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The Best Foreign Policy Presidents

Normally, U.S. presidents are ranked overall, without qualification. To date, there has (seemingly) been no ranking of “domestic” presidents, nor “commanders-in chief,” nor best “environmental,” etc. Yet “foreign policy” can be justified as vital to national life and, indeed, higher than any domestic issue that supports life.

National Security is life itself and rises above any and all parochial or self-centered domestic issues that may occupy national attention. “Black lives matter,” “#MeToo” are important for their own constituents, but all of them require the capacity to advance their causes without outside interference. Without security from the beginning, there would not even be a social/political culture able to recognize opportunities for gains within. When security competes with society, invariably the first wins, without question. A country at war or threatened by it has little interest in “equality” back home.

Throughout history, most nations lived side-by-side, a situation that required the “national security state,” a reliable military and a masculine social order where war was always just around the bend. By contrast, the U.S. grew up thousands of miles from this order and rarely (if ever) felt these demands. Democracy grew and flourished, and most historical attention focused on home issues (voting, labor, business, health, crime, economy, immigration, ethnic/racial movements, and equalities of all kinds). Even America’s greatest and most tragic war was a domestic problem (“civil”).    

Within this context the ranking of “foreign policy,” presidents becomes severely limited. The geopolitical realities of North America were diametrically opposite than those that confronted, say, Prussia under Bismarck, or Russia under the Czars, or France before (and after) World War I. Throughout history, most national leaders would have been ranked almost exclusively on how they advanced state security. To them, that’s all that mattered.

Ranking of U.S. “foreign policy” presidents is constrained by these realities. Most U.S. national security problems have originated outside, where the U.S. reacted to circumstances not (mostly) of their doing. German U boats, Pearl Harbor, Hitler, the Cold War, the Korean War, Vietnam, 9/11, etc. all were either arbitrary or imposed from without, which makes “foreign policy presidents” an accident of history. Most American presidents took the oath of office expecting a country to run, not a war. To this day, the American political culture still defines “war” as an aberration, not consistent with political life. (“War is a continuation of politics by other means” comes from Carl von Clausewitz, not Thomas Jefferson).

What follows is more a “listing” than a “ranking.” Since most presidents in history did not even have a “foreign” policy, the list is considerably reduced. While most overall rankings list Washington, Lincoln as 1-2, 2-1, we will eliminate Lincoln right away. At one Cabinet meeting, some members wanted to declare war against Britain for supporting the Confederacy. Lincoln (allegedly) replied, “Gentlemen please, one war at a time.” That was probably his entire foreign policy but, considering, it was quite timely and, perhaps, even historic.

Continental expansion will not be considered as “foreign” since Manifest Destiny was decidedly domestic. Otherwise, Jefferson and Polk, who were responsible for most expansion, would be the only ones on the list.

The list herein is not “analysis” per se but more critical reflection, subjective, based upon personality and politics. Expect error; response is welcome, actually encouraged. In chronological order:

Washington:  Farewell Address (1796) may be the most important foreign policy statement in U.S. history, pledged neutrality and allowed for growth and was not actually abandoned until 1947 (with exceptions), which makes it a 150-year long foreign policy;  

Madison: War of 1812 began American nationalism;

Monroe: “Doctrine” defined entire Western Hemisphere, invoked and expanded time and again, abrogated by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013, making it 190 years old;

McKinley: began naval expansion into Caribbean and Philippines. (Qualification: McKinley was a figurehead, leaders were John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Beveridge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, etc.);

Theodore Roosevelt: Panama Canal, Portsmouth Treaty (Japan, Russia), Great White Fleet, first serious imperial moves, prelude to “superpower” and modern nationalism;

Taft: business, “Dollar Diplomacy”;

Wilson: American ideology as cornerstone of global identity, “Wilsonianism,” “nation-building,” father of international organizations, globalization, theory of the “democratic peace”;

Republicans, 1920s: “normalcy,” isolationism; “arms control” treaties (none of these lasted);

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Good Neighbor Policy, wartime diplomacy, height of “special relationship” with Britain, United Nations, end of isolationism, Yalta, atomic bomb;

Truman: Cold War alliances, Marshall Plan, NATO, Korean War, “New World Order”;

Eisenhower: containment, stability, “domino theory”;

Kennedy: Cuban Missile Crisis, oratory (Inauguration speech);

Nixon: “Vietnamization,” Shanghai Communique (add Kissinger);

Reagan: peaceful end of Cold War, relaxation (summits with Gorbachev), “Iran-Contra”;

Since Reagan, the U.S. has turned decidedly inward, taking Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s advice to be a “normal country in normal times.” Clinton’s foreign policy of “assertive multilateralism” and Obama’s “leading from behind” were exactly what they seemed, or as Obama once defined foreign policy as “sometimes you hit home runs, sometimes you hit singles.” Secretary of State Hillary’s foreign policy memoir Hard Choices is a travelogue.

For what it’s worth, here is a “ranking” in order, of all the foreign policy presidents who deserve any recognition at all. Criteria is: innovation, creativity, longevity, security.

Washington (surprise!), Monroe, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt.  Aside from the first, the others may be shuffled back and forth in ranking. Reagan and Truman, for example, are reversible: one began U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, the other ended it (and the Soviet Union).

But at least all these men had one thing in common.

What was it?