It is no accident that the arc of the 20th century has in some ways circled back to where it started, one hundred years on from the prelude to the “Great War” of 1914-18. Whether humans imagine themselves to be acting on ideology or “realism,” we continue to do pretty much the same things. Between politics, geography, and time, we humans are very predictable.
But Americans need not despair. Our Founders built America in the context of that very reality. Far from being ideological visionaries, they assumed the human condition was not going to change. The 20th century has been a long detour into hallucination on that head. But we have a wiser legacy to turn to, along with a rich body of more recent history from which to learn.
There has always been a tension in America’s geopolitical ideas between the pull of different perspectives. Almost everyone calls himself a realist; to hear each foreign policy faction tell it, his is the real realism. There is little to be gained from trying to claim the title of realist, and I don’t propose here to lay out a meaning for the term. If the reader wishes, he may see what follows as a unified approach combining pragmatism and a commitment to certain political ideals.
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We start with some simple principles. Americans, with much of the Western world, have grown unaccustomed to thinking in these terms; unchallenged ascendancy will do that to you. But the ascendancy has crumbled, and we need the discussion again.
The first principle is that the purpose of American foreign and security policy is to advance American interests. America’s interests arise from our national political character and our situation: territory, resources, neighbors, threats. Our political character, most fundamentally, is to insist on stable, ordered liberty for ourselves, in various dimensions of life. That informs all our choices, including what we see as our national interests.
Another simple principle is that there are limits to what America can do. There are priorities, because we have limited resources in a given amount of time, and there are literal “can’ts.” We can encourage others to liberty, but we can’t reorganize the world. We can deter many things, but we can’t prevent everything. Our first priority must be basic defense – although basic defense isn’t limited to being able to repel invasion; it also means being able to protect our trade and other interests abroad.
A third simple principle is perhaps the most generic one, but it is essential. The nation-state is how the liberty we Americans require is fostered and protected. The nation-state is the only entity big and strong enough to defend liberty against empires – including globalist ideologies – and to insure liberty against bloody tribalism on geographically smaller stages. If we want to continue to enjoy our liberties, we have to recognize and appreciate the necessity of the nation-state to that project. We have to insist unapologetically on national sovereignty.
American interests: History
America had national interests for many decades before we began thinking almost exclusively in terms of “national security.” Once the world had the Soviet Union in it, there was no real alternative to the national security framework. But it’s helpful to remember, now that the world is multipolar again, that America has interests to pursue that may or may not involve imminent threats.
Threats are a subset of national interests, not the other way around. The main thing this means is that the policy mechanisms for dealing with threats are not the only way to address our national interests. It means, conversely, that when we are pursuing national interests, we are not, ipso facto, treating other nations or events or trends as “threats.”
How did America see our national interests before the two world wars? There were four basic, persistent elements of our thinking over time. Perceiving these interests didn’t mean that America addressed them effectively or expeditiously in every case. But they informed our policies and our basic posture.
One interest was a view of the North American continent as the geographic endowment of a “manifest destiny” for the American republic, an expression first used in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan. Expansion across the continent, which went in fits and starts, was one face of the coin; the other, equally important face was defense of the continent against encroaching power from the Eastern hemisphere (mainly Europe).
Those encroachments, especially after the first half-century of the republic, were most likely to occur in the south. It was with an eye to the south that James Monroe announced the second persistent element of America’s conception of national interests: the Monroe Doctrine. Policy implications aside, the Monroe Doctrine defined the Western hemisphere as a core national interest of the United States: an area in which we would never be indifferent to the activities of outside powers.
The third persistent element was a penchant for what I think of as “hegemony busting.” This element related to trade, and was focused on “busting” regional (or colonial) schemes that restrained it, or imposed arbitrary costs on it. The American refusal to pay a tribute (“millions for defense, not one cent for tribute”) to the Barbary pirates – who acted as a far-flung outpost of the Ottoman Empire – was one of the earliest policies adopted along this line. Others were the “opening” of Japan in 1853, with the Perry expedition, and the “Open Door” policy on trade with China, both of which were moves to preempt colonialist exclusivity by the European powers.
The fourth element is embedded in the third, but reaches beyond it, and that is the protection of trade through a principle of freedom of the seas – including passage through chokepoints, in any part of the world. This has been one of the most basic and enduring features of America’s policy posture.
American interests: Today
How do these interests relate to the post-Cold War world of 2014? Most of us would agree that “manifest destiny” is an accomplished fact, and is no longer an active thread of America’s “foreign” policy. Perhaps it could become one again, but for now, its legacy is limited to the recognition that we should tend our good relations with some very good neighbors, in whose character and disposition we are, on the whole, extraordinarily fortunate.
As regards the Monroe Doctrine, the last 20 years have seen an important shift: away from the previous trend of America-friendly liberalism in much of Latin America, and toward radical statist governments with growing ties to radical or unfriendly regimes in the Eastern hemisphere. Yet the entire Western hemisphere remains a core national interest for the United States, and we have an interest in seeing this shift halted and reversed.
When it comes to hegemony-busting and freedom of the seas, the old problems are still there, but we can say in general that the source of them has shifted eastward. The aspiring exclusivist hegemons are now in Asia – Russia, China, and in a different way, Iran – and the regions where they propose to establish hegemony are (for now, and with one exception) in the Eastern hemisphere.
Maritime trade and other commercial activities – drilling and fishing – are some of the chief things that would be restrained, or to which arbitrary costs would be added, in the form of “rent” or “tribute,” by the successful achievement of hegemony by Russia or China. In fact, wherever there is a maritime chokepoint, the nations bordering it will be targeted by the aspiring hegemons, and the political postures of the chokepoint nations themselves will matter to the security of trade and shipping. America will face the alternatives of (a) regaining naval (and general military) supremacy, and addressing these problems from offshore; or (b) influencing political arrangements on land. Often both will be necessary.
Are there additions now to the basic American interests that have informed our policies in the past? I would add three. One is geographic; one also physically dimensional; the third “modern,” in the sense of having arisen out of the history – of conflict and technology – that has intervened since 1914.
The geographic addition is the arctic regions. Both the North and South Poles are significant in multiple dimensions: scientific, economic, military. Russia’s determination to pursue excessive claims in the Arctic is the one exception to the Eastern-hemisphere location of the Asian powers’ other hegemonic aspirations. It is an American interest to see that the poles remain open to multilateral exploration; that claims to them be settled peacefully and fairly; and that they not become militarized in the sense of opening new threat vectors, against North America or any other part of the globe.
The other physically dimensional addition is, of course, space. Given modern rocketry, satellite and missile programs, information technology, lasers, etc., no 21st-century nation, especially a global power, can be without a robust national policy on space. For some purposes, strategic weapons and missile defense fit here, as a category of American interests. (In any case, missile threats and defenses require a mention.)
The “modern” addition is the feature that has become the core of America’s national security posture: our ocean bastions – Atlantic and Pacific – and the alliances on the other side of each. This advantageous arrangement does more than harden us against multiple kinds of attack. It constitutes a position from which to promote our interests anti-hegemony and free movement – of trade, people, and ideas – in the Eastern hemisphere.
If there is a historical analogue, it would be – on a smaller scale – the posture of Great Britain vis-à-vis Europe from the 17th to the early 20th century. Many a college student has learned about promoting a “balance of power” through studying British policies toward the European continent in that period.
Underpinnings to policy
This basic framework will require fleshing out, and specific application to each foreign issue or problem. In conclusion, however, I want to lay out two principles that will underpin any successful approach to foreign and national security policy. Each, in its way, is an aspect of American exceptionalism.
First, it takes a strong America – politically and economically – to effectively implement any element of foreign policy, even the least coercive “good feeling” measures. The key to being strong in both dimensions is acting in our domestic affairs out of positive motives – optimism, hope, inspiration – and not out of negative motives: resentment, envy, pessimism.
Liberty and limited government, including a limited idea of what government’s scope should be, are essential, because government can’t call forth positive motives through organization or force. It can only unleash them from the people, by providing narrow but sturdy protections for intellectual freedom and property rights.
Second, America’s trademark principles of liberty and constitutionalism will – and must – inform our foreign policy. More often than not, this will mean that we’re doing two things: refraining from actions like funding the repression of foreign peoples, and using our influence to encourage friendly nations to operate more liberally and consensually. Sometimes it will mean supporting dissidents and other liberalizers in repressive, unfriendly regimes, a la the Reagan Doctrine. Very rarely will it ever mean that we have the opportunity – or that it’s a good idea – for us to try to remake the political landscape in another country. We can encourage some trends and try to discourage others, but we don’t have a magic wand to wave.
That said, the principle of respecting liberty and believing in limited, constitutional government is an integrated whole, with a moral foundation. We can’t be cynical, faithless, and manipulative overseas and somehow expect to retain integrity in our domestic politics. We’ve always done a pretty good job of living by our own rules on the global stage: respecting international conventions that we ask others to respect. But having influence and exercising leadership depend on going beyond that.
What America has to be is the “indispensable nation”: the one that does respect her own people; that acts in good faith; that enforces conventions impartially so that little nations and weaker peoples won’t be extorted; and that prizes truth, and freedom of thought, movement, and trade, because we assume that they will always be to our advantage. There is no scholarly term for this posture in international relations. The expression for it is “moral courage.”