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Defense vs. Offense in Foreign Policy

Motivation is critical in the formulation of practically everything, but certainly in foreign policy. Much depends on motivation, the “why” of any human activity. It obviously makes a difference as to whether you are doing something for yourself or for others, against something (someone) or for them, for defense (self-protection) or offense (self-expansion).

Examples abound through history, with enough evidence to claim that either, or both, categories are sufficient to explain almost all acts of statecraft, including causation between peace vs. war.

Defense is probably the most generic and common, although offense is by far the most explosive and the most benevolent and destructive, simultaneously.

Being the most common raison d’ etat (French for national interest), the defensive side is the easiest to explain. To defend yourself is undoubtedly the most commonly used explanation for war in history and might be the same for domestic behavior. It runs through historic explanation without remorse or explanation.

There may not be a crisis, invasion, or war in all of history that was not either preceded or explained for survival or some form of causation that depended upon national interest. That term itself is so expansive that it encompasses nearly all forms of behavior, from geopolitics, economics, and political stability to mere “existence” itself.

In the first major conflict of recorded history, the Greek historian Thucydides uses both examples, offense and defense, to explain the origins of the Peloponnesian War (400 BC): “…the Athenians, becoming great and arousing fear in the Spartans, made the war inevitable.” Thus, the mere situation of great power rivalry, embracing both motivations, has since become standard in history’s explanations of major wars. The human and sociological elements are superseded by the “situational” element, thus making warfare a combination of each, with political “anarchy” the ultimate cause of both great power rivalry and, ultimately, war.

But, often enough, men and historians take great pains to define the essentials of the subject between offense and defense. At times, almost of necessity, this takes the form of national self-justification against their opposition in conflict. Although this explanation is pervasive through time and history, nowhere was it more pronounced in explanations for World War I, the most decisive combat of all history and still essential for all that has come since.

Probably the most tragic single sentence of all post-war treaties came in 1919 when the Allied powers, including the U.S., imposed “war guilt” against Germany for the causes of the war, including “reparations” for all damages done before, during, and after. The sentence, Article 231, read, Allied Powers, “…accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the losses and damages …as a consequence of the war.”

Not only did this cause both Hitler and the Second World War, but its after-effects are still felt today throughout the globe and into the new century. All from the Allies’ determination to claim “defense” against Germany’s “offense.”

Today, the extravagant claims of the victors in the Versailles Treaty have been dismissed by scholarship, while the offensives of first, Nazi Germany and, later, the Soviet Union put the western democracies decidedly on the defensive. This first arose in President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chat,” December 1940, the second in President Truman’s speech on his “Doctrine,” March 1947.

In the first, FDR was clear that the whole world had been put on the defensive: “The Nazi masters of Europe made it clear that they intend… to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world.” In the second, Truman used aggression against Greece and Turkey to place a global defensive “containment” around the whole world: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

In ending the Cold War more than three decades later, Ronald Reagan told the British Parliament (June 1982) that the western world, led by the U.S., was about to take the offensive: “What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long-term, the march for freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”

A few years later, the Soviet Union was gone.

Fast-forward to the present time when the American political culture, including the Founding Fathers and the political/economic values that won two world wars and the Cold War, are both “suspect” and open to “interrogation.” In judicial terms, both these expressions do not seek information or thought. They seek “confession” and “confinement.”

Under such circumstances, should U.S. foreign policy and national security policies adopt offensive or defensive positions? Offense: an expansion of inherent American values and historical virtues to the nation itself plus areas of the globe where they have never existed. Defense: explanation of American attributes against a litany of abuse, sustained critiques, and removal of any and all manifestations of prosperity, liberty, peace, or understanding.

With both options either too uncomfortable, too late, or even impossible, the remaining option would be still available. But policies aimed at “nothing” usually, to quote Reagan, wind up on the “ash-heap” of history.

As Hitler asked his Foreign Minister after the British declaration of war (September 1939): “Now what?”