Yet Another Overworked Metaphor For Understanding American Foreign Policy

If the Government of these United States was truly engaged in a War on Drugs, it would avoid building precision guided munitions designed to target individual midnight tokers. Instead, the USG would concentrate on one particularly dangerous narcotic that floods United States markets from time to time: Wilsonianism.

When the 15-20 Americans (on a good day) that think about current U.S. foreign policy in the light of past U.S. foreign policy, their use of the term “Wilsonianism” embraces three out of four of the “New Testament” of Walter McDougall’s American foreign policy traditions:

(5) Progressive Imperialism (comprising Navalism, Overseas Bases, and the Open Door Policy)
Born 1898, reaffirmed or enlarged 1901-17, 1940-41, 1949 to the present
Annexation of Spanish islands, Panama Canal Zone and Roosevelt Corollary, Pacific and Caribbean naval bases, FDR’s hemispheric defense, Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, and Bush doctrines, and foreign bases and global power projection during and since the Cold War, Gulf War I, NATO expansion, and GWOT
(6) Wilsonianism, or Liberal Internationalism (as more accurately called)
Born 1918, reaffirmed or redefined 1921-29, 1940-46, 1977-79, 1993-2000, 2009-?
Wilson’s 14 Points and League of Nations Covenant, Hughes’s and Kellogg’s 1920s engagement in Asia and Europe, FDR’s Atlantic Charter and United Nations, Carter’s human rights agenda, Clinton’s Enlargement and Assertive Multilateralism, Obama’s Engagement (?)
(8) Global Meliorism (aka Democratization, Nation-Building, Foreign Aid and Development)
Born 1899 and practiced et seriatim, esp. 1901-23, 1944-52, 1961-68, 1977-80, 2003-09
McKinley’s Philippines Speech, Wilson’s “Idea of America” and War Message, Hoover’s Relief Programs, FDR’s Bretton Woods and UNRRA, Marshall’s Plan and Truman’s Point Four in Inaugural, Kennedy’s Inaugural and May 25, 1961, address, The “Best and Brightest” strategy in South Vietnam and Third World, Carter’s Third World agenda, G. W. Bush’s “democratization of the Middle East”

Three of McDougall’s four “Old Testament” foreign policy traditions are often offered up as Wilsonianism’s evil nemesis under terms like “realism” or “isolationism” (depending upon who you ask):

(1) Independence, Unity, and Liberty At Home, or “Exceptionalism” (as properly understood)
Born 1776, reasserted 1796, 1800, 1812, 1821, 1848, 1863 et seriatim until 1898
Declaration of Independence, Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Washington’s Farewell, John Quincy Adams’ Fourth of July Address, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, etc.
(2) Unilateralism, or “Isolationism” (as mistakenly derided)
Born 1796, reasserted 1801, 1812, 1885, 1917, 1920, et seriatim to 1947
Washington’s Great Rule, Jefferson’s Inaugural, Cleveland’s Inaugural, Wilson’s War Message, Reservations about League of Nations, Borah’s self-definition, etc.
(3) The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (as commonly called)
Born 1783, codified 1823, reaffirmed or enlarged 1841, 1861, 1895, 1904, 1941, 1962
Tom Paine, Treaty of Paris, Monroe’s Message to Congress, Tyler’s Corollary, Union Blockade, Olney’s “14-inch gun,” Roosevelt Corollary, etc.

In popular American imagination (inasmuch as popular American imagination concerns itself with such things), the United States of America was a virgin on the world stage until Wilson’s Great Betrayal of 1917 if you’re on the Old Right or FDR’s Great Assertion of U.S. Global Leadership of 1941 if you’re on the Old Left. If you look carefully at American history, something most Americans or their leaders are loath to do, this is nonsense. While you can find this clash between the urge to improve foreigners and the urge improve at home in American foreign policy traditions and its English precursors going back to the Dark Ages. If you think that English-speaking peoples are shrinking violets when it comes to trying to improve unimproved foreigners, you should talk to their most ancient victims.

My paternal ancestors were known as the Πρεττανοι (Prettanoi) to the first Europeans that encountered them, apparently meaning the painted people (for their heavy tatooing). The later Romans translated the termPrettanoi as Britannia when they decided to add the land of these savage painted people to their empire. Under the Romans, the British acquired civilization. This made it all the more horrifying when the British were suddenly overwhelmed by heathen savages with horsey-faced features, pasty complexions, and bad dentistry: Angles, Jutes, and Saxons, oh my! The British, already producing the first non-Latin literature in Western Europe, were driven back to the protection of the hills. Under the pressure of this savagery, the British refugees started referring to themselves as Cymry (comrade) and their hills as Cymru (land of comrades).

The British, however, are known to history under the name their invaders called them: Walha, meaning foreigner, a stranger in a familiar land. This name had been applied to other non-German speakers by Germanic conquerers all over Europe. Romanians, for example, became known as the Vlachs or Wallachians through German language influence. In the new Angleland, as the land of the British was renamed, the displaced people became the first Indian Tribe, the Welsh, living on the first reservation, Wales.

As the English developed a culture of improvement, they looked around their island and found plenty of foreigners to improve. The Welsh were the first recipients of English benevolence, followed by the Scots and Irish. The English even tried to improve the French on the continent but they proved unimprovable. Once they crossed the Atlantic, English-speaking settlers tried improving the newfound locals with varying degrees of application and success. For convenience’s sake, we’ll take up this divide from the time of the Slow-Motion Coup of 1787-1789 forward. One of the more prominent products of that coup is the American equivalent of theSibylline Books. The sibyls of 1787 left us an old parchment full of vague nostrums that America’s official priesthood use for divination about current crises. One of the more opaque of these passages reads:

[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

This divided the world outside the United States into two blocs: foreign nations and Indian Tribes. Foreign nations were accorded all the rights of the Law of Nations based on an expansion of the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio first raised by the Peace of Augsburg and later codified in the two Treaties of Münster and the treaty of Osnabruck. While the original principle merely said that the ruler of discrete territory within the Holy Roman Empire could choose to have his people practice Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism, it eventually was taken to mean that:

  1. Foreign nations were legally equal
  2. Foreign nations didn’t intervene in the internal affairs of other foreign nations

The particular American formula of cuius regio, eius religo is found in the words of Alexander Hamilton:

Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence…
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality, we may at any time resolve upon, to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego 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, interest, humor, or caprice?
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it…
I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy…
Taking care always to keep ourselves, by suitable establishments, on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies…
The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without any thing more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations.

Indian Tribes, however, got to feel the full force of full American improvement. As Thomas Jefferson remarked in his second inaugural address:

The aboriginal inhabitants of these countries I have regarded with the commiseration their history inspires. Endowed with the faculties and the rights of men, breathing an ardent love of liberty and independence, and occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed, the stream of overflowing population from other regions directed itself on these shores; without power to divert or habits to contend against it, they have been overwhelmed by the current or driven before it; now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter’s state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts; to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existence and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals. We have therefore liberally furnished them with the implements of husbandry and household use; we have placed among them instructors in the arts of first necessity, and they are covered with the aegis of the law against aggressors from among ourselves.
But the endeavors to enlighten them on the fate which awaits their present course of life, to induce them to exercise their reason, follow its dictates, and change their pursuits with the change of circumstances have powerful obstacles to encounter; they are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudices of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them who feel themselves something in the present order of things and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel in their physical, moral, or political condition is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety and knowledge full of danger; in short, my friends, among them also is seen the action and counteraction of good sense and of bigotry; they too have their antiphilosophists who find an interest in keeping things in their present state, who dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendancy of habit over the duty of improving our reason and obeying its mandates.

Foreign nations must watch their dealings with Americans: at the drop of a hat or turn of a screw they can suddenly become Indian Tribes and become the target of American improvement.

Take the Japanese. During the First Era of Intervention, when America first emerged as a world power, America went abroad in search of monsters to destroy in a fit of youthful exuberance. The most prominent of these interventions was the “Black Ships“.

Perhaps Wilsonianism is should be called Fillmorism. It was U.S. President Millard Fillmore and his Secretary of State “Black Dan” Webster that dispatched Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry to force Japan open to foreign (and especially American) commerce. The Japanese were the first non-Western nation to Westernize. Some of that was mediated through Americans like Ulysses S. Grant and Erasmus Peshine Smith. But, around the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese suddenly went from Indian tribe to foreign nation. They suddenly had a sort of respect. The Japanese were allowed to remain a foreign nation until the U.S. crushed it in World War II, after which it became an Indian tribe again.

And so it remains. The Japanese, being the Japanese, found a way to incorporate the meddlesome Americans into their system in a useful way to balancing internal cohesion with systemic adaption. As Jonathan Rauch argued in The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan, the Americans fulfill the role in Japan that opposition parties perform in other countries. Japanese leaders can do things that are necessary but politically unpalatable by blaming foreign pressure from the gaijin Americans. You can see more of this surrounding the issue of the Fukishima nuclear reactor because, having “furnished them with the implements of husbandry and household use” and “placed among them instructors in the arts of first necessity”, we feel empowered to intervene in order to find more ways for the Japanese to improve.

We might spare a few nanoseconds of pity for Colonel Muammar Mohamed al-Khaddafi. Having gone to bed one night as The Guide of Libya’s Socialist Revolution, author of the Green Book, and leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, he wakes to find himself the big chief of the Libyan Indian Tribe. While once, in the legal eyes of the Laws of Nations, the Colonel was legally an equal peer of the President of the United States of America, he now finds that Barack Obama has become his Great White Father.

2 thoughts on “Yet Another Overworked Metaphor For Understanding American Foreign Policy”

  1. I don’t want to get too deeply into the theoretical aspects of Great White Fatherism but we should acknowledge that the Indian tribes present at the time the first colonists came to north America were of widely varying levels of sophistication and the relationship between the colonists and the Indians were not necessarily destined to be tragic. It is a given that an aboriginal society has little chance to maintain itself in power over the land when confronted with a more advanced, in a technological sense, society. The exceptions are usually the societies that occupy ecological niches, such as are found in New Guinea mountain valleys or the dry plains of south Africa where Bushmen could still be found until recently. Other aboriginal cultures adapt, as the Australian aborigines have, working as stockmen for cattle and sheep stations in the Outback. They have been aided by the lack of population pressure although they have been displaced from less harsh environments by the European settlers of the 18th century.

    The American Indians of the northeast, the Iroquois Nation, were quite advanced. They had, by late colonial times, grist mills, window glass and sent their children to Dartmouth, which was founded to educate the children of the Indians and settlers in 1769. They made a catastrophic mistake by siding with the French in Queen Anne’s War in 1704. They had hopes of expelling the colonists as the French seemed less interested in establishing colonies that would add more settlers. Had they not done so, the Iroquois might not be the villains of the colonial tales and might have integrated into colonial society. The Cherokee had similar history with agriculture and the rudiments of a written language founded by Chief Sequoyah. They were convinced to war on the settlers of Georgia by a renegade Scotsman who hated the English and the colonists. The result was Jackson’s war in which they were expelled and sent west.

    The plains Indians were hunter gatherer societies that no chance of successful integration with the advancing whites and were far more primitive than the tribes of the east. They were also much later arrivals across the Bering Strait.

    It is tragic that the encounter was to end so destructively for the Indians but some of it was poor leadership by their own chiefs who might have done better for their people.

  2. I’m one of those who thinks this observation from the movie Maverick is actually true:

    Annabelle Bransford: What’s with you and Indians anyway?

    Bret Maverick: Oh nothing, I try to shoot one every day before noon…I figured it was their fault too…for being on our land when we got here.

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