Current Problems in American Foreign Policy

A Talk Given to the Mount Holyoke Alumnae, 22 May 1998
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA 01075

The Historical and Theoretical Framework of American Foreign Policy

The United States is an isolationist nation. No one says it better than George Washington in his Farewell Address on September 17th, 1796

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.

Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

There are practical and philosophical reasons why this is true.

The practical reasons stem from the unique circumstances of the country. Let me briefly outline some of the most important of these.

First, the United States is a very geographically isolated country. North America was colonized by a variety of different European powers, but distance made the colonies difficult to govern. While French, British, and Spanish vestiges still remain vibrant in North America, from the very beginning it was clear that the European settlers in North America were on their own. Economic activity would have to be self-sustaining. Europe offered strong markets for the agricultural products of North America, but many, most prominently Alexander Hamilton, knew that the key to economic development lay in the creation of manufacturing capabilities. Thus, from the very beginning, the United States, more so than Mexico and Canada, set about to create sufficient internal demand to support an industrial economy.

Second, the United States was a very resource-rich country. It possessed the single most important economic asset on the face of the planet: the plains of the Mid West and its singular agricultural potential. With an abundance of cheap food, the United States never had to contend with the intense political problems associated with economic deprivation in the same ways as did Russia, Britain, or China. Moreover, the second most important economic asset, cheap land, made it possible to diffuse all political questions with the single exception of slavery. Finally, the resources necessary for industrialization—coal, oil, copper, and iron—were all available in staggering abundance making the process itself remarkably affordable.

Third, the United States was a very dynamic country. The European settlers came into a region already populated, and one of the first tasks of the settlers was to establish what could properly be called a foreign policy. Almost from the beginning, however, that foreign policy was one of imperialism and eventually eradication of the native population. That foreign policy came to be known in the United States as "Manifest Destiny," and the original formulation of the doctrine tended to view North America as the ultimate boundaries of the new country. The historian, Henry Jackson Turner, accurately summed up the idea of the frontier in shaping the American character.

Expansion to the North was stymied in the War of 1812 after an unsuccessful invasion of Canada by the United States. To the South, expansion proved to be difficult but possible and the conclusion of the War with Mexico in 1845 opened up the southwest to further expansion. Finally, western expansion was made possible through the Louisiana Purchase and the subsequent purchase of Alaska.

These three characteristics of the American economy—its isolation, its wealth, and its dynamism—shaped the underlying foreign policy of the country. But these characteristics were reinforced by perhaps a more important consideration: the commitment of the country to the idea of personal freedom as the ultimate value in human affairs.

This strong philosophical attachment to individual freedom is unique in the world. All the European states that went through the Enlightenment have a measure of this commitment, but none is as strong as the United States’ commitment. None could afford to tolerate the US commitment. The ability of the US to satisfy the demands of individuals merely by opening up new fertile territory could not be matched by any other country. Other countries have emphasized other values, depending on their own circumstances. The French, for example, could hardly emphasize any value but justice after the trauma of the Revolution. The British could ill afford anything but stability given the extensiveness of their Empire. The Germans, hemmed in by the French, the Russians, and the British, relied upon efficiency to protect their interests.

This attachment to freedom in the United States manifests itself in two institutional frameworks. The first is representative democracy and one need only refer to the Bill of Rights as evidence of the strength and depth of this attachment. The second institution is market capitalism, and the US has supported this institution throughout its history.

The United States has regarded these institutions as universal and self-executing. They are universal because the United States believes that all human beings desire to have a measure of control over their political and economic lives. They are self-executing because the institutions are purported to work without the intervention of a government or any other outside force. Both these assumptions are, I suspect, wrong, but there is little question that the United States, throughout its history, has regarded them as true.

It is easy to point out that the belief in the universality of democracy and capitalism was self-serving, but, while true, the observation misses an important point. The United States truly believed that the spread of these institutions genuinely benefited the rest of the world as well. For example, Woodrow Wilson, to the horror of his European counterparts, sincerely believed that spreading democracy, at least the way he understood it, was the most effective way of promoting world peace.

The Cold War and the Emergence of the US as a World Power

Much of this theoretical framework was irrelevant to the actual implementation of foreign policy until 1898. The United States focused on the North American continent and, under prodding by the British, extended the framework to Latin America through the Monroe Doctrine. But little was done to extend American influence throughout the world. The British were also committed to the spread of democracy and capitalism, and the United States did not wish to expend the money or effort to do essentially what the British were accomplishing on their own.

The United States did chafe, however, at being excluded from the commercial opportunities in the European empires. In some cases, like the Spanish Empire, the United States took direct action and fought a war to open up Cuba and the Philippines to American economic interests. In other cases, like the Open Door Note in 1899, the United States simply asserted the right of open and free commercial activity without taking action to break apart the colonial empires.

Opposition to the British hegemony on the part of other states, however, was strong, and the assault on the institutions of representative democracy was led by the fascist states of Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain. Market capitalism came under attack only by the Soviet Union but, for most of its early history, it was generally too weak to threaten seriously the institutions of private property and market exchange. The challenge to representative democracy led to World War II and Britain’s subsequent exhaustion left a vacuum in Central Europe which could only be filled by either the United States or the Soviet Union. The United States assured the continuation of representative democracy by occupying and re-writing the constitutions of Germany and Japan. But the defense of market capitalism became an open question, which urgently seized the attention of the United States.

Thus, for the first time, the United States decided to become actively engaged in world affairs, a dramatically different response than it had in 1918 when it decided to revert to its characteristic isolation. And, also for the first time, the United States had a clear foreign policy other than simple vague commitments to democracy and capitalism. We call that foreign policy, containment.

I think that it is important to note that the US made two decisions that were related but actually quite distinguishable. The first, made by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, was that the US would not repeat its mistake of 1918. In the Atlantic Charter, the US announced that it would take on the role of a world power, albeit in combination with the British. This decision was formally institutionalized in 1944. The US staked its political claim to great power status by its support of the United Nations. It staked its economic claim to hegemony by its support for the Bretton Woods institutions: the IMF, the World Bank, and the GATT. The American vision for the world after World War II was clear: it was to be a world safe for representative democracy and market capitalism.

While the vision was clear, political support for the enterprise was thin. After Roosevelt’s death, Truman initially charts a return to "normalcy," and takes energetic steps to demobilize the US military as quickly as possible once the war is over. It is clear that the Europeans were quite distressed by this course of action—they felt vulnerable to the economic chaos created by the war, by the possibility of German recovery, and by the military strength of the Soviet Union

It was this last consideration that pulled the United States out of its traditional isolationism. Only after the war was over did it become apparent to many in the United States that the Soviet Union was going to emerge as the principal contender to the US vision. In the years from 1945-47, the Soviet Union articulated its security interests in ways the US found directly challenging. Thus, the US made a second decision: to oppose the expansion of Soviet power. This decision was politically powerful, and justified the prior decision to become a world power. The Cold War begins when the US offers Marshall Plan aid to Europe and then follows through with the military commitment to NATO.

History will judge whether the Soviet Union collapsed primarily because of internal flaws in its system or because of the policy of containment. From a political point of view, the policy of containment was inevitable. The power vacuum in central Europe begged to be filled, and the only two powers capable of filling the gap were the US and the USSR.

The Post Cold War Dilemmas

It is difficult to pass over the Cold War so quickly, but that complicated story is not directly pertinent to my argument. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US without a clear focus for its foreign policy. It was still committed to democracy and capitalism but the bright lights of Soviet opposition to those values and objectives dimmed making it more difficult to define their practical implementation. In other words, the US is back to the situation it was in in 1945: a great power with powerful isolationist tendencies and no central opponent to override the isolationism.

The central problem of American foreign policy is to determine how the country can stay engaged in world affairs without the catalyst of a clear and threatening enemy.

The American people are reverting to their familiar role of isolationism at a time when the forces of globalization are making that policy singularly foolish. Much of American economic activity is directed to, and generated by, international economics. These economics are, in turn, heavily influenced by political forces that are often at odds with the American conceptions of democracy and human rights.

I want to take two examples of the current difficulties in the exercise of American leadership which reflect these concerns.

The first example is the situation in Bosnia, truly one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Bosnia is not a traditional security threat to the United States, and, historically, the US would never have involved itself in the Balkans. When President Clinton was elected in 1992, it was clear that he wished to intervene in the area for humanitarian reasons. He was unable to do so, however, because the American people would not have supported the intervention. The United Nations was never effective in the dispute because of Russian opposition to decisive action; NATO was unwilling to act because of the opposition of the French and the British. And so, thousands died simply because they were Croats, Muslims, or Serbs.

Ultimately circumstances changed, most notably the election of a conservative French President, Chirac, and NATO did intervene. The NATO intervention, however, makes no pretense about its objectives: the troops are there to keep order, not to make peace. NATO merely hoped that a period of relative calm would allow the forces in Bosnia favoring a settlement to gain strength so that they could create conditions for an ultimate peace.

It is clear now that NATO’s hopes were fantasies. All sides in the conflict have taken advantage of the lull in fighting to rearm themselves and make the prospects of renewed conflict more devastating than before. The only way to avoid this outcome is for NATO to impose a peace settlement.

Can NATO do this? All the NATO forces, particularly the United States, are committed to principles of liberal democracy. These principles do not allow discrimination along lines of ethnicity and religion, concerns of great importance to the warring factions. Recently NATO forces have been more active in trying to root out the most vocal opponents to democracy in the region. Whether this strategy will ultimately be enough is something that cannot be predicted at this time. But the commitment to democracy is probably the only way to bring peace to the region.

The situation has become more acute in recent months as violence has increased in the Kosovo region of Serbia. Kosovo is regarded by the Serbs as sacred ground—indeed, it was in Kosovo that Solbodan Milosevic, the current leader of Serbia, announced the independence of Serbia in 1991. The difficulty is that over two million Albanians live in the region. Since they are primarily Muslim, the Serbs have the same antipathy toward them as they did against the Bosnian Muslims. If a policy of ethnic cleansing is carried out in Kosovo, the consequences will be horrific and likely to lead to an international war.

The second example is the economic relationship between the United States and China. Interestingly, a major test of the American perspective is unfolding before our eyes. The current debate over economic relations with China is instructive. That the Chinese practice a radically different conception of human rights is unquestionable. Moreover, their treatment of political dissidents is, by Westerns standards, reprehensible. Yet, the odds are that the Clinton Administration will move to secure Most-Favored-Nation status for the Chinese and vote to admit them into the World Trade Organization. The Congress will put up a fight, but the outcome of that debate is still uncertain.

The position of the Clinton Administration was well articulated by its National Security Advisor, Samuel Berger, on June 6 before the Council on Foreign Relations:

Thus, the Administration is forced to support granting MFN status to a country with a human rights record distinctly at variance with Western standards in the hope that the economic benefits of market capitalism will force political change.


My two examples suggest serious problems for American foreign policy, but one should also take into account the overall context of American interests in the world. My own sense is that this context is quite favorable to the US. For the first time in my own lifetime—indeed, perhaps for the first time in the 20th century—no major war is looming on the horizon. The number of nuclear weapons on the planet is going down. And the commitment to human rights seems to be growing stronger, albeit in ways that are somewhat different from traditional perspectives.

Nonetheless, the world is rapidly becoming more unmanageable as every day passes. India’s decision to actively test its nuclear arsenal will undoubtedly provoke a response from Pakistan. Suharto’s downfall presages the increasingly likely chaos associated with transitions to democracy as we have witnessed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This growing anarchy is probably directly linked to the absence of a strong central power to maintain discipline within the system. The US will never, because it can never, provide that type of discipline.

The US position is therefore one of an oblique leader, a great power in the background. It is the only role possible for the US. I suspect that with time, the indirect approach will work, but only if we exercise patience and restraint. It is time to re-educate the American people. I am optimistic about the future. I look forward to it. And I look forward to your questions.