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Originally published: 1997
286 pages
Chapter 21


Walter A. McDougall

America-bashing has become a sport-if not a vocation-in the media. It seems no national imperfection, real or imagined, is too small to be a capital offense. What helps in sorting through some of the more vocal indictments is a referee. Walter McDougall's monograph regarding U.S. foreign policy offers guidance in assessing how much of this self-flagellation is justified, and how well we've done with the responsibilities thrust upon us simply because of our success as a nation and a culture.
     Promised Land, Crusader State traces the broad evolution of American involvement in geopolitics; its primary objective is to dissect only a few of the particulars of any given era or incident and use them as markers, not necessarily object lessons. As McDougall explains his subject he certainly offers some recitations of historical events, but mostly as a means to reacquaint the reader with facts, dates, nations, or people. What McDougall has created constitutes an almost universally valid lesson about the confusions inherent in an open society buffeted by the vicissitudes of democratic action and political power struggles.
     McDougall examines three key aspects of U.S. foreign policy over the past two hundred-plus years: the actions taken, the moral impetus for them (including our tendencies toward both "messianism" and isolationism), and the self-interest, or national interest, that motivates our efforts. Working backward, he explains how we arrived at our place in the world and suggests which policies implemented in the past and which lessons learned could be applied in the present day.


there is also a new aspect of international relations that has not been a factor before-stateless global terrorism.
     For the last three millennia, and for myriad reasons, insurgencies have plagued nations around the globe. But the stakes have been raised dramatically in the modern era as technology has changed guerrilla warfare; nuclear, biological, chemical, or high-explosive weapons of mass murder can relatively easily now be delivered to almost anyone's doorstep. This reality of potentially recurrent terrorist attacks is not addressed by McDougall as he writes his survey before Islamic fundamentalists began, in earnest, their suicidal murdering of civilian populations across the globe. In the face of this potentially enlarging threat civilized nations as a group need to take stock. Particularly in the West, our history of sometimes naive idealism and an often equal aversion (especially in Europe) to expressing power in the face of catastrophe, has become an ostrich-like denial of real world exigencies. In dealing with the new paradigm, however, all of us will find that it is more than simply instructive to understand history. In order to adjust usefully in the West, McDougall's assessment of America, its past, its place, its power, and its limitations, is highly profitable reading as we address global terrorism.
     From the beginning of the republic (and for more than 150 years before we became independent) Americans had been accustomed to running their own affairs without needing to seriously consider, much less answer to others. We wanted to keep it that way but modernity made that dream impossible. As well, our material advancements over the last two hundred years have
made the country remarkably strong, so strong that we now have no serious challengers in the rest of the world. Our worst enemy, as McDougall observes, is our occasional arrogance-born of righteousness, not greed. McDougall notes with irony that over the course of our history as a country the U.S. was most often wrong the more strongly we felt we were right. The impetus to this disjunction started early, in 1630, when Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop intoned:

               Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people
               are uppon us.

Our preeminence on the world stage makes us different, but not always in the good way Winthrop envisioned. Even so, we were not often as bad as we were portrayed to be. American leaders have occasionally 


forgotten the purpose of our foreign policy which has always been, in McDougall's words, "to defend, not define, what America was." When the memory of our officials lapsed, the country veered off course-to our own and the world's detriment.
     McDougall notes that the U.S. has typically lost its way when our foreign adventures were attempts to create a world in our own (ideal) image. This was a consequence of our feeling of exceptionalism-that America was not just different, but as Winthrop observed, better. McDougall rightly points out that we are merely different, and sometimes so different that both our friends and our adversaries turn away in distrust or self-preservation. He recites the views of several of the Founding Fathers who worried that if we were not moral and did not remember how ordinary we were that we could not continue to exist, much less lead. McDougall explores our conduct and finds the U.S. to have acted in its national interest most of the time over the past two centuries. When we didn't, when we acted out of righteousness or pursuant to some base motive, he finds the indictments of our critics largely justified.
     As time passed and the republic became engaged with the rest of the world we sometimes compromised our moral foundations. This was not because we were venal but because international power politics is a survival game which we had to play according to real-world rules, not our own moral compass. (This factor is especially difficult now, in the age of global terrorism.) McDougall doesn't excuse any of this, neither does he extol or resolve it; he explains it so that we can go forward making choices that are both rational and, one hopes, ultimately moral.
     To that end, McDougall develops his thesis by dividing his analysis into eight books of what he termed his foreign policy "bible." Although he pulls biblical nomenclature into service, his dissection of America's first and second centuries by this means is convenient, and incisive; it has nothing to do with religious content. He finds that U.S. foreign policy in the nineteenth century reflects a coherent passion (McDougall's books for this era are: Liberty, or Exceptionalism; Unilateralism, or Isolationism; The Monroe Doctrine; Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny), but in the twentieth he sees less consistency because there is less agreement on what to do with our power (the titles for the twentieth century are: Progressive Imperialism; Wilsonianism, or Liberal Internationalism; Containment; and Global Meliorism).


     McDougall's divisions remain exceptionally useful for understanding the phases and conflicts of our national psyche as we enter the twenty-first century. By examining familiar events and personalities over the course of our history, he investigates where we went wrong and where right,
as measured by our goals and our interests. When we evinced sanctimony (not superiority) we suffered the worst consequences. But when we were rational (even if based in morality, for morality is not less for being rational) we achieved our greatest successes. As McDougall explains, the important point was that our achievements were not grounded in what we happened to gain in the material world, but what we didn't lose in our struggle with ourselves.
     Contemporary readers may be most interested in McDougall's investigation of how the U.S. was transformed from being a world power to standing alone as the world power. Understanding this transition may help us avoid misjudging our place in the international milieu or abusing our advantages. As McDougall explains, the initial change in America's global status took root in the industrial and intellectual might of the country that began developing after the Civil War. Our increased prestige was cemented in our willingness, when international realities pressed upon us, to use our physical power in a political fashion. Certainly we had what can be viewed as imperialist moments but those never defined our national character. We didn't need to be imperialists; we were capitalists who preferred to trade and invest rather than conquer. Our capitalism was a good and extraordinarily beneficial feature of our national existence despite the denials of liberal pontificators who affect ignorance as to the true basis of their prosperity and our national power. When the perceived need arose to deploy the might bestowed by U.S. capitalism-primarily in the two world wars of the twentieth century-America arrived at a state of global preeminence.
     That we were aggressive, not just responsive, when pushed or threatened meant that we were unlikely to be perfect in either our reactions or our comprehensions. Acting in an aggressive manner makes anyone prone to mistakes because one's eye is often on the goal rather than the means. Cuba has been an example of this for almost half a century. Equally as true, however, was that when we saw an opportunity-rather than a threat-we were less likely to make a mistake. Europe after World War II was a shining moment for America. In that case we seized the chance to eliminate a repeat of the mistakes made after World War I that ultimately resulted in World War II.


unfortunately, represented both issues; i.e., we were threatened by the aggressive spread of Soviet Communism in southeast Asia while we also saw an opportunity to offer freedom to an oppressed people. The results in that instance unhappily speak for themselves. The realities of both Islamic fundamentalism and the many competing forces in the Middle East are and will remain for some time to come challenges equal to those we faced during the five decades of the Cold War. Whether we respond or just react to these threats will make a significant difference to both our friends and our enemies.
     McDougall observes that in the course of the twentieth century there were many American political, business, and religious leaders, and movements that became influential and powerful and led us down some wrong paths. As a group, the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson, and the League of Nations, was the foremost example of what could intend so much and go so wrong. (At the end of the First World War the sad confluence of those realities led the world almost inevitably to the Second World War.) But, as McDougall points out, our mistakes were not foreordained by our form of government or our national psyche. It was our occasionally misguided politics and a sometimes messianic, righteous adherence to what was not possible that caused our foreign-policy debacles. This important understanding-that our mistakes of judgment did not result from systemic causes-allowed the U.S. to continue on a course of self-actualization within the confines of a real world.
     Historical analysts must decide where to focus their attention to accurately discern where any history starts. Those who find America failing in myriad ways seem always to begin their critique where we have not been or where we are not perfect in our actions (a subjective judgment in any event). That's a tough standard, one sure to offer many avenues for criticism-criticism advantaged by hindsight and the noble certainty that a better course was obvious . . . after the fact. As McDougall points out, we often made good starts to certain foreign-policy measures that turned out badly because we responded unwisely to changed circumstances-again Vietnam comes to mind, as does now the war in Iraq. The self-flagellating America-haters, who blame our government for whatever has gone wrong, always seem to forget that like any other society, ours is an imperfect one, populated by imperfect beings, among whom there is almost always contentious disagreement. McDougall looks at motives, methods, and facts before judging-and when he does offer an
appraisal, our


foreign policy appears, over the long term, more rational and effective than not.
     There was a point early in the twentieth century when America began to go wrong, or at least so it seemed. The word "wrong" in this context is awkward because it is freighted, as ever, with both baggage and nuances. Prior to and during World War I, what McDougall terms Progressive Imperialism became our "wrong" in foreign policy. This was the dark side of an expanded Manifest Destiny (the nineteenth-century doctrine that it was the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon nations, especially the United States, to dominate the entire Western Hemisphere) that America exported overseas-outside our hemisphere. It was dark not because national gain was sometimes an after-effect, but because it was arrogant, presumptuous, and severely shortsighted. Problems arose for a very simple reason: not everyone thinks like us, much less wants to be like us-especially at a cost of altering their national identity. McDougall writes,

               For at bottom, the belief that American power, guided by a secular
               and religious spirit of service, could remake foreign societies came
               as easily to the Progressives as trust-busting, prohibition of child
               labor and regulation of interstate commerce [did at home]. . . . The
               result in foreign policy was that a newly prideful United States began
               to measure its holiness by what it did, not just by what it was, and
               through Progressive Imperialism committed itself, for the first time,
               "to the pure abstractions such as liberty, democracy, or justice."

     And we failed, sometimes miserably, as the twentieth century progressed. Reform is a parochial matter, based as much on history and culture as destiny. America's hubris that it could reform others or transplant the American experience anywhere else, much less everywhere else, was simply a dream that in some cases turned into a nightmare. As the Progressive Imperialism of the early twentieth century devolved into what McDougall terms Global Meliorism, the do-gooders in America the Powerful turned sour on most of our oversees adventures by the second half of the century. There was substantial confusion in our foreign policy establishment and thus among the electorate as well. We began to drift, especially after the demise of Soviet Communism in 1991. Unfortunately we drifted right into Iraq as the twenty-first century dawned. That it may have been the wrong answer to the right


question (how and where do we attack stateless global terrorism?) will only be determined in the years to come. McDougall, writing before 9/11/2001, voiced caution
in any attempt at nation-building, thus his analysis of events since the Coalition Force's invasion of Iraq in 2003 might reflect his skepticism of our Middle-East efforts. (A revised edition of Promised Land, Crusader State that will address the post 9/11 evolution of U.S. foreign policy is currently in preparation.)
     What the twenty-first century holds for America is difficult to assess. The main arena is seen as China, but the global opposite of Chinese authoritarianism and emerging capitalism, democratic India, is easily as important, and seems equally ignored by American media and political figures. Add in faltering Europe (see Fewer, Chapter 43), the Middle East and Islamic fundamentalism, and a newly corrupt Russia and the mix is volatile at least. The sub-contexts of religion, politics, natural resources, combined with pure, simple mistakes and luck will determine whether we will repeat our twentieth-century errors or learn from them.
     As an example of how uncertain the results of our most intentional acts can be, during McDougall's investigations he finds the success of some of our best efforts was perhaps due as much to happenstance as to design; the extreme examples being the Marshall Plan (the American effort after World War II to rebuild the economies of our former European enemies to thwart Soviet Communist expansion into the center of the continent) and the democratization of Germany and Japan after the war. Although McDougall may not give enough credit in these cases to either American initiatives as an intended catalyst for change, or the psychological impact on foreigners of Americans acting deliberately, the facts may nevertheless justify his inferences. In other words, it's always better to be lucky than smart. It is also often advisable to act forcefully (which does not always mean using the machinery of war). After surveying America's foreign policy since the Second World War, McDougall succinctly concludes, "force must sometimes precede reason." Of course, the extreme opposite can also be true-that force sometimes precludes reason.
     When and then how force must be employed are always the sticking points, especially if one's country is the most powerful nation in the world-at least for now (think again of China's growing military as well as commercial sophistication). As a realist, McDougall recommends that we always act in our national interest (although he does not voice that either often or directly) which
customarily, but not universally,


coincides with the interests of others of like mind. World War II was an example of this, as was our constancy in the Cold War. Our intentions in the Middle East are yet to prove one way or another but their impetus seems to fit more of the good side of McDougall's paradigm than not. At the end, the character of the people involved will determine their own destiny-mostly in spite of rather than because of our actions, thus we must tread softly.
     The ultimate caveat to all of McDougall's assessments, of course, is that some theories of our leadership are sound only in a rational world. As we have experienced, the world is very often not rational; that is when judgment becomes most important and history most valuable. In this vein, McDougall's investigation of our involvement in Vietnam, an ill-conceived, ill-advised, and ill-executed policy of the Johnson Administration that was carried on and on by its own institutional momentum, is exquisite. (His dissection of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, is quite useful today. McNamara helped craft U.S. policy throughout much of the Vietnam War and showed himself to be perhaps the most naive American official of the twentieth century [after Woodrow Wilson], and most assuredly the most damaging to American integrity. He appears almost as a caricature of hubris, folly, and ignorance.)
     The books of McDougall's bible-from his investigation into our original concept of liberty to his skepticism about the effects of our global meliorism-form a cogent and compelling assessment of American foreign policy. As we confront the international terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists and the power of China and India and the rest of Asia we'll have to make new decisions, but it is unlikely that the foundations of those judgments will change much from what McDougall presented as the American paradigm. His assertions about using our past as much as possible to influence conclusions about our future are important in their own right; his efforts at understanding and explaining the first principles of foreign policy offer a useful guide to governance as a practice, not just a theory, in a world that has become less certain, and certainly more dangerous.


About the Author
Walter A. McDougall is professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. A graduate of Amherst College and a Vietnam veteran, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1974 and taught at the University of California-Berkeley for thirteen years before moving to the University of Pennsylvania to direct its International Relations Program. McDougall teaches U.S., European, and Asia/Pacific diplomatic history and is the author of many books, most recently Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828. In 1986, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and former editor of Orbis, its journal of world affairs. McDougall lives in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

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