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What Foreign Policy Shall We Have?

The above question, attributed to Leon Trotsky after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, was an ideological admission that world Communism would soon remove the need for any “bourgeois” remnants of history that might survive Marxism’s final triumph. Assuming the inevitable, “scientific” victory of worldwide Communist-Socialism, the Bolsheviks of that time had complete faith that their revolution was final and irreversible and meant the end of nation-states and global Capitalism. Trotsky also is said to have answered his question with a dismissal that the foreign office was no longer needed and that the new regime had only to issue a “few pronouncements and close-up shop.”

Obviously, Trotsky put way too much faith in Marxist doctrine and was soon driven out of Russia by Stalin, who believed that further, spontaneous revolutions elsewhere were “nonsense.” Now in control, Stalin was forced to follow strict and nationalistic policies to survive both German Nazism and American Capitalism. He had Trotsky killed in Mexico in 1940 while he had to ally with the Capitalists to barely survive Hitler.

A denial of reality in ideological movements

The above reflection on Trotsky highlights the faith that history’s ideologues have had in denying reality. Trotsky was hardly alone, as the nature of ideological thought throughout history has, time and again, distorted reality and turned normal behavior into tragedy. There has never been a truly “Marxist” revolution, despite the durability of the idea and the existence of multiple countries calling themselves “Communist.”

Where, on earth, has someone’s “proletariat” risen and taken over a government?

Similarly, Hitler rallied eighty million people into following an “Aryan” racial doctrine toward an imagined world order that saw the utter destruction of Germany and 76 million dead in six years.

American efforts to convert foreign, entrenched cultural tyrannies into functioning democracies has been tried since Woodrow Wilson’s time. It is still going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, apparently without end.

Distortion of reality in American political thought

Today’s American political culture has faint but dangerous similarities to ideological movements that both deny reality and supplant national security for domestic utopias. The United States is, without doubt, the most “liberal” country ever created. This is its greatest strength, but this characteristic, like most other qualities, can also lead into unchartered territory if allowed to go undisciplined and/or unsupervised. Political liberty has been supplanted by a host of ideological “isms,” which distort reality and advance self-absorbed “causes.”

Liberalism has meant “equality” from the very beginning. “We hold these truths…” is the declaration that began America and the endless search for an equalitarian social order. “That all men are created equal,” however, was not meant to be taken literally. This is apparent from the expression itself: it excludes half of humanity, ignores any kind of social reality, including slavery and class, ethnic, religious and other human distinctions. The word “all” had nothing to do with the rest of the world, and the word “equal” was only theoretical, as meaning before the law and God.

Yet, it was a revolution and, by definition, cannot reach a finality. The proper answer (metaphorically) to the question “what is the lasting result of the American Revolution”? has always been: “it’s too soon to tell.”

The United States never really created its own “foreign” policy until the end of World War II. Before that, the country was absorbed by “isolationism,” and, after both world wars, immediately headed back into “normalcy” (the 1920s expression) until isolation became untenable. A “policy” is a set of tactics, goals, and “high” strategies geared toward concrete ends, timetables and supported by an electorate. Both world wars are over, as is the Cold War. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has veered, almost aimlessly, from one set of goals to another, but with a domestic agenda that, progressively, has left national security realities in the dust. That is both normal and understandable. But it has a potential to “repeat” history. The late UN Ambassador under Reagan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, best identified this trend in an article urging the U.S. to be “a normal country in a normal time.” For the most part, we have done just that. But for how long will “normalcy” prevail?

What foreign policy shall we have?

Judging from the current political climate, we are again asking the Trotsky question, “what foreign policy shall we have?” The recent twenty-person Democratic debates ignored foreign policy/national security altogether. The 2016 election did practically the same, with “name calling” taking over. The only concession to “security” was the immigration question, which has been misnamed as an “emergency.” It is certainly serious, but the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was an emergency. In the 2012 election, the national security issue was the murders in Benghazi, but this was a tragic episode, hardly a foreign policy.

As so often before in human history, domestic beliefs have subsumed questions of national security. In the past, either a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11 was needed to arouse the “sleeping giant.” Nor is the Trump Administration any closer to a serious look at the issue, with MAGA an empty political slogan (and hat).

An ideology of equality

The United States needs a foreign policy, but for or against what or whom? Every conversation, every “issue,” almost all reporting reflects the American ideology, equality. It has infected not only the political process but the entire culture. This includes theater, the “news” (the word itself is an ideology), comedy, “talk” shows (once jocular, now serious). Sports has become a target. American women won the soccer cup; the biggest news is the team’s political beliefs. Kate Smith once sang a “racist” song (1931); the Philadelphia Flyers tore down her statue. The Yankees banished her “God Bless America.” NFL “owners” cannot use the term. Most champions will not go to the White House.

History and biology are questioned by ideology. Nike won’t make a shoe that reflects slavery in America. If only one item from history is removed, logically, they all should be removed. Historically, that was once called “Stalinist.” Females and “people of color” occupy most of humanity. Any and all references to them by “Caucasians,” comprehensively, often reflects either “racism” or “sexism.” Any and all past behavior toward either is the same.  Ideologues do not split hairs.

History is eliminated, genders are no longer biology, and an Orwellian “newspeak” has banished pronouns. National security awaits the next attack.

Is this the lasting result of the American Revolution?

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Please note that the views expressed by our faculty, research fellows, students, alumni, and guest lecturers do not necessarily reflect the views of The Institute of World Politics.