Wanted: A New Foreign Policy

News Abroad

Dr. Whealey, emeritus professor of history, Ohio University, is the author of Hitler and Spain: The Nazi Role in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1989).

Balance of power. That idea was the basis of the rise of the European nation-state system from 1648 to 1945. Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Russia all understood the flexible system.   All the presidents from George Washington to John Quincy Adams, who retired in 1828, understood that game.

Like Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt understood how the balance of power system worked, although a majority of the Republican Party and even most the Democrats in the press and Congress were slow learners. Roosevelt only went to war as the last resort on 8 December 1941 after the US was attacked by the Japanese Navy. Thus the job of the old State Department from 1933 to December 1941 was to inform Roosevelt what was going on in Europe and Asia in order to preserve the peace.  From 1941 to 1945 its job was to keep the alliances with Britain and the Soviet Union focused on the defeat of the Axis powers.

President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, informed his boss what was going on in Europe after 1948.   Acheson working with Western Europe drafted the plans for NATO that successfully checked any military ambitions Stalin may have had to take over all of Germany.  The State Department working closely with the Civil Affairs Branch of the Defense Department subsidized a new West German democratic government based on a federal system of government. The Deutsche Mark was pegged to a stable dollar, and West German production in the 1950s and 1960s outpaced Britain, France--and was close on the heels of the US, at least economically.  Stalin was thrown on the defensive in Europe.

But Acheson did not understand how the balance of power system worked in the Far East.  The Soviet Union was contained behind the 1945 military lines in Europe.  But containing social revolution in Asia with the American military made no sense whatsoever.  Acheson argued in June 1950 that it was necessary for the UN to begin fighting a defensive war against the North Korean Communist regime.  But in October 1950, a new opportunity seemed to have opened up for Washington when the heretofore defensive American army could cross the 38th parallel into North Korean territory.

That decision to escalate a new war led to the massive intervention of the “red” Chinese army and extended the war for another two years.  The war ended in a military stalemate with no understanding that the use of flexible balance of power approach could have avoided further land wars in Asia.  Thus Acheson blundered into the long unintended war in Korea 1950-1953 on the basis of anti-communist ideology.  He was egged on by the China Lobby and many Republicans in Congress.  Acheson became more and more anti-communist on an ideological level as the Korean War bogged the US down into military stalemate.  In the last year of the war, he even planted the seeds for further US military intervention in the French colonial regime's fight against Ho Chi Minh in Indochina.  

Veterans of World War II in the Defense Department and State Department picked up some ideas about propaganda from Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and Stalin which they thought could be re-directed to project American military power into Asia.  The State Department through its press releases re-enforced by several speeches of many Presidents after 1950 propagated an anti-communist crusade.  The idea of “containment” sounded defensive to West Europeans but had little meaning in a civil war or revolutionary situation in Asia.  The military campaign in Korea led to further Manichean posturing rather than diplomatic thinking.

Following the Truman/Acheson administration, the next four presidents -- on the basis of blind anti-communism -- escalated military, political and economic intervention into South Vietnam's civil war with the North Vietnamese Communists.  Whether one believes that Indochina’s social revolutions and civil wars began in 1946 or in 1957-1959, the American intervention into Indochinese social problems was over finally only in 1975.  The economic costs of anti-communism came at a high price. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon during their expanded war did not want to know what was going on politically or economically in Hanoi and Beijing.  Somehow they assumed that American technology without a promise of democracy could keep the Asian peasants at bay.  Moreover, the exact nature of the Moscow-Beijing relationship was not understood.  If repression worked in South Korea, in time South Vietnam could become an American naval and sea base.  The ideologues in the Defense Department and the State Department over several generations believed the general anti-communist line.  As Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat from Arkansas, argued, that false assumption stemmed from an attitude of “Arrogance of Power.”  David Halberstam satirized the establishment as the “Best and the Brightest.”

President Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger, European-born, as his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.  As the best Secretary of State since John Quincy Adams, Kissinger understood that the European balance of power system had by 1968-1975 become global. As a former academic, he read Fulbright, Halberstam and dozens of other critiques of the war. Whether by design or by accident, Kissinger’s disguised retreat from the Indochina  quagmire forced the Ford administration to abandon its puppet government in April 1975.

President Bush 43 intervened in new underfinanced wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan and brought the US to its present teetering economy. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, "a war against “terrorism" seemed to have become the new goal in foreign affairs of the Office of the President, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

The American people now have a new president who seems to have grasped the seriousness of the financial crisis, but the purpose of his foreign policy is still in doubt.  The new uncertain administration seems still to live in the fantasy world of 1945 to 1973, when Americans had rising expectations and American industrial prosperity probably peaked.  Today most Americans must live in a world of lowered expectations. 

The immediate need of the Obama administration is to drop the ideology of the "war on terrorism."  The future task of the Obama team is not only to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but also from Afghanistan.  Mostly through cooperation with EU's major powers the US can maintain a few sea bases around the greater Middle East region.  The nation cannot afford to use its military machine to maintain "the land of rising expectations" and “the American way of life” that Franklin Roosevelt had bequeathed to the American people by the victories of 1945.

Hopefully in the next four years, with an understanding of the political traditions of John Q. Adams, Winston Churchill, and Henry Kissinger, a renewed State Department could be reorganized around the reality of the classic balance of power system. The problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not military problems.  The CIA and the foreign service need to be talking to Pakistanis and Afghanis from all sides.  One can subsidize a foreign government on a temporary basis, but Washington needs a plan B in which they have some kind relationship with the complex political, economic, social and ideological oppositions in many Asian countries.

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