Ideology and U. S. Foreign Policy


This new edition of Michael H. Hunt's classic reinterpretation of American diplomatic history includes a preface that reflects on the personal experience and intellectual agenda behind the writing of the book, surveys the broad impact of the book's argument, and addresses the challenges to the thesis since the book's original publication.
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This new edition of Michael H. Hunt's classic reinterpretation of American diplomatic history includes a preface that reflects on the personal experience and intellectual agenda behind the writing of the book, surveys the broad impact of the book's argument, and addresses the challenges to the thesis since the book's original publication.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300037173
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/1987
  • Pages: 237
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13925-9

Chapter One

Coming to Terms with Ideology

We can best separate appearance from the reality, the transient from the permanent, the significant from the episodic, by looking backward whenever we look forward. There is no great mystery why this should be:... the successive generations of men tend to face the same recurrent problems and to react to them in more or less habitual ways. -Walter Lippmann (1943)

The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they continue in office. -Henry Kissinger (1979)

American foreign policy has been in ferment for the past decade or more. The extended conflict in Vietnam proved unsettling for Americans, especially those whose political coming of age coincided with the height of that war. Vietnam loosened the hold of Cold War precepts shaped by Munich and Pearl Harbor, just as involvement in World War I had shaken the crusading faith of an earlier generation. One observer announced in the early 1970s that "Young America" now wanted to "cool it" in foreign policy; another proclaimed a few years later the discovery of "shifting generationalparadigms." Though the Reagan administration has tried to end the ferment over foreign policy by reasserting a classic Cold War outlook, academics, journalists, policymakers, and the military continue to debate the lessons of Vietnam and their implications for future U.S. policy.

The critique of U.S. policy that has developed in reaction to Vietnam and Reagan has mounted to impressive proportions. Many of the critics have been foreign-policy analysts with previous on-the-job experience and with interests as diverse as strategic planning, the international economy, the policy process, and the so-called Third World. Collectively, their work constitutes an acute and sometimes devastating attack on a policy based on false assumptions, prone to misguided activism, and plagued by high and sometimes hidden costs. The world has so changed in recent decades, the critics tell us, that Cold War policies are no longer appropriate. Some contend that even at the height of the Cold War American leaders profoundly misread the world, to the detriment of their own people as well as others whose destiny they sought to influence. As a group, they argue that a transformation of American policy is urgently needed and that if change is to be significant and durable, it must be accompanied by a fundamental and thorough rethinking of the premises of policy.

Anyone who reads these critics can have no doubt that the conventional wisdom handed down from the early years of the Cold War is in serious trouble, as men who once helped make policy now trumpet its excesses and inadequacies. Richard Barnet has described the consistent, active, and ultimately counterproductive hostility that cold warriors have displayed toward revolutionary nationalism. Barnet's thesis has received further broad development at the hands of Melvin Gurtov and Richard Feinberg, and it has been supplemented by Robert Packenham's account of the failures of an ethnocentric approach to development pursued by the U.S. government in the 1950s and 1960s. Earl Ravenal and David Calleo have examined the lamentable tendency of policymakers to undertake overseas commitments that exceed demonstrable American interests and existing American economic resources. Ravenal offers what might stand as a summary of the critics' case when he calls for a more restrained American policy:

We must recover a sense of the limits of foreign policy in a world that is no longer malleable. Foreign policy must be seen not as a lance but as a shield. It is not a vehicle for propagating our values or a pretext for projecting our fantasies, but a set of minimum conditions for preserving our vital internal processes.... Our primary business is to operate our unique political system, enjoy and enhance our economic activities, and repair and perfect our society.

If these works calling for greater restraint have one flaw in common, it is their inadequate attention to the place of ideology in recent policy. They recognize that American leaders have been caught up in the web of ideology and have in consequence espoused mistaken policies. But they do not consider systematically the dimensions of that ideology, the roots that sustain it and may render it resistant to change, and the precise relationship it bears to policy. The difficulties the critics have had in getting a conceptual handle on this set of issues suggest that they themselves are caught up in an ideological tangle.

Two of the more perceptive recent critics illustrate the problem. Ravenal calls for altering "our basic strategic 'categories'-the deep cognitive mindsets imbedded in our decision-making system." He recognizes that policy reform will require a direct challenge to the presumption "that America's actual and proper concerns are universal." Reform will also compromise "the myth of America's uniqueness as a nation and a force in the world" in a way that may prove "painful." Such national myths serve a purpose, Ravenal notes incidentally but perceptively, for they "gloss over divisions and bind a society together." Moreover, Americans, who are "used to hearing that their identity depends on a special responsibility for world order," may feel diminished by a shift to a policy of prudence and restraint. They may not wish "to be told that they ought to give up their honorable pretensions and to live modestly, like other nations."

Like Ravenal, Feinberg grasps the connection between foreign-policy ideology and national morale. He acknowledges that nationalism can be a healthy force that stimulates cultural pride and social cohesion and reinforces democratic values. But for a great power nationalism also "has a darker, more dangerous side," he argues, unleashing "flashfloods of arrogance and aggressiveness that overflow into chauvinistic and rigid foreign policies." Policymakers will find themselves struggling in vain against "an emotional public clamoring to project their sense of self onto the rest of the world." Feinberg, who seems to think of ideology in terms of strong liquor-harmless in small doses but dangerous in large-urges us to bring our "ideological fervor" under control. "It is both unnecessary and often counterproductive for the United States to allow ideology to cloud its perception of events and foreign governments." We shall have to give up the grandiose idea that we can "change the course of history" and instead "learn to enjoy our own institutions and values without feeling the need for others to duplicate them." Fashioning this "new self-identity," Feinberg concedes, is "our most difficult task."

The critics recognize the crucial link ideology provides between American nationalism and an assertive American foreign policy. That they do not grapple with the problem of ideology more fully is understandable. Preoccupied with current policy problems, they are hobbled by the same lack of historical perspective that characterizes the public they address. Understandable though it may be, the failure of the critics in this regard is serious nonetheless, because it minimizes a major obstacle standing in the way of their search for a new policy. Suppose, to begin with, that ideology is central, not incidental, to policymaking. Is it really possible to insulate or divorce one from the other? Suppose, moreover, that some of the central ideas in foreign policy are closely intertwined with domestic political values and arrangements, which continue to sustain them. Can those ideas be eradicated, and can fresh sources of inspiration and guidance appropriate to a policy of abnegation be found? Suppose, finally, that a major assault on those ideas proves successful but in the process shakes national self-confidence and precipitates a prolonged and vituperative debate. How dangerous would such an outcome be, and how likely is it that we would find ourselves better off than we are now?

These suppositions and the questions they raise can give no cheer to advocates of policy change, but there is wisdom (not to mention intellectual honesty) in knowing whether the critics have as their target a flimsy tent city or a great citadel, whether their opponents are a tattered, dispirited band or a formidable host determined to defend the old creed and backed by a sympathetic populace. Though such battlefield intelligence may seem inexpedient insofar as it depresses the enthusiasm of the insurgent forces at the outset, it may be indispensable to the success of the campaign. A reluctance to consider the nature of the struggle ahead-a quick, irresistible thrust or a long and trying siege-may not only diminish the prospect of success but also sow puzzlement, frustration, even defeatism in the ranks if the objective is not carried on the first try.

There is considerable evidence that this is not a hypothetical prospect, that indeed the first foray of the critics has already been turned back. Recent policymakers have proven unexpectedly obtuse. Celebrating familiar Cold War values, they have rejected the notion that the Vietnam commitment was a fundamental mistake, and neo-conservatives have urged that the United States should defend freedom around the world whatever the price. The electorate seems to like the clarion call for the nation to put aside doubts and reassume its proper role as world leader, wanting even less than do the policymakers to be saddled with a policy of caution and restraint appropriate to a complex and politically diverse world. Though many Americans would concede that recent Cold War policy has been too costly and at times ineffectual, they would not agree with the critics that the premises of that policy were flawed.

* * *

Clearly, to neglect ideology may be to omit a crucial step in setting U.S. foreign policy on a new basis. Critics preoccupied with recent policy have glimpsed the problem but hardly plumbed it. Have historians devoted to the long view on American policy done any better? The answer is an assured yes. Ideology has figured prominently in virtually all attempts to account in broad, interpretive terms for American entry into the thicket of international politics and to explain the conduct of policymakers as they followed the path deeper and deeper into the underbrush. Ideology certainly occupies a central place in what are arguably the two dominant interpretive approaches of the past thirty-five years-one associated with George Kennan and the other with William Appleman Williams.

Neither of these worthy and thoughtful interpreters, however, deals with ideology in a way that would help the policy critics out of their conceptual tangle and provide the fresh insights on the problems of U.S. policy that we seek. It would seem that historians too have become tangled up by ideology-Kennan by a conception that is superficial, even anemic, and Williams by one that is narrow and at times mechanical. Yet their work merits brief consideration, for it may help move us toward a much-needed alternative perspective on foreign-policy ideology.

George Kennan stands as a leading exponent of an approach to foreign-policy ideology that might best be labeled pejorative. His classic articulation of this approach appeared just after he had brought to a close two decades of government service, where he had ultimately distinguished himself as the father of the containment doctrine. In 1950 he took up residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies at his alma mater, Princeton. An invitation to deliver a set of lectures at the University of Chicago provided an almost immediate opportunity to sift through his own experience and apply it to the history of U.S. foreign policy. The lectures, his inaugural performance as a historian, were a great success. Published under the title American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, the slim volume served as a bible for a Cold War generation. Frequently reprinted and still widely read and respected, it contributed significantly to shaping the view of past American foreign policy that has dominated in recent decades.

The burden of the work was that errant and inappropriate moralism and legalism defined the American approach to international affairs. By moralism Kennan meant devotion to virtue without the power and will necessary to sustain it. Moralism intruded in policymaking either directly, through the attitude that policymakers themselves carried to office, or indirectly, through the force of public opinion as it was shaped by vocal minorities, mass hysteria, yellow journalism, and political opportunists and posturers. Legalism, the other nemesis to sound policy, was reflected in the application of domestic concepts of peacekeeping, adjudication, and contractual relations to an international sphere for which they were unsuited. It too found expression directly through the outlook of policymakers, often themselves products of the legal profession, or indirectly through a political system dominated by lawyers and organized around making and interpreting law.

Kennan charged that this moralistic and legalistic outlook, deep-seated and pervasive, had repeatedly obstructed a clear definition and effective pursuit of the national interest. In developing his case he made the McKinley administration his first and most elaborate exhibit. He complained that it had gone into the Spanish-American War for "subjective and emotional reasons," acquiring in its wake colonies for reasons no better. He criticized the "high-minded and idealistic" open-door policy embraced in 1899-1900 by John Hay as a classic case of public posturing. That policy, Kennan argued, rested on a deplorably sentimental attachment to China and displayed a disregard for strategic realities in East Asia that would ultimately bring on an unwanted war with Japan. The two world wars served as additional exhibits in Kennan's exposition to demonstrate the capacity of the public, in a fit of self-righteousness, to enter on a crusade against evil in the world and then to lapse into disillusionment, its emotional energy spent against intractable power realities. Repeatedly Americans had fallen prey to illusions that war as an instrument of policy could bring total victory or, alternatively, that peace could be had through world disarmament, arbitration treaties, the outlawry of war, the action of international organizations, and other means that sidestepped "the real substance of international affairs."

The United States, which had begun the twentieth century "with the concepts of a small neutral nation," would have to find a new basis for its policy if it were to meet the challenge that Kennan saw the Soviet Union posing even as he wrote. To improve on past performance, policymakers needed to take a more rational and calculated view of international politics. The answer was to be found in "realism," a term that spotted the Kennan corpus and became a buzzword as dear to undergraduates and armchair strategists as to authentic makers of policy. It signified precisely what Kennan's historical analysis revealed the United States needed: a more orderly, clearheaded formulation of policy built on well-defined national goals, displaying a firm grasp of international conditions, and leading to the mobilization of power sufficient to overcome anticipated obstacles and realize the desired goals. The purpose of American policy had always drawn from a fund of "basic decency." If policy could be effective as well, it might do much to further "the cause of peace and of world progress."

With their profound aversion to the workings of ideology on policy, Kennan and other "realists" fancied themselves pragmatists. They decried the dangers of seeing the world in terms of any "ism." Ideologies blinker and blind, obscuring reality and justifying in the name of high causes extreme inhumanity and wanton destruction. The horrors witnessed by Kennan and his contemporaries in their own lifetime-savage purges in the Soviet Union, a war engulfing much of the world, and a holocaust that swallowed up peoples by the millions-seemed the bitter fruits of ideological zeal. They had gone to war to expunge German and Japanese fascism, but even after victory they found ideology still stalking the globe in the form of Soviet and Chinese communism. Kennan's own reaction against ideology had taken shape earlier, during his apprenticeship as a diplomat in Central Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and the 1930s. He had come away with an impression of Marxism as a distorted view of the world and of its Bolshevik proponents as psychotics capable of "manifold brutalities and atrocities."


Excerpted from Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy by MICHAEL H. HUNT Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

1 Coming to Terms with Ideology 1

2 Visions of National Greatness 19

3 The Hierarchy of Race 46

4 The Perils of Revolution 92

5 Ideology in Twentieth-Century Foreign Policy 125

6 The Contemporary Dilemma, 171

Afterword 199

Essay on the Historical Literature 219

Notes 233

Index 255

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