Prior to delving into a brief description of the different trains of thought in American foreign policy, it is essential to understand the broad strokes of how Americans think of their relations with the rest of the world.
Traditionally, the United States had abided by a staunch isolationist foreign policy until, first, the Monroe Doctrine and then President Teddy Roosevelt. From the very beginning, our leaders held true to the idea that we should not burden ourselves with unnecessary ties abroad that would bring us into conflicts that we have no interest in and that we should not cross the world to find and fight distant monsters.
After a century and a half of isolationism, it took herculean leadership skills to maneuver the U.S. into the mindset necessary to fight and win the two world wars. What leaders such as Wilson, FDR, and Ike used was the power of universalistic, nearly utopian, rhetoric to tie the efforts of the world wars and the cold war to the success of democracy against the evils of fascism and communism (radical right and radical left authoritarian states). A classic story of good and evil with absolute moral reasoning.
The American people were able to reconcile their tendency to think of “America First” in foreign policy by believing that their country’s intervention in conflicts abroad, though having little direct national interest, was necessary for the survival of their very way of life. The advent of implementation of the universalistic moral standing of American values into our foreign policy is what leadd to, what I see as, 5 different brands of U.S. Foreign policy.
With this basis of understanding here is my understanding of these brands:
1) Wilsonian Liberals/Universalism (Wilson, Carter, Clinton, Obama)
Wilsonian Liberals must be discussed first because it was President Wilson who paved the way for the two most dramatic brands over the course of the rest of the 20th century (Neoconservatives and Wilsonian Liberals).
Wilson believed wholeheartedly in the absolute moral righteousness of the democratic form of government. To him, the righteousness of democracy was an absolute truth and the evolution of history led to this morality based system that relies on the idea of equality. Based on this view, that history had led us here, and, as President Obama was fond of saying, history is on our side, he believed it was inevitable that democracy would spread throughout the rest of the world if only we could create an environment and a mechanism that would provide: 1) collective engagement and 2) collective security. He attempted to materialize both of these principles into reality through the League of Nations.
He and the vast majority of America thought that WWI had been a line in the sand; that the world had changed for good and that our way of life would spread indefinitely. Although the League of Nations failed with the rise of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany leading to WWII, the same principle was reused in the creation of United Nations.
This line of thinking has become an integral part of American foreign policy. How many times do you hear a politician, no matter the party, proclaim the universal truths of human rights, equality, democracy, fair elections, etc., etc. These truths have become a foregone conclusion.
The way that Wilsonian Liberals have decided to induce the rest of the world to come to understand the truth that they already know is by linking us all together in a post-national forum. The United Nations provides a place for the entire world to work out their problems in a rational way without fighting for petty things such as relative regional power. As we are all rational beings, now that we have a place for our rationality to flourish we will all come to the rational conclusions that the western world has already lived by. All that we need to ensure this moral necessity is patience, us nurturing the progression through international relations, and, most importantly, never showing that we are attempting to help one side of an international conflict over another for purely U.S. interest. Universal moral principles are our motivation.
It is very common for opponents of this brand to equate the Wilsonian Liberal’s willingness to ignore or even publically ridicule U.S. interests with an underlying disdain for our country. In actuality, the Wilsonian Liberal believes that it is ultimately in our interest and the world’s interest to foster international cooperation so it evolves toward egalitarianism.
2) Neoconservatives (The Bushes, Bill Kristol, to a small extent Reagan)
The neoconservative brand grew out of the Wilsonian Liberal theory of democracy’s moral universality and was adopted by more conservative democrats and republicans after WWII. While Eisenhower was redirecting the massive United States military power away from winning the largest conflict in world history, an agreement was made between the four major victorious powers: The U.S., France, England, and the U.S.S.R. This agreement split the world into spheres of influence, the most important segment being the partition of Germany between East and West, as well as the partition of Berlin, which was inside the Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany.
As the rivalry between the Soviet Communist Empire and the Western powers grew Eisenhower and then Truman began to devise a plan for “containment” of the Soviet empire within its boundaries. The goal was to keep the rest of the world from falling to the seemingly ever-rising communist threat. While this may seem to be a direct and obvious course of action, the biggest issue to Ike was how to convince the people of the United States to undertake such a broad and far-reaching policy with very little direct American interest in the random conflicts that would happen in faraway places (Vietnam, Korea, Nicaragua, Cuba, Afghanistan in the 80s, etc.)
This was done by equating those conflicts with the sustainment of our way of life. The traditional conservatives who would normally have believed in the “shining city on a hill” theory transferred their belief in the moral righteousness of the American political system to the rest of the world in exactly the same way that the Wilsonian liberal did. The difference is that they believe that the way to foster peace around the world is to use the overwhelming military and cultural power of the U.S. to implement democracy in the violent and vulnerable portions of the world (democracies don’t fight).
This theory culminated in the George W. Bush presidency and the war in Iraq. Neoconservatives believed that the Wilsonian liberals who had been attempting to foster peace through reason, good will, and conversation at the U.N. were failing miserably. They saw them as a bunch of North Eastern, Ivy League, aristocrats trying to talk their way into convincing people who live in the real world, where power matters, into giving up their struggle. In fact, the only way to make horrible figures, such as Hussein, acquiesce to the inevitable movement of history in the direction of democracy was to make them.
To Neocons, the only thing holding us back from truly bringing democracy to the world is our own willpower and threshold for pain in the necessary conflicts that will ensue.
3) Realists (Realpolitik)
Realism is an extremely small brand in American foreign policy. Not many people adhere to it because it does not coincide with our universalistic understanding that a democratic republic, enshrined in a constitution, is the ultimate form of government.
The first characteristic of Realpolitik is approaching every problem that arises in the international arena on a case-by-case basis with the underlying understanding that we will make decisions based on American interest.
The second major characteristic of realpolitik is the idea of balance of power. This idea was traditionally used by the United Kingdom in its relations toward almost the entire world, but mostly continental Europe. Its premise is that alliances should be formed among like-minded nations with mutual interests to counterbalance the power of rivals. However, if one nation grows in power in relation to the others it is incumbent upon the leaders of the other nations to rearrange the international order to counterbalance that evolution.
For instance, England and France were bitter rivals for centuries. After the Napoleonic wars the threat of French conquest faded and the Prussian states began to conglomerate into what we now know as Germany. France had traditionally always been afraid of a unified Germany because they knew that such a country would wield insurmountable economic and military power. Thus, England made an alignment with France basically guaranteeing that they would enter a war if Germany attempted to expand into disputed French territory (this ended up happening a century later in WWI).
Later, after WWII, French General DeGalle, who was the ultimate 20th-century realist, attempted to make European alliances outside of the United Nations with Germany, England, and other European nations against the new growing threat, the U.S.S.R.
While this brand seems rational and in fact did enable peace in Europe for over a century after Napoleon, it is extremely difficult to pass off to the emotional American public. Each and every decision the country makes would have to be explained based on what our interest is in that instance. A realist President would not sit in front of the camera and say “we are doing this to ensure the spread of democracy and human rights in the rest of the world.”
4) Isolationism (Isolationist – Washington; Nationalist Isolationism – Trump)
Isolationism is extremely simple to understand and very traditional in American political thought. Basically, it is the idea that the United States should look inward to fix its own problems so that it can be the “shining city on a hill;” the ultimate example of what the world should emulate.
It is what many of our founders envisioned for our new and extraordinarily weak republic. They saw this as a way to convince the population to avoid giving way to emotion and entangling our fragile country into international conflicts between France and Britain. It is what we abided by for over a century and a half until Teddy Roosevelt decided that we were as powerful as any of the other nations around the world and we should show it (think big stick). The only significant interruption of this train of thought during the 19th century was the Monroe doctrine. This was the principle, put forward by President Monroe, that it was in the U.S.’s interest to keep the imperial powers of Europe (notably Spain at the time, which still had colonies in Florida and the Caribbean) out of the western hemisphere. It was, in essence, a way of molding national interest into isolationism. Keep the powers out of our hemisphere so we can worry about ourselves and not get involved in their problems.
This brand of international relations has seen an extraordinary revival after a century of U.S. power relations with the entirety of the rest of the world, starting with TR, however with a nationalist twist. During his inaugural address, Donald Trump stood in front of the capital and proclaimed “American first” to the world. By this he didn’t just mean realpolitik because he went on to proclaim: 1) the universality and greatness of our way of life and 2) that we would eliminate radical Islamic terrorism (a foreign monster). So he is advocating that we turn inward from our way of conducting international relations. We should turn away from the U.N. because they just talk, turn away from multinational trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they lose us money, and turn away from nation building like the neocons have tried because it doesn’t work and is a drain on our society.
In essence, he is combining the vocabulary of nationalism with a policy that looks to simultaneously turn towards isolationism and also strike with massive power when our interest dictates to show our big stick. To him, every international interaction is a zero-sum game of win or lose. Our nation should be considered first. If we see a threat we should strike massively and return home. If we have an opportunity to trade or cooperate with another country, we should do it with the goal of having the upper hand in (winning) the relationship.
5) National Realists (Kissinger, Nixon, partially Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt)
This is a train of thought that I have made up because I think there is a massive distinction between National Realists and the other four. It is the idea that we should resign ourselves to the fact that the U.S. is the most economically, militarily, and culturally powerful nation on earth, and has been since the end of WWI. That we, therefore, have a responsibility to not turn away from the world but to do what we can to bring about as much peace as is possible and preserve democracy where possible. However, we should not go as far as the neocons in attempting to nation-build across the world or be as naïve as the Wilsonian Liberals in assuming that history is on our side so the rest of the world will understand as long as we are nice and patient.
National Realists like Nixon and Reagan can take on hugely different characters and lean toward Realpolitik (Nixon) or Universalism (Reagan). They approach international conflicts, trade deals, and treaties with the underlying understanding that U.S. interest comes first, however they express their decisions in the universal nomenclature that our country understands (think of how grand and hopeful Reagan sounded while he was making painfully rational decisions to intervene in small South American countries to keep Communism out).
After a decision is made based on the U.S. interest and cloaked in our moral truths we then turn to international cooperation and treaties such as NATO or NAFTA as insurance. International cooperation is not the end in itself as it is to the Universalist who thinks that if that happens world peace will ensue.
At the same time, Nixon and Reagan realized that they could not identify a problem that necessitates action based on U.S. interest, take action, and then sink back into isolation behind our shining seas. The big stick will then be seen with disdain by the rest of the world, we will inevitably lose our allies because they will see us as unreliable and completely self-interested and at some point, regional powers will completely replace our influence. For instance, Vietnam has become a burgeoning economy and a reliable economic ally in the Far East. However, they are on the border of the Chinese giant. The only thing allowing Vietnam to make independent decisions and to trade freely with the U.S. is the understanding by China and the rest of Asia that we will be there economically, militarily, and culturally to foster free trade, freedom of the seas, democracy, and human rights. That we won’t lash out when our immediate interest dictates then go back home and ignore our new friends. National Realism is the combination of the cold rationality of Realpolitik with the American feeling that we are the example.
Which do you support? And, more importantly, why?