Morality and US Foreign Policy Stephen Schlesinger
The question before us is how much does morality drive US foreign policy? I presume here that we mean by morality the notion of an acceptable code of moral conduct, of a belief in a set of criteria for right and wrong behavior, the idea of conforming to a certain standard of uprightness. I think that, in examining this question as regards America, we have to return to the roots of this country, to the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution - the sacred documents that still guide and define the nation to our very day.
As you may recall, the Declaration inscribed the following words in the minds of all Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This sweeping statement, however hackneyed it may sound today, is the bedrock of America’s moral vision - or fixation. From the birth of the nation, there has been a true missionary component to America’s existence: namely, to spread the message of democracy, to tell the world about the success of the American experiment, to extend to the less fortunate the benefit of our hard-won wisdom. As Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense, America is “an asylum for mankind.” This is really the bedrock notion of American exceptionalism. And, as US history has shown again and again, a leader who does not pay heed to this credo does so at his or her peril. For this vision has informed American foreign policy almost literally from the beginning.
But there has always been a measure of realism or national security pragmatism about this approach. The United States made it clear early on that it would support peoples who wanted independence but it would not get involved in their wars - at least not in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It would serve rather as an exemplar.
In fact, Americans sought to safeguard their daring new adventure in government by shunning all foreign quarrels and overseas obligations. As the 18th century ended, President George Washington admonished his countrymen to “steer clear of permanent alliances,” and Thomas Jefferson warned them against “entangling alliances.”
A quarter of a century later, on July 4th, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (later President Adams), enshrined this precept as follows: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will America’s heart, her benediction, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence ... the fundamental maxim of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force ... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirits.” By this yardstick, only a direct threat to national survival could justify America’s entry into foreign wars. And, in fact, abstentionism has, more than interventionism, marked American foreign policy, at least outside of its own hemisphere - especially in its first century and one- quarter of existence.
But America’s moral concerns did extend to her own sphere of influence, the Americas. Just two years after Adams’ speech, in 1823, President Monroe enunciated the doctrine - which Adams drafted - for which he became famous that so uneasily combined the ingredients of moralism and American self-interest - a mix that has so often perplexed and outraged and bemused the other nations of the world about this country. The Monroe Doctrine stated, in brief, that the American government would declare any attempt by European powers “to extend their systems to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security.” The second part of the doctrine pledged that, in exchange, the United States vowed “never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe.”
Needless to say, for all the considerable virtue attached to such a pronouncement - and there was, in my view, an equal amount of idealism and self-interest involved - Monroe never consulted the Latin countries covered by his declaration, thereby triggering an everlasting resentment in the region toward Washington. Of course, the British also gave America enough leeway to utter such a bold decree because England controlled the Atlantic sea lanes which saved the US from having to build up its own Navy. And we applied the Doctrine inconsistently, according to whatever interpretation of the national interest suited us at the time. When the British seized the Falkland Islands in 1833, for example, we did nothing.
But we used the Monroe Doctrine nonetheless. From 1806 until today, the US intervened more than 100 times by armed force in Latin America in different fashions: brief military forays against hostile coastal areas, armed attacks on pirates in the Latin region, forcible takeovers of property for repayments of debts, arrest of renegades and sometimes direct assistance to Latin democrats to help get rid of dictatorships. There was always a publicly-stated moral imperative behind every US action. It ranged from forestalling chaos, to saving the lives and property of Americans, to extending democracy abroad. But American economic interests habitually lurked in the shadows.
The greatest period of US dominance in the region started with President Theodore Roosevelt and ended with President Franklin Roosevelt. American soldiers occupied five countries for years on end: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti and Nicaragua. The rationale was to uphold US values in unsettled situations south of our border; President Theodore Roosevelt even formulated a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, arrogating to Washington the right of “preventive enforcement” to seize Latin governments that failed to pay their debts. But all of the occupations turned out to be debacles of one sort or another, and the moral arguments soon appeared to be very threadbare. And because eventually the American public saw no moral basis for these usurpations, it withdrew its mandate from heaven, so to speak, from our incursions and President Franklin Roosevelt pulled out all the remaining US forces from the area.
In thus preaching independence but non-participation - though breaching the rule in the Americas - we nonetheless never embraced the idea of interdependence. But President Woodrow Wilson broke the hoary old notion of non-entanglement by sending American soldiers into World War I. Then, at the Versailles Peace Treaty, President Woodrow Wilson took a major step toward an unprecedented global commitment by advancing the concept of the League of Nations - for the most noble of reasons, acting out of the ideals of our revolutionary heritage. As he said with a very American sense of certainty: “We have come to redeem the world by giving it liberty and justice.” But he made a fatal mistake at home - he made the moral argument for the League but not the national security argument for it. Because of that, the US Senate rejected membership in the organization because it felt American interests - or, to put it differently, America’s isolation - was not sufficiently safeguarded.
The sheer mayhem and ruination of the Second World War changed all of these reservations. America for the first time realized that it was going to have to become a participating member of the post-war world order because its very survival demanded it. It needed friends, it required allies, it depended on coalitions of nations. This time, the American President of that era, Franklin Roosevelt, proposed that the US back a new sort of international security organization - the United Nations - one for which his own State Department drafted the Charter - to be, unlike the League of Nations, uniquely configured to America’s national interests as well as its idealism. This body struck a balance between realism and democracy - namely giving the veto power on the Security Council to, at the time, the five most powerful states in the world, and, in the same moment, allowing the rest of the countries of the planet to debate their views and vent their opinions within a General Assembly.
I think that the theme I am developing may be becoming clearer. It is that US foreign policy has to have a moral, as well as a national interest, reason to win the long-term backing of the American public. Where it has achieved success, it has always taken into account both elements.
As you look at the roll-call of presidents since FDR, you can see how well they have mixed these two ingredients together - and that allows us to trace how well a foreign policy has worked, based on the presence or absence of these two elements. When one or the other is not present, or they are out of balance, look out! Indeed this may be proof of the fact that democracy, especially in the United States, is in trouble when it tries to keep two sets of books - when it uses one scale of values for our own country and another for foreign policy. Moralism seems best for America when it helps illuminate our conception of our national interest. Our ideals are part of our power.
President Truman rallied his country around the Truman Doctrine, around the Marshall Plan, and around containment, all by his pleas to stop Communism - such a sweeping appeal that it touched both the moral and security preoccupations of Americans. It worked admirably. President Eisenhower continued Truman’s approach but raised the ante by transforming Truman’s anti-Communist stance into a crusade to “rollback” Communism. But his doctrine in many ways became distorted to protect American business interests, for example, in Iran and Guatemala - and eventually Eisenhower began to lose the support of the American people for his policies.
Johnson and Nixon tilted too far toward national security arguments alone in arguing for US involvement in Vietnam and eventually lost their moral standing with the electorate. In addition, Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, following a realpolitik strategy, trifled with American distaste for dictatorships, especially in Chile, eroding the moral basis for the rest of Nixon’s policies. President Carter elevated human rights to be a dominant theme of his foreign policy, but applied the policy in such a haphazard or unconvincing way that he could not always rally Americans to its standard.
President Reagan appealed to America’s moral soul by calling the USSR the “evil empire” and demanding that Gorbachev “tear down that wall”, but he stumbled over the Iran-Contra affair and his immense defense build-up. President Bush seemingly fought the drug war by ousting Noriega and restoring democracy but without first seeking the consent of the United Nations Security Council - a tactic which bothered a lot of Americans. But then he secured the backing of the UN Security Council for his assault on Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, which instantly gave him moral authority, though some observers regarded the national interest concerns he invoked to be mainly the saving of the hides of American oil companies. President Clinton had morality but not national security on his side when he sent troops to Somalia. Ergo, he had a disaster on his hands. And that is why he did not dispatch forces to Rwanda. But he had both constituents when he ordered US troops to Haiti in 1994. However he has had a hard time sustaining his slant toward China - an interests-based policy of engagement - because that policy lacked a true moral footing. And with the end of the Cold War, he faced a mind-set in his own country which basically argued - we won the Cold War, so let’s forget the rest of the planet, except to protect our own interests, unilaterally. This sort of neo-isolationist response emanated mainly from Congress, but it actually failed to spread to the rest of the countryside because it rubbed up against the general belief among Americans that we should help protect our allies overseas and maintain support for democracy abroad.
Despite this checkered legacy, I think that many in Europe perhaps not so surprisingly view US actions in the light of traditional great power behavior. For example, in Latin America, European governments observe US behavior in the Western Hemisphere as a superpower wishing to preserve its sphere of influence. Besides, Europe is not terribly interested in missionary causes abroad except as regards its former colonies. European governments also tend to dwell more on the historic notions of blood, religion or soil when it is making decisions on policy. Morality - at least until recently - has not played a significant role. But democratization has undoubtedly brought morality back into foreign policy - even in Europe. Look at the way 19 governments in NATO are treating the Kosovo crisis. And oddly enough, whether they would admit it or not, Europeans, in my view, actually admire the way America stands for its principles and are gravely disappointed when America falls short of those ideals.
America today enjoys a hegemonic power unequalled since Rome and Great Britain. But history teaches that unilateral activities by a major power - in this case a superpower - eventually and inevitably invite countermeasures by other nations. Over the long-run, such policies will prove self-defeating. In the future, then, America finally must concede that it cannot carry so much of the burden of morality and policing all alone. Increasingly, it must look to global institutions like the UN to find the right balance between its democratizing mission and its national self-interest. So long as the United Nations and other international organizations respond to our deepest values despite the unilateralist and isolationist sounds emanating from the Congress, we must support these institutions.