A Brief Review of U.S. Foreign Policy

Reduced to one sentence, the essence of U.S. foreign policy could read: "to make the world safe for market economy and the American way of life."  Some of the milestones which have led to this formulation are:

1. George Washington's Farewell Address to the effect that: "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 connection as possible".  It later inspired the "open door" policy.

2. The “Manifest Destiny syndrome” – which developed long before the term was coined in 1845: It was in the nature of the new nation to expand. The seeds of manifest destiny were sown in the westward claims of the original colonies. It burgeoned with the Louisiana Purchase and the 1812-1814 war and came in full bloom with the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of the Oregon territory and the Mexican cession of southwest. “The frontier spirit,” expansion, first westward, next in the hemisphere and then beyond, brought the United States into contact with “foreign” people. The first being the American Indians, which accounts for the “cowboy versus Indian” dimension in the American foreign policy. The frontier spirit eventually got us to the 17th parallel in North Vietnam.

3. The Monroe Doctrine which, while aimed at laying grounds for the United States' security and influence in the Western hemisphere and emphasizing the principles of non-colonization and non-intervention in the destiny of other states, inadvertently advanced the idea of “self-determination of the people.”

4. Woodrow Wilson's “Fourteen Points” which, beyond extending the concept of self-determination to solve the problem of nationalities in post-WWI Europe, upheld the idea of “peaceful settlement of disputes among nations,” incorporated in the League of Nations' Covenant, to which the U. S. did not adhere.

5. Adoption of “human rights” as a principle of U. S. foreign policy in the seventies and its inclusion in the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe in 1975 as a bargaining chip in exchange for USSR’s drive to have its Eastern European dominion legitimized. It was a breach in the Soviet totalitarian system and its observation, even lukewarm, began to erode the regime from within.

        These foreign policy principles could thus be distilled into:
        I.    Free trade and free movement of capital;
        II.   Manifest Destiny and frontier spirit;
        III. Self-determination of people;
        IV. Peaceful settlement of disputes;
        V.  Respect for human rights.

These principles reflect, not only America’s historical evolution, but also its geographical specificity as a power on a continent separated from the rest of the world by two oceans. That specificity gave the U.S. a sense of security all along its history, probably even up to September 11, 2001. It has also permitted the U.S. to afford ambivalent attitudes in foreign policy, notably: 1. The American tendency to oscillate between political isolation and engagement, yet its constancy in demanding open doors for trade. 2. Its stance for the independence of Latin America from European colonialism, yet claiming it as its sphere of influence and economic turf. 3. Its eagerness to put some order in international politics, mainly in order to make sense of it, by devising rules of the game it feels comfortable with, but which do not always fit the convoluted global realities: from the League of Nations to nation-building in Afghanistan.

Broadly, the problem is that in practice the different principles of American foreign policy clash.  What if people "self-determined" not to have free trade and a free market economy?  They may consider that there are some basic resources and industries that a country should control and develop nationally in order to be able to self-determine. They may believe that otherwise they'll be vulnerable to the influence of those who control the technologies, resources and products they need.

Which one would the U. S. chose?  A regime which does not respect human rights but follows a policy of free trade and movement of capital and makes concession to our economic interests; or a democratically elected government which, following the mandate of its constituency, erects protectionist barriers and nationalizes the country’s natural resources? We may find a country with a democratically elected government deciding to control free market economy, facing, within its own borders, a vocal and well financed minority which pledges free trade and attempts to overthrow by undemocratic means the constitutionally elected government – such as the attempts against Chavez in Venezuela. Which side would the U. S. support?

The choice may be influenced by other parameters created by our basic principles. The cold war was inspired by our basic principles because the Soviet totalitarianism negated free enterprise, self-determination of the people, peaceful resolution of conflicts and human rights.  The vision of a bipolar world after WWII, with the “free world” facing the “communists” and trying to win over or to chastise the “non-aligned” countries gave the American foreign policy its bearing. Our fight against communism tainted our choices elsewhere – Guatemala (Arbenz), Iran (Mossaddegh), Indonesia (Sukarno), Congo (Lumumba) or Chile (Allende) – and gained us the unsavory bedfellows like Trujilo, Somosa, Marcos, Mobuto, Suharto or the Mujahedin cum Taliban.

Looking at the cases of our subversions, the targets mentioned could also read Guatemala (fruits), Iran (oil), Indonesia (oil, tin, lumber, navigational routes), Congo (copper, uranium, cobalt, coltan, gold, timber) or Chile (copper). In other words, cold war considerations were not the only – and probably not even the main – motivations for our actions in those cases. It is that at some point of US economic development, the outward flow of our productive energy became dependent on the inflow of essential energy and raw materials which we had to secure and control.

In the process our foreign policy lost an image asset which the recent marketing campaigns by our government cannot easily recuperate. Up to the end of WWII, and for nearly a century, missionaries, their schools and dispensaries projected the image of America among the non-Western cultures.  American missionaries, together with preaching the gospel, spread the American ideals of freedom around the world. Hung Hsiu Ch’üan, the leader of the Taiping revolt in China (1850-1864) had been inspired by reading the scripture and spending two years with American missionaries.

European intellectuals were more cynical and knew America as the land of cutthroat capitalism. But in many non-Western countries the educated people considered America as the promoter of self-determination of the people – even though Woodrow Wilson had advanced the idea at the close of WWI with only the more emancipated European nations in mind. Ho Chi Minh considered U.S. an ally in 1945 and incorporated the opening words of the American Declaration of Independence in the Vietnamese Constitution. Mossaddegh, the Iranian prime minister, called on America in 1951 to be the “honest broker” in Iran’s oil conflict with Great Britain.

The Vietnam War was a major factor in changing the image of America in the eyes of the non-Western world. And the Cold War Soviet propaganda magnified that negative image.

The Cold War had given the US foreign policy a bearing. It was the containment of Communism. It had such corollaries as the domino theory which justified our involvement in bloody wars of Korea and Vietnam. The flow of body bags out of the battlefields of Vietnam hit a growing college-going upper middle class youth which revolted against the draft and questioned the wisdom of sacrificing their lives for a distorted frontier spirit. The concept of engaging in foreign conflicts to defend our national interests was revisited. National interests were, of course, always the ultimate test, but in earlier times they were debated in “smoke-filled rooms” leaving the masses out of the debate – except in the equation as canon fodders imbued with patriotism and the sense of honor and heroics. Now, in popular consciousness, national interests were conditioned by consideration for the value of human life – American human life.

The new approach to the value of life implied a revision of our military policies. It resulted in the professionalization of the armed forces, generally recruiting lower income volunteers attracted for pay and future opportunities. Our military strategists, who traditionally had always been keen on technological progress, and now came more and more out of the Star Trek, Nintendo and multi-task computing generations, began transforming the armed forces into a star wars instrument.

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With the demise of the Soviet Union the U. S. foreign policy began groping for a new world order. The “five-twenty-one brief” (May 21, 1990) commissioned by Dick Cheney as secretary of defense under George Bush senior incorporated the idea of “American primacy”. It postulated that the US should strive to remain the only super power and its foreign policy should aim at hindering other countries from attaining that status. With the defeat of Bush senior that idea was shelved. Bill Clinton wanted to see the world. There was an interlude during Clinton administration when our Realpolitick was applied selectively.  Madeleine Albright was candid enough to say that we try to push around Vietnam on human rights issues because it is a small power, but not China.

As late as the year 2000, in an article in Foreign Affairs, Condolezza Rice, George W. Bush’s foreign policy advisor, wrote: “The United States has found it exceedingly difficult to define its ‘national interests’ in the absence of Soviet power.” Although George W. Bush’s administration was packed with the “intellectual authors” and policy makers inspired by the “primacy” theory – Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle and others – Bush administration’s initial approach to foreign policy was more isolationist than interventionist. Aside from his grudge against Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush did not feel comfortable getting involved in world affairs. He knew that his forte was his people skills in national politics (which he had ironed out with coaches like Karl Rove) and abhorred Clinton administration’s “nation-building” ambitions abroad. He even disengaged himself from the Clintonian close personal arbitration posture in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His original inclination may have been to follow the early Washingtonian precept of using American power to protect our economic and commercial interests abroad. But as he soon realized, it was too late for that. Our interests overseas are no longer limited to doing business with others. Or, rather, our doing business with others is no longer a simple trade and economic proposition.  The fatidic events of September 11, 2001 threw Bush’s foreign policy into the arms of his “primacy cabal.”

The problem is that the primacy “intellectuals” are operating on incoherent assumptions. Take their rediscovery of nation-building. Nation-building implies nation-state which carries with it the Westphalian concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty implies exclusive jurisdiction over a population and territory and non-interference by others in the internal affairs of the sovereign. A sovereign state can be held responsible for maintaining law and order within its territory when it can fully exercise the prerogatives inherent in exclusive jurisdiction. A nation-state also needs the historical ingredients for the concoction of a nation. If recent history is any guide, nation-building in pressure cookers hardly ever works. It is ludicrous to assume that Indonesia is a coherent nation-state whose law enforcement system can exercise impartial, un-corrupt and effective jurisdiction over the various peoples and tribes inhabiting its 13,660 islands spread over nearly 2,000,000 square kilometers.  And with global technological and economic evolutions it is not even certain that maintaining Westphalian style nation-states is desirable. Nigeria, Congo, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Indonesia hardly compare in their “nationhood” with France, Germany or Denmark. But even these latter European countries, which became “nations” is the slow cooking stew of history, are now watering down their sovereign rights in the context of the European Union to meet the challenges of the new global realities. Nation-building, therefore, is neither a reasonable nor a desirable goal. New global patterns have to be developed. We will talk about them elsewhere (see Reflections on the New World Order: Estans.)

Regime change is another buzz word of our current foreign policy makers in Washington. What are the criteria for change? The criterion for changing the regime in Baghdad seems to be settling accounts. The argument advanced is to get rid of an authoritarian regime.  But then, what about Burma, Sudan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea? We also saw earlier that our principles are conflictual. If we had to choose one of the two, which one would we prefer: democracy or free market economy and concessions?

The “primacy cabal” has also been mesmerized by the star wars prowess of our armed forces mentioned earlier. Looking at the war in Afghanistan one is struck by its similarity to scenes from Star Trek. There are a few episodes in Star Trek when the spaceship “Enterprise” encounters backward cultures which it eventually subdues, snuffing out adversaries by its smart weapons. In the light of the star wars syndrome, one could surmise that the reason for the impatience to engage in an assault on Iraq is to try out our new weapons. It is all a dress rehearsal for streamlining the military power for the exercise of primacy. Although, as we get entangled around the world we are realizing that terrestrial realities do not fit the simplistic star war scenarios. Warlords like Dostum or Ismail Khan in Afghanistan cannot be snuffed out, nor tamed – bought, maybe, as long as we can afford and are the highest bidders. To negotiate with them, we need a lot of people who can speak their dialects and understand their mind set. It will be harder and harder for the Nintendo generation to do that. Wait till we get more entangled with Barzani, Talabani, Al-Hakim, Chadli, Dhari Fiad, Al-Khalidi in Iraq, and others.

To appreciate the depth of our present foreign policy incongruence add to primacy and the star war syndromes the fact that among those influencing our foreign policy are some who are inspired by a far Higher Authority than rational and pragmatic considerations. Devote Pentecostal Assembly of God Evangelists – like our Attorney General John Ashcroft – are supporters of Israel not because of our international commitments or the fact that Israel represents an outpost of Western interests in the Middle East, but because according to Revelation 21-12 Resurrection will occur when the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel are written on the twelve gates of Jerusalem!

Our “national interests” also reflect some of our national characteristics such as pride, the propensity to get even, and to uphold the “American Way of Life” – whatever it may be at the time, from anti-abortion to gay rights – as spotlighted by the media on the way to the ballot box.

The inclination of our foreign policy to promote particular aspects of our way of life depends on the sensitivity of the issues and the muscle of the lobbies defending them. At times, our foreign policy can squarely ignore the “American Way” side of an issue and promote its “corporate America’s” side. For example, while, if the present trend continues, smokers in the U.S. will pretty soon have to leave town to puff on their cigarettes, our diplomatic services push for the freedom of our tobacco companies to advertise and increase their sales in other countries.

We claim to uphold the principle of free trade and free movement of capital for the lofty goal of universal well being.  Eliminating protectionist barriers, we maintain, will enhance worldwide division of production, permitting the most efficient global use of resources – capital, labor, raw material and management – permitting the growth of wealth ultimately beneficial to all humanity. But then capital goes where, in the combination of the components of production, the return is greatest. And of those components labor is a major factor. That often leaves the American worker in a lurch. And they are voters. So, in its interpretation of our “national interests” our foreign policy often juggles with corporate bottom line considerations and voters’ pocket books.  We thus end up with nationally convenient – but blatantly protectionist – foreign policies like Bush’s tariffs on steel imports to woo labor votes and to secure corporate survival. Of course, our history is fraught with protectionist tariffs: Dingley 1897, Payne-Aldrich 1909, Fordney-McCumber 1922, Hawley-Smoot 1930, and so on. The problem is that our trade partners do not always roll over and play dead. In the recent case of tariffs on steel the European Union retaliated and threatened to impose restrictions on U.S. trade where it hurts, i.e., the products of states vulnerable to the tariffs  which would vote against the party that instituted the steel imports restrictions. Somehow, we are not let get away with our “clever” stratagems. The Bush administration has quietly made exemptions and eased restrictions on steel imports to appease foreign suppliers and national importers.

Broader considerations such as fighting terrorism and stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, legitimate as they are, affect our basic principles and put us in such hypocritical situations as that of imposing sanctions on Pakistan for developing nuclear bombs and then, after 911, in exchange for substantial American aid, recruiting its not all-together democratic leader as our ally against the Talibans – who had been Pakistan’s protégés.

In short, reviewing the basic principles enumerated earlier, we note that they reflect our different and at times opposing national orientations.  Our "national interests" are not formulated as a coherent and distinct set of principles for the conduct of our foreign policy irrespective of the political party in power.  Rather, they are a patchwork of particular interests and values within our society which, at different times and under different administrations, are influential and vocal enough to spill over into our foreign policy and dictate its course, and are not always in tune with foreign realities or our broader long-term national interests.

What is to be done? 

In the absence of a monolithic communist block, while many embrace our free market economy model, we have lost the pull we had as an alternative to soviet communism.  We have now replaced the pull with the push. That has made our leadership posture less welcoming to others.

The problem is that we are presently the only superpower and have the pretension to lead the world. The world, however, is reluctant to follow because we are showing shortsighted arrogance. We have, and will be able to maintain for some time to come, a military power far superior to any other power on earth. That will permit us to impose the role of auxiliary on others – they will be members of our “coalitions.” We will be able to formulate our interests and coax others to defend them on our side. Underneath, however, will simmer the hate, envy, fear and resolve that characterized peoples at other times in history submitting to empires and which produced Alexander (over the ruins of Persia), Alaric (over the ruins of Rome), our founding fathers (over the British domination of America), Gandhi (over the ruins of British Empire.) In the face of our firepower the presently fragmented world powers would eventually band together and run circles around us.

The study of past empires shows that no empire succeeded to eternalize its primacy.  Empires which survived longest after their decline were those which left behind their legacy. The Roman Empire metamorphosed on and on, and its Roman Law is still with us. The freedom of the high seas evolved, to a large extent, with the expansion of the Dutch and British empires and permitted them to survive as prosperous societies past their imperial adventures.

To secure our peaceful and long survival as a great power, we should buttress international law and turn our power into authority. We claim international law as our own, and yet, in the past few years we have snubbed it. Our constitution stipulates, “the Congress shall have the power to define and punish …offences against the law of nations” [art. 1, sec. 8, clause 10]. The Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789 further granted jurisdiction to U.S. courts over cases of violation of the law of nations, thus, in practice, making it an integral part of our laws.

By fully participating in international conventions and  molding rules which would reign in powers whose abuse of power could transgress on the rights of others, we can secure our own future. By adhering to the Kyoto Convention, for example, and shaming others to join, we would make other emerging powers like the Chinese  (whose potential pollution capacity could even affect our shores) abide by the same rules. Withdrawing from the International Criminal Court Treaty is not the most efficient way to improve its structure, which indeed needs fixing. In our absence ICC will evolve with little U.S. direct input. Our recent bitter experiences in the United Nations Human Rights Commission – losing our seat for a while and its presidency going to Libya over our objection – show how much we have lost our moral posture in international circles.

We have neglected the potentials of the existing international institutions as vehicles of our foreign policy. We have lost the control and the gravity we had in the United Nations and its specialized agencies. We have maintained our weight in organizations like IMF and the World Bank because they are closer to our seat of power and because they are more attuned to our political and economic culture. But we have let go of many other United Nations agencies because at some point of their evolution, because of our lack of focus, they were overtaken by third world countries, and at times manipulated by the Soviet Union. Remember the days when in U. N. assemblies the majority of member states’ delegates waited to see which way the United States’ representative’s hand moved and followed suit? True, the world has changed. But part of it is because of our neglect. Our diplomatic efforts would be much more efficient and cost-effective if, instead of constant bilateral wheeling and dealing, we actively and systematically used international institutions to approach other governments. Most countries take the United Nations and its specialized agencies more seriously than we do and use them as fora for their encounters. They will do so even more if we also took them more seriously. And we should pay our dues!

Building up our military might in the Persian Gulf shows our resolve. It should now be used for the application of our principle of peaceful settlement of international conflicts. The next resolution we put in front of the Security Council, while reiterating Resolution 1441 – which, among other prerogatives,  gives UNMOVIC and IAEA the right to have their own security guards and use manned and unmanned reconnaissance vehicles – should suggest the creation of a permanent inspection force of a few thousand, with their logistics for mobility and self-defense, to monitor Iraq’s military/industrial establishment as long as the United Nations deem them to constitute a threat to international peace and security. We could substantially contribute to the upkeep of such a force – it would be, by far, cheaper than invading Iraq on our own. Our forces in the Gulf would be the guarantors for the fulfillment of the resolution. And, of course, if Iraq did not abide by the U.N. resolution, then the U.N. would see no other alternative than to take action against Iraq.

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For all this we need a greater awareness about the world around us. The population of a country which professes to lead the world should be more knowledgeable about the world and have a good reservoir of people who could understand and deal with other cultures. Presently, all statistics indicate that this is not the case in the U.S. In order to lead, we have to understand the people we want to lead. We need massive programs in global relations, starting with geography and history, not to speak of languages, international relations and diplomacy. In order to lead the world, we need to do a lot of fixing on the inside (according to a recent National Geographic survey of nine countries, American young adults finished next to last in their geographic knowledge of the world.)
(For more, go to Current United States Foreign Policy).

As for the orientation of our foreign policy, we need to make a comprehensive evaluation of the global flux as it unfolds and channel its evolution towards new patterns which reflect our ideals beyond Westphalian nation-building and imperial posturing.
(See: Shades of Global Power: Reflections on the Emerging World Order)

©Anoush Khoshkish
February 2003

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