the “building of a more fruitful social and economic order, rather than the assertion of its place in the larger world,” most particularly “since it was in no way threatened by what went on there.”3

Americans tended to aver that their role in the redemption of the world must begin with perfecting their “own institutions, not by moving into other countries and setting things straight; by example, not by intervention.”4In the words of John Quincy Adams, the nation “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” for such an action would mean that the fundamental maxims of its policy “would insensibly change from liberty to force … She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.”5

Adams’ comment is the key to any analysis of U.S. foreign policy prior to the First World War. The United States was, in sum and substance, what Paul Tillich called a theonomous culture. Tillich defined such a culture as one in which the “consciousness of the presence of the unconditional permeates and guides all cultural forms.”6 This does not mean the majority of the people are active communicants in the organized religious sense. Rather, that the theological truths of the Judeo-Christian tradition are considered the ultimate foundation of all cultural forms. In other words, when a legislative enactment is necessary to place under Godin a pledge of allegiance it is too late—it no longer is. In a theonomous culture, religion is the prime motivational factor in every aspect of human existence.

Despite the individual religious sensibilities, or lack thereof, the fact of the matter was that Americans were, in their political and economic manifestations, nurtured on one of the most profound and exacting ideologies ever devised—that of John Calvin. It was a cast of mind that viewed the Republic as the redeemer nation par excellence. It was not the place of the United States to “assume the correction of all the ills of the world” and it must not assume those “burdens which nations must bear themselves.”7 The gaze of the civilized world instead must be riveted “to the unselfishness and the righteousness of representative democracy” and the moral superiority of the nation must not be diluted by excessive foreign contact.8 If persons of virtue must avoid contamination by sinners lest it imperil their immortal soul, the Republic, predestined to be one of the elect, must also restrict its contacts with those nations assigned to hopeless damnation lest it, the Republic, become similarly tainted.

The aftermath of the First World War appeared to be proof positive of the danger incident upon the abandonment of the traditional approach to foreign relations. The postwar years saw an “orgy of squabbling over the remains of the German Empire.” Indeed, it “seemed clear that American blood was shed for naught.”9Of course, a period of disillusionment was to some extent inevitable. The era of theonomy resulted in the pursuit of limited goals capable of fulfillment by the United States. The promises of the Wilson administration, however, involved unlimited goals incapable of fulfillment. The territorial acquisitions of the earlier period were concrete objectives, attainable with the power at the nation’s disposal. But what nation, lacking some all-destructive weapon against which there was no defense, could hope to secure an end to all war, or a world safe for democracy? Moreover, once victory was at hand, the interests of the various Allied powers must inevitably diverge. Obviously, compromises on individual issues were the only means to reconcile the former allies and stem the tide toward a situation in which it was every nation for itself and the devil take the hindmost. Yet, Americans were accustomed to an environment wherein compromise with evil, perceived or actual, was the sure path to the fires of hell. Nonetheless, the brief experience in attempting to put the world back on the right track profoundly affected more than a few Americans.

In consequence, the immediate post-First World War years revealed a “curious compound of international cooperation and isolationism.” 10The several Washington treaties assisted in the easing of tensions, while American-sponsored programs did much to ease the problems in connection with German war reparations. The United States participated in several activities under the auspices of the League of Nations, and the 1928 Pact of Paris reflected American idealism at its best. Nonetheless, the same period found the nation restricting immigration and demanding payment of the war debts, whilst raising tariff barriers to an extent that made the payment of such debts unlikely. Not only was the spirit of international cooperation severely damaged, Americans were visited with “a strong revulsion against the involvement in European affairs.”11 Americans of all stripes came to believe they were suckered into war by incompetent leadership, the pressures of financial interests, subtle Allied propaganda, and the machinations of the arms manufacturers. Therefore, the Congress of the United States found it prudent to enact numerous neutrality laws to prevent such a circumstance from developing anew. The neutrality laws were significant in that they marked the end of the first stage of U.S. foreign policy, as did the New Deal with respect to the domestic economy.

A theonomous United States had placed its faith in a benevolent providence that protected fools and Americans on the international stage while at home an “invisible hand” functioned to lead “the private interests and passions of men” in that direction “which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society.”12In the depression decade, however, the United States abandoned the openness of the conditional to the dynamic presence of the unconditional – for what Tillich terms autonomy.

Autonomy is “the acceptance of the structures and laws of reality as they are present in the human mind and in its structures and laws.” Thus, an autonomous society “replaces mystical nature with rational nature” and “constitutes communities on the basis of purpose, and morality on the basis of individual perfection…. It makes religion a matter of personal decision and makes the inner life of the individual dependent upon itself.”13 The shift from theonomy to autonomy was, of course, a natural development, for theonomy and autonomy are not opposed in the sense of thesis and antithesis, but in the dualistic manner of Yin and Yang. Thus, autonomy is the latent principal present in every theonomy.

Not surprisingly, the Roosevelt administration forsook the traditional view that economic dislocations were natural affairs, a process whereby the economy purged itself of infection, for active intervention by the central government. The administration also moved boldly onto the international stage to restore order and security in a Europe grown fractious by chaos and hazard. When the artificial isolation of neutrality failed, the arms embargo was repealed, Lend-Lease enacted, the warlords of Japan placed on notice, and the Republic generally engaged in the practice of belligerent neutrality. Thus, it was that “in Europe, as in the Orient, a new epoch was opening in the foreign policy of the United States,” the acceptance of the structures and laws of reality as they are present in the “human mind and in its structures and laws.”14 The previous policy of realism was replaced by a calculated commitment to transform the world into that best of all possible societies.

Americans always held the opinion that John Adams spoke the undiluted truth when he informed the Comte de Vergennes that the “United States of America are a great and powerful people.” Moreover, with the end of World War II, few would seriously dispute that claim. In fact, to be an American in mid-1945 was to stand triumphant atop the mountain. As Walter Lippmann so modestly asserted: “What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow.”15 The nation, long isolated from a fear of moral contamination, now laid claim to international leadership because of superior virtue. The advent of an autonomous culture meant that the needs of the world and the expansion of the power of the Republic were inextricably intertwined. Americans, in the words of the British ambassador to the United States, viewed their nation as a “benevolent giant, who perceiving the world out of joint, feels it’s his duty and opportunity to set it right.”16

No country,” wrote a French observer, “is more convinced that she is right,” and if she opts for intervention in the affairs of the world, “she will consider her intervention a blessing for lost and suffering humanity.”17Conversely, any opposition to this self-consciously benevolent force would be considered truly and impressively wicked in the extreme. Thus it was, that the Republic went abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and in the process was no longer the ruler of its own spirit.

The self-serving generosity of the Marshall Plan, Point Four, and the Alliance for Progress was accompanied by crusades against the powers of darkness in China, Greece, Turkey, Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam. and the whole of the Middle East. However, an autonomous culture does not offer as rich an existence as a theonomous one, it is in fact the pale shadow of the past theonomy. The history of autonomous cultures is thus one of a continuous waste of spiritual substance. Therefore, the United States dissipated its spiritual substance whilst pursuing a policy of benevolent perfectionism. A nation that once proudly proclaimed that all “are created equal” engaged in acrimonious debates about who was entitled to enjoy the unalienable rights of life, liberty and property. The national government was increasingly perceived as either “a rogue elephant wandering loose across the countryside [or] a passive bystander in the midst of the great events affecting the country.”18

In such a situation, with the nation turning circles “like a giant ship whose rudder was stuck” Americans felt suffocated and frustrated as “their freedom to act on matters they faced each day was increasingly circumscribed.”19 It was only natural, therefore, that many should look with favor upon an earlier bucolic existence when God was in heaven and all seemed right with the world—in short, the good old days. Unfortunately, cultures that attempt to restore a theonomous situation, realizing that autonomy is deficient, will achieve, at best, only limited success. More than likely, the result will be heteronomy, for the autonomous road needs must be traveled until that moment a new theonomy appears. Any attempt to force the creation of a new theonomy will be unsuccessful in that it amounts to a negation of autonomy, an attempt to suppress it and its freedom of creativity. It “imposes an alien law, religious or secular, on man’s mind” and thereby “destroys the honesty of truth and the dignity of the moral personality.”20 The work ethic is “transformed into the ethic of pleasure” while “loafing, incompetence and rude arrogance are commonplace” throughout the public and private sector. Moreover, venality, “when exposed, most often meets with some form of rationalization.”21 In sum, those who would turn back the clock discover that their efforts are ineffective. Success will not attend those who endeavor to impose unpopular principles by fiat.

Which is to say that those to the Right and Left of the religious spectrum are more avant-garde than even they realize? Despite manifold differences over sexual politics and discrimination per se, both are uncomfortably aware that spiritual renewal and the repairing of the Republic’s moral fabric are one of a piece.22

Tom Paine once noted: “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.”23 But, before such a process begins it is necessary to determine what it means to be an American and what role the United States is destined to play in the cosmic scheme of things. Only then may Americans perceive that which is beyond their ken.

The great debate that attended the American decision to reinvolve itself in the affairs of the world in 1939 was without resolution. Instead of reaching a consensus, the nation, in fact, changed the rules of the game. Americans exchanged the stability of theonomy for the disorder of autonomy, thereby demonstrating the wisdom of the heteronomous assertion of Mark 8:36.24 It remains to be seen if the second Bush administration will be more successful. Will the United States become again a theonomous society, will the existing heteronomy continue, or will autonomy become the cynosure of American life?

In his 1980 Stuart L. Bernath Memorial Lecture, John Lewis Gaddis averred the historical profession is divided into lumpers and splitters. Lumpers seek to impose order on the past and deliver themselves of sweeping generalizations that attempt to make sense out of whole epochs. Splitters point out exceptions, qualifications, and differences, thereby “elevate quibbling to a high historical art.”25 Lumpers and splitters each have a role to play, of course. Each is “necessary, even indispensable, to the writing of history,” in much the same manner that belts and braces have a vital, but separate function with regard to the essential task of keeping trousers from pooling about the ankles at inappropriate times.

Still, as Historian Robert Dallek and others have reminded us, exclusive concentration on successes, on the “growth of American foreign policy,” places the Republic in peril. Americans “cannot afford the luxury of indifference to fundamental shortcomings in their foreign policy.”26 We Americans thus must begin to explore “those unconscious feelings which create the perceptual framework” through which we view that portion of the globe beyond our borders.27 We must, as responsible citizens, examine the profound implications of Franklin Roosevelt’s revealing comment: “The rest of the world—ah! There is the rub.”28

1. This essay incorporates material that appeared in an earlier version in the St. Croix Review (December 1988).

2. Perkins, Dexter. The American Approach to Foreign Policy. Athenaeum, 1968, 4.

3Ibid., 5.

4. Schlesinger, A.M. “Foreign Policy and the American Character.” Foreign Affairs (October 1983) 3.


6. Tillich, P. The Protestant Era. University of Chicago Press, 1948, 43-44.

7. U.S. Department of State. Papers relating to the Foreign Relations of the US, 1922. Government Printing Office, 1938, Vol. I, xiv. The comments are from an address by President Warren G. Harding.

8The Presidents Speak: The Inaugural Addresses of American Presidents from Washington to Kennedy. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, 209. Inaugural ad-dress by President Warren G. Harding.

9. Siegel, F.F. Troubled Journey: From Pearl Harbor to Ronald Reagan. Hill and Wang, 1984, 26.

10. Perkins, op cit, 24.


12. Heilbroner, R. L. The Worldly Philosophers. Simon and Schuster, 1969, 49. The comments are attributed to Adam Smith.

13. Tillich, op cit, 44.

14. Perkins, op cit, 26.

15. Siegel, op cit, 5-6.

16Ibid. As Senator E. C. Johnson (Colorado) proclaimed, the U.S. “can compel mankind to adopt the policy of lasting peace…or be burned to a crisp.” Gaddis, J. L. The U.S. and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1945. Columbia University Press, 1972, 245.


18Ibid., 266.

19Ibid., 267.

20. Tillich, op cit, 3.

21. Townsend, K.K. “A Rebirth of Virtue” Washington Monthly (February 1982) 22. The continued relevance of Ms. Townsend’s analysis is interesting to contemplate.

22Ibid., 22 & 26.

23. Schlesinger, op cit, 3.

24. “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

25. Gaddis. J. L. “Strategies of Containment,” Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Newsletter (June 1980) 1.

26. Dallek, R. The American Style of Foreign Policy: Cultural Politics and Foreign Affairs. A.A. Knopf, 1983, p. xii.

27Ibid., p. xiv. Frank Costigliola has examined “those unconscious feelings” in several respects, most recently in “Like Animals or Worse”: Narratives of Cul-ture and Emotion by U.S. and British POWs and Airmen behind Soviet Lines, 1944-1945. Diplomatic History (Nov. 2005) 749-780.

28. Boykin, E. (ed.). State of the Union. Funk and Wagnalls, 1963, 422. The state-ment appears in the president’s 3rd State of the Union address (3 Jan 1936).


Jerry K. Sweeney has taught history for many years at South Dakota State University. He earned a Ph.D. at Kent State University. He has published numerous articles, including one previously in this journal, and is the editor or co-author of three volumes of history.


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