Perhaps the least well understood function of any government -- and in my not-particularly-humble opinion, this is at least partially by design of the Powers-That-Be -- is its maintenance of international relations, usually called its foreign policy. Yet the presidency, the highest and most fiercely contested of all federal offices, is at least as concerned with foreign policy and international dealings as with all the rest of its (admittedly few) responsibilities. Given recent developments in Europe and Asia, and the Obama Administration's utter impotence in coping with them, we may expect foreign policy to be a major area of interest in the run-up to the 2016 elections, particularly during the Republican presidential primaries.
American foreign policy has lacked continuity and coherence throughout our history, for several reasons:
- National immaturity;
- Domestic conditions of greater import;
- The innate American inclination to "mind your own business."
For most of our nation's history, the technology of international relations -- i.e., communication, transportation, and the various technologies relevant to warfare -- was exceedingly weak compared to that of today. Being sheltered by the world's two largest oceans and bordered on land by unthreatening states, the U.S. could afford a dismissive posture toward the rest of the world. Indeed, those conditions rendered our entry into the two World Wars optional, gauged against our core national interests.
(Got your attention now, Gentle Reader? Relax; we'll return to this.)
Our sectionalism, fueled in large measure by copious, multi-source immigration, was another obstacle to a coherent foreign policy. Until about 1900 we were too fragmented as a nation to present a unified posture to the powers of the Old World. Indeed, before and during our Civil War, Britain and France played the interests of the sections against one another to their national profit. Only after the Reconstruction Era was Washington able to effectively enforce a uniform policy on trade and tariffs that the whole nation would endure.
Of course, a nation beset by significant "growing pains" will naturally focus the greater part of its attention inward rather than outward. Once again, immigration, the steady settlement of the frontier lands during the Nineteenth Century, and peripheral matters such as "internal improvements" and the construction of the transcontinental railroads commanded much more interest, both politically and popularly, than international dealings. These things, and the stresses they engendered, made it difficult to get the populace interested in foreign affairs before the Twentieth Century was upon us. As politicians excel in the art of telling the people what they want to hear above all else -- some would say "to the exclusion of all else" -- international subjects were rarely raised to the heights of concern.
Our "MYOBism" was equally important; indeed, it continues to be so today. A people busy with its own business (and businesses) will spare little time or thought for the affairs of others, especially others far away. A significant example to this effect was the run-up to the Spanish-American War, the U.S's first major international conflict after the War of 1812. It took a great deal of demagogy, powerfully propelled by the Hearst newspaper chain, to persuade the country into that conflict. There's considerable doubt about whether most Americans of that time were even aware that their nation had gone to war until well after it was over.
The developments of the early Twentieth Century:
- Ever swifter communication and transportation;
- The rise of national radio networks;
- An immense increase in the volume of American foreign trade;
- An increasingly integrated system of international finance;
- The accession to the White House of two popular and unprecedentedly interventionist presidents;
...made Americans sufficiently aware of and concerned with the world beyond our shores to take a substantial interest in international dealings. But even all of that taken together could not give rise to a coherent set of principles by which our foreign policy should be conducted. And it did not.
America's first major foray into international affairs came about with World War I. That conflagration, though confined almost exclusively to the European continent, excited the interest of Woodrow Wilson, the first American president to imagine himself a "world-historical figure" and eager to actualize that status. Even the hyperaggressive Theodore Roosevelt, himself no fainting flower when it came to the flexing of American muscle, could not compare to Wilson's burning desire to impose his vision upon the world at large. Despite an official posture of neutrality throughout the early years of the war, Wilson was determined to lend American power to the support of the Anglo-French-Russian Entente, and did so in whatever means he could contrive without openly involving the United States in the conflict. The capstone, of course, was Wilson's evangelism for a "League of Nations." He succeeded in incorporating the League into the Versailles Treaty, which Congress declined to ratify, and which ultimately went down as one of the greatest international failures in all of history.
The three administrations immediately after Wilson's were far less internationally focused. Some attention went to foreign affairs -- the U.S.'s status as a creditor nation and the monetary convulsions of the early part of the century made it mandatory -- but it came to a small fraction of Wilson's frenzy or the fury would follow the inception of World War II. Americans were unhappy with the consequences of the Great War, and were minded to retreat into our traditional attitude of "let 'em go to hell in their own fashion."
Franklin D. Roosevelt proved to be even more desirous of international standing than Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, FDR was ardent for power and status -- personally as well as nationally -- in the international arena. However, he had the additional motivation of the Great Depression and his administration's failure to ameliorate it. He saw American participation in the war as a way to export sufficient manpower to Europe and idled productive power to munitions to lift the depression his domestic mismanagement had lengthened and deepened. Thus, he labored to involve the U.S. in that conflict against popular sentiment while publicly mouthing anti-interventionist positions ("Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.")
The conclusion of the war, the development of intercontinental bombers and the atom bomb, and the formation of the American and Soviet spheres of influence in Europe, placed the U.S. in an unprecedented position. FDR's wartime policies had turned the U.S.S.R. into a large and looming threat; unopposed, it could easily swallow all of Europe. Our prior interventions, to which the mistakes of Bretton Woods and Yalta added significantly, had burdened us with a moral obligation to remain deeply involved in the miseries of the larger world. Indeed, it had become obligatory the America to become and remain the world's dominant military power -- and to commit the use of that power to the restraint of Soviet power, in Europe and elsewhere.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the rise of the supposedly unchallengeable American "hyperpower," matters remain so today.
Our diplomatic and military involvement in world affairs is no longer optional. It's not about the United Nations, now a farce to rival Wilson's League. It's about protecting our own interests and atoning for our sins, in roughly equal measures.
It was believed, in the early post-World-War-II years, that only an expansive American military presence could deter the Soviet Union's tendency toward aggressive expansion. That belief gave rise to the NATO and SEATO alliances, intended to secure Western Europe and our allies and clients in Southeast Asia against Communist encroachments. In retrospect, those alliances were mistakes that compounded our previous ones, as they removed all incentive from our "allies" to maintain adequate forces for their own defense. The consequences are particularly garish in Europe. Despite a population and an economy comparable to our own, the European Union is utterly incapable of mustering a significant military force, and whose citizens are wholly unwilling that Europe should ever again wield "hard power," even in its own defense.
Two nations other than the United States have emphasized military development and the increase of military capability. Those two nations are not our friends. Their international ambitions threaten our allies, our client states, and our national interests. And for the present we must stand alone against them.