Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
An attempt to state the permanent bases of any nation's foreign policy opens a range for discussion too broad for the compass of a single article. History, tradition, political structure, geographical location, commercial interests, all these, to say nothing of the ambitions of statesmen and the exigencies of the moment, go to the making of a foreign policy. Some of these factors are fixed and stable. Others must change with the changing times. Rarely is there entire consistency in the pursuit of the policies to which these factors give rise. It is only in the most abstract sense therefore that any policy or the bases on which it rests can be called permanent. Yet it is possible, with the aid of history, to give a hurried summary of certain ideals and purposes which seem to have run with reasonable persistence throughout the course of American diplomacy and which cannot be ignored in predicting its future direction.
Of these, the first in point of time, if not in point of importance, is the wish to abstain as far as possible from any participation in foreign questions in general and European questions in particular. The roots of this feeling go deep into the American past. It has as its background the world situation at the time the United States of America came into being. The instruments employed by European monarchs in the midst of their quarrels and jealousies to advance their several interests, the alliances and counter-alliances, the balances of power, the armaments and counter-armaments, the treaties open and secret, were stigmatized en bloc by the American colonists as the European system. Looking at the turmoil it had bred and the burdens it imposed, they set up after the Revolutionary War a government republican in character based upon ideas of human equality, personal liberty and popular sovereignty, which, whether original or borrowed, new or old, they were pleased to call American. They asked nothing more of the world at large than a chance to develop these ideas undisturbed. Between them and the turbulent shores of Europe rolled the broad Atlantic. Their homeland was an unpeopled continent of vast natural resources. And the same self-reliance which had brought them and their fathers across the waters made them confident of their power, if only they were let alone, to realize the great things the future held in store.
In such surroundings it was a priceless advantage to be aloof and neutral in a world that was torn by the contemplating of present and future wars. John Adams spoke for himself and his countrymen in the conversation he reports between himself and Richard Oswald in 1782: "'You are afraid,' says Mr. Oswald today, 'of being made tools of the Powers of Europe.' 'Indeed I am,' said I. 'What Powers?' said he. 'All of them,' said I. 'It is obvious that all the Powers of Europe will be continually manœuvring with us to work us into their real or imaginary balances of power. They will all wish to make us a make-weight candle when they are weighing out their pounds.'"
There was no "philosophical tranquillity," as Baron von Nolcken, the Swedish Minister at St. James's, suggested to Adams in their long-distance watching of "European throat-cutting;" only a feeling that it was none of their business and that it would be fatal to the survival of the new-born nation if it took part in the mêlée.
This attitude, so easily understood, was erected into a dogma by Washington with his warning in the Farewell Address against implicating ourselves with Europe "by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations or collisions of her friendships or enmities;" and confirmed by Jefferson in his first inaugural declaring for "commerce and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none."
Tuned as these words were to the times and circumstances in which they were uttered, their effect upon the subsequent conduct of America has been continuous. Their weight cannot be exaggerated. They have been echoed in substance, if not in terms, by statesmen of every generation. They have been repeated and re-repeated from the platform and in the press until they have become clothed in the minds of most Americans with the dignity of axioms. . . . When the fight over the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and the Covenant of the League of Nations was on, they furnished the stock argument to those who opposed the Covenant, and it was only by appealing to their high authority that public sentiment, at one time overwhelmingly in favor of the League, could be reconciled to its rejection.
President Wilson himself did not challenge the general doctrine. Said he: "I shall never myself consent to any entangling alliance, but I would gladly assent to a disentangling alliance—an alliance which would disentangle the peoples of the world from those combinations in which they seek their own separate and private interest and unite the people of the world to preserve the peace of the world upon a basis of common right and justice. There is liberty there, not limitation. There is freedom, not entanglement." He denied, and those who thought and still think with him denied, that there is anything in this of abandonment or desertion of the teachings of Washington and Jefferson. Indeed, it may safely be assumed that those great men would have been the last to claim perpetual authority for their advice.
The views expressed by John Quincy Adams as early as the year 1826 do better justice to their memory. In his message to Congress announcing his intention to enter the conference with the other American republics at Panama he said that he "could not overlook the reflection that the counsel of Washington in that instance, like all the counsels of wisdom, was founded upon the circumstances in which our country and the world around us were situated at the time when it was given," and comparing "our situation and the circumstances of that time with the present day" he held that his acceptance of the invitation did not conflict with the counsel or policy of Washington. Political isolation in the strict and absolute sense was never the doctrine of Washington or Jefferson, nevertheless their warnings against permanent alliances and participation in matters not directly related to the welfare of the United States have lost little of their potency with the passage of the years.
An obvious corollary of this same teaching was the doctrine of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. After proclaiming the right to set up a government of her own devising, and to pursue her course without molestation from abroad, America could do no less than concede to other nations the same rights she claimed for herself. Whether their form of government was despotic or liberal, regular or revolutionary, their domestic politics peaceful or turbulent, was to be none of her affair. It was not unnatural that the adoption of institutions similar to her own and founded on like political philosophy should from time to time arouse her sympathetic interest; it was inevitable that when her citizens began to push abroad she should invoke for them that measure of protection to which they were entitled by the law of nations; but non-intervention on her part in the domestic affairs of other nations was to be a fixed canon of conduct to be departed from only on the gravest occasion. As Secretary Seward observed in 1863: "Our policy of non-intervention, straight, absolute and peculiar as it may seem to other nations, has thus become a traditional one which could not be abandoned without the most urgent occasion, amounting to a manifest necessity." And again: "The United States leave to the government and people of every foreign state the exclusive settlement of their own affairs and the exclusive employment of their own institutions."
That a nation thus dedicated to the policies of political isolation and non-intervention should imagine itself a permanent neutral in any war between other Powers was entirely logical, even though events from time to time have falsified the logic, as events so often do. The strain upon this purposeful neutrality came promptly during the wars of the Napoleonic era. It reached the breaking point in the War of 1812 and a century later in 1917. Yet it cannot be denied that the instinctive reaction on the part of America to any foreign outbreak has been one of neutrality, followed by the renewed assertion of the rights of neutral commerce in non-contraband goods, or, to use the later nomenclature, the "freedom of the seas." Every war of the last century and a half has provoked diplomatic interchanges on the subject, in which, not always with entire consistency, the prevalent American contention has been that blockades to be respected must be effective; that only those articles are to be treated as contraband which are adapted for belligerent uses; and that the flag of a neutral nation must protect both the vessel and its cargo. Shaken as the principles of neutrality were by the events of the Great War, and dim as the hope may be for the preservation of neutrality in future wars, it must be accepted that American thought on the subject is still dominated by the ancient tradition.
With the delivery of President Monroe's message to Congress in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine came to its permanent place in American history. "The occasion," said he, "has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are not henceforth to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European Powers. . . . We owe it, therefore, to candor, and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those Powers, to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety."
It is worth while to quote these familiar words of this message because of the gloss that has so often been put upon them by orators and statesmen in the century that has followed their delivery. It is worth while also to notice that the sole reason put forward for the declaration was the peace and safety of the United States themselves and not the protection of the newly formed South American Republics. There was in the declaration no assertion of overlordship or of hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, and least of all of a purpose to control or regulate the domestic affairs of our American neighbors. The creation of the Holy Alliance furnished the occasion, and national tranquillity supplied the motive, but there was no pretense of a general protectorate over other American states. As Secretary Olney defined it in his Venezuelan Boundary despatch: "The rule in question has but a single purpose and object. It is that no European Power or combination of European Powers shall forcibly deprive an American state of the right and power of self-government and of shaping for itself its own political fortunes and destinies." His bellicose sentence that, "Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition," could certainly not have been intended by its distinguished author as either an interpretation or an attempted enlargement of the Monroe Doctrine. In the calmer and less controversial atmosphere of today it would hardly be repeated lest it might be regarded as rodomontade. True, the Monroe Doctrine, as Americans understand it, has come with the passage of time to apply to all non-American Powers rather than to those of Europe alone, and to acquisitions of territory by the transfer of dominion and sovereignty as well as by colonization; but such further expansions as are to be found in the rhetoric of spread-eagle orators have no foundation either in tradition or in fact. The idea that the Monroe Doctrine is an all-embracing synopsis and epitome of our relations with our Latin American neighbors is a wholly erroneous conception.
The policies to which I have so far alluded, with the possible exception of those relating to neutral commerce, have a negative quality suitable to a nation set upon living an indoor life of oriental seclusion. Jefferson's ambition, indeed, was to see the United States a nation of self-supporting husbandmen. The national temper, however, was not adapted to such a future, and even in Jefferson's own day his countrymen were crowding into commerce and flocking to the open sea. Some were traders in time of peace engaged in nibbling into England's carrying trade, others were blockade runners in the Napoleonic wars, roving the seven seas. Under the spur of commercial ambition, American shipping throve mightily. In the early part of the nineteenth century the American clipper ships not only met in successful competition the mariners of England but practically monopolized for a time the transport to England herself of China tea. There was an immediate need, therefore, for a positive foreign policy fixing the terms on which the new nation was to live in the trading world. The nations were still under the spell of the doctrines of "mercantilism" and trade restrictions, prohibitions and discriminations were well-nigh universal. Indeed, there was hardly a port in the Western Hemisphere outside their own country in which American vessels could lawfully trade.
To break these shackles was the first task of American diplomacy. The objective was announced in the preamble to the Treaty of 1778 with France in these words: "By taking for the basis of their agreement the most perfect equality and reciprocity, and by carefully avoiding all those burdensome preferences which are usually sources of debate, embarrassment and discontent; by leaving also each party at liberty to make respecting commerce and navigation those interior regulations which it shall find most convenient to itself; and by finding the advantage of commerce solely upon reciprocal utility and the just rules of free intercourse; reserving withal to each party the liberty of admitting at its pleasure other nations to a participation of the same advantages." This was, as John Quincy Adams called it, "The corner stone for all our subsequent transactions of intercourse with foreign nations."
So step by step, and with infinite labor, the ports of the colonies, first of Great Britain and then of Spain, were opened to American vessels upon reciprocal terms. One by one discriminating duties were removed and most favored nation treaties were negotiated with all the principal trading Powers of the world. The policy of reciprocity was deliberately adopted and steadily pursued; reciprocity in the sense of equal and impartial trade and not as the word has come to mean in its later usage—mutual or equivalent reductions of duties and imposts—the latter "a policy," as John Bassett Moore has wittily said, "recommended by free traders as an escape from protection and by protectionists as an escape from free trade, but distrusted by both and supported by neither."
It was left to John Hay in his negotiations in 1899 for the open door in China to secure the most dramatic of the later triumphs of this policy. Confronted by the impending partition of the territory and trade of China among foreign Powers, instead of engaging in the general scramble he chose a more effective course. Starting with the same English sympathy which had been shown by Canning when the Monroe Doctrine was promulgated, he secured in turn the assent of France, Germany, Russia, Italy and Japan to the principle of equal and impartial trade for the commerce of all nations in Chinese ports and spheres of influence. As a work of peace it was an achievement of the first magnitude. It came to further fruition at the Washington Conference of 1922, when the nine Powers there represented formally agreed to use their influence for the purpose of effectually establishing and maintaining the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations throughout the territory of China.
I pass to another subject. In his inaugural address of March 4, 1897, President McKinley made bold to declare that arbitration as the true method of settling international questions "has been recognized as the leading feature of our foreign policy throughout our entire national history." Note the use of the definite article. The statement is hardly an exaggeration, notwithstanding the fact that the nation of which it was spoken has fought in the course of 155 years two civil and four foreign wars, without counting the innumerable conflicts waged with the Indian tribes. Such was the aggregate duration of these major wars that it may be said without overstatement that America has devoted at least one day out of every eight of its national life to the making of war; the remaining seven have been spent in paying the bills. In spite of a genuine passion for peace, therefore, the United States can hardly be called a pacifist nation. Yet, with unhappy stumblings by the way, it has from the making of the Jay Treaty to this date endeavored to follow the road of arbitrament rather than of conflict. It has been a party itself to over 85 arbitrations with some 25 countries; and by precept and example it has commended the practice of arbitration to mankind. It stands today definitely committed, so far as the Executive and its past professions can commit it, to the support and maintenance of the Permanent Court of International Justice; and if it has forfeited anything of its former glory as a champion of international arbitration, the loss must be charged to the account of Senatorial jealousy of Senatorial prerogative and Senatorial difficulty in making up two-thirds of the Senatorial mind.
If in the course of this brief outline I have leaned heavily on the sayings of men of earlier days it is not without reason. With all their spirit of enterprise and innovation the American people are at heart traditionalists. In matters of government they are prone to take the beaten paths. And in spite of their sense of human equality they are likewise hero-worshippers. They are accustomed moreover to written formulæ in their government, their politics, even in their business. An argument buttressed by quotation from a national hero has its battle half won from the start. Whatever the demand for a shift in thought may be, it is useless to disguise the fact that they find it easier to inquire what Washington, for instance, may have said, than to consider what wisdom like Washington's would say today.
A general survey of American foreign relations could not conclude without adverting to other important topics. Such, for instance, are the disarmament of the Canadian border; the cultivation of friendship with our neighbors to the south under the name of Pan-Americanism; the protection of the Panama Canal and the policing of the Caribbean; the problems of the Pacific and the consultative pact of Washington; and, latterly, naval disarmament and naval parity with Great Britain. These and many similar matters could not be ignored by the diplomatic historian, but the aim of this article is far less ambitious. The effort here, I repeat, is to discover, with the aid of history, those ideas which run with such persistence throughout our foreign policy as to indicate their permanent fixation in the national mind; political isolation, non-intervention, neutrality, the Monroe Doctrine, the open door, arbitration—these threads seem to run all through the warp and woof of our national weaving. It is quite easy for the critic to show that they have been broken from time to time. They disappear from the pattern here and reappear later there—consistency is no more a virtue of nations than of men—yet without them there would be little to give coherence and unity to the design.
Is there any common bond between these policies themselves, any consistent idea which has inspired them, any common stuff out of which they have been spun? I think there can be no doubt of it. Stated in the simplest terms, the dominating desire on the part of the American people as expressed in their foreign policy has been to be free to mind their own business without interference and to permit others to do the same. This of itself is not a policy, but it is the motive by which policies have been inspired. Nor must it be supposed that there is anything unique or singular in this attitude. The people of every nation cherish the wish to work out their own destiny after their own fashion, and for this reason the mainspring of national action is always self-interest. It could not properly be otherwise. Those who, by reason of their official position, have the power to frame and carry out the foreign policies of their country are not proprietors but trustees of the power they hold. They dare not use this power to satisfy mere personal ambition or to advance their personal fortunes. They are not even free to spend it in works of unrequited charity, no matter how noble. True to their trust, they must at all points consider first and always the welfare and safety of the people they are called to serve. Self-interest, albeit the enlightened self-interest, of the nation is to be their constant guide.
This desire to be let alone is but the same idea which is embodied in the word "security," an expression used and interpreted by every people in the light of their own peculiar circumstances. To some it brings to mind the threatened boundaries between themselves and hostile Powers; to some the long lines of ocean communication on which their very lives depend; while still others look abroad to their colonial possessions and fear for the links that bind them to the mother country. Fortunately for America, she hears the march of no hostile armies along her frontiers; no blockade of her coasts can bring famine to her firesides; and while she must defend the outposts she possesses, neither the genius of her institutions nor her past experience fosters in her any ambition to play the rôle of a colonizing Power. Indeed, taking her venture in the Philippines as an example, it would be fair to say that, while opinions differ widely as to her present and future responsibilities there, most Americans in their heart of hearts regard the original retention of the islands as a sorry blunder and devoutly wish that Dewey, after he had destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, had weighed his anchors and made for the open sea.
But the fact that America is not oppressed by considerations such as these does not make her foreign policy any the less a search for security than that of Powers not so fortunate. Time, of course, has brought great changes since she first began to think in national terms. Her entire geography, for one thing, has altered; where she once looked out on one ocean, she now looks out on two. While she held at first but a fringe along the shoreline, she now spreads across a continent; and since the acquisition of Hawaii, Porto Rico and the Philippines, and the building of the Panama Canal, her shadow falls far beyond the confines of the Union. As she has reached out to make contact with the world, the world with its steamships, aircraft, cables and radios has advanced to meet her, until distance no longer decides the relationship between herself and the rest of mankind. Commerce has altered quite as much as geography since the day when a colonial request for episcopal guidance was answered by the brusque remark, "Damn their souls, let them grow tobacco." And finance by means of loans and fixed investments has scattered all over the globe, not the imaginary funds of "international bankers," but the collective savings of the American people, in the hope that this seed in time will bring its harvest of profit and reward. Perhaps no nation in the world has seen greater changes in the same length of time.
In view of these facts it is clear that the statement that America wishes to be free to mind her own business is not an answer to a question but merely the introduction to a series of questions that must be answered if phrase-mongering is not to take the place of reasoning in her foreign policy. In the word "security" today are wrapped up many things which could not have been dreamed of a century ago. So long as the world obstinately refuses to become static and unchangeable "never" is a dangerous word for governments or statesmen to employ. Policy must always be elastic enough to fit changed surroundings, for the change of surroundings does not wait on policy. "I do not control events," said Lincoln, "I am controlled by them." If the foreign policies that have guided America hitherto are no longer adequate to preserve her peace and insure her prosperity, it does not necessarily follow that they should be abandoned, but it does render it imperative that they should be supplemented by further policies consciously adapted to her present needs.
Quite obviously the day has gone by, if indeed it ever existed, when America could think of her interests and duties apart from those falling to her as a member of the community of nations. The march of science, the advance in the arts of communication, the interlocking activities of commerce and finance, her own expanding needs and desires have made that no longer possible. Recent events have served to drive the lesson home even to that presumptively ignorant but ubiquitous person, the man-in-the-street. The Great War has shown him over what vast distances the sound of a cannon shot will travel, and the present depression has joined the American wheat farmer and the British coal miner in a common misery. The question is no longer whether America will join the concert of the nations. By the decrees of Providence and the pressure of inexorable events she is already there beyond hope of escape, and is permitted to consider only the manner in which she shall bear herself in that relationship.
Judging the future by the past, it is extremely unlikely that she will ever throw off her fixed aversion to alliances for peace or war with special Powers. It seems in no way necessary and would probably be most unfortunate if she did. Yet since it is no longer possible for her to sit in calm seclusion, prudence and duty unite in dictating to her a thoroughgoing, ungrudging, and generous coöperation with the rest of the world in the organization and maintenance of peace; for peace and the liberty of action it insures are the things she most needs to work out her destiny. There is no dodging the stern fact that today American security, repose, prosperity—what you will—is dependent in chief measure on America's contribution to world security. For this contribution pious aspirations and benevolent phrases are pitiful substitutes, and pharisaic self-righteousness the least helpful substitute of all. If the organization and maintenance of peace by common action has its risks, they are as dust in the balance alongside the hideous certainties of modern war. Any foreign policy that falls short of the last effort to avert this peril can only be described as a thing limping and incomplete.
This is not, as some would have it, the dreaming of the idealist: it is realism of the most severe and practical sort. I go back again to Jefferson. On assuming the office of Secretary of State, he wrote to Lafayette: "I think with others that nations are to be governed with regard to their own interests, but I am convinced that it is their interests in the long run to be grateful, faithful to their engagements even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always."