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An Essay on Reality’s Corrective Qualities

by Cliff Staten

Professor Staten traces the post-World War II course of U. S. foreign policy through what he interprets as alternating periods of activist intervention and less active pragmatism. Examples of the former he sees as the policies of Presidents Truman and George W. Bush; examples he cites of the latter, less ambitious approach to foreign policy, are those of Presidents Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush.– Ed.

America has a split personality when it comes to foreign policy. On one side we are pragmatic. If one method does not work, we try another until we believe the problem is solved. Our pragmatic or realist side teaches us to respond to the facts of the situation and apply a rational decision-making process to problems. Its logic tells us that in order to be successful we must, at a minimum, balance our resources and capabilities with our objectives and liabilities. The other side of our personality grows out of the mythology of American exceptionalism – that shining beacon for the rest of the world to see, the New World. It is this Wilsonian idealism that leads us to believe that we can and should remake the world in our image. We become missionaries. This split personality of realism and idealism has historically manifested itself in our foreign policy.

The idealistic side of our character gets the United States into trouble. We lose sight of the facts that our resources are always limited and that these resources; measured not only in terms of economic, financial, and military means, but also political will, must at least match our objectives if we are to be successful. This logic was the thrust of the insightful criticism of our containment strategy by journalist Walter Lippman in 1947.1Lippman focused on the problem of the mismatch between the goals of containment and the resources required to meet those goals. The missionary instinct causes us either to fail to prioritize our goals or to define them so broadly that we can never have enough resources to achieve them. We become blind to the reality that our resources will rarely ever match these idealistic goals. When the Lippman gap, the deficit between our resources and goals, reaches a critical point, reality or the recognition of our own limited resources either forces or allows the pragmatic side of our character to redeem us. In other words, the redemptive qualities of reality save us from the sins of our missionary instinct. It has happened three times since the Korean War and if history is a guide, it will rescue us a fourth time from the crusade of America’s current foreign policy.

The noted Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has argued that the history of our containment policy toward the Soviet Union reflected the swing of a pendulum between periods when our resources did not match our ever-expanding goals and periods that required us to react to this deficit by either reducing, redefining or reprioritizing our goals to bring them in line with our limited resources.2 This pendulum swing is illustrative of the shift between our idealist and realist sides. In the early years of the Cold War, our foreign policy goals focused on containing communism in Europe. We recognized that our resources were limited. We had been demobilizing since the end of World War II and the American public had reverted to its traditional isolationist character. Containment was limited only to Western Europe where our military strength was greatest.

This period clearly represented the pragmatic side of our character, although it is important to note that events during this time laid the ground-work for our missionary impulse to arise. These events include the fall of China to the communists, the red scare in the United States, and the development of the atomic bomb by the Soviet Union.

By the middle of 1950 National Security Council Document 68 called for a dramatic military buildup to meet the communist threat worldwide and, in particular, in Asia. The invasion of South Korea by the communist North led President Truman without Congressional approval to mobilize and place U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula. By late 1950 U.S. troops were moving into North Korea and by November 21 had reached the Yalu River and the Chinese border. Military aid was also extended both to the French in Indochina and to the Philippine government that was facing an internal rebellion by the Huks. The Seventh Fleet was ordered to prevent any Chinese attack on Taiwan. Defense spending nearly tripled that year. Containment was no longer limited to Western Europe. It now included East Asia. Thus, from 1950 until the election of Eisenhower our greatly expanded foreign policy goals required a massive build up of resources if we were to be successful. This massive build-up of resources and political will would never be enough to achieve all these goals.

China’s entrance into the Korean War on November 26, 1950, led to a retreat by U.S. troops below the thirty-eighth parallel and resulted in a stalemated war. Eisenhower was elected with the promise to bring the war in Korea to a rapid and successful conclusion. By December of 1952 Eisenhower had come to the conclusion that the United States should not be engaged in a conventional war on the Asian mainland.3 His cabinet was made up primarily of former businessmen who were staunch fiscal conservatives and believed in balanced budgets. At the same time, the former general and now President understood the need to balance our resources with our foreign policy commitments. He was a realist and recognized the limits of our capabilities. He ushered in a pragmatic foreign policy by redefining and limiting the goals of containment. Realizing the costs of liberating North Korea, he negotiated a cease-fire agreement between the North and South at the thirty-eighth parallel on July 27, 1953. Eisenhower redirected support for the French efforts in Indochina and initially promised only economic aid to the Diem government in South Vietnam. He came to rely more upon the resources of other countries through alliances, such as the Baghdad Pact and the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, to counter the communist threat. Eisenhower failed to offer support for the Hungarian uprising clearly recognizing that the United States did not have the military resources to challenge the Soviet Union in its sphere of influence. He used low-cost CIA-engineered coups to achieve goals in Guatemala and Iran. He created the United States Information Agency in 1953 with the idea of using American culture, film, music and theatre to counter the appeal of communism. Given his administration’s fiscal conservatism, Eisenhower actually reduced the size of the armed forces and developed the strategic doctrine of massive retaliation, which clearly represented, in one memorable phrase, “the most bang for our buck.”

During the later years of Eisenhower’s administration, certain events played a key role in ushering in the subsequent idealist, missionary foreign policies of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. These events included mission creep in Vietnam, the launching in the U.S.S.R. of Sputnik, the Cuban revolution, and a perceived missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The young Kennedy set the tone for a changed foreign policy in his inaugural address with his commitment “that we will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival of the success of liberty.” The “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy decision makers, embarrassed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco and helpless to stop the construction of the Berlin Wall, expanded U.S. commitments in Indochina, pledged to defend West Berlin from attack, and launched the Alliance for Progress in Latin America. U.S. military resources and capabilities under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s strategic policy of flexible response expanded dramatically. Although the Cuban missile crisis clearly was a sobering experience for Kennedy, we will never know if this event would have led to a more pragmatic approach to American foreign policy.4

President Johnson’s lesson from that crisis was that by gradually escalating the threat and our resolve, our enemies would eventually yield to our goals and interests. At the beginning of 1964, he was apprised of the “very disturbing” security situation and that he had the stark choice of either dramatic escalation of the U.S. involvement or the collapse of South Vietnam. Collapse was unacceptable to Johnson. In August he received authority from the Congress through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to take “all necessary steps” and “to prevent further aggression.” His election campaign that fall stressed that, “Our cause has been the cause of all mankind.” By 1965 Johnson was very much concerned that his appearance of “not being aggressive enough in resisting communism” would threaten his Great Society legislation that was so important to him.5 By the end of that year he had dramatically expanded our resources, commitments, and objectives in Southeast Asia. By the end of his term in office he had committed more than a half a million American soldiers to Vietnam. And sending 22,000 troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 reflected his goal to preempt any future Cuban style revolution in our backyard.

Toward the end of the Johnson years, certain factors began to limit the nation’s ability to exercise power; these laid the groundwork for the rise of the pragmatic or realist foreign policies of Nixon and Ford. The factors involved include the development of second strike nuclear capability by the Soviet Union, a growing U.S. trade deficit, an overvalued dollar, budget constraints fueled by an ever-expanding social agenda at home and the war in Vietnam, rioting in the streets of our major cities, increasing public dissatisfaction with the war after the Tet Offensive and increasingly vocal criticism of the war effort from political leaders, scholars and journalists. By 1968 Walter Lippman was once again pointing out the tremendous deficit between the nation’s resources and Johnson’s “unlimited war aims.” These points and the influence of the realist historian and scholar Henry Kissinger as Nixon’s closest foreign policy adviser led to the adoption of a more limited foreign policy referred to as détente.6 A gradual withdrawal from the Southeast Asian quagmire, while playing the “China card” and linkage politics as new and less costly resources against the Soviet Union, allowed for the successful arms limitations and trade agreements between the two super-powers. An implied agreement over conduct and spheres of influence (the Helsinki Accords) permitted the United States to refocus, set new priorities, and limit its foreign policy objectives to the maintenance of a balance among the major powers of the world.

Watergate, a Congress reasserting itself into the foreign policy processes, the first oil crisis, and the “secretive and amoral” realist foreign policy practices of the Nixon and Ford years among other factors led to the election of Jimmy Carter as president. Under President Carter, U.S. foreign policy began to make the shift back to its idealist side. Initially this was evident in Carter’s emphasis on human rights. The rise of the right wing of the Republican Party led by Ronald Reagan, the second oil crisis brought on by the fall of the Shah of Iran coupled with the hostage crisis, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan influenced President Carter to pull the SALT II Treaty from Senate consideration and to ask for a dramatic increase in defense spending, including strategic forces. The so-called Carter Doctrine of 1980 committed the United States to the defense of open waterways in the Persian Gulf.

A return to a missionary foreign policy was clearly evident under President Ronald Reagan. With references to the window of vulnerability and continual emphasis on the expansionist, evil empire of the Soviet Union, the Reagan Doctrine promised not only containment but also the rollback communism worldwide. It also led to a dramatic increase in defense spending and a renewed arms race with the Soviet Union. Central America and the Caribbean became the testing ground for his crusade. Yet, by Reagan’s second term, it was becoming evident that this policy could not be sustained. With massive government deficits due to declining revenues and increased spending during his first term, the budget became a constraint on his activist foreign policy. Other factors, including substantive changes in the policies and governing principles of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, the stalemated civil wars in both El Salvador and Nicaragua despite tremendous aid from the United States, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the fact that Reagan and Gorbachev finally met one another and actually liked each other – all these led to yet another swing of the pendulum to a more pragmatic foreign policy. Reagan’s second term was marked by arms agreements with the Soviet Union and Congressional efforts to rein in his prolific spending habits.

President George H. W. Bush, who learned his foreign policy under the détente of Nixon, presided over the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union, and a concerted effort by the Congress to balance the budget. He directed a foreign policy success in the Gulf by masterfully putting together the largest and most successful war coalition since the Second World War. Financially speaking, the Gulf War cost the United States very little and Bush refused to expand the war beyond the limits set by United Nations resolutions and the U.S. Congress.

President Bill Clinton, who was elected primarily on a domestic policy platform, was under continuous Congressional and public pressure to balance the budget and to reap the major benefit of the end of the Cold War – reduced spending on defense or the so-called peace dividend.

Until 9-11, President George W. Bush, who was openly critical of nation-building efforts and open-ended, broad foreign policy commitments, promised an even more limited role for the United States in world affairs.

Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, at least until 9-11, lacked the unifying theme equivalent to the Cold War anticommunist crusade that had served Truman from 1950 to 1952, Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1969 and Reagan from 1981 to 1985. Anticommunism allowed those presidents to gain public support for their idealistic foreign policies.

The horrific events of 9-11 and the unifying theme of a war against global terrorism provided the initial public support for President George W. Bush to embark on a renewed idealistic foreign policy. Several other factors also explain the dramatic change in foreign policy under Bush. One was the failure of the Clinton administration to define a strategic vision for the United States in the post-Cold War era. There was no alternative to compete with the strategic vision of the neoconservatives in the incoming Bush administration. This vision had actually been developed as early as 1992.7 The “neocons” wanted to exercise a more assertive, pre-emptive, and unilateral foreign policy that drew upon the hegemonic power and military capabilities of the United States to reshape the global political system. Since the end of the first Gulf War many in this group had already made clear their desire to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The events of 9-11 led to Bush’s declaration of a global war against terrorism and the struggle against Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, and the Taliban led to broad and open-ended nation-building goals in Afghanistan. In Iraq, failure to find weapons of mass destruction, coupled with the failure to plan adequately for the post-Saddam era, led to the redefinition and dramatic expansion of U.S. objectives. These now fall under the amorphous goal of bringing democracy to the entire Middle East and much of the developing world.

In the case of President Bush’s post 9-11 missionary foreign policy, and in the aftermath of his re-election, The United States is reaching a point of reality, a recognition that the nation does not have the resources to achieve ever-expanding and idealistic goals. This reality will soon force—or allow—either Bush or the next president to bring back into balance foreign policy goals with limited resources.

What limited resources? What reality? The administration faces a slower growing economy in 2005, declining productivity rates, a ballooning budget deficit, and declining government revenues that are comparable to the levels in the 1950s.8 President Bush also faces the increasing costs of the war on terrorism, a growing trade deficit, increasing demand and prices for oil, increasing healthcare, and a military that is overextended and almost certainly unable to respond to another major global crisis. In Iraq, resistance to the U.S. occupation has actually more than tripled since April of 2003 despite the fact that American troops kill an average of two thousand insurgents each month.9 The recognition of the long-term nation building processes in Iraq and Afghanistan will make the American public most hesitant to support similar nation building efforts elsewhere. Evidence of prisoner abuse and torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other facilities throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries will continue to inflame world public opinion against the United States. Finally, the administration faces conservatives in its own party that want to rein in the prolific spending.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time at which the current “Lippman gap” will usher in a shift in U.S. foreign policy from the idealistic to the pragmatic. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that the time is very near. It is clear that America must begin to reconcile its goals with the limited resources available. Thus, if this analysis of historic patterns is correct, the nation should expect a shift in policy either during the President’s current second term or during that of the next President. 


1. Lippman, Walter. “The Cold War,” Foreign Affairs, 1987, 65:4:869-84. This article was excerpted from a series of articles that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in 1947. For the entire series see Walter Lippman’s The Cold War: A Study in US Foreign Policy (1947). Walter Lippman was perhaps one of the most influential journalists of the 20th century. His writings in the post 1930s in the New York Herald Tribune emphasize that countries should recognize the limits of their power and place limits on their foreign policy goals by focusing only on essential interests. He himself referred to this as a policy of realism. See also Ronald Steele’s Walter Lippman’s American Century (1980) for an excellent biography.

2. Gaddis, John Lewis. “The Rise, Fall and Future of Détente.” Foreign Affairs, 1983/84, 62:2:354-77. This article discusses the pragmatism (realism) of the policy of détente and how it emphasized the balance between resources and goals. Gaddis, one of the most prominent historians in the United States, has published numerous books including The US and the Origins of the Cold War 1941-1947(1972) which received the Bancroft Prize. His most recent book is Surprise, Security and the American Experience (2004).

3. LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2000, 9th edition. (McGraw Hill, 2002). LaFeber states on page 155 that Eisenhower recognized “the limits of its [the US] military and political power” after his trip to Korea.

4. There is quite a debate concerning what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam had he not been assassinated in November of 1963. Many, including some of his advisers, state that Kennedy would have followed the same missionary path as Johnson. They argue that Johnson basically had the same advisers as Kennedy and that Kennedy was a mirror image of these men who were “true believers” and “cold war warriors.” They contend that a withdrawal in 1964 would have been politically impossible for a democratic President due to the upcoming election. They point out that the American public and conservatives in Congress would never have supported it. Also, they note that less than a month prior to his assassination Kennedy had approved the military coup that overthrew the Diem government in the South. Henry Kissenger, in his book Diplomacy (Simon and Schuster, 1994) states that with the assassination of Diem, “withdrawal disappeared as policy option.” Others, including Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, scholar Robert Dallek and journalist Fred Kaplan, argue that Kennedy’s policies were already in the process of changing. They cite as evidence his “reworking of Vietnam policy” in late 1963, an interview with Walter Cronkite stating that the war was not ours but the South Vietnamese, and assurances to Senator Mike Mansfield that the United States would withdraw after the 1964 elections. They state that Kennedy had also become very disenchanted with both his military advisers and some of his more hawkish civilian advisers. They also point out that he had begun to distance himself from these advisers beginning with his rejection of the recommendation to invade and bomb Cuba during the missile crisis in favor of the more moderate policies of placing a naval quarantine around the island and cutting a deal with Khrushchev concerning U.S. missiles in Turkey. For McNamara’s discussion of this issue see his book In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Random House, 1995) on pages 95-97.

5. Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, Joseph A. Califano, in his book The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (Simon and Schuster, 1991) ties Johnson’s overwhelming desire for the success of his Great Society legislation in 1965 with his need to be tough on communism in order to placate the political right. See pages 34-35 in his book.

6. Henry Kissenger served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1969 through 1975 and Secretary of State from 1973 through 1977. He is a noted historian, influential scholar, and author of many books and articles on international relations and U.S. foreign policy. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his diplomatic efforts to bring about an end to the Vietnam conflict. He is one of the foremost proponents of the realist school of international relations, which emphasizes balance of power relationships among countries.

7. In 1992 Paul Wolfowitz prepared a Defense Policy Guidance Document that was considered extreme and radical at the time. It called for the use of American forces in a pre-emptive and, if necessary, unilateral approach to achieve a “new American century.” This was rejected by Presidents Bush and Clinton who adopted the traditional, pragmatic strategy of containment toward Iraq. In 1996 Richard Perl, Douglas Feith and others of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies argued forcefully for the removal of Saddam Hussein. In 1998 the Project for a New American Century, chaired by William Kristol, sent a letter to President Clinton asking him to remove Saddam Hussein by force. The letter was signed by 18 individuals including Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perl, Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and others who became the primary advisers to President George W. Bush. In the 1990 January/February issue of Foreign Affairs Condoleezza Rice stated that a Republican foreign policy would “mobilize whatever resources necessary” to remove Saddam Hussein. In September of 2000 the Project for a New American Century put forth a document entitled “Rebuilding American Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century.” This document serves as the basis for the post 9-11 foreign policy of President Bush. Nine days after the events of 9-11 the same Project for a New American Century sent a letter to the President urging him “to remove Saddam Hussein from power” as a part of any war on terrorism. For more information see the website for the Project for a New American Century at the following: In fact, these issues predate the first Gulf War. It was then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney who, in the fall of 1990, authorized Paul Wolfowitz to develop the plan known as the Western Excursion which called for U.S. troops to bypass the Iraqi army in Kuwait, enter western Iraq, and remove Saddam Hussein from power. This plan was developed outside the Pentagon’s normal planning procedures. Cheney then bypassed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and presented the plan to the President. It was rejected by President Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Secretary of State James Baker. See The Generals’ War: the Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf(Little, Brown, 1995) by Michael Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainer for a discussion of this.

8. As of July 13, 2005 it was reported that due to an unexpected increase in tax revenues, the deficit will decline for the first time under President Bush. Some of this increase in tax revenues was due to a special factor that involves the expiration of a temporary tax break that allowed companies to write off their investment in new equipment much more rapidly than normal. Most of the increase in revenue was due to quarterly payments on investment gains and business earnings. Independent analysts indicate that this unexpected revenue will not have much impact on the future fiscal problems of the country. Current federal spending is up 7 percent from 2004. Should President Bush’s tax cuts become permanent, it will eliminate 1.4 trillion dollars from the treasury over the next 10 years. The Medicare expansion into the prescription drug area will cost the tax payer 33 billion dollars in 2006 and will increase each year after that. Another unknown factor is the increasing cost of the war in Iraq. See Edmund Andrews’ article “Sharp Increase in Tax Revenue will Pare U.S. Deficit” in the New York Times (July 13, 2005) for a discussion. For budget figures please see the Congressional Budget Office.

9. Data are taken from official U.S. estimates. The estimates are that in April of 2003 there were 5,000 resistance fighters. This had grown to 18,000 by January of 2005. Most of the resistance fighters are local Sunni Iraqis and represent a growing nationalistic opposition to the U.S. occupation. See Adriana Lins de Albequerque and Michael O’Hanlon, “The State of Iraq” in the New York Times(February 21, 2005) and Robert Pape’s Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005) pages 245-46.

The author is professor of political science and dean of the School of Social Sciences, Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana. He received a PhD from North Texas State in political science. Dean Staten published The History of Cuba (Greenwood Press) in 2003.


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