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Can the U.S. Get Back a Foreign Policy?

The first response will probably be “what do you mean, we already have one”? Fine, what is it? Name it.

What is “Foreign Policy”?

In describing U.S. foreign policy, what verbal description would you use? Is it “aggressive”? Not really, Hitler showed how that works. Is it defensive? Against what/whom? Well, perhaps the tariff walls on China correspond, but is that the sum total? There are 192 more countries in the world, so tariff walls on one are not really appropriate for a “foreign policy.”

First, we must explore what the expression actually means. Obviously, it is “external,” for or against something outside the shoreline. Then, it is a “policy,” which can be defined as “a high-level plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures…” (of the institution).

What, then is U.S. foreign policy under Donald Trump? Is “Make America Great Again” a “policy”? To be sure, it’s a goal, but what are the “procedures”? Are they “acceptable”? To whom?

In December, President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, while immediately afterward the same House overwhelmingly endorsed his legislation on North American Trade. If the right hand does one thing and the left the other, what remains of “policy”?

Does that imply that democracies cannot have policies or anything coherent toward the rest of the world? Can the U.S. even have a “foreign policy”?

Once again, history is our guide.

Background (History)

One of the great legacies of the first president was his foreign policy, a legacy that lasted for exactly a century and a half. In his Farewell Address (1796), George Washington outlined why and how the U.S. needed to avoid “entangling alliances” (Jefferson’s phrase) with the constantly-warring European countries. This advice became an American “gospel” until 1947, when President Harry Truman formally abandoned it with his call for a “Truman Doctrine” to help “free peoples everywhere.” This led to the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and NATO, indications of a “world order” still in effect today.

Washington’s foreign policy subsequently led to what has been called “isolationism,” while Truman’s led to what we now call “interventionism.” Thus, within 150 years, the U.S. went from a near-complete strategic abstention with the rest of the world to a near-total involvement that reversed the policy of the American people by 180 degrees.

Within these vast parameters, a set of subordinate policies came to reflect the condition and nature of U.S. foreign policy. They go by different names and circumstances but belong within the parameters.

For example, after World War II, the U.S. developed over 800 military “presences” (many were actually bases). Before the war, we had almost none! Before the war, we had no peacetime alliances. Afterward, we had over 40. Before the war, “America First” identified the isolationism of the public. After the war, the entire country and the Congress voted time and again for intervention, in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and in the Hemisphere. Everywhere! Before the war, we had only draft calls during combat; afterward, we had a continuous peacetime draft.

Was the U.S. schizophrenic or just responding to human growth in history? How could the most powerful/prosperous nation in world history let the globe come apart at the seams?

From the beginning, the American Revolution was much more than a mere colonial revolt. Jefferson called for an “Empire of Liberty,” while the Founding Fathers were united that the event meant a watershed in human history. At first, the country was content to set an example, as Pastor John Winthrop said, as a “city upon a hill” (1630). But when American power rose to world status, President Woodrow Wilson elevated the mission to “make the world safe for democracy” (1918).

The clash between goals and strategy was shown clearly after World War I, when the Senate refused the League of Nations and President Warren G. Harding led the country “back to normalcy” (1920). “Normalcy” meant isolation, a policy shattered by Pearl Harbor (1941) and the Cold War.

The Cold War was over by 1991, which allowed the U.S. to return to normalcy again. Since then, various administrations have tried (not so hard) to create a new post-Cold War set of foreign policies. They had imaginative names but were hard to explain, much less implement: “Assertive Multilateralism” (Clinton),” Nation-building” (W Bush) and “Leading From Behind” (Obama).

American Foreign Policy Today

Today, we have “Make America Great Again” as a goal but a glaring lack of “procedures (“policies”) to do it. The net result is an impeached President, a divided electorate, and a Democratic Party debating socialism and the weather.

Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” is a 16 year-old girl who did nothing for 2019 (perhaps for 2050). Even Joan of Arc led battles. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein is far more notorious than China and Russia together. Russia is accused of “meddling” and “collusion,” while the meaning of those terms is still unclear. The memory of Soviet missiles in Cuba (1962) might as well recall Genghis Kahn. During the months of primary debates, twenty Democrats showed more attention to Kamala Harris’ schooldays than to the phrase “national security” itself.

The word “world” in “world politics” has been effectively eliminated for “as usual,” and “drift” is a generous description of America in the world-place.

Will somebody, please, give a foreign policy speech. Anything will do!