Over the last thirty years our foreign policy has done us more harm than good and history has a few things to teach us on that score.
Our history teaches us that the prevailing political climate on various issues moves in phases. There are a multitude of examples that we could cite, but I want to focus on one in particular: Foreign policy.
For over one hundred years the United States of America could have been classified as an isolationist power. For more than a century we lived by President Washington’s sentiments put forth in his farewell address:
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
Isolationism didn’t mean that we did not involve ourselves in the affairs of the world, but it did mean that we did not intercede in matters that the American people felt were not theirs to be involved with. In the 1820’s the USA introduced the Monroe Doctrine, which implied that any European incursion into the Americas would be viewed as an act of aggression. More than half a century later, the Roosevelt corollary would lead to a period of increased American involvement in Latin America. By and large, outside of the (Theodore) Roosevelt Presidency, the United States remained a relatively isolationist nation.
With the onset of the World Wars in the early 20th Century, the United States moved into a new foreign policy era that would be marked not just by heavy involvement in world affairs, but by American leadership in world affairs. This era would see us involve ourselves in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and all over the world as we tried to contain communism – a plan that mostly failed.
That brings us to the era I want to focus on – American foreign policy since the fall of communism. In this period, the world has been mostly focused on events taking place in the Islamic world.
Over the last twenty plus years we have seen involvement in the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia all in an effort to bring peace to our shattered planet. The attempts have been, I think, mostly noble. However, we’ve had to bring force to bear in each and every case, and perhaps that’s made the final goal more difficult to attain.
Over the last couple of years we’ve watched in hope as the Arab spring has spread across the Muslim world – despot after despot has been felled by the overbearing strength of democracy. Our hopes have generally been shattered upon the rocks of reality, however, when the government which rises to take the place of some monarch or dictator has been an Islamic theocracy.
Our politicians have battled in the halls of Congress over what course of action seems best, and in some cases we’ve dithered too long to be of use (Syria), and in other cases our involvement has helped our enemies (Libya), but in no case has our response brought about a scenario that makes the world safer for us.
My question is this – are we missing an opportunity? Over the last several weeks Turkey has been rioting, kicking against the pricks of an overly paternal democratically elected government. I would not argue for separation from Turkey over this matter because the government is duly elected, but perhaps this is the moment when our President should be speaking directly to the Turkish people. In Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan, perhaps the right response would have been an emphatic “The United States will always support the will of the people in any circumstance over that of an oppressive government.” The argument becomes even more compelling when that government is friendly to us, as in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the world would take the values and ideals we preach more readily if when faced with the choice we always choose to side with freedom over despotism.
Instead of vacillating between support of a despot and provision of arms to rebels, maybe we should be quicker to acknowledge that democratic republican values are always superior to dictatorships, oligarchies, and monarchies. If your nation is in open rebellion, the United States may not become physically involved but we will always side with the will of the people.