U.S. Foreign Policy

“. . . wherever the American flag was planted, there tyranny must disappear.

We all have favorite books. One of mine – that I just read for the 4th or 5th time – is U.S. Foreign Policy by Walter Lippmann. It was published in 1943 in the dark days of World War II. A time when 80 million people were killed in the brief span of six years. Lippmann’s premise is that America had no foreign policy following the Spanish American War (1898) until after World War II began. This absence of policy led to the bloodshed in the first half of the 20th Century. President Woodrow Wilson wrongly faulted World War I on a system of alliances. He therefore decided to abandon all alliances (which led to Germany, Japan and Italy developing theirs). Here are a few Lippmann lessons:

Never volunteer to do or not do something — unless there is reason and reciprocity for doing so.

Treating all adversaries alike is a huge mistake. Each one is different.

America cannot escape its history but it can – at fearful cost – misread its history” — Abraham Lincoln.

Collective security can be a remedy and substitute for alliances.

America’s foreign policy must be solvent before it can afford to issue any more promissory notes.

The “vital interests of the nation” – national interest – should guide foreign policy.

China and Russia will be major forces to contend with in the future.

Survival of the nation, its independence and security are a greater end than peace.

When contemplating these and other salient points of Lippmann’s incisive essay, we can see that America’s objective has not been to subjugate other nations to statehood or territorial inclusion. One need only see America’s heroic efforts to raise Germany and Japan from the ashes of war to rebuild, develop economic success and to kindle friendship. America’s military objectives abroad (whether wise or foolish) have always been intended to repel tyranny and cruelty and not to rule over a country or territory. And then we have Russia – whose objectives are to plant the flag — crush opposition, destroy economy, enslave the people and control with an iron hand. And jackboot.

So What Do We Do??

When I read of the tragedy unfolding in Syria, the intense suffering in Central Africa, the mind-numbing poverty and starvation in Sudan, the cruelties in North Korea and the violence around the globe, I have to wonder – what do we do (collectively or individually)  When it comes to this mind-boggling conundrum, there are two choices:  do nothing or do something

In the “do something” realm, I thought about the options.  And I thought I would complile a list.  To ponder what kind of “something” might serve.  Regrettably, there are not many possibilities:

Military Intervention – Always an option but never a very good one 

Political Intervention – Getting involved in the local political process (nearly as bad as the military option unless it’s political “pressuring”)

Humanitarian – The “biggee.”  Supporting with time, talent or funds those organizations which provide food, shelter, medical assistance, education and support for the oppressed

Prayer – Always an option with no downside

Mobilizing Others – This includes just “spreading the word” about the issues.  Raising awareness.  Encouraging involvement.  Raising the prospects of meaningful contribution by our brethren (mainly in the “Humanitarian” area).  Lobbying

In Walter Lippmann’s classic work American Foreign Policy, he spoke of how in foreign policy the United States should be motivated only by “national interest” (see post of 5/3/12).  But is there a “national interest” in intervening in such situations?  Can a pressing humanitarian urgency trump national interest?   Actually, I see no inconsistency between the two except possibly in cases where national sovereignty is perceived as threatened (like North Korea).  Yet there is a clear limit on what we can  undertake – and accomplish.   I’d be interested in your “take” on what – if anything – “we” should do.  Or what more we can do.  As individuals.  Or as nations.      


In 1943, Walter Lippmann penned the classic treatise U.S. Foreign Policy. This is a must-read for any foreign policy wonk.  The pivotal message of this work is that America must always act in its national interest. If there is no national interest, then there need be no action (or “taking the bait“).

When it comes to Syria – or other trouble spots – just what is our “national interest“?  Is there merit to telling Europeans that “Syria is in your back yard. You guys handle it“?   Would it be better to sit back like we are watching a football game and let matters take their course?  What should America do?  America readies action against Syria — in spite of strong objections from Russia, China, the Arab League and a great many others.  In spite of a disjointed (many say “nonexistent”) foreign policy and without clear policy objective – we prepare to march off as the world’s moral authority.  Risking everything.  

In 1975, we extricated ourselves from Viet Nam and Southeast Asia. What happened? There was genocide on a cosmic scale.  In Cambodia 1.7 million people (20% of the country’s population) were slaughtered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  And America did nothing.  After we left Viet Nam, as many as 2 million civilians were murdered by the Hanoi government.  America did nothing.  During a horrific 100 days in 1994, over 500,000 Tutsis were massacred by rival Hutus in Rwanda.   And America twiddled its thumbs.   In a situation like Syria where the casualties number in the thousands is it in America’s national interest to send in the missiles?  Or troops?  To bomb?  Support rebels?  Should we get involved at all?  In Egypt, we grandly supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.  Mohammed Morsi was elected President.  And within one year, he was out in a violent overthrow.  And Egypt still reels from violence and uncertainty.        

I’m not sure of the answer but unless our national interest is directly at stake, I’m inclined to watch from the sidelines.  In the upper balcony. . . . . 

The Third Time Around

How often have you read a book twice?  Anybody for three times?  I just re-read Robert Kagan’s book Of Paradise and Power for the third time.  Wow! 

In my office at home, I have a shelf on my desk with those books that have inspired or moved me.   Robert Kagan’s National Bestseller (Random House 2004) has been there since I first read it. 

Europe has been involved in power politics for 300 years.  And it has brought them nothing but misery.  They have been warring and killing off whole generations of young men for centuries.  Finally, after World War II, Europe collapsed emotionally — and decided that (at least for now) enough was enough.  They formed a European Union and have moved in the direction of controlling and limiting the exercise of power.  It is for that reason that many Europeans (especially the French) now assail the U.S. for what they perceive as the use of power politics.  This attitude has accelerated since the collapse of the Soviet Union — the end of Europe’s strategic dependence on the U.S.

Thus, the U.S. and Europe have differing views on the efficacy of power, the morality of power and the desirabililty of power.  Since the end of WWII, Europe and the U.S. no longer share a “strategic” culture.  Thus the U.S. feels free to act — as needed — in the defense of its national interests. 

Kagan’s book is the best I’ve read on foreign dynamics since reading (also for the third time) Walter Lippmann’s 1943 classic Foreign Policy.   Both are worth a read . . . .or two or three. . . .