Monday, July 23, 2007

A brief history of United States foreign policy, part I

To get a handle on the historical foreign policies of the United States, first write a list of the most popular nations (excluding Native American nations) for the United States to wage war upon. Probably the major entries on the list would look something like this in rough chronological order:
  1. The United Kingdom -- a monarchy
  2. The Republic of Mexico -- a nominal republic run by generals at the time of the Mexican-American war
  3. The Spanish Empire -- a monarchy
  4. Imperial Germany -- a monarchy
  5. The Empire of Japan -- a monarchy
There seems to be a rough pattern there, although some discussion is in order. America's war of independence from the United Kingdom was probably roughly even in terms of support for or against the British. America's second war against the United Kingdom was almost universally popular, at least in the early stages of the war. Modern day liberals have it easy compared to 19th century Federalists; the War of 1812 was the final nail in the coffin of the Federalist party. The Pacific theater of World War II was probably not any more popular than the Atlantic theater, but I seem to remember that United States isolationist opinion was more concerned about staying out of Europe than anywheres else.

The Mexican-American war is the oddball in the list. Perhaps 19th century Americans thought that Mexico was still a monarchist or aristocratic nation only 25 years after it won its independence from Spain. Or maybe it marks a slavery-minded South reaching the pinacle of its political influence in the United States government.

Moving on, now write a list of the least popular nations for the United States to declare war on, assuming that the United States did actually did go to war with them, of course. The major entries on the list would look something like this in chronological order:
  1. The Confederate States of America -- a federal republic dominated by a socialist-leaning Democratic Party
  2. The Third Reich -- a dictatorship run by a national socialist Nazi party
  3. North Korea -- a communist state
  4. North Vietnam -- a communist state
  5. Iraq -- a dictatorship run by a nominally national socialist Ba'ath party
Another rough pattern seems to show up, and some discussion also needs to be made. First of all, the Conderedate States of America is generally considered to be a conservative state by modern-day liberals. Also, it's not clear to me how socialist-leaning Saddam Hussein was in running Iraq. Whether the ruling ideology had any kind of basis in socialist thought or was just a reflection of Saddam's personality is an open question. War against Hitler's Germany was probably just as popular as war against Hirohito's Japan once war on Germany was actually declared. Finally, the major exclusion from the list due to a technicality is the Soviet Union, yet another communist state.

From the two lists, it's clear that the United States has actually been swinging between two foreign policies for a large part of its history. The first is a wildly successful anti-monarchy crusade based on amoral working-class solidarity. This crusade doesn't particularly care about democracy, except insofar as democracy is a useful tool for leveraging monarchs out of power. And this crusade has varying degrees of amorality, given that states can perform ghastly mass crimes and still provoke calls for appeasement, negotiated settlements, and moral and military disarmament from the crusaders. Generally speaking, the anti-monarchy crusade has morphed into an anti-war crusade given the near universal repudiation of monarchy as a meaningful political principle since 1945.

The odd case of the Mexican-American war might suggest that (so far unstated in this post) a policy of territorial expansion springs from the anti-monarchy crusade. Obviously the United States was going to need a lot of land, manpower and natural resources if it was serious about trying to destroy the British Empire someday.

The second foreign policy is an ethical reaction to the worst excesses of the anti-monarchy crusade. This was generally introduced into American politics by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party, reasserted itself during the war years under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and especially after the Holocaust, and saw general expression against a range of communist states during the Cold War. The leading expression of this ethical reaction was, until its recent collapse, neoconservatism: the subject of part II.

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