American foreign policy in an age of proximity

Back when I was in college taking a year-long course in American diplomatic history, I had a year-long argument with the professor teaching the course, a man who was one of the world’s experts on the subject. Then, as now, I was no respecter of personages.

The professor had come to the conclusion that the United States did not have a foreign policy. My own view was (and is) that America has a foreign policy and, using the diction I’d use today rather than the way I’d have put it back then, the policy is an emergent phenomenon of the major forces in American foreign policy thought: mercantilism, missionary internationalism, populism, and libertarian isolationism (AKA Hamiltonianism, Wilsonianism, Jacksonianism, and Jeffersonianism).

This emergent policy has a number of components but included among them are open borders facilitated by ensuring that our neighbors are weak. This is a policy that has been pretty successful for the last two hundred years or so. I’ve argued against it for the last forty and IMO the policy is beginning to look a little shopworn at his point.

Consider the case of Cuba in the light of this policy. We don’t really care whether Cuba is communist or dominated by a dictator or spreads instability in other countries in the hemisphere (that’s actually something of a feature rather than a bug) or outside of the hemisphere or makes its people miserable. We’ll avoid trading with Cuba (a few cavils from Hamiltonians notwithstanding) but we won’t stop others from doing so nor will we overthrow the tyrant (a few sporadic actions from Jacksonians and complaints from Wilsonians notwithstanding). We’ll even encourage emigration from Cuba (which provides a safety valve for the Castro tyranny). We’ll accept it as long as Cuba is weak.

But if Cuba shows signs of becoming strong (as it did during the Cuban missile crisis almost 45 years ago) then it’s a threat and we’ll act forcefully to correct the situation.

Things have changed quite a bit since the first quarter of the 19th century. They’ve changed quite a bit in the last 45 years. China and Iran are closer to us today than Mexico was in 1850 and little farther away than Cuba was in 1962. We’re pursuing the same policies although our notions of where our borders lie and who our neighbors are has changed to include the entire globe.

There are really only two strategies available for a course correction. We can rely more heavily on international institutions than we have historically. They seem slender twigs for our support, they’ve done little recently to encourage confidence, and in all honesty our diffidence towards them hasn’t helped a great deal. And make no mistake: our views on civil liberties, property, and the role of government are outliers. If we embrace internationalism we will willy-nilly become more like the rest of the world and that means greater abridgements of our freedoms than the wildest critics of the Patriot Act have attributed to it.

The other alternative would appear to be what Steve Sailer has called “libertarianism in one country”.

The way things look right now we don’t seem to have the energy or attention span to spread our own notions of what consitutes a good way of life to every corner of the globe.

You might want to consider these ruminations in the light of a couple of things. First, there are the demonstrations of and on behalf of illegal aliens that have taken place in Los Angeles and elsewhere recently. Second, there’s Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, eloquently and agonistically written about by Marcus Cicero at Winds of Change this morning.

3 comments… add one
  • I think that most heterogeneous states, once they reach a certain size, are similar in some ways. Once it becomes impossible to control all of the touch points between your country and other countries, even in theory, you (as ruler and especially as mere leader), are limited to influencing the people and goods that are coming through those touch points. This means that foreign policy gets made, independently, by every person in your country interacting with other countries or other countries’ citizens/subjects in some way. Inherently, foreign policy becomes an emergent phenomena of those interactions, with influence but not control wielded by the central government.

    Take Rome as an example. As Susan Mattern’s excellent Rome and the Enemy (1999) points out, Rome’s foreign policy arose from a few properties of the elite class of Roman society that made the decisions: loyalty, honor, a view of history and foreigners/foreign lands through the prism of literature, and a 1-dimensional mental image of travel. During the Imperial period, at least, and likely for much of the Republic, Rome did not seek as policy to expand its borders or to develop client states. Rather, invasions, reprisals, and a desire to prove oneself to the imperator or to enhance the glory of Rome led to Rome advancing to the limit of its economy’s ability to sustain an army capable of securing the borders. Various emperors shaped this, by starting or ending wars, or sending out (rare) exploration missions, and by accepting or refusing embassies, but the day to day decisions on how things happened were less under the control of the emperor than that of the elite more broadly, acting as legates and governors and so on. In other words, Roman foreign policy arose more from the corporate attitudes of the elite than from a defined policy. And since the Romans had a strong cultural sense, this was remarkably stable.

    Similarly, American foreign relations are partially shaped by the unofficial efforts of Carter and Jackson and Robertson and the NY Times and blogs in addition to our official foreign policy. Indeed, our official foreign policy is partially shaped by the shared or predominant or at least popular with the current government attitudes of these sources, as well. So in a similar way to Rome, or for that matter to Russia/USSR, our policy grows from our culture. This is, frankly, one reason why multiculturalism scares me: the weakening of our cultural self-image and denigration of those aspects that make us unique mean that our unofficial foreign policy tends towards self-denigration and weakness, and that means that predatory others (obviously right now the jihadis, but I could see Old Europe on that path some day, too) will take advantage and try to gain advantages and concessions from us that they would not dare were we more self-confident.

  • kreiz

    I agree that we lack the resources, attention span and energy to solve every problem. But politically, dealing with the limits of American power is tricky business indeed. When faced with limits, we go into denial, preferring the soft sell of unlimited horizons. This is true whether it’s immigration, illegal drugs, Social Security insolvency or homeland security. The only avenue for pols to ‘acknowledge’ limits is through silent acquiescence. Jimmy Carter failed to understand this, opting instead to speak of them openly and directly. Look where it got him. The best route was Ronald Reagan, Lebanon, 1983. He declared victory and left. Iran is no different. We suffer from Iraq fatigue; we’ve already played the “invade one country free” card. This makes military action against Iran unlikely. But god forbid that anyone actually say it.

  • Without really (as I recall) ever getting into the efforts on our part to ensure our neighbors remain weak, Vann Woodward identified the concept of “free security” and its loss with the advent of ICBMs back in the 60s. Your thoughts flesh this out valuably.

Leave a Comment