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Early U.S. Foreign Policy, “Big D”

In another essay, I described “motivation” between the offense vs. the defense in foreign policies generally. This time, I will apply the sports expression “Big D” (Defense) as it applies to the beginnings of American foreign policy. From this beginning, one point stands out: that such analogies are far more “circumstantial” than “deliberate” and that young, weak, and insecure countries have little choice but to “defend” themselves against others or else hide behind geopolitical barriers to survive.

Early America was no exception. In still another essay, I described Washington’s Farewell Address (1796) as a prime example of this reality. Washington’s advice here stems almost directly from the geopolitical realities of America’s position separated by 3,000 miles of ocean from Europe, the center of both war and peace for the world: “Why forgo the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, humor or caprice?”

With these words, the first President established a tradition that was to carry America through almost exactly 150 years (to 1947) of what came to be called “isolationism” in foreign policy, a circumstance forced by reality rather than discretion.

A few years later, President James Monroe (1823), with his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, offered his famous “Doctrine” that established a defensive “perimeter” around the entire Western Hemisphere. Here was a prime example of the “wish being the father of the thought.”

At the time, the United States had no capacity no protect an entire hemisphere, having just before suffered its capital city being burned by the British Army (1814). Yet the mere desire to “defend” the Hemisphere from further encroachments from either Europe or Asia motivated Monroe to make his Declaration. Hidden from external view was the corresponding position of the British Navy, which shared Monroe’s commitment against the rest of the world and, not without coincidence, had in fact the Naval power to enforce American dreams.

Not without coincidence, either a mutual and shared vision of global “order,” begun in 1823, would come back to haunt the world in the Twentieth Century when, in fact as well as vision, the two combined to “define” the geopolitical nature of the modern world.

But for the moment, the United States took an aggressive reach for the rest of the home continent as if it was designed by the Almighty (“Manifest Destiny”). Jefferson bought half in 1803 and Polk “took” the rest from Mexico (1848) and from Britain in the Northwest (1846), while the dominant military enemy remained ourselves (1861).

Against this “isolationist” background, a young politician from Illinois established forever the geopolitical realities that allowed such a “schizophrenic” country to climb to “superpower” status on either side of its own energy and location:

“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
-Abraham Lincoln, 1838

Toward the end of the century, the first ambition to go “offensive” came from the vision of America’s greatest geopolitician, Captain (later Admiral) Alfred T. Mahan. His book The Influence of Seapower on History (1890) laid the foundation for America to advance from domestic shores and take “offensive” naval action both in the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans. (Mahan’s book was translated then and now: the German Kaiser used it in his early naval buildup, and it is currently translated into Chinese and used by the modern Chinese Navy. Could these be omens?)

Using its newfound naval power, the U.S. cleared Spain from the hemisphere (1898), took its possessions as far removed as the Philippines (1899), and began, untypically, a brief “offensive” drive toward global authority. Theodore Roosevelt moved Monroe’s Doctrine from a “shield” to a “sword,” declared the U.S. an “international police power,” “took” Panama from Columbia, built a canal, and sent the Great White Fleet around the world in a display of the “new” America (1907-09).

Subsequently, the U.S. Marines and Navy intervened twenty-five times in the Caribbean region, occupied Nicaragua for twenty years, Haiti for nineteen, and The Dominican Republic for eight. By 1928, this brief “imperial” moment brought more trouble than it was worth, ending abruptly with FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” (1933), a return to “normalcy” that saved the hemisphere from the tribulations of the Second World War.

The return to Defense led to one of the greatest diplomatic periods in American history.

Troops were withdrawn from earlier occupations. A multilateral non-intervention pledge was signed in Buenos Aires (1936). The Declaration of Lima (1938) pledged hemispheric solidarity should a new war occur. The Act of Panama (1939) declared the Western Hemisphere a neutral zone in the world war. The Havana Declaration (1940) defined the security of all states in the region together as one unit and announced the “no transfer” principle against any foreign intrusion. In September 1940, the U.S. began occupying British possessions in Bermuda and the Caribbean in exchange for U.S. naval destroyers. During the war, the U.S. signed bilateral treaties with sixteen regional countries for base rights and provided “lend-lease” aid to nineteen. In 1942, Washington enrolled both Canada and Mexico into the North American Joint Defense Board (read “Defense”).

By the war’s end, the entire hemisphere (including pro-fascist Argentina) had been enrolled as a single strategic system unique to world political history. The Rio Treaty (1947) affirmed that an attack “upon one is an attack upon all” (followed by the NATO alliance in 1949) and led the next year to the formation of the Organization of American States, the most successful regional body in modern history.

All this from a solid “D,” for Defense.