America's world: from frontiersman to neocon

Godfrey Hodgson
23 April 2003

One way of looking at the history of American foreign policy is to see it as a conflict between the instincts of the immigrant and those of the frontiersman. The immigrants came to America to find a better life. The last thing most of them wanted was to be dragged back into the stale and rancorous quarrels of the old world (among the exceptions have been Irish-Americans) The frontiersman, on the contrary, wanted to push ever further west to find new land, new resources, new frontiers. Once the frontier of free land was officially declared closed in 1890, the frontier spirit looked overseas, and Americans sought economic opportunities in Latin America, the far east and later in Europe and the middle east.

In the foreign policy of the George W Bush administration, those two themes – withdrawal and advance – are strangely reunited. The neo-conservatives who have captured American foreign policy make plain their contempt for foreigners, and at the same time their ambition to make the world over in the image of their rather narrow vision of America. Their interpretation of American exceptionalism – that is, of the belief that America is not just different from all other societies but also more righteous, is a resolution of a kind, of two instincts that are almost as old as the United States.

The neo-conservative interpretation of American exceptionalism is a resolution of a kind, of two instincts that are almost as old as the United States.

Having won their independence, and then fought Britain to a pointless draw in the war of 1812, 19th-century Americans were largely content to cultivate their enormous garden, relying on the Royal Navy to shelter them from the storms that tossed the rest of the world. From time to time they threatened war with Britain and even Russia. southerners dreamed of creating a slave empire in the Caribbean to restore the balance tipping against them as the middle west filled up with "free-soil" immigrants. They fought an aggressive war against Mexico and after it helped themselves to more than one-third of Mexico’s territory. They used gunboats to open Japan to trade.

At the very end of the century, Americans annexed Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and for a time also Cuba and Haiti, while US marines and naval forces were sent on dozens of occasions to protect American financial interests in the Caribbean.

As early as 1823, the Monroe Doctrine committed the United States to oppose European intervention in the American continents. In 1895 President Grover Cleveland and his secretary of state, Richard Olney, aggressively asserted the doctrine against Britain in a dispute over the boundaries of British Guiana and Venezuela. But it was Theodore Roosevelt, in 1904, who put forward the “Roosevelt corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. If European powers would keep their hands off the western hemisphere, the United States would exercise “international peace power” there. Roosevelt was very conscious of America’s new power, based on growing population and economic strength, though – except for Panama – he used that power mainly as a peacemaker, negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and mediating between France and Germany at the Algeciras conference the next year.

By 1913, when Woodrow Wilson became president, the United States was for extending the Monroe Doctrine to the old world. Wilson and his advisor Colonel Edward House, like most of their compatriots, disapproved of colonialism in theory, though they had little sympathy in practice for Irish or Indian nationalism. Wilson’s fourteen points, drafted with House’s help, called for self-determination and “open covenants, openly arrived at”. When the United States entered the war against imperial Germany against Wilson’s instincts he insisted that Britain and France were, not allies, but merely “associated powers”.

While repeatedly expressing distaste for the self-interested foreign policy of the European powers, Wilson had no inhibitions about more than once sending military forces to Mexico. Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations to impose his vision of a world ruled by American ideals, was defeated by Republican “isolationists”. They have been misunderstood. They did not seek to isolate the United States, only to avoid involvement in the quarrels of Europe. They saw nothing wrong with using the Marines in Nicaragua or Haiti, or with a big navy to show the American flag in the orient.

After the great war, a great power

America emerged the strongest power in the world from the first world war, but shrank from accepting the responsibilities of power. The rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan (not to mention in Latin America) in the 1930s presented Franklin D. Roosevelt with a dilemma that was only resolved by events. Roosevelt (like most of his class in the North-East) was instinctively Anglophile. But he was also both deeply anti-colonial, and fully aware of the strength of isolationist feeling. As imperial Japan attacked British, French and Dutch colonies as well as China in Asia, and Hitler extinguished liberal democracy in Europe, Roosevelt did what he could to prevent Britain being overwhelmed. But he never declared war on Hitler’s Germany. Hitler saved him the trouble by declaring war on America.

Roosevelt may have saved Britain. But at Yalta he behaved as if the British empire was a bigger threat to the peace of the world than Stalin’s Russia. Both before and after Roosevelt’s death in March 1945 the United States did all it could, not just to end European colonialism, but in effect to replace it.

That said, as long as the United States faced the threat of world communism and the national/imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union, its leaders acted with a more than generous interpretation of “enlightened self-interest”. Winston Churchill’s much-quoted dictum, that the Marshall Plan was the most unsordid act in human history, was no more than the truth, and President Truman, General Marshall and Dean Acheson and their various lieutenants shared an interpretation of American national interest so broad that it covered support not only for the major allies of the two world wars, but for almost any regime that was prepared to resist communist pressure and subversion.

From the Marshall plan to the Vietnam war, cold war policies, including a worldwide system of alliances and American bases, were part of a consensus in America that covered all but the fringes of both major parties. Even the coming of the Reagan administration did not seriously disturb that consensus, though the Europeans alternately complained that the Americans were too keen or not keen enough on Nato, while the Americans tried in vain to get the Europeans to take a bigger share of defence expenditure. In the meantime, American military preponderance grew ever greater.

The origins, and rise of the neocons

Already by the late 1970s, a new policy alignment in Washington foreshadowed future differences with Europe. This was the rise of the so-called neo-conservatives, mostly former liberals and Democrats who mistrusted Henry Kissinger’s détente with the Soviet Union and also feared for the safety of Israel. After the defeat of their leader, Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, and grouped around institutions like the Committee on the Present Danger, most neo-conservatives crossed the party line to work for President Reagan after 1981. They were opposed to President George HW Bush’s tough line towards Israel and unhappy with his decisions to end the Gulf war before Saddam Hussein had been overthrown. Still less could they accept the election of President Clinton, which they saw as interrupting a “Reagan revolution”.

Even so, until the collapse of the Soviet Union – that is, even under President Reagan and the first President Bush – American policy was based on a broad and multilateral system of alliances, and on support for an international system with the United Nations still at its apex.

It was not long, however before different interpretations revealed yawning differences between America and Europe. Even under President Nixon and Reagan, US policy was more willing to ride roughshod over the sensitivities and hesitations of allies than it had been in the first twenty years of the cold war. In the 1990s, several factors widened the gap. Confronted with the break-up of Yugoslavia, the European powers could not bring themselves to act decisively or effectively. The United States first hesitated to get involved, then responded to the threat of genocide in Kosovo with ninety days of ruthless air war.

Most Washington policymakers assumed that it was they who had brought down the Soviet Union, and now they felt they had overthrown the Slobodan Milosevic regime in Serbia. Europeans were more inclined to give credit to the Russians, the eastern Europeans and the Serbs, and in any case uneasy about the uninhibited use of American military power. Worst of all, a potentially poisonous difference of perception had opened up on Israel.

Already in Henry Kissinger’s time Israel often seemed in practice more important to American policymakers than Britain, Germany and France put together.

Already in Henry Kissinger’s time Israel often seemed in practice more important to American policymakers than Britain, Germany and France put together. This was partly due to an American perception, especially strong among some Jews and among southern and western evangelical Christians, that Israel was a more reliable ally of the United States, partly to an ideological identification with Israel, partly to the sheer clout of Israel’s supporters in Washington. Europeans, on the contrary, tended to infuriate Washington by at best seeing Palestinians and Israelis as equally at fault, or, worse, siding with the Palestinians.

As long as Bill Clinton was in the White House, such differences were contained. But a neo-conservative group, out of government, worked openly for a new, more aggressive American strategy, unilateralist in instinct, more concerned to defend Israel than to restrain its rightwing government or to broker peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and more or less openly contemptuous of the Europeans on both moral and power grounds.

The Europeans, too, made matters worse. Their economies, which until the 1970s had challenged American competitiveness, now seemed to stagnate. Their military power was negligible in relation to new challenges, and their governments seemed ungrateful and unfriendly to America.

In 2001, when George W Bush became president, he turned foreign policy over to an alliance between the neo-conservatives, many with very close ties to the right in Israel, and to corporate Republican conservatives with strong ties to southern evangelical conservatives. From the start the second Bush administration made it plain that it cared little about what the Europeans or anyone else thought. On a series of issues that could once have been easily accommodated – national missile-defence, the Kyoto protocols on global warming, proposals for an international criminal court, trade negotiations, the United Nations – the United States brushed aside European and international concerns.

Then came 11 September. At first, the rest of the world hastened to pour out its sympathy. But within a year, the Bush administration had made it plain it had no interest in alliances between equals. He who was not for us, whatever we decide to do, with or without real consultation, was Washington’s plain message, is against us.

In rage and outrage, America would stand alone, with something approaching contempt, for the system of international alliances and institutions America itself had built up since the late 1940s. The United States spent more on military force than all the other nations of the world put together. Publicists and journalists rushed to reinforce that message, and those accepted in Washington as the president’s chosen spokesmen vied with one another for the brusqueness with which they dismissed international dissent or even debate.

The attack on Iraq may not be a crime, but it may well turn out to have been a mistake.

Only hard power would count. The United States had it, and those in other countries who did not like American domination could lump it. Not every politician or policymaker felt that way, of course. Still less did such hubristic opinions dominate American public opinion. But the hawks were on the wing, and few dared to fly against them.

In a strange, potentially tragic way, the two strands of the American foreign-policy tradition had come together. In the immigrant tradition, an American administration was turning its back on a morally compromised world. In the frontier tradition, the God-fearing elect now stood at Armageddon to do battle for the Lord. But where once the United States had seen itself as the leader of a system of allies, with opinions to be consulted, and interests to be accommodated, now there was little patience for dissent, little doubt that the neo-conservative version of the American way was the only way.

For some Americans the spectacle is exhilarating. To others, as to the rest of the world, it is troubling. No one doubts that the United States has the power to annihilate militarily any adversary, except possibly Russia and China, almost without raising a sweat. But the medium and long-term consequences are less reassuring. The attack on Iraq may not be a crime, but it may well turn out to have been a mistake. Will the political will be there in Washington to take on all comers in serial battle, let alone to deal with the cost and consequences of such victories? Does a messy victory in Iraq make terrorism more, or less likely?

The very “immigrant” side of the new consensus – the instinct to turn the back on an imperfect world – will make it difficult to maintain support for defiant unilateralism. Pathetically feeble as they might be, and lamentably lacking in the warrior spirit, allies may after all turn out to be needed. Allies, after all, are also trading partners, suppliers of cheap labour and raw materials, and even the investors who fund massive American deficits. The United States, in other words, is more than ever involved in an imperfect world. There may be something splendid about splendid isolation. But in the long term, the Madisonian majority in American life will see it as hubris, and fear that it would be followed by nemesis – not, of course, military, but diplomatic, political, and in the long run economic. The neo-conservative ideology will soon be replaced by an older American common sense.


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