The Testing of American Foreign Policy

Former U.S. State Secretary Madeleine Albright in Prague, 2010. (David W Cerny/Courtesy Reuters)


Among the many underlined passages in my copy of James Chace's new biography of Dean Acheson is the following:

The problems that bedeviled American foreign policy were not like headaches, [Acheson] wrote -- when you "take a powder and they are gone." Instead, "They will stay with us until death. We have got to understand that all our lives the danger, the uncertainty, the need for alertness, for effort, for discipline will be upon us. This is new to us. It will be hard for us. But we are in for it and the only real question is whether we shall know it soon enough."

Acheson's generation had just survived war and Holocaust, only to be confronted -- as the nuclear age dawned -- by the rise of a new and ominous totalitarian threat. For leaders then, the relief of victory was quickly supplanted by the burden of new responsibilities, from containing the Soviet Union to nurturing fledgling international financial institutions. We should always be grateful that these responsibilities were so gloriously fulfilled.

Today is different. Aside from the six weeks of the Gulf War, Americans have known peace for longer than the interval between Versailles and Pearl Harbor. For the first time since the early 1930s, we face no single powerful enemy to concentrate the mind. To most Americans, the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy no longer seems a matter of life and death. We invest fewer resources in defense, diplomacy, and development. Since nations no longer need our protection from the Soviet Union, our international leverage, despite our strength, is not what it was in Acheson's day.

Unfortunately, the demands upon us have not lessened. Like a kaleidoscope, the patterns of world affairs shift with each spin of the globe. Rising dangers replace receding ones; old problems reemerge. As Acheson warned, no matter what the medicine is, the headaches do not go away. The test of our leadership, although far different

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