Is the foreign policy of the United States her Achilles’ heel and the cause of endless dissatisfaction? Without doubt, if we remember the words of Clausewitz: wars are nothing but the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Yet wars are very costly because they involve not only money but, above all, human lives. Foreign relations are especially painful for Americans because America was born on the flight from the Old World, from which, to their discomfort and grief, Americans could never wholly dissociate themselves. This is evident not only from the Monroe Doctrine (designed to remove the Western Hemisphere from its global context), but also from the ambiguous title of “Secretary of State” given to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose role is so very different from those in the various states of the Union. Perhaps the elimination of geography from the American curriculum also has something to do with it. This educational lacuna had led all too many Americans to study the Old World merely by nibbling at its Atlantic seaboard. Yet the geographic heart of Europe is in Belarus.
The Founding Fathers wanted the United States to embody a novus ordo seclorum in the spirit of an unrealistic Edenism, and, not surprisingly, Utopian dreamers have been attracted to the shores of this “Island of the Blessed.” Even today there are Americans who speak of the “American Experiment,” though the United States are by no means an “experiment” to be continued or called off but a solid piece of reality in this world, which according to Catholic tradition is a vale of tears, and in the words of Martin Luther, “the Devil’s Inn.” No wonder that the American heart is isolationist, but—to complicate matters—it is also inclined to refashion the rest of the world in its own image.
Still, owing to its origins, America has always been exposed to European influences. The word “democracy” appears neither in the Declaration of Independence nor in the Constitution, and the same can be said about the noun “republic.” As Henry Adams argued, the year 1828 must be considered a watershed in American history. From then on, state and society have been increasingly democratized under the influence of a European ideology, the same process which took place in the Old World. We arc all, to quote Melville, living in “the Dark Ages of Democracy,” and this affects not only the inner life of the nations but also the relationships between them. Yet, contrary to some pious hopes, this will not lead us to the “end of history.”
Devising a constructive, not merely political, but historically oriented foreign policy is therefore an acute problem for the United States, for what happens to it affects all “democracies.” These are ruled mostly by parliaments composed of elected parties. Elections are held periodically, either according to the calendar or due to the termination of a parliamentary majority. Thus Italy has had, since the end of World War II, more than 50 different governments. Democracy in general and parliamentarianism in particular do not represent rule by “the people,” but by the (temporary) majority over the (equally temporary) minority. In other words, instability is one of many characteristics of our “Western” political system.
Modern democracies are also ignorant, and they refuse to learn from experience. A person wanting to drive a car must prove his or her qualification, but neither the voter nor even those voted into power are subject to such scrutiny. Direct democracy (as practiced, for instance, in some cantons of the Swiss Federation) deals only with very simple local problems. But foreign policy, especially for world powers, requires enormous knowledge and experience. How can an average American citizen assess the necessity of the last two “foreign wars” fought by his country? And a simple French citizen the military intervention of his country in Bosnia? And what does Herr Müller understand about the necessity for the European Community to be properly armed at huge expense?
In a democracy, such “questions” are decided by popularly elected governments consisting of parties, and parties, as we all know, have the burning desire to be elected or reelected at all costs and to increase the number of their representatives. No majority, no power! In other words, voters blackmail their parties, and parties in turn bribe the voters with the promise to fulfill their desires. This might be primarily the case for domestic affairs, but it also concerns foreign policy. Here we have to bear in mind that by 1910 practically all of Europe had constitutional monarchies and only a few republics, but in any case, the parliaments held the purse strings. History might have followed a totally different course if the Austrian parliament had voted the money for the introduction of the breach loader, which the Prussians had already introduced in their army. Thus Prussia won the war of 1866 against the German League headed by Austria. And in 1936, Stanley Baldwin admitted in the House of Commons that the Conservatives would have lost the last elections even more dramatically if in their program they had featured rearmament. “Our specific democracy,” he said, “would have reacted against such a proposition.” Popularity, not the good of the country, is the prime motive of parties. Lloyd George, too, was riding the wave of popularity when, in his election speeches after the armistice in 1918, he promised to “Hang the Kaiser” and make the Germans pay “that the pips squeak,” which led to the reparations, the ruin of the German middle class, and the rise of Hitler. Peace treaties in the democratic age do not have to satisfy monarchs, merely the voters “back home” who are moved by sympathies and antipathies and who judge other nations not impartially but according to their racial, ethnic, religious, or political-constitutional affinity.
George F. Kennan saw the different treatment of Finland and Poland in the light of these “popular” sympathies. (Lloyd George, needless to say, admired Hitler and despised the Poles.) Indeed, democracies are gravely handicapped in preparing for (unavoidable) wars and in making peace because the conditions laid down by the victors must please the voters. Thus Hitler was not truly born in Braunau, but in Versailles. The treaty dictated there under duress (continuation of the hunger blockade) was immediately denounced by John Maynard Keynes, a better prophet than economist, as a possible catalyst of future catastrophes.
In a democracy, then, “politics” is conducted between unavoidably ignorant multitudes facing gigantic problems and amateurish “professional” politicians. The larger and the more “progressive” a nation, the more involved its problems—very unlike the problems facing the cantons of Switzerland. A sound foreign policy demands infinitely greater knowledge and practice than the handling of mere local issues. Yet the backgrounds, upbringing, and education of our temporary rulers, and above all of our foreign ministers, are now the despair of impartial observers. The outstanding statesmen in American and European history used to be monarchs, and their aides and representatives were aristocrats with an international outlook, not darlings of the masses such as Ledru-Rollin, who exclaimed, “I am the leader of the people, I have to follow it!” In non-democracies, responsible administrators have more time to collect information and to learn the ropes. For example, Andrei Gromyko, Soviet foreign minister and perhaps a mediocre mind, knew after 34 years who was who and what was what. Democratized Americans view the expert with great suspicion, but they would not like to see amateurism prevail in the clinics of Rochester, Minnesota. Government, however, is not concerned with the survival of a few patients but with the protection of millions of people. One would think this would push our leaders to formulate long-term strategies, but this is not the case. Our democratic age does not think or act with future generations in mind, but only from one legislative period to another. How then can one expect a reasonable foreign policy?
I was born in 1909, and so I have witnessed much of the sickness plaguing the world today. The world’s democracies now resemble a huge Punch and Judy show, with presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, foreign ministers, state secretaries jumping up and down, making decisions and calculations based not on reasoned concern but on the politics of the moment. After World War II, the democracies produced only two leaders who could qualify as statesmen—Charles de Gaulle, who took over the bankrupt Fourth French Republic, and Konrad Adenauer, whom the Germans dubbed the Demokrator. These two men were personal friends. They were born not more than 300 miles apart, were both devout Catholics, and could talk to each other without interpreters. Yet each time they met and made plans for the future they had to add the momentous words, “We’ll do this or that provided we are re-elected.”
Prior to the French Revolution, alliances and enmities had a certain continuity. The renversement des alliances in 1756, which broke the age-old French-Prussian friendship and started the Seven Years War, was regarded as revolutionary. (In his first Political Testament, Frederick II of Prussia had called France the classic ally of his country.) Yet the great uncertainties of a foreign policy in a world of parliamentary elections were heralded by the break of the Anglo-Austrian Alliance in the War of Spanish Succession, when Britain arranged for a separate peace with France and left the Austro-Germans holding the bag . . . and this in the midst of a major war. Elections had replaced the Whigs and the Tories, and the Duke of Marlborough was recalled from the battlefields. This earned England the title of “Perfidious Albion.”
Trusts and true friendship between countries are rare today, and they can hardly exist between democratically ruled countries. The European countries can confide in the United States as little as the United States can confide in European countries. Can Taiwan really count on the United States? Could South Vietnam? Read the letter President Nixon wrote to Nguyen Van Thieu promising full American intervention should North Vietnam break the armistice, and then decide. (Of course, the question arises whether the American President could give such an assurance without congressional backing.) New elections in the Near East have nearly destroyed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How can “anonymously voting” nations trust each other? Theodor Herzl, Israel’s founding father, knew this only too well and warned the Zionists in this programmatic Der Judenstaat never to adopt democracy, but since there existed no known descendant of King David, he encouraged them to study the constitution of the elitist Republic of Venice.
With constitutionally organized instability and change, hopping from one election to another, with populations in immensely complex civilizations exposed to mass media in which the half-educated lord it over the quarter-educated, the formation of an historically oriented foreign policy cannot be expected. How can this be remedied in an age when, on top of it all, the French revival of democracy has brought us conscription and total war involving all civilians?
Tyranny is by no means the only alternative to democracy. Still, the countless military cemeteries the world over should give us pause. As to the problem of foreign policy, one thing is certain: one cannot shoot at moving objects with a shaky arm and swimming eyes.