Arguing about American foreign policy is a tradition as old as the American Republic itself.
In George Washington's presidency, scarcely five years into our experiment of democratic self-government, the Jay Treaty sparked America’s first major foreign policy controversy. The treaty seemed to favor cold, commercial ties with former enemy Great Britain over the warm esprit de corps many American patriots felt connected them with the revolutionaries of the nascent French Republic. Opposition to the agreement was so intense that John Jay, the treaty's lead negotiator and namesake, remarked that he could walk along the East Coast by night, aided only by the light of his own burning effigy.
Even in the Cold War era when we think of politics as having ended "at the water's edge," the making of American foreign policy was hardly peaceful. Joe McCarthy was busy hunting communists in the State Department. A congressional "China Caucus" accused the Nixon Administration, in allowing mainland China to supplant Taiwan on the UN Security Council, of selling out U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek and cozying up with the communists in Beijing (Nixon had done just that, but for good reasons). Reagan's daughter was caught up in the call for a "nuclear freeze" and in a moment of presidential family drama arrived at the White House, cameras rolling, to lobby her own father to abandon nuclear competition with the Soviet Union. Anyone who thinks that today's disagreements over foreign policy are especially heated need only examine these and more episodes from our recent past to see that we Americans have always hotly contested our country's role in the world.
It is true, on the other hand, that as World War II faded from sight and the challenges of the Cold War emerged, Americans came together as never before to embrace an internationalist consensus. Thanks in great part to wartime mobilization, a vast country divided along regional fault lines developed a stronger sense of common identity; everyone listened to the same radio shows, watched the same newsreels and cheered the same dispatches from Europe and the Pacific. After World War II, unlike after World War I, public opinion actually welcomed America's role as a great power. The major disagreements weren't over whether to assume a leading role in the international system—they centered on how to do so wisely, and in accordance with our own American traditions and values.
Eleanor Roosevelt personified American enthusiasm for the United Nations and for universal recognition of human rights. George Marshall championed a reconstruction plan for Europe that still prompts warm smiles among those who remember it. Even Herbert Hoover emerged from political pariahdom, recast as a daring comeback kid who had saved Europe from starvation in World War I and did it again after the carnage of World War II.
In Truman and Eisenhower, Marshall and Acheson, enlightened statesmen were for once at the helm. Consolidating the internationalist consensus, in 1947, a young foreign service officer named George Kennan wrote "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," arguing for a sustained American grand strategy to counter and deter Soviet aggression. Kennan's paradigm of Containment would frame the debate for next 45 years as American leaders debated over how to respond to Soviet influence around the world.
No response to the collapse of the Soviet Union even rivaled Kennan's response to the USSR’s emergence as America’s rival in the post-World War II era; in other words, the successor to Containment never really materialized. Anthony Lake, an advisor to Bill Clinton, spoke optimistically in 1993 of moving "from containment to enlargement" as the number of market-oriented democracies in the world dramatically increased. Democratization and marketization emerged two main pillars of American foreign policy; policy elites believed that democracies would be more peaceful than authoritarian states and that market economies would grow more quickly than command economies, which in turn would be good for American exports. Also on the agenda were humanitarian causes and the promotion of human rights, but in this sphere Clinton's decisions veered wildly—rapid withdrawal in Somalia, bumbling nonintervention in Rwanda and limited humanitarian intervention in Kosovo spanning his administration—reflecting the half-baked thinking of an undisciplined man running an even less disciplined White House.
Unlike Clinton, George W. Bush assumed office with a coherent worldview and an accomplished array of foreign policy advisors who largely shared the same set of assumptions about the world. Chief among them was the foreboding that America's predominance would lead rogue regimes and terrorist organizations to adopt unconventional and worrisome tactics—such as the deliberate targeting of civilians and the development of weapons of mass destruction—to make up for the asymmetry of power between them and the West. Bush's advisors also assumed that liberal democracy and market economics were the best way to order societies around the globe; with the Soviet Union's collapse and America's strong growth in the 1990s, they expected the world to interpret the evidence as they did and that publics everywhere were eager to embrace the self-evident freedom and prosperity that would follow from Washington’s prescribed policies.
The Bush administration may have been right that at the dawn of the 21st century, no coherent ideological competitor could challenge the happy marriage of liberal democracy and market economics (this is Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument). But where Bush was certainly wrong was in the notion that American elites operating out of Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the West Wing could somehow substantially hurry up history, assembling for Iraq and Afghanistan in a matter of months the intricate political and economic institutions that have taken hundreds of years to build in the West (and, of course, remain a work in progress).
Bush's presidency revealed that even superpowers have limits. America is not God. We cannot rain fire and brimstone on Saddam and Tora Bora one day and expect to remake Iraq and Afghanistan in America's image the next. The regimes Bush established in Baghdad and Kabul, despite their nice-sounding constitutions, are structurally fragile, and absent consistent American engagement and support, unlikely to stand the test of time. In Iraq, Sunni exclusion in the post-Saddam era only fosters resentment and strengthens the hand of the Islamic State. The Kurds cling to their newfound autonomy and nurse dreams of independence. The Shi'a worry about the dissolution of a country they have only recently come to dominate. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has the good fortune of having a president who literally wrote the book on fixing failed states, but in the wake of a Taliban resurgence and crippling intra-governmental divisions, shows little chance of fixing his own.
Barack Obama took office vowing to avoid the mistakes he had identified in his predecessor's presidency. Restraint was the order of the day, and the quiet business of trade negotiations and alliance-building in Asia would merit more of the foreign policy establishment's attention than the sound and fury echoing from the Middle East. Obama delegated responsibility for Iraq policy to Vice President Biden, who soon bungled the proper American response to Iraqi elections, and sought to shore up the divisive and dictatorial reign of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki despite a plurality of Iraqi voters voting for a moderate, nationalist coalition in the 2010 elections. Negotiating a status of forces agreement with Iraq and establishing a 10,000-strong base of American troops in Iraq (much in the mold of American bases in Germany, Japan or South Korea) would have signaled an enduring American commitment to regional stability and development. Obama, however, was eager to withdraw as quickly as he could, and to claim credit for ending the Iraq War at just about every stop on the campaign trail in 2012. But American troops didn’t stay out Iraq for very long. Today, thousands are back to do battle with the Islamic State.
Voters may not be familiar with every single one of these details, but they do know that over the past few decades, America’s elites have failed them and disappointed the world. Against this backdrop of elite failure, it really should come as no surprise that when Donald Trump says, "We don't win anymore," his message resonates with so many. Indeed, foreign policy, usually at the bottom of voters’ list of concerns, is at the forefront of the 2016 presidential election.
Everywhere our sworn enemies, old foes and emerging rivals seem to have seized the advantage: terror attacks resound daily from Orlando to Istanbul to Dhaka; a revanchist Russia annexes Crimea and starves Aleppo without constraint; an undaunted China dredges sand from the ocean floor, building islands it will soon connect in a constellation of Chinese dominance extending throughout the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the post-Cold War American project of constructing a liberal world order based on democracy, human rights, and market capitalism looks less likely to prevail with each passing day: emerging democracies slide back into despotism; international institutions like the IMF and World Bank lose their luster; the European Union stumbles in the face of debt and migrant crises and even begins to shrink.
The time is ripe for a robust debate about America's role in the world. What many American voters have expressed by supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and what many British voters favoring Brexit revealed as well, is a visceral distrust of the global elite. These voters have a point—the elite has gotten a lot wrong over the past 25 years. Most of all, there is no compelling vision coming from the elite right now, and where there is no vision, the people perish.
I welcome these debates. They are good for America. America's elite has grown too effete, too self-assured, too distant from ordinary people who, one the one hand, love America deeply, and on the other, can't quite fathom—or stomach—what American trade negotiators are doing in Vietnam, or what American military trainers are doing in Cameroon.
This year, the voters have lots of questions for the foreign policy elite: Why did we intervene in Libya? Why do we launch drone strikes? Why do we pursue alliances with undemocratic regimes? Why do our leaders shake hands with known human rights abusers? Will democracy succeed in Iraq? Why do we negotiate trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Why do we station troops in Japan and South Korea? (Do they reimburse us for that?) Is the whole project of building a liberal world order even worth the trouble? And if it is, what’s the best way to go about it? All of these questions deserve answers, not condescension. The failures are too many, and the emerging challenges too great, for us to tolerate the staid conventional wisdom of our foreign policy establishment.
Nevertheless, the American project of building a more free, secure, democratic and prosperous world should not be abandoned in this hour of anxiety—if anything, it must be redoubled. We must guard against any attempt to abandon wise policies for light and transient causes. In pursuing this strategy, we must also learn from the mistakes of the past. The next president must be more thoughtful than Clinton, more patient than Bush, more resolute than Obama.
But that does not mean that American foreign policy does not deserve to be challenged and debated vigorously. I know that many of our existing policies exist for good reasons, and I believe in them, but I also know that any foreign policy long divorced from public opinion will not endure, at least in a democracy. Some of our policies could surely use fresh thinking, and the process of public debate will involve millions of citizens, piercing an elite bubble that has traditionally included only a rarefied few. Perhaps, as elites marshal arguments to defend policies like free trade and NATO, more of the public will be convinced that they’re worth keeping.
Back in 2012, at the end of the third presidential debate, commentators took note of just how little daylight stood between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on the major foreign policy issues of the day; it was less a debate and more a show of nodding with the odd zinger tossed in for effect. But this October, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off, such an outcome is unlikely. A robust debate about American foreign policy is already under way, and that’s a good thing for America and the world.
Matthew King is a Trinity junior and the co-chair of the American Grand Strategy Council. In the fall, his columns will run on alternate Mondays.
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