Bush Is (Is Not) Conducting Foreign Policy in the American Tradition

Roundup: Media's Take

Jay Tolson, in US News (Feb. 16, 2004):

America, John Quincy Adams once famously declared, "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." Those cautionary words of 1821 are currently enjoying a second round of fame, largely because no discussion of George W. Bush's foreign policy can seem to avoid them.

Pithy as the sentence is, though, does it really explain how the sixth president's vision of America's place in the world might bear on American grand strategy in the 21st century? Two new books come to contrary conclusions. And while that contrast inevitably reflects opposing partisan views in the heated debate over national security strategy, it might also suggest ways of seeing beyond the intransigent positions.

In America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy, two former Clinton National Security Council staffers, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsey, claim that Bush has pulled off nothing less than a Copernican revolution in foreign policy. In the aftermath of 9/11, they say, Bush adopted a doctrine of pre-emption to justify action against rogue states that develop weapons of mass destruction or harbor terrorists. At the same time, he elevated go-it-alone ventures over multilateral cooperation and aggressively asserted America's role as the world's only superpower.

The authors' analysis rejects the conventional wisdom in foreign-policy circles--that is, that Bush was duped into adopting his ambitious grand strategy by a stealthy cabal of neoconservative thinkers. The revolution is his own, they say, set in motion by 9/11 to be sure, but guided by his own instincts and the input of a wide range of advisers. By far, though, their most controversial claim is that Bush has repudiated not only the internationalist thinking of such recent leaders as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman but also America's oldest foreign-policy traditions by arguing that "the United States should aggressively go abroad searching for monsters to destroy."

Well, not quite, suggests Yale University historian John Gaddis in his forthcoming book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Far from seeing it as a revolution, Gaddis reads Bush's strategy as a return to the guiding principles of pre-emption, unilateralism, and hegemony that were first laid down by--you guessed it--old John Q. himself. Indeed, Gaddis argues, American foreign policy has undergone three major transformations, each on the heels of a deeply traumatizing surprise attack. Responding to the burning of the White House and the Capitol by the British in 1814, Adams--at that point America's leading diplomat and soon to be James Monroe's secretary of state--became even more unilateralist in his thinking. And in 1818, when Andrew Jackson entered Spanish Florida in pursuit of marauders, Adams persuaded Monroe not only not to apologize but to claim the right of pre-emptive action. That principle was used by later presidents as justification for U.S. expansion, notably in Texas and other parts of the West. The Monroe Doctrine, inspired largely by Adams, was the first assertion of national hegemony in this hemisphere and a clear warning to Europeans to stay out.

Turning point. Those three principles were elaborated and expanded right up through the first half of the 20th century. But then came Pearl Harbor, which enabled Roosevelt to overcome America's go-it-alone isolationism and forge a multilateral system, combining U.S. power and leadership with cooperative alliances and new international institutions.

September 11, Gaddis contends, compelled America-- strategically adrift since the end of the Cold War--to return to older principles. But the point of reconciliation between his views and those of Daalder and Lindsey is this: While pre-emption and a certain unilateralism might be necessary in today's world, their success depends on utmost diplomatic tact and utmost caution, including good intelligence openly evaluated in order to support pre-emptive actions. And while exporting democracy may be a noble goal, Gaddis concludes, the United States might better emphasize exporting its own federalist principles, forming even more consensual alliances and wielding power "while minimizing arrogance."

comments powered by Disqus