Let’s Rethink Foreign Relations: America’s Deal With Our Neighbors

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“America is the only nation
that has gone directly
from barbarism to decadence
without the usual interval of civilization.”

—George Bernard Shaw

The Foreign Relations component of our Republic, more than most of the others, seems to involve the greatest sense of uncertainty, ambiguity, and unease in the minds of Americans.

Throughout our history our leaders, big thinkers, activists, and citizens have struggled with two conflicting streams of thought. The national conversation has almost always involved some version of the same argument: should we engage actively with the other nations of the world or should we mind our own business and stay out of their affairs?

Globalism Vs. Tribalism: the Basic Choice

The preferred answer to that question has shifted back and forth many times as presidents have come and gone; wars have flared up and burned out; alliances have formed and collapsed; economic conditions have improved and gone sour; and foreign governments have become more and less antagonistic to  American’s existence and role in the world.

“Avoid Entangling Alliances”

As George Washington stepped down from his second four-year term as America’s first president and retired from public life in 1796, he offered a memorable warning to his successors:

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”

Thomas Jefferson affirmed that doctrine in his inaugural speech in 1801 as:

“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”

Various presidents since that time have tried to apply their advice, with mixed results. In the modern era, for example, Franklin Roosevelt saw his dream of a “New Deal for the American people” derailed by the outbreak of WW2.

After the war, Dwight Eisenhower hoped to preside over an enduring pax Americana but saw the country swept into a long Cold War defined by a costly arms race and a terrifying nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union. America’s participation in the United Nations and the NATO military alliance entangled the country as never before.

Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, saw his “New Frontier” domestic agenda pushed aside by the Armageddon scenario of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which followed the botched Bay of Pigs invasion six months earlier. The precarious stand-off with Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union preoccupied him and his advisers for the rest of his term.

Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy after the assassination in 1963, had staked his political fortunes on his concept of the “Great Society,” which he promised would eliminate poverty and racial injustice. He saw it thwarted at every turn by the ruinous costs and political distractions of the Vietnam conflict. He decided not to run for re-election.

George Bush, Jr., won the election of 2000 and came into office hoping for a quiet watch, unaffected by the faraway strife in Europe and the Middle East. His world turned upside down with the infamous 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001.

Through all of these episodes, adventures, and misadventures, the American people have struggled to find a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose in the often misguided foreign policy expeditions of their governments.

The Toughest Kid on the Playground

Considering the series of historical phases we’ve just reviewed, our foreign relations program—if we might call it that—seems to have consisted of a long succession of idiosyncratic reactions to unforeseen events.

We can, however, perceive a few common themes that seem to have shaped the general patterns of foreign engagement.

Militarism, a.k.a. “gunboat diplomacy,” certainly ranks as one of the strongest. As early as 1854, Admiral Matthew Perry led a massive naval expedition that forced the government of Japan to open its markets to US merchants. Ever since the Spanish-American War, US presidents have tended to wave the Big Stick, reminding other heads of state of our superior military capacity.

Economic interest—opening up commercial opportunities for American corporations—ranks a close second. New territories have always provided new sources of raw materials like oil, gold, and industrial commodities, and sometimes new markets for domestic goods. Much of the foreign aid currently offered to developing countries takes the form of economic credits, which they have to spend with American companies, buying agricultural products and equipment, technological resources, or military weapons.

A third and somewhat more troubling component of our behavior toward other nations involves covert operations—secret activities carried out to disadvantage particular national governments that someone in our political hierarchy considers a threat to our safety and security.

A kind of cynical pragmatism, often promoted by key presidential advisers, has sponsored espionage; bribery; channeling funds secretly to shadow groups trying to overthrow heads of state; sponsoring acts of sabotage by anti-government factions; secretly supplying weapons or training to insurrectionist groups; and direct or sponsored attempts to assassinate unfriendly heads of state.

We do seem to have a common philosophy of foreign engagement—the same one we’ve had for over a century: plain and simple, we want the starring role on the world stage. We’ve claimed our place as the toughest kid on the playground.

Welcome To The Real New World Order

If we compare the world as we see it today with the old world of the Cold War, we see big differences—lots of them. Socially, politically, economically, technologically, militarily, and ecologically—we face a very different global reality from the Kissinger world of 50 years ago. As the world around us evolves ever more rapidly and radically, we must evolve with it. We need to think deeply and creatively about what this new reality will require of us.

We’ve become grotesquely over-militarized; burdened with colossally expensive weapon systems we’ve never used and never will use; hostages to an obsolete but still frighteningly dangerous nuclear arsenal; spending vast sums of tax money on outdated weapons technologies that will have no tactical value by the time they go into operation; and addicted to a game of one-upmanship with Russia and China, chasing ever more lethal and destabilizing new weapons technologies.

Let’s face it: we won the arms race a long time ago. We can outgun everybody. We can outspend everybody. And we’ve acquired more power and influence on the world stage than even Teddy Roosevelt might have dreamed of. Now, what?

The Threats Have Changed

For most of our history as a republic, our leaders have defined our existential challenges for us in terms of competition, conflict, and compromise with the other nations. Going forward from here, however, it looks more and more like our challenges—and the threats to our survival—will arise from our troubled relationship with the planet, not our troubled relationships with other regimes. Let’s consider some of the major planetary threats:

  1. Epidemics and Pandemics will become more frequent and more deadly. As of this writing, leaders of all major countries face a deadly virus outbreak known as SARS-CoV-2 (or, informally, as the coronavirus or COVID-19). The infection has gone pandemic—it affects virtually all modern countries. The US government’s response to the outbreak deserves a failing grade for foresight, organization, and follow-through. We’ve experienced a number of other global health crises in the past and in every case our response capacity has fallen short. To deal with the next ones coming at us we’ll need far more cooperation within governments and between nations, including those typically antagonistic to one another.
  2. Long-term climate change looms ever larger as a national issue and a planetary concern, and the US has lost precious time in dealing with it. That challenge above all others calls for a massive, aggressive, coordinated program of planned change, one nearly unprecedented in world history. Practically speaking, we haven’t even started.
  3. Extreme variations in weather have become an undeniable part of long-term climate change. We’ve already seen more frequent and more devastating natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, mega-fires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves. We currently have a very primitive transnational process for coordinated responses to planetary catastrophes.
  4. Humanitarian catastrophes associated with natural disasters, warfare, political upheaval, and state-level persecution of minorities have made millions of people into refugees. Volunteer agencies can’t possibly cope with those numbers, and as of this writing, the international mechanisms for managing those disasters barely exist. We have the elements of transnational coordinating mechanisms, but nothing on a par with what we’ll really need.
  5. Worldwide infrastructure development—the Global Commons—begs for our attention. Almost all modern nations have underinvested in their domestic infrastructure. We and they have big challenges ahead, to repair, rebuild, and modernize the built environment that plays a critical role in our ongoing economic survival. Indeed, all modern nations have a shared responsibility to support infrastructure developments across Africa and in other disadvantaged regions.

All of those planetary threats and challenges have one thing in common: no country can solve or eliminate them single-handedly. They will all require a level of international cooperation beyond anything we’ve developed so far.

Can we do it? Can we, collectively, as a family of nations, set aside—or mitigate—our ancient feuds and frustrations and rise to the challenges? I believe we can. Do I believe we will? I still struggle with that question.

Continue Reading at Page 407


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