Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 14-15.
Among my earliest political memories are the debates I had as a young teenager with my father about foreign policy. He was a staunch Midwestern isolationist, a devotee of Senator Robert Taft, while I was a Thomas Dewey/Dwight Eisenhower inter nationalist. Our disagreements were not just about the present—should Ike or Taft get the 1952 Republican presidential nomination?—but also, and if anything more strongly, about the past.
We went back and forth endlessly as to the wisdom of American participation in both world wars. He insisted that we could and should have remained neutral in World War I, and he never gave up the belief that Franklin Roosevelt had deviously maneuvered the Japanese into the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought us into World War II. I, on the other hand, had in my adolescent omniscience no reservations whatsoever as to the strategic and moral necessity of American involvement in both conflicts.
It seems clear, in retrospect, that our differences had to do in largest part with our different life experiences. He grew up early in the century in an isolated German–American community in central Michigan that was pro–German in 1914 and that fiercely resisted American intervention on the Allied side. And when that intervention came in 1917, he experienced the anti–German nativism that came in its wake. My experience, just a generation later, could hardly have been more different. I grew up in Detroit an unhyphenated American—my parents, now eager to be considered properly American, neither taught their children German nor made them think of themselves as German—and my formative memories were of the Good War that matched a virtuous America and her valiant allies against the monstrous German–Japanese Axis. My father read his isolationism forward from 1914–1918; I read my interventionism backward from 1941–1945.
This is not to say that differences about foreign policy can be reduced simply to ethnic attachments or generational experiences. From the beginnings of the nation, arguments concerning America’s proper role in the world have often reflected fundamental ideological and strategic disagreements. During the 1790s, perhaps the most divisive decade in the nation’s history, Federalists and Republicans were at loggerheads over the wars resulting from the French Revolution, with Republicans championing the revolutionary cause as an extension of America’s own break with England in 1776 and Federalists siding with the former mother country as a Burkean bulwark against political radicalism and religious impiety. Republicans accused Federalists of covert monarchist leanings; Federalists suspected Republicans of sympathies with Jacobinism.
The most enduring divide in disputes over foreign policy has been strategic: Should America take an activist role in the world or should it take advantage of its geographical separation from Europe and remain, except for challenges to its vital interests, essentially isolationist? To simplify considerably, the isolationist instinct prevailed throughout the nineteenth century and, in fact, our participation in World War I notwithstanding, well into the twentieth century. America would be, in its basic self–understanding, a model to the world but not its shaper.
That all changed, of course, with the outbreak of World War II. The change was a wrenching one. In his recent autobiographical memoir, the octogenarian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recalls the isolationist/ interventionist dispute of 1939–41 as the most rancorous and divisive political argument of his lifetime, more so even than the conflict over Vietnam. After Pearl Harbor, of course, that dispute became moot, and it has largely remained so ever since. Robert Taft’s neo–isolationist challenge to Eisenhower in 1952 never had a chance, and in the years and decades that followed disputes over foreign policy concerned how, not whether, America would exercise its inter nationalist role. America was a permanent player on the world scene, and our contest with the Soviet Union for global supremacy the dominant fact of the postwar era. Not even the most impassioned opponents of America’s involvement in Vietnam imagined a return to Fortress America.
Between 1989 and 1991 the world turned upside down. We have been living with the collapse of communism for over a decade, but we have not yet entirely absorbed its implications. America is not a world power, it is the world power—the indispensable nation, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to put it. But that very idea of “indispensability” makes a lot of Americans nervous, and it has awakened in them isolationist impulses that had seemed permanently interred.
Full isolationism remains out of the question, but foreign policy activists find themselves sharply challenged by those urging a general policy of restraint. As was the case in the disputes preceding U.S. involvement in the two world wars, the divisions cut across party and ideological lines. Liberals and conservatives alike disagree among themselves on the proper exercise of American power, though perhaps the differences are more obvious on the right. Conservative advocates of restraint look with suspicion on the expansive notion of “national greatness conservatism” identified most closely with William Kristol and his colleagues at the Weekly Standard.
Many political observers expect these intra–conservative differences to be reflected in conflicts within the new Bush Administration, with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urging restraint and Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushing a more interventionist strategy. General Powell’s views reflect the attitudes of most senior military officers in the post–Vietnam era. America should intervene militarily, they say, only when her vital national interests are threatened, where there is strong public support for intervention, and where there is a high likelihood, bordering on certainty, that our aims can be achieved. Activists think that policy puts too much restriction on the pursuit of American strategic interests in the world. Issues of direct military intervention aside, they urge vigorous efforts to establish American political and moral values more widely in the world community, a policy that advocates of restraint find hubristic and, in any case, unlikely to succeed.
These general differences in inclination become specific disagreements over policy in a number of places, perhaps most notably Iraq, the Balkans, and China. How actively should the U.S. pursue the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a democratic regime in his place? Should America keep troops in Bosnia and Kosovo and, more broadly, how deeply should we be involved in maintaining peace and stability in the region? How firmly should we challenge China’s power in Asia, especially with respect to Taiwan, and how vigorously should we insist that the Chinese respect human rights in their domestic affairs?
There is, of course, no formula by which one can generate “correct” answers to all those questions. A successful foreign policy will always respect contingency, will always understand the wisdom embodied in the phrase, “It all depends.” One cannot even, in the abstract, determine that activism or restraint is the proper general policy. My own answers to the above questions, for example, are sometimes activist, sometimes cautious. I’m hawkish on Taiwan, dovish on Bosnia, and a mugwump on Iraq. So also with other questions that could be raised about other parts of the world. (And so also with history: I’m quite certain my father was wrong about World War II, but less certain than I once was about what America should have done in 1917.)
But if formulas cannot work, one inevitably approaches foreign policy, as other areas of public policy, with inclinations and predispositions. My instincts are, on balance, on the side of restraint—which seems to me the natural conservative preference. I support American values: political democracy and religious freedom are both very good things and the world would be better off if they were more widely shared than they are. But the world is notoriously unmanageable, and I agree with the expressions of humility concerning America’s global role made by candidate George W. Bush. I hope he governs accordingly. He’s right that we shouldn’t be paralyzed by memories of the Vietnam disaster, but neither should we forget the war’s lessons, as much as we might dispute what those lessons are.
Presidents have a considerable amount of leeway in foreign policy; most people most of the time are willing to follow forceful leadership. How many Americans, after all, truly understand the details of events in the Balkans, much less have considered judgments as to the precise policy the U.S. should follow? But as recent Presidents have discovered, the public has a way of getting immediately focused—and very skittish—in the face of policies that accomplish nothing or, worse, produce American casualties.
I worry that an overly activist policy could meet with failures—think Haiti or Somalia—that could create a general disillusionment with American intervention that in turn would make it difficult for the U.S. to act when important interests are at stake. It is sometimes said that neoconservative Jews favor an activist foreign policy because they want an America inclined, if necessary, to intervene to protect Israel. I worry instead that a failed activist policy could reduce America’s inclination to protect and defend Israel.
Despite the events of the past half century, Americans are not, at heart, wedded
to inter nationalism. They do not necessarily want the rest of the world to
go away, but neither are they disposed to want to save it from its follies.
(Late in life, my father opposed involvement in Vietnam for the same reason
he opposed involvement in World War I: it was none of our damn business.) The
spirit of Robert Taft has never been fully exorcised, and the Bush Ad ministration
would do well to avoid actions that summon it to life.