“Internationalism is a luxury which only the upper classes can afford; the common people are hopelessly bound to their native shores.”
—Benito Mussolini

Walter A. McDougall, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, presents useful truths about the history of American foreign policy. The United States, he correctly argues, was never really “isolationist” in its relations with the rest of the world; long before it plunged into the protracted wars of the current century, the American government pursued perceived national interests abroad. In accordance with its own “unilateralist” inclinations the federal government, without much popular opposition, pushed an American empire across North America and into Latin America, opened China to American trade and influence, and subdued the Philippines as a base for American power in the Far East. If the United States did not continue to expand its overseas empire on the European or Japanese model after the Spanish-American War, McDougall observes, it was not because of a lack of military energy or the prevalence of isolationism at home. Rather Americans, including their leaders, saw no practical need to indulge in a civilizational mission. Such a course would have brought little material benefit while causing many headaches, as exemplified by the counterinsurgency waged against Filipino rebels at the turn of the century.

McDougall stresses two other truths about American attitudes toward international relations which do not fit current misconceptions. One of them is that those politicians who today are routinely condemned as “isolationists” (such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William Borah, and William Jennings Bryan), were often vigorous internationalists who had sound objections (though not always the same ones) to Wilsonian liberalism. Bryan did favor an active American role in making peace among the World War I belligerents, but unlike Wilson, he did not incline strongly toward the Allies. Though Lodge had been even more openly pro-British during the war than Wilson and Secretary of State Lansing, he opposed Wilson’s equivocations during the struggle and his idealistic, entangling internationalism afterwards. Borah too had begun as sympathetic to the Allied side but, like Robert Talt, grew disillusioned with the victors and their treatment of the vanquished. Nonetheless, like the Republican Presidents of the 20’s, Senator Borah advocated close commercial and economic ties with the major European states, partly to mediate their differences.

The second truth is that, from the 19th century on, Americans vacillated between two self-images, both with implications for foreign policy. Either the United States was to be an Old Testament promised land whose people, like the Jews, dwelt alone, or it would have to follow the example of the New Testament, going forth to preach the Word (in this case republican government and bourgeois Protestant values) to benighted heathens. McDougall presents the latter vision with such unmistakable scorn that one has to conclude that he is either flattering Jewish readers or expressing his revulsion for democratic globalism (which he identifies with the New Testament-crusader view of American destiny). In his section on Woodrow Wilson, McDougall notes that what most distinguished the crusading democrat from his predecessors was the obsessiveness of his missionary New Testament vision. Unlike earlier American leaders, Wilson burned with democratic idealism. He attributed this quality to others fighting the “German militarists and autocrats” and was afterwards shocked to discover their cynical attitudes about power.

According to McDougall, American intervention on the side of the Allies may have been justified to avoid “the calamity” of a German victory; nonetheless, for Wilson, this intervention had to be upheld on moral grounds consistent with his crusading ideology. Therefore he alternated between appeals to neutrality and the appearance of being evenhanded, on the one side, and, on the other, hints to the Allies that the United States would join their side as soon as the Germans provided sufficient provocation. In the end, Wilson bequeathed to the nation a legacy of liberal interventionism, one that McDougall believes has marred our understanding of vital national interests. His own arguments here and in an essay printed in Commentary on a “gender-inclusive” military underscore his concern about the danger of making international relations and national defense subject to ideological fashion.

Such a trend, however, may be unavoidable for reasons that go beyond the scope of McDougall’s analysis. As his book makes clear, domestic considerations have played a critical and even overshadowing role in American foreign policy in this century. It was not extraneous to American intervention in the Great War that the Eastern elites, in both the North and the South, were passionately Anglophile, or that real neutralists, Anglophobes, Austrophiles, and Germanophiles were in a weaker political and social position. The reason McDougall gives for the possible necessity for intervention—namely, that Germany would otherwise have dominated the Atlantic—is a page taken from a brief by an Anglophile interventionist. Avery different view can be found in the arguments of Charles Beard, Walter Karp, Patrick Devlin, and other critics of the Allied case for American intervention. The Central Powers were never in a position to equal, let alone surpass, British naval hegemony. Submarine warfare was desperately resorted to by the Germans to break a British blockade. By war’s end that blockade had taken a toll of hundreds of thousands of German civilians. England might indeed have continued to control the seas even if the Germans had forced the French into making a peace favorable to German interests. What distinguished Wilson from Bryan, moreover, is not that one was a New Testament Protestant moralist and the other not. Both were—though Wilson was also a dishonest Anglophile. Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, by contrast, were honest ones, openly pro- British from 1914 on. Knowing who was or was not culturally and socially sympathetic to the British side may be necessary to an understanding of liberal internationalism in this period.

A similar approach should be applied to understand other groups holding particular foreign policy interests, though all of them, as McDougall points out, depending on the time frame, embraced in the end the language of the crusader state. As odious as this language may be, it did—and still does—provide a rhetoric usable by all sorts of interventionists, from New England and Southern Anglophiles to Catholic anticommunists and Zionist neoconservatives. As Justus Doenecke and McDougall both show, America First’s spokesmen against American involvement in the European war often appealed to internationalist ideals. While McDougall rightly presents liberal internationalism as a pervasive creed, equally important has been the adaptability of this creed to different foreign policy agendas.

The final point that needs to be made is the difficulty of carrying out the realistic approach to foreign policy propounded by McDougall. Whether advocated by him, George Kennan, or other teachers of geopolitical sobriety, such an approach may have become anachronistic. Internal politics and journalistic obsessions are by now inseparable from statecraft, as has become obvious with the politicization of the American military. American interventions in Somalia and Bosnia seem to have less to do with national interest than with pressure from the civil rights lobbies and journalistic advocates of Bosnian pluralism and war crimes trials. The “global meliorism” presented by McDougall as the eighth and most recent phase of our relationship to the world (these phases could be easily collapsed into two or three) did not arise spontaneously from the American people. The imperative to change other societies into a reasonable facsimile of the United States is preached by American elites, which subordinate foreign policy to domestic ideologies and electoral strategies.

From the 1960’s on, moreover, the global meliorism that McDougall sees taking hold during and after World War II has been accompanied by a government-and media-led effort to ban discrimination in every form. While McDougall deplores its effects on the military, these effects have also been felt in social and foreign policy. America’s military intervention in Haiti was justified in terms of a universal “right to democracy.” This particular tight, confected by journalists and state department officials, had no critics, save for isolated paleoconservatives. The difficulty of stepping into the critical role is that one appears, or is made to appear, “insensitive” as soon as one raises the question of where a putative right comes from. But the refusal to take on the ideological power blocs can only make matters worse. What do the critics of the dominant therapeutic ideology do when we go to war over a “universal right” to feminist self-expression or to homoerotic self-fulfillment? And if we dispute that putative right, do we still have to accept the morality of preaching and imposing a “right to democracy”? Is it necessary to fall back to the earlier fiction in order to dispute its more extreme extension, the way we do by glorifying the civil rights movement of the mid-60’s in order to condemn its supposed subsequent derailment? Or is it necessary to break the entire chain of ideologically driven promises in order to make people think clearly and sequentially?

I believe this last question is the one that must be addressed. The “global meliorism” lamented by McDougall reflects a series of cranky agendas presented as foreign policies. The political theorist James Kurth has noted in Orbis the incongruity of having a multicultural United States leading an expanded NATO as “protector of the West.” In what way, asks Kurth, is the U.S. justified in leading a Western, predominantly Christian civilization, if the same superpower is consciously shedding its specifically Western identity? The answer is both simple and horrendous: the United States will redefine its global mission to fit whatever our political class is doing at home.


[Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776, by Walter A. McDougall (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 304 pp., $25.00]