Comps Notes: American Foreign Policy

I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

American Foreign Policy

George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1951).

William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1962).

Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

John Dumbrell, A Special Relationship: Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After (New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, LLC., 2001).

Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

George Kennan was an American diplomat and foreign policy adviser. He is most famous for his concept of “containment,” a system of foreign policy that he later lamented and believe had been taken too far. It is his role in shaping this policy and others that served as one of his motivations for writing American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. Kennan believed that very little had been done to understand the theoretical framework from which policy decisions had been made over the first half of the twentieth century. Kennan strongly asserts that it is important for states and individuals to learn from the past, as the mistakes of today are simply the results of mistakes made in the past. At the turn-of-the-century, Americans tended to be over-confident and overestimated their level of power in the world. The problem at the middle of the century is the opposite, they now tend to over-stress their hazards and believe too little in their ability. When one looks at the past fifty years of foreign policy, Kennan states that one discovers that the involvement of individual actors has been blurred into one general American pattern of actions, and that one can decidedly conclude that the United States is less secure in the international environment than it was in 1900. Americans must learn from the mistakes of their past because they no longer have the manoeuvring room to cushion the blow of continued international follies.

Kennan dates the origins of the current, as of 1950, American international affairs debacle to the Spanish American War. In 1890, he asserts that the United States had become so comfortable inside its borders that it had forgotten that it owed much of its security to international powers. The war was begun without officials truly understanding the United States’ place in the world. Decisions to attack the Philippines, etc. were made by a small number of officials, namely Theodore Roosevelt, masking their actions under a guise of public opinion. Public opinion, Kennan smartly argues, in supposedly democratic nations, is not really the opinion of the majority, but rather that of a loud, radical minority. Anti-expansionists recognised the hypocrisy of American actions at this time—that their actions went against everything for which the United States supposedly stood. Kennan argues that the United States actions abroad at the turn-of-the-century represent the first time that the country took over control of a population without the intention of welcoming them into the union as a state. The most noteworthy failure of United States foreign policy over the last fifty years has been its placement of political bonds on non-US citizens. America’s Open Door Policy, Kennan states, is important because it set the standard for policy up until 1950. On the surface it appeared to be a case of the United States bringing international equality and limiting the self-serving interests of European powers, however it was instead a case of the United States widening their influence by way of condescension and the assumption that other countries were satisfied with their place in the world’s hierarchy, of which the United States was obviously on top.

The main issue afflicting American foreign policy issues, including the Open Door Policy and United States involvement in World War I and II, Kennan argues, is that they are based on a legalistic and moralistic approach, which often segments into paternalism. It is assumed that the United States and its political behavior are superior to that practiced in other countries, and that political behavior directly affects moral behavior. Additionally, policymakers have been swayed far too often by the short-term objectives of public opinion, which are often emotional, prejudiced and rarely based on considerations for the future. Kennan warns that the United States’ confidence in its own moral and political superiority is dangerous because “a nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.” (73)

Like Kennan, William Appleman Williams asserts that the United States does not have the ability, despite its delusional tendency to believe that it does, to fix the entirety of the world’s problems. In the Tragedy of American Diplomacy, as the title suggests, Williams argues that the world has been the ultimate stage for the tragedy of American foreign policy. This tragedy is based on the divergence of reality from public and official rhetoric. American policy is, Williams states, is guided by three notions. Firstly, Americans have a humanitarian impulse to help people in other countries solve their problems. Secondly, Americans believe in self-determination, that citizens in other countries should be able to establish their own objective. Thirdly, many Americans, contradictory to the other two notions, believe that other peoples cannot actually solve their own problems, unless they do it the American way and with American assistance. However, these notions, which are similar to Kennan’s assertions in American Diplomacy, are subordinate to economic imperatives, which are often hidden under the warm, rhetorical emboss of democratic humanitarianism.

Williams’ main argument is that American diplomacy since the 1890s has been based on economic imperialism. The United States’ actions abroad are based almost solely on the need for markets for importation and exportation. Williams places a great deal of emphasis on the influence of Turnerian thought. Turner’s Frontier Thesis indoctrinated the culture with the concept that American democracy and prosperity depended on expansion. In the 1890s, federal officials truly believed that the only way to ensure that the United States climbed out of its depression was to continue expansion abroad. The Spanish American War was fought in order for the United States to spread its economic agenda. Williams states that American relations with Cuba since 1898 illustrate the problem with this kind of foreign policy regimen. Americans thoroughly believed that their economic and moral power could uplift the Cuban people, however, reality never caught up with the lofty rhetoric surrounding the situation. The changes, which were often dissatisfactory to the Cuban people, that the United States orchestrated in Cuban government and society enabled radicals to gain power and ultimately led to the Cuban Revolution. Trouble arises because the United States invites change to occur in these countries and then attempts to limit these changes when they start to reach outward from the American mold.

The quintessential policy of modern-day, American, economic imperialism, according to Williams, is the Open Door Policy. Williams argues that this policy was not moralistic and legalistic as Kennan argues, but rather, practical and deliberate. The Open Door Notes were a premeditated plan, which was developed in order to ensure that the United States would be able to spread its economic empire by shaping weaker countries into a “pro-America mold.” Woodrow Wilson led negotiations during World War I under the guise of spreading democracy, but the ultimate goal was to guarantee that Americans would be at the center of reconstruction and economic development. After World War I, American corporatism infiltrated the globe, and did a disservice to other countries by making their economies inextricably linked to the United States. The problem with the Cold War, Williams argues, is that America claims to want a negotiation of strength, but in reality they will settle for nothing less than the acceptance of American proposals that make certain that the American economic empire will continue into the unforeseeable future.

Michael H. Hunt commends both Kennan and Williams for bringing into question the role of ideology in American foreign policy. However, Hunt believes that their accounts are too superficial and narrow-minded and fail to address the real, deeply-rooted national issues that preoccupy the country and its actions towards the rest of the world. Hunt defines ideology “as an interrelated set of convictions or assumptions that reduces the complexities of a particular slice of reality to easily comprehensible terms and suggests appropriate ways of dealing with that reality.” (xi) Like the anthropologist, Charles Geertz, Hunt argues that ideologies are inescapable and that stable political cultures breed strong national ideologies. Without a disturbance in the continuity of an ideological strand, those subscribing to the ideology are not forced to take a step back and evaluate their beliefs, and thus the ideology become inherently ingrained in the culture. This inextricability leads to the ideology gaining a subtle, yet forceful hold on the nation and leads to the instinctive, though most likely denied, detestation of ideologies or culture different from one’s own. Hunt’s main argument in Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy is that twentieth-century foreign policy has been dominated by the desire for nation building, the maintenance of domestic social arrangements, and the continuance of traditional ethnic and social class divisions.

American ideological strands predate Kennan and Williams’ starting point of the Spanish American War, argues Hunt. Instead, American ideology can trace its seeds back to the very beginning of the nation, and even before. Ideas about democracy, race, and class have their earliest roots in European enlightenment thought. American foreign policy rests on three main ideas: national greatness, racial hierarchy, and attitudes towards revolution. At the turn-of-the-century, Hunt writes, American feelings of political greatness were intertwined with the moral twinges of liberty. Roosevelt and his actions in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere effectively illustrate this cunning mixture of liberty and greatness. By adding liberty to the mix, Roosevelt and others during the time period ensured that their message and efforts would have broad appeal and that their critics would not have a moral high ground on which to stand. Similar to Williams’ argument, Hunt states that in later decades this imperialistic drive for greatness and liberty would be mixed with economic imperatives, which left critics even more powerless to question the system. Using visual examples of political cartoons to effectively illustrate his point, Hunt demonstrates the way in which race and feelings of white supremacy have been embedded in American actions abroad. Hunt traces these racist overtones to America’s continual war with other races as they got in the way of American expansion. Hunt discusses the role of Darwinism and racial hierarchal thought, and traces such policies as the Dawes Act to demonstrate that America’s movement overseas at the turn-of-the-century was just another step in the pattern of American greatness sweeping aside those peoples that stood in its way.  American fear of revolution can also be traced to its conception. Hunt contends that the American Revolution was part of a first wave of revolutions that swept across the world. The embodiment of the second wave was the French Revolution, which Hunt argues, awoke Americans to the perils of social revolution. The third wave of a revolution that started in the 1890s and was characterized by the Bolshevik, firmly anchored the American belief that revolutionary tendencies directly challenged American values.  The fact that revolutions seemed to self-destruct, Hunt writes, demonstrated, in the American mindset, that these foreign leaders and citizens were the victims of poor disposition.

The Cold War, Hunt argues, put these three national ideas into hyper drive. He asserts that President Truman vigorously reembraced the affirmation of American liberty abroad in order to rejuvenate the spirit of freedom at home. The sister of containment that emerged during the Cold War, Hunt demonstrates, is development. Development combined with containment constitutes the reasoning behind our actions in Third World countries. The assumption that there is a link between contentedness at home and the assertion of American principles abroad has consistently caused trouble on both fronts. Vietnam is the culmination of the old impulse to enforce our ideology on the rest of the world and the ultimate example of this disastrous ideological trifecta. U.S. foreign policy since the turn-of-the-century has hurt the homeland, created an imperial presidency, and immersed the United States in international politics and warfare. In order to fix American problems at home and abroad, Hunt argues that the United States must abandon its belief in American exceptionalism.

In A Special Relationship: Anglo-American Relations in the Cold War and After, John Dumbrell turns outward, rather than inward, to explain American and British foreign policy initiatives. After World War II both the United States and Great Britain have thrived and sometimes butted up against an environment of mutuality. Their policy actions during the Cold War, Dumbrell argues, have been motivated by common interests, which have been sustained by cultural sharing, personal friendships, institutionalized exchange of information, and networks of military and diplomatic cooperation. Dumbrell states that in A Special Relationship, he is most concerned with the interaction between culture, sentiment, and interests. He asserts that culture is used in this study, not as an opportune backdrop, but as a practical tool purposefully used for the bolstering of their political relationship. Like Hunt, Dumbrell places a great deal of stock in Geertz’s interpretation of culture, and his claim that culture is both socially and relatively constructed. Dumbrell states that the special relationship, though supported by significant cultural, linguistic, and historical commonality, was not natural, but rather carefully constructed by both nations in order to develop a combined anti-Soviet policy.

Others individuals have studied the relationship between Great Britain and the United States. Alexander DeConde, for instance, came to the conclusion that the British were never deemed un-American because they were the initial originators of American culture. M. Vlahos argued that the British went through the motions of partnership during the Cold War in order to ensure that they had the benefit of American protection, but that in actuality, the British were not committed to the friendship. In A Special Relationship, looks at these and many other studies of the British-American relationship during the Cold War and in the end develops his own narrative of the situation, which emphasizes the fact that Britain did not always play the role of dutiful sidekick. Yet America did tend to limit Britain’s ability to make independent foreign policy decisions. Dumbrell states that the period of time was ultimately dominated by American “open hegemony,” in which Britain benefitted from an advantaged position that was based on a shared culture.

The partnership was not all roses though. Dumbrell shows that there were innate tensions between the two countries, particularly on the British side. Before World War II, the British were uncomfortable with America’s classless society, and often looked down upon them in a paternal way. The British also were uncomfortable with American imperialism. American positivity towards Great Britain has always been more stable than Britain’s outlook towards the United States. This kind of angsty social-class, parent-child relationship followed the two countries. The ‘special relationship’ really took hold and came into fruition in the 1960s, Dumbrell argues, when President Kennedy and Prime Minister MacMillan developed a nuclear relations partnership based on mutual defense. Britain obviously had a lot to gain from nuclear partnership with the United States, Dumbrell asserts, and the United States gained a great deal from use of nuclear bases on British soil. The close friendship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher is the definitive hallmark of the Cold War union, Dumbrell states.

Gaps in the friendship became apparent during both countries respective roles in Vietnam and the Falkland Islands. Dumbrell argues that these wars demonstrate the fact that neither side could be completely sure that they had the backing of the other, and that there were significant breaks in both countries’ policy preferences. In more recent times, Bill Clinton’s attempt to intervene in Ireland represents further cracks in the Anglo connection. Dumbrell concludes that Great Britain has to make a choice between having an “Atlanticized” or a “Europeanized” future. The cultural connections that held the two countries together are eroding largely due to the forces of pluralism and devolution. It is apparent that Dumbrell is pro-European Union, and that he thinks that the “special relationship” had run its course. It is time for Great Britain to step out from America’s shadow permanently and to take on a leading role in European integration.

In American Diplomacy, George Kennan, himself a member of the “imperial brotherhood” hints at a slight awareness of the masculine dominated political culture that Robert D. Dean investigates in Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy. If “instead of making ourselves slaves of concepts of international law and morality, we would confine these concepts to the unobstrusive, almost feminine, function of the gentle civilizer of national self-interest in which they find their true value—if we were able to do these things in our dealings with the people of the East…I think, posterity might look back upon our efforts with fewer and less troubled questions,” Kennan writes. By juxtaposing femininity with current policy procedures, Kennan unveils masculine undertones.

Like Hunt and, to an extent, Dumbrell, Dean identifies the Vietnam War as a disastrous culmination of the mixture of ideology and foreign policy. Dean’s main question is how highly educated men, who claimed to pride themselves on common sense, would lead the country into the grips of an unjustified war. The magnitude of the disaster, Dean argues, leads one to seriously question the reasoning of these individuals. The memoir of Robert S. McNamera stands as a starting point for Dean’s analysis because it is one of the first accounts to struggle with understanding this reasoning and openly stating that the individuals at the top failed to ask the tough questions before jumping into the Vietnam mess. McNamera’s memoir, Dean contends, gives evidence into reanalyzing the atmosphere around the decision making of this elite group of men. What stands out for Dean is that the decision makers were comprised of a very small group of men from homogenous, elite backgrounds. This homogeneity is significant because Dean believes that foreign policy decisions are not made in a bubble with national interest solely in mind, but rather are the result of the presence of cultural conditioning in the decision makers themselves.

Looking at memoirs, biographies, and other anecdotes of policymakers and other government officials during the Cold War, Dean finds that they are full of references to toughness and sexualized competition. These men were the products of the revolution in masculine identity at the turn-of-the-century that Gail Bedermann discusses in Manliness and Civilization. Like Bedermann, Dean asserts that gender discourse, most widely used as a way of designating power, is inescapable. Either one goes with the popular flow of thought or fights against it; in the case of these officials, they fed into and embodied masculine hegemony and ideology. Masculine ideology is a subset of gender discourse, according to Dean, and is “a symbolic system of meaning by which social relations of power and privilege are rendered “natural” and transparent by reference to sexual biology, a supposedly fundamental and unquestionable set of relationships.” (5) Indoctrinization into this ideology of manhood leads to the creation of an invented brotherhood. Gender is inseparable from class, Dean argues, and the men that would later lead the country into Vietnam were part of an elite class that was formally socialized into this mold of masculinity starting at a very early age. Dean discusses at length how the institution of the boarding school was developed largely in order to propagate this new zeal for manliness and to separate young boys from the harmful and feminizing forces of their mothers and female contemporaries.

One of the clearest cases of the effects of this masculine brotherhood on government affairs is the Lavender Scare, which paralleled the Red Scare led by Joseph McCarthy. During the Lavender Scare, over 400 individuals were dismissed from government service due to suspicions that they were homosexuals. It was believed that perversion led to subversion because homosexuals were too weak to fight off the advances of communists. This weakness had to be eliminated from the government. Dean thoroughly demonstrates the absurd lengths government officials went through in order to make “normative masculinity” and “sexual orthodoxy” a condition for employment. President Kennedy is the classic example of masculine ideological process breaking through into politics, according to Dean. Kennedy and his staff were part of a generation of men that were afraid that modernity was making American men soft. The Kennedy administration was committed to a reworking of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier myth, Dean argues. They were committed to asserting their manliness under the international pretext of fighting communism. Kennedy and Johnson were part of an imperial brotherhood that was so committed to Cold War orthodoxy and the continuance of hardcore masculinity that they were readily willing to commit acts of violence on unseen foes in order to prove that they were not soft. The Cold War years are dotted with paradoxical incidents in which the US government went willingly and enthusiastically bloodthirsty into battle with little hope of being successful. The need to prove American masculinity superseded their pragmatic understandings of reality.

Title: Discuss America’s foreign policy. Washington, D.C., April 15. In an effort to give impetus to the movement for revision of the Neutrality Act, an emergency conference of one hundred today assembled in Washington for a two-day discussion of American Foreign Policy. The meeting is being held under the auspices of the American Union for Concerted Pace Efforts. In the picture, left to right. James T. Shotwell, President, League of Nations Association – Rev. Roy M. Houghton, Congregational Church of New Haven, Conn., and Ernest Wilkins, President of Oberlin College, 4-15-39
Creator(s): Harris & Ewing, photographer
Date Created/Published: [19]39 April 15.
Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 4 x 5 in. or smaller
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-hec-26488 (digital file from original negative)
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
Call Number: LC-H22-D- 6345 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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