The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
IN THE first issue of this review, 25 years ago, Elihu Root summed up the ideas in the minds of the men who had established it. He wrote:
"It is a familiar observation that in most wars each side believes itself to be right and both pray with equal sincerity for the blessing of heaven upon their arms. Back of this there must lie a mistake. However much ambition, trade competition, or sinister personal motives of whatever kind may have led towards the warlike situation, two great bodies of human beings, without whose consent war cannot be carried on, can never have come to two diametrically opposed genuine beliefs as to the justice of the quarrel without one side or the other, and probably both, being mistaken about their country's rights and their country's duties. Here is the real advantage of the change from the old diplomacy to the new. Irresponsible governments may fight without being in the least mistaken about their rights and duties. They may be quite willing to make cannon fodder of their own people in order to get more territory or more power; but two democracies will not fight unless they believe themselves to be right. . . . When foreign affairs were ruled by autocracies or oligarchies the danger of war was in sinister purpose. When foreign affairs are ruled by democracies the danger of war will be in mistaken beliefs. The world will be the gainer by the change, for, while there is no human way to prevent a king from having a bad heart, there is a human way to prevent a people from having an erroneous opinion. That way is to furnish the whole people, as a part of their ordinary education, with correct information about their relations to other peoples, about the limitations upon their own rights, about their duties to respect the rights of others, about what has happened and is happening in international affairs, and about the effects upon national life of the things that are done or refused as between nations; so that the people themselves will have the means to test misinformation and appeals to prejudice and passion based upon error."
It was to provide the American people with additional means for testing their opinions about their relations with other peoples that FOREIGN AFFAIRS was founded.
A world war had just been won in the name of democracy and freedom. The American people had made a decisive contribution to the victory, and in the process had become a World Power in every sense -- in every sense, that is, except their own acknowledgment of the fact. It was not that they were humble. They gave their contribution full value (as, indeed, did the other victorious contributors). But they imagined that a job well done is a job finished, and they were impatient to turn back to the domestic tasks of peace and make up for time lost in the sacrifices of war. They had earned peace, and they thought that by victory they had won it. They had not learned, and did not want to learn, that in the history of nations nothing is ever finished and settled, that even the supreme test of victory in war writes not just the last sentence in one chapter of responsibilities but also the first in another.
For the world as a whole, nevertheless, the new chapter seemed destined to be a story of increasing integration in the relations between nations, and democratization in the relations between governments and peoples. Mr. Root therefore laid stress on the necessity that democratically organized peoples who were undertaking to control diplomacy should learn the business. And since he was specifically addressing the American people -- whose intentions were benevolent, but who had just rejected the League of Nations, signed a separate peace with Germany and called for payment of the war debts without offering to buy the goods that would supply their debtors with the necessary dollars -- he was more preoccupied with erroneous opinions than bad hearts. He said little about the difficulties that even a well-informed democracy might experience in dealing with governments that owed no responsibility to public opinion and informed it only of what they calculated would keep it docile.
Could Mr. Root have seen around the next bends in the road, how much sterner and more specific might his admonitions have been! Autocracy was not dead; it was not even sleeping. And the hopeful work of the new diplomacy in organizing peace, liberty and progress to withstand the predatory undertakings of the new dictators was to fail; for some that could have helped with the work refused, and some that tried to help had courage but lacked strength, and some that promised help were too cautious to give it when it might have been effective. Could he in 1922 have had premonitory flashes of what the world was to see and hear in the next two decades -- Japanese armies sweeping over Manchuria, Mussolini's flame-carriers pursuing naked Ethiopians through the underbrush, Hitler blaring staccato menaces across the German frontiers, Dollfuss lying in his blood on the sofa in the Chancellery on the Ball-hausplatz, Nazi and Fascist planes machine-gunning Guernica, storm-troopers herding Jews to prison and torture, Ribbentrop reviewing his Soviet guard of honor after dividing Poland with Molotov -- Mr. Root's advice to Americans would still have been Study, Test and Judge, but he would have bid them apply it first of all to the fraudulent phrases of escape that were to be in their mouths so often in those years of the world's moral and political decay.
Fortunately, bad hearts as well as good ones can make miscalculations. The bad-hearted rulers of Germany, Italy and Japan did miscalculate, though by a narrow margin. To obtain their overthrow we set no boundaries to the areas of our concern. We risked our men and sent our supplies around the globe.
Again the last sentence in one chapter is the first in another. But whereas in 1919 we felt freed from responsibilities by victory, in 1947 we feel awed by the opportunities it brings and sobered by the burdens we know it lays upon us. Then we imagined we had ourselves chosen the part of war, quixotically almost, as palladins of the right; today we cannot escape the fact that it was by the choice of Japan and Germany and Italy that we had to fight. Then we exulted in the new evidences of our strength and in our security behind apparently impregnable frontiers; today, for all the triumphs of our soldiers, sailors and airmen on every continent and sea, the successful leadership of our statesmen in establishing the United Nations, our possession of unrivalled industrial power and the awesome atomic bomb, we have a sense of uncertainty, of dissatisfaction, of work unfinished, of peace still not won, of sadness at the misery and want which surround us.
We are right to be dissatisfied with the condition of the world two years after the victory, but we would be wrong to let our sense of bafflement persuade us to change the direction of our policy. The direction remains the same; and so long as our Government keeps its compass set by the same star the public will leave it free to show the greatest resourcefulness and vigor of which it is capable. We no longer boast, as Ambassador George Harvey did with such ineffable complacency in 1923: "The national American policy is to have no foreign policy." We have a foreign policy and we believe in it. Its cornerstone is support for the principles and purposes of the United Nations as set forth in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter, and we should like to build on and up from this cornerstone in accordance with the blueprint agreed upon at San Francisco. The United Nations has had successes, notably in dealing with the Iranian crisis and the affair of the Corfu Channel. But its attempts to solve the fundamental problems which are today causing the world's greatest anxieties have left many of its adherents wondering whether, all differing ideas as to procedure aside, the members at present do really have identical aims. For its efforts to agree on methods for controlling atomic energy, providing forces for international police purposes, limiting armaments, discouraging and restraining aggression, even for concerting action for economic recovery, have been paralyzed, directly or indirectly, by what Mr. Stimson elsewhere in these pages calls the "everlasting No" of one Power.
In attempting to carry out the purposes of the United Nations we have already been forced in one instance to go outside its framework. We have launched the attempt to restore the self-support and self-reliance of the battered European nations by direct coöperative action, not because we or the other nations concerned wish to ignore the United Nations but because its economic organs are still in a formative stage and because the work to be done cannot wait on the veto of one Power.
Similarly, if there comes from that Power only an "everlasting No" to every attempted preparation for dealing with aggression we may be forced to find a way of reinforcing the United Nations itself, to the end that its faithful members who wish to carry out their obligations under the Charter may have the means to do so. A possible method would be for a group of members of the United Nations to enter into a supplementary protocol binding themselves to resist aggression if two-thirds of them agreed that the terms of the Charter required action and if the Security Council had failed to act. The obligation to resist aggression is laid upon all members in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter, which set forth the organization's Purposes and Principles; the suggested supplementary action would be taken by virtue of Article 51, which reserves to members the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if a member is the victim of armed attack and if the Security Council fails to take the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. The two-thirds majority suggested for bringing the protocol into effect would correspond to that fixed at Rio for starting action under the new hemisphere treaty. Remembering that the failure of the Geneva Protocol of 1924 was the real turning point in the history of the League of Nations, we might consider whether an instrument supplementing the Charter while remaining true to its spirit might not give a new impetus to the deliberations at Lake Success and Flushing Meadows.
In a world where one is led to suggest such drastic action there is little need to emphasize that the American democracy must continue to learn its business better and better. In 1908 the man who later became the first Editor of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Archibald Cary Coolidge, Professor of History at Harvard, published "The United States as a World Power," a book new in concept and novel in title. He ended it with a quotation from a recent speech by President Theodore Roosevelt: "We have no choice, we the people of the United States, as to whether or not we shall play a great part in the world. That has been determined for us by fate, by the march of events. We have to play that part. All that we can decide is whether we shall play it well or ill."
Sometimes we, the people of the United States, have played our part ill. Sometimes, and we like to think that on the whole this has been more often, we have played it well -- late, on occasion, but still, in the end, well. Recently we seem to have been consistently one generation late. We ignored the reality seen by Woodrow Wilson in order to gratify the agreeable sense of self-sufficient power which had been implicit in Theodore Roosevelt's position at the turn of the century and which so many George Harveys were to make only too explicit in the years following. Urged on by Mr. Root and many other wise counsellors, and convinced in the end by an unanswerable teacher named History, we now have grown up to the Wilsonian reality: we know that we are strong and that we must use our strength in coöperation with other nations. But to our surprise the world of 1947 in which we have tried to act on this realization is not that of 25 years ago. The simple idea of "coöperation" does not correspond to the actualities. We have had to revise in the light of a new experience of human wickedness the assumption that good hearts plus informed minds will assume the triumph of "the right" which was such an important part of the League of Nations concept. We are not free today to describe our present problems in terms of collaboration with like-minded colleagues in a world which is gradually becoming increasingly democratic. Our problem is the stiffer one of consciously exercising power in an interdependent world in which there exist both bad hearts and erroneous opinions, and of subduing these -- our own or another's -- to the requirements of an international order.
In 1908 the bare fact that the United States was a World Power was adumbrated by only exceptionally acute observers. Twenty-five years ago the main implications of the fact were plain, but the American people found excuses for ignoring them. Today they know the fact, accept it, and if well and truly informed about their consequent responsibilities will not shirk them. That, perhaps, is the chief gain we can assert for this era.
H. F. A.