Leaders who fail in their global missions are normally dismissed by history. What do we remember about Napoleon? Waterloo.
Woodrow Wilson, another case in point, is not remembered for his efforts to re-make the world but by his failure to do so. The League of Nations and Wilson’s crusade to “make the world safe for democracy” in World War I remain today as lasting tributes to American “overreach” and disregard for the alleged “realities” of how tough it is to change things.
Wilson’s efforts turned into “normalcy” in American foreign policies, intense isolationism, Pearl Harbor, and the greatest war in human history. He is remembered for those facts, the empty end of the First World War and his final stroke and quiet death in 1924. He is buried in the National Cathedral, and so is his mission. “Wilsonianism” is his lasting legacy, an expression of contempt for those who reach beyond the boundaries of normal play.
Other countries have tried to broaden their expanse by “missions,” with similar results. At one point, England (“Great” Britain) owned one-fifth of the earth and its population. It’s now all gone, and even Scotland and Northern Ireland may revolt. Still, it remains the only nation on earth with an adjective in its name.
Others have created missions with both terrible reasons and disastrous ends. In 1917, Russia was taken by “Bolsheviks” who promised world proletariat-Marxist revolutions. Seventy-five years later (1991), the Soviet Union and communism collapsed, with nary a single “proletariat” revolution but a number of Soviet “republics,” now independent oligarchies. Marx would not have recognized any part of the Twentieth Century.
In 1933, Hitler declared a “Thousand Year Reich.” Twelve years later, Germany lay in ruins, Hitler a suicide, and the world’s worst war finally over, 75 million dead. After bombing English cities, day and night, for over a year, he canceled the planned invasion. Failing to cross 26 miles of Channel waters, he then declared war on the U.S. (December 11, 1941), 3000 miles away (Hitler was never in the Navy).
Missions can be horrible, given their single-minded purpose and all-out means. Normally, missions are ideologies, spelled ending with “ism,” as today’s political culture will attest. That means “worldview,” which defines humanity under a single banner (race, religion, gender, economics, etc.) and tolerates no dissent. Missions are also “total,” meaning nothing in-between and win/lose for the result.
Americans, by nature, are prone to mission-oriented purpose. Innocently, President W. Bush once declared that the Iraq War meant that the world was either “for or against us,” no neutrality allowed. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once famously declared that Cold War neutrals, like India, were “immoral” by not taking sides.
The origins of this lie in the original revolution for independence, with its historic impact upon political society. The idea “exceptionalism” is still used to define American political culture while the current Administration’s “MAGA” campaign derives from the same source.
That does not imply universal acceptance, even within the same country. Americans have gone through periods of both expansive design and resolute isolation. Just compare John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961) with those of two other Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933) and Bill Clinton (1993). The first had not a single word on domestic life, the other two barely anything on foreign policies. Kennedy challenged Americans to “bear any burden, pay any price.” FDR famously said that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” while Clinton noted how “our mission is timeless” but completely within ourselves by: “helping troubled children … reconnecting our torn communities … [that] we must care for each other.”
That’s about where we are right now. Clinton’s campaign slogan summarized the mood, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Foreign policies since then have been designed through near-meaningless and abstract slogans (“bumper stickers”). “Assertive Multilateralism” (Clinton), “Nation-building” (W. Bush) and “Leading From Behind” (Obama). President Trump wants to make the country “great” again, which, like today’s Britain, remains an empty adjective.
There are 193 countries in the world today. How many are guided by “missions”? Probably one. But what is China’s mission (that we hear so much about)? Control the South China Sea? All of Asia? The world? Do we fear Chinese soldiers patrolling downtown Boston?
In 1942, the government’s Why We Fight series (shown everywhere) portrayed Japanese soldiers marching up Pennsylvania Avenue to take control of Congress. Apparently, they had just invaded California, marched across the Rockies, Great Plains, Midwest, and northern Virginia. In reality, the Japanese Army was in China since 1937 and was looking for ways out from their own version of “quagmire.”
Hyperbole can be appreciated under stress, but exaggeration can be only short-term. In order to be functional, any mission must be “realistic.” Which means that it must fit resources and design. Woodrow Wilson had a good idea but lacked the means and temper to succeed. The Bolsheviks were captured by fantasy, Hitler legally insane, and Japanese politicians failed to remember Admiral Yamamoto’s warning: I can bomb Pearl Harbor, then what? (paraphrase) Al Qaeda destroyed the WTC. What for?
Does America have a mission today? If so, it is certainly not intended to go overseas. The Democratic debates, if nothing else, demonstrated this.
Which begs the question, does America need a foreign policy mission? The Australian singing group, Bee Gees, once recorded Stayin’ Alive, meaning “to exist.” We have been doing that since the end of the Cold War; it requires little effort.
The country can stay as it is, without foreign policy purpose, resolve, or goal. But are we satisfied with election debates that highlight exchanges such as “Pete are you calling me dumb” or “Mike did you once say ‘fat broads’”?
Jefferson described the possibility of an Empire of Liberty. Monroe declared an entire hemisphere “American.” Truman’s Doctrine was aimed at “free people everywhere.” Reagan told the world that he was going to “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” He did. He then went to Berlin and told the Russians to “tear down this wall.” They did.
If there is to be a “great” debate on foreign policy, it will have to address concepts such as those.
Otherwise, we will have to be content with Stayin’ Alive:
“Life goin’ nowhere,
somebody help me, yeah
I’m stayin’ alive.”