My mouth started watering. Our twenty-three year old son and I have become obsessed with Chipotle. So, there we were, the two of us, finishing up our meal when he, recently graduated with degrees in both History and Philosophy, asked me what I thought of Lincoln as president. We talked about that for a time.
I said, "Of course, I think that all of our Presidents dim by comparison with Washington." He agreed.
Thinking of Washington set my mind's gears moving in a different direction. "You know," I told him, "I was thinking last week about this. Through the history of the country, there have been three major ways of thinking about foreign policy."
I explained that, as I saw it, the first way was that of the realists. This was George Washington's and Alexander Hamilton's mode of thought. Later practitioners would include Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and Brett Scowcroft.
This group has always held that nations tend to act in their own self-interest. When, in his Farewell Address, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, Washington warned against "entangling alliances," he wasn't commending isolationism. He was rather offering a realistic warning that other nations--including republican France which people like Thomas Jefferson naively wanted the US to unstintingly support over against the still-powerful Great Britain--would act in their own interests, forming temporary friendships that advanced their national aims. But, the original George W and other realists would say, US foreign policy ought to be shaped by what is in the best interests of the country.
A second tradition in US foreign policy is represented by what I would call the impositionists. This group has been exemplified by Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and of late perhaps, George W. Bush.
Whether by military force, through support of other kinds, or simply in their thinking about foreign policy issues, these leaders have believed in the imposition of the American template on other countries. Jefferson read his own version of the American Revolution (to which he was more of a spectator than participant) into the French Revolution and concluded that America must lend its hand to republican France. Wilson adventured in Mexico and then entered World War One to "make the world safe for democracy." Kennedy and Johnson got us into Vietnam. James K. Polk can, to some extent, be put in this category as well.
Most impositionists have been Democrats and have operated from a kind of semi-religious zeal. (Republican William McKinley, who employed the language of religious zealotry, displayed this tendency, as did his successor, Republican Theodore Roosevelt. But both did so more for economic or global political reasons than for others. )
Impositionists seem to see it as the function of American government to spread democracy, by force if necessary. Their approach to military force has been analogous, perhaps, to their big government solutions to domestic policies.
The current president, with his adoption of neo-conservative ideas on foreign policy may be in this camp. His evangelistic zeal to spread democracy in the Middle East, even, some would say, through the barrel of a gun, is reminiscent of Wilsonian approaches to the world. The current President's policies bear little resemblance, for example, to the approaches taken by his own father, who was much more in the realist camp.
A third group has been the isolationists. One stream of isolationists might be associated with William Jennings Bryan, the prarie populist and three-time Democratic Party nominee. He viewed the outside world as evil over against the pristine purity of America.
Another stream of isolationism came to the fore in the wake of World War One. Tired of the adventurism of the Wilson presidency, Republicans called the country to "return to normalcy " in the 1920 election. Later, they fought any US involvement in the Second World War, even as an armorer to Great Britain, until the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everybody's tune. But the Republican isolationism of the 1920s and 30s was surprisingly congruent with that of the Bryan Democrats: Time Magazine, I'm told, didn't have a section for foreign news in its early days. That section was simply labeled, "Power Politics." If true, the clear implication would be that those folks "over there" were dirty while we were pure.
After our conversation, we had been home for several hours, when my son handed me a copy of the November/December, 2004 issue of Foreign Policy. An article by Jack Snyder, Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Columbia University, delineates three major streams in foreign policy thinking, not just in the US, but globally.
While the three strands identified by Belfer in "One World, Rival Theories" are not identical to the three I identified over a Burrito Bol and three hard tacos, they are close. Snyder speaks of: Realism, Liberalism, and Idealism.
His realism and mine are almost identical. He identifies both Kissinger and Scowcroft as practitioners, overlooking the too-often underestimated Washington, while also naming Otto von Bismarck.
His liberalism is largely akin to what I identify as impositionism. According to Snyder, President Bush would fall into this category with the caveat that, unlike predecessors in this camp, he may be less interested in having the US work in tandem with allies or international organizations. (This, for some, is a debatable point, of course.)
Snyder points out that the biggest argument this group has going for them is that democracies don't attack democracies. That's true. Hence, US policymakers and thinkers of this ilk say that it's in America's interest to foster the development of democracy elsewhere, a notion which President Bush strongly upholds.
But, Snyder says:
"...the theory has some very important corollaries, which the Bush administration glosses over as it draws upon the democracy-promotion element of liberal thought. Columbia University political scientist Michael W. Doyle's articles on democratic peace warned that, though democracies never fight each other, they are prone to launch messianic struggles against warlike authoritarian regimes to 'make the world safe for democracy.' It was precisely American democracy's tendency to oscillate between self-righteous crusading and jaded isolationism that prompted early Cold War realists' call for a more calculated, prudent foreign policy."(That "calculated, prudent foreign policy," it should be pointed out, allowed Eisenhower to end the war in Korea within six months of taking over from Harry Truman as President and then presiding over seven-and-a-half years of peace during perhaps the highest tensions of the Cold War.)
Snyder's idealism differs from my categories. (And he also leaves out my separate category for isolationism.) But his categorizations give interesting insights into what prompts the beliefs and actions of those who see foreign policy as an engine for religious or semi-religious ends. Shockingly perhaps, Snyder makes bedfellows of Mahatma Gandhi, Osam bin Laden, and the Antiglobalization Movement in explaining this category.
Who knows what my son and I will talk about the next time we share dinner?