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Who Goes There, Friend or Foe?


The above question seeks the identity of the figure and whether he is shot or let in by the sentry. It is purely symbolic but, in a larger context, represents one of the enduring dilemmas of foreign policies, whether they be ours or theirs. Who is our friend, who is an enemy?

It is not as easy as it may seem. Betrayal, deception, and disguise all combine to confuse our “sentries” in their inquiry as to the nature of the “figure” in front of us. What, for example, is China? Is anyone absolutely sure of the nature of that country and as to whether it represents a threat or just another competitor? The very fact that the subject elicits debate is proof sufficient that the answer is not only difficult but elusive.

What was Japan on December 6, 1941? For most Americans, it was at least a dangerous competitor to be addressed. The next day, it was a mortal and existential enemy that united the country as never before (or since).

These categories have a confusing and unpredictable lifeline. They go back and forth almost like the weather. Communist China was enemy number one in Asia during the early Cold War. We fought their army for three years in Korea. Suddenly, in 1972, Nixon/Kissinger made them an ally against the Soviet Union, a move that hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War itself. Who predicted that?

Friends and enemies change all the time. Most of today’s American allies were once mortal enemies. We fought them all over the world and throughout our history: Great Britain (twice), Germany (twice), Russia (twice, in 1918-20 with an intervention and then the Cold War), China (twice, 1899 against the “Boxers,” Korean War), Spain, Japan, Mexico (three times, 1847, 1914, 1916), North Korea, North Vietnam, ourselves (called “civil”), Italy (Mussolini), Turkey (World War I), Afghanistan, almost all the Middle East, and dozens of occupations in Central America and the Caribbean.

There may be others, but that list will do. Why did all of these wars occur? If we listen to our radical “resisters,” it is due to a unique mindset, located perhaps in Kansas, the epicenter of “American imperialism.” But, like slavery, discrimination, aggression, violence itself etc. etc., the issue is both timeless and universal.

Within that perspective, the very notion of friend/enemy takes on a fleeting and superfluous context. Why bother, since, as the saying goes, “today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy” (and vice versa). That’s exactly right, but there must be a hierarchy at least to distinguish a policy in the first place.

We get our news mostly from the media, whose perspective is limited to tomorrow’s “story.” For some time now, the headline story has centered on Russia, and Russia almost alone. What was the extent and nature of President Trump’s “collusion” with President Putin, and, conversely, how did Putin “meddle” in the election?

Typically, this “journalism” (as it was once called) is centered on personality and personalist descriptions of great power behavior. Perhaps this is necessary. Perhaps world politics must be reduced to back-fence gossip to sell papers.

Trump’s conversations with Putin are monitored by the press to see how much he “colluded.” How does one “collude”? Collusion is actually defined as “price fixing,” mostly between companies. Likewise, how does one “meddle”? The word sounds more like interference in a love affair.

Diplomacy as it goes now has become a public affair, whereas by definition it was always meant to be secret. Thus, at bottom, democracy is only conducting itself as it should. Fine, but this doesn’t help the question at the start: who is a friend, an enemy? It just satisfies daily curiosity. But its policy reach is just as short and finite.

To help answer the question, perspective is imperative. For example, is Putin a Czar, a Stalin a Khrushchev or a Brezhnev? Or none of the above? If he interfered in Ohio’s election, is he trying to overturn American democracy, or is he just “meddling” around? Does he want absorb Ohio and take over the Cleveland Browns?

In 1942, the U.S. government put out propaganda films, directed by Frank Capra and supervised by General Marshall, to help keep morale high for the war effort. “Why We Fight” pictured Japanese soldiers marching up Pennsylvania Avenue about to occupy the Capitol. Right! The “Japs” (as they were called) invaded California, marched east across the Rockies, through Nebraska and the Midwest and camped out in Arlington Cemetery.

This was, as we call it now, “fake news.” Not to say that neither Trump nor Putin are innocent of doing something, but after two years we have precious little. If Putin is an enemy, just how dangerous is he?

Could he be a “friend” or at least a neutral factor? How can we find out? Certainly not by reading the paper or turning on TV.

It’s easy to be nice to friends and allies, and even to be critical (by asking them to honor their obligations). But it’s hard trying to be pleasant to others, including potential enemies. That takes diplomacy and, to succeed, it has to be private. It’s time to stop second-guessing those outside our orbit and begin to pursue alternative avenues. This is called a “professional” approach. These may fail, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Nixon did it, why not Trump?