Of Gods and Guns

Is Bush’s Foreign Policy and Exception, and Postwar Europe he Norm? A ‘Yes’ to Either Question Does Not Come Easily

The following is excerpted from a talk delivered in Vienna at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue on May 26.


Marcia Pally

Marcia Pally teaches Multilingual Multicultural Studies in New York | Photo: Courtesy of the author

Many in Europe and the US assume a Democratic president will return America to its “true” self – meaning Bush’s foreign policy is “untrue” and that Democrat foreign policy is normative, better. The jewel in the crown for this idea is the postwar in Europe.

But this is a-historical and Eurocentric. US foreign policy in Western Europe and Japan was indeed brilliant, but it was brilliant in only those areas. It is not a norm to which a new president can return.

Indeed, a longue duree study suggests Bush’s approach reflects the preponderance of foreign policy, made by both parties. Europe then must come to terms with its own exceptional, comfortable position since 1945 if it seeks a realistic assessment of future US foreign policy.

But let’s go back to the sources. America’s individualist, liberal values and assumptions were fed early on by immigrant and frontier conditions, by British cultural heritage, and evangelical Christianity, which was progressive and America’s dominant religion from the colonial period to the First World War.

Evangelicalism’s emphases, even in Europe, included a personal, individual acceptance of Jesus’ gift of salvation; ‘conversion’ to a personal relationship with Jesus that would be life-transforming; the ‘mission’ to bring others to that life-changing conversion; the inerrancy of the Bible; individualist Bible reading by ordinary men and woman; the priesthood of all believers rather than reliance on a specially-trained priestly class.

The anti-authoritarian, individualist emphasis was already strong but in America, it grew stronger, owing to sparse settlement, dispersed power, and the need for self-reliance to survive. Thus, evangelical doctrine shifted from an emphasis on God’s grace to the individual’s role in salvation. Accept Jesus and you are saved. The critical step is yours.

A second shift in American evangelicalism was the idea that man can be not only forgiven for sin but can be free from sin – a belief in the perfectibility of man. This at first meant striving for a Calvinist system of lifelong moral behavior but came to support self-improvement more broadly, secularly – which is what immigrants to the US came to do. Start over; be born again. And not only the self; confident America saw that it could help perfect others. The New Jerusalem, whose successful revolution and continental expansion seemed so blessed, was maturing into a nation with a positive experience of aggression.

This is critical to the structure of US foreign policy. Democrats and Republicans alike share a foreign policy tradition grounded in a rubric of self-reliant, confident liberty and liberalism.

One assumption inherent in this rubric is that global economic liberalism brings political liberty, if not immediately then eventually. Both are thought to bring peace, which boosts trade, closing the circle. Conversely, economic illiberalism has been seen as an existential threat, dangerous to liberty abroad and at home.

In practice this has meant liberalizing the economies of the world as much as possible and to “liberate” where necessary – wherever a piece of the liberal global economy seemed likely to fall to socialist or autarkic alternatives. Should liberation require war, proxy war or covert operations, these have been seen as protective of American interests and of liberty for all abroad. Or at least, preventing economic illiberalism.

That the US intervened for domestic enrichment is unremarkable; so did European, Asian and African powers. But just to get an idea of the US version: to protect its trade, by the Civil War had sent its navy or troops to the Marquesas Islands (1813), Tripoli and Algiers (1815), Caribbean and Pacific (1822), South America (1826), Sumatra and West Africa (1830s), and Liberia and Canton (1840s). Mid-Civil War, the Union had resources enough to send its navy to Japan and China.

The motive was markets and then raw materials. Silas Wright, Governor of New York in the 1840s, declared, “There [overseas] the surplus of our wheat must go, and does go, to find its market.” Yet at the same time, American expansion was seen as enlarging the experiment in democracy—it “extended the area of freedom” for all concerned, in the words likely of Andrew Jackson. This was fundamental to the way the nation understood itself.

Seventy years later Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, talked of intervening abroad for US economic benefit: “Since trade ignores national boundaries, and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him. And the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down.” He saw no contradiction between this interest and benevolent world leadership. Rather, he saw that American trade would bring America’s ideals.

“Go out and sell goods,” Wilson said in 1916, “that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.” For all the money at stake, the nation believed it was making the world safe for democracy.

Perhaps the sweet talk about peace, freedom and democracy is the cynicism of politicians who manipulate the public for their own profit. But it is not clear that US politicians need to be cynical or to manipulate the public. Traditionally, Americans have not been uncomfortable with the economic motive for foreign policy; they assume the universal benefits of economic liberalism and its slide to political liberalism. American belief in missionary liberalism has been sincere: That’s what power is for, and far better that America be the one using it for, overall, we use it for better purposes than others do.

However, assuming these benefits, America has been slow to see when liberalism isn’t yielding them. We didn’t see it before WWII or after, when we congratulated ourselves for the Marshall Plan. While postwar policy was consistent with liberate/liberalize intentions – to liberate Europe from Nazism, both Europe and Japan preemptively from communism, and to build an integrated, liberal global economy – the implementation was neither the American norm nor a template to which it can return.

The conditions of revivable liberal economies (Europe and Japan) – which could serve as US consumers and a Soviet buffer – obtained nowhere else, and nowhere else has the US repeated its postwar performance, not in the Asian “Tigers” of South Korea and Taiwan, where the US supported dictatorships into the 1990s, nor elsewhere in the developing world.

There, economic liberalism and political stability have been valued, as they guaranteed access to raw materials, blocked Communist access, and kept the region from slipping out of the global liberal economy. Democracy was not a priority, though as always, America assumed democracy would follow at some point, as it had in the US.

In fact, through the Cold War, democracies and political self-determination repeatedly fell victim to US policies in Indochina, Indonesia, Iran, Ghana, South Africa, the Congo, Southeast Asia, and throughout Latin America – a long list of direct and proxy wars and covert efforts by both parties, meant to liberate developing nations from illiberal, and therefore worse, alternatives.

After the Cold War, US foreign policy took no radical turns. The 1992 Pentagon Defense Planning Guidance of the first president Bush declared global military superiority. The 1991 Gulf War was understood in terms of America’s liberate/liberalize traditions: Saddam threatened US access to Kuwaiti and Saudi oil and violated the national sovereignty of a small nation which the US would liberate.

And Clinton? His 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review also held that America should prevent encroachment on its world role, echoing consistent US foreign policy aims since Democrat Harry Truman’s National Security Council 68 of 1950, setting a strategy of global military superiority.

Thus, for good or ill, it cannot be said that a policy of global military hegemony began with George W. Bush. Nor the policy of preventive force, which began with Clinton’s 1998 bombing of bin Laden’s Afghanistan camp, and before that with pre-emptive interventions in Honduras (1924, 1925) and Nicaragua (1926).

Clinton sought advantageous trade with stable, autocratic governments in China, the oil-sheikdoms, and Pakistan, and he negotiated with the Taliban for a trans-Afghan pipeline to be built by the US oil company Unocal. His aims in the former Yugoslavia were humanitarian, economic (unrest in Europe, spreading from the Balkans, could interfere with trans-Atlantic business) and military, giving NATO its “out of area mission” to legitimize America’s large role in Western Europe post Cold War.

In light of this bipartisan record, G.W. Bush’s foreign policy is not radical – except for Africa where under evangelical prodding he increased aid in 2004 to $19 billion, up from $7 billion under Clinton. Bush’s 2002 declaration of global military superiority followed his father’s, Clinton’s, and Truman’s: Neither pre-emptive strikes nor violating the sovereignty of other nations was new. Nor was Bush’s economic program abroad. He sought to liberate where an autocratic leader with a key resource, Saddam Hussein, became uncooperative. Iraq in 2003 was an object lesson of the liberty/liberalism virtuous circle.

This is not to argue that Bush’s policies were wise or unwise, only that they were not exceptional. This does not justify the invasion, nor Bush’s manipulation of intelligence, his lack of preparedness for the postwar readjustment, his use of torture. These are appalling and also unexceptional.

Looking to the future, little is likely to change: America has prosecuted its foreign policy on the belief that liberalism and liberty are the way the world works best, as it has worked so well for America. This may be wrong or right, but whatever policies have been possible under this rubric remain possible, grounded in the 350-year-old tradition of self-reliant, liberal, anti-authoritarian, missionary can-do-ism.

Is this a problem? After all, the values and assumptions that moved America to “save” Southeast Asia and Latin America from communism, to the exploitation and destruction of those regions, also moved America to storm Normandy and rebuild postwar Europe.

For many Americans, the effort in Iraq was of the same liberating, liberalizing can-do-ism that made America airlift a blockaded Berlin. Perhaps an imperfect American hegemony is on the whole preferable to powers without liberal economic and political values, such as China or Putin’s Russia.

Were there a good America and a bad one, we could sunder one from the other. But if the best and worst of US foreign policy stem from common assumptions and beliefs, then it is difficult to rid ourselves of America’s energetic arrogance without losing its energetic daring.


Professor Marcia Pally is a professor of Multilingual Multicultural Studies at New York University. This article is based on Prof. Pally’s new book, Warnung vor dem Freunde: Tradition und Zukunft amerikanischer Aussenpolitik, published in March by Parthas Verlag

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