The current crisis over Syria against Turkey on behalf of the Kurds may be a bit distant to most Americans. That, however, does not prevent many of them to view the situation with the utmost intensity and dire warnings, either opposed to the administration or in favor. But it really makes little difference.
The “Foreignness” of Foreign Policy
How many of us retire at night or wake up wondering how U.S. foreign policies are keeping the country happy, free and safe? Just a guess, but probably very few. Often, parts of the country are unhappy, some lack freedom (or did), and safety from invasion is taken for granted. But such circumstances are rarely attributed to foreign policies, per se. They are, just “attributed,” that’s enough.
Currently, threats to the Republic seem entirely political and divorced from any strategic experience or geopolitical history. It’s almost as though the entire polity has been gripped with emotion divorced from any aspect of reality. Some call it “hysteria,” but it’s quite understandable. Few people are historians or area specialists, and most “attribute” all issues to the politics that they see and hear every day.
Russia is now cited as a “threat,” but not for what Russia has typically done, i.e. invade/conquer, but for what democracies typically do: interfere with the other party, “meddle.” Would that big-city mayors be so devious as Vladimir Putin, 12,000 miles away in the Kremlin. Is Putin more of a threat in Kalamazoo than he is in Ukraine? Perhaps we should first read Ukrainian history or ask some of them.
Regarding Ukraine, the latest issue is whether either President Trump or former Vice President Biden used the Ukrainian president to influence American politics. While not exactly a Pearl Harbor nor a Cuban Missile Crisis, the issue has been used to determine the fitness of each to be president.
Indiscretions are universal and expected. There are few certainties in life, but one of them is that any alleged Ukrainian-Trump-Biden conspiracy will not topple the American democratic system. That does not deny the effort, just the significance.
By itself, Ukraine is one of 193 countries in the world but can be a very handy electoral “tool” if the situation warrants. Ukraine happens to be the focus because of the primacy of domestic politics and excessive personality behaviors. Who knows whatever “collusion” might we uncover with the remaining 192 countries, should the issue arise?
Home vs. Foreign Policies
Which brings up the dichotomy between foreign/security policies and electoral politics. For most candidates and voters, foreign policy issues are important only insofar as they relate to home security and/or prosperity. Foreign affairs, by definition, are distant, remote, and indecipherable as either to causation or resolution. Threats are obscure and hidden, only to explode suddenly, such as Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Centers.
Thus, one’s position on a foreign affairs issue nearly always coincides with the position of either the party or candidate one supports. Rare is the voter who breaks with party leaders on things such as Ukraine, the Kurds, Turkey, Syria, Korea, or some other distant trouble spot neither understood nor appreciated.
“Foreign” is always far away, “domestic” is always home. Foreign policy/national security is universal and timeless, but it has definite patterns. Circumstances, parties, personalities, weapons, locations, threats, alliances, etc. will differ time and again, but history “repeats.” Never exactly, but always generally.
There was once a professor of World Politics who asked what one, single book would students take with them to an island. His answer was Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, a war between two Greek city-states, Athens vs. Sparta, around 400 BC.
Why was such a far-off event relevant to modern times? The answer: because it was similar to the Cold War between the USA and USSR. Both wars were “bipolar” in character, total, used alliance systems, and were between insular and continental powers. Athens was the seapower and democratic, Sparta a military tribunal run by the army.
Thus began the theory of democracy as peaceful by definition, dictatorships as “warmongers.” Does American history support the theory?
Today, in 2019, the U.S. is ending its second decade in its war against global terrorism. By comparison, the Civil War lasted four years, American combat in World War I about six months, and, in World War II, about three and one-half years. Yet the recent past, too, is quite characteristic, as any fast review of American wars will reveal.
For the U.S., these countries were once wartime enemies: Britain (twice), Germany (same), Russia/Soviet Union, Italy, Austria/Hungary, Spain, Turkey, Japan, China, Korea, The Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico (three times). These were the most well-known foreign wars, but the greatest war was between ourselves (called “civil”), plus four centuries of continuous conflict with native Indian tribes.
Throughout the nineteenth century, U.S. Marines and Navy forces intervened overseas on about one hundred occasions, at least one a year.
Beyond these, the U.S. fought original “terrorists” and Barbary pirates as early as 1783, contested both French and British seizure of shipping before the War of 1812, and intervened over twenty-five times in the Caribbean and Central America after the War with Spain (1898). We occupied Haiti for nineteen years, The Dominican Republic for eight, and Nicaragua twelve times since 1850. In 1929, one journalist noted that the U.S. governed Nicaragua “more completely than the American Federal Government rules any state in the Union.”
The U.S. took or bought vast landscapes from Britain, France, Mexico, Spain, dozens of Indian tribes, invaded all over the world from Saipan to Normandy, took Panama from Columbia, occupied Greenland (a Danish colony), “meddled” in the internal governments of every country we recognized, and had 400 to 800 military bases around the world (depending on the definition of a “base”).
Now we are in what has been called an “endless” war against what is actually a tactical employ: terrorism. The enemy is scattered, amorphous, domestic and foreign. There are no signs of closing. This week, on October 27th, the leader of ISIS was killed, and ISIS vowed vengeance. The war goes on …and on.
Still, party passion dominates.
Advice and explanations of 2001 are repeated in 2019, ad infinitum. The Democratic Party is holding a series of debates, and national security is less significant than some Hollywood producer. At the same time, local headlines and reporters scream of words exchanged over a telephone call between Kiev and the White House. Biden’s son has resigned from employment in both China and Ukraine.
All of this history took place before Donald Trump took the oath of office. So far, he hasn’t entered a new war, but if he should, he will fit in quite well. If he should turn out to be a “dictator,” which his critics foresee, he will be the first and only.
Take your choice (but don’t call Kiev).