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America's Woodrow Wilson foreign policy, and how the founders might fix it


Why America's foreign policy establishment is fundamentally wrong, and how to fix it.

Image source: Americans for Prosperity

Sorely lacking from America's foreign policy today is a clear and coherent set of goals, strategies and objectives, let alone any discussion as to the principles and values that undergird them.

As this writer has lamented, the end result has been a series of decisions under both Republican and Democratic administrations that have arguably weakened America while emboldening her enemies.

A soldier of the 10 Mountain Division U.S. Army 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry Regiment walks with a sniffer dog at Afghan National Army Forward Operating Base Muqor in Ghazni province on May 28, 2013. (Getty Images) A soldier of the 10 Mountain Division U.S. Army 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry Regiment walks with a sniffer dog at Afghan National Army Forward Operating Base Muqor in Ghazni province on May 28, 2013. (Getty Images)

Enter Prof. Angelo M. Codevilla (more here), a veteran, former staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence notably during the Reagan administration, and prolific writer with a contrarian worldview. Codevilla believes he has an answer to what he views as almost a century of foreign policy failure dating back to President Woodrow Wilson, relying on the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and the American people with whom they entrusted power.

In an essay in the essential Claremont Review of Books, a publication of the conservative Claremont Institute think tank, Codevilla challenges the conventional wisdom of Washington when it comes to foreign policy:

Each of our foreign policy establishment's several factions imagines that all peoples are interested in adopting its particular recipe for order and progress. For liberal internationalists it is secular, technocratic, socio-economic development; for realists it’s predictable, self-interested, moderate behavior; and for neoconservatives, democracy. These Americans aim to put an end to mankind’s history of brutal contention by guiding the nations along their preferred paths. Thinking this way has led them to discount the foreign-ness of foreigners—the real differences between religions, civilizations, and regimes—and to disrespect the reality of diversity in the dictionary meaning of the word, and to indulge their fantasies.

Echoing his books including most recently "To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations," reviewed in detail here, Codevilla asserts his theory of foreign policy, rooted in the fundamentals promulgated by the likes of George Washington and John Adams, and applies them to the problems of the day and future, namely in the Middle East, Russia and China.

Below are some of the more compelling excerpts from his pieceWhile you may disagree with some of Codevilla's historical interpretations and conclusions (and certainly this writer is not in full accord with every particular Codevilla raises), we felt that we would share it as a thought-provoking, substantive look at foreign policy -- a contribution to a national conversation we are not having.

On Woodrow Wilson's impact, and the antidote:

The ultimate source of our current dysfunction is our elites' belief that they are morally and intellectually entitled to "nation-build" peoples abroad and Americans at home, whom they likewise deplore. In what may have been his most revealing speech, President Wilson urged his listeners in October 1914 to be their brothers' keepers at home and abroad:

I remember a classmate of mine saying, "Why, man, can’t you let anything alone?" I said, "I let everything alone that you can show me is not itself moving in the wrong direction, but I am not going to let those things alone that I see are going downhill."

 ...The remedy lies in focusing it onto its legitimate ends—that is, to guard America’s peace and to win its wars.

The domestic side of the "war on terror" has underlined how far our bipartisan ruling class has departed from what the founders called popular government (now called democracy). Failure to return to popular government as originally understood would be more terrible than any series of terrorist attacks.

On the history behind our current foreign policy:

In 1950, the Truman Administration chose to spend over 36,000 American lives in Korea to achieve a stalemate rather than defeat the aggression by which Stalin and Mao were breaking the U.S. policy of "containment." This made sense only in the progressive dream of world order through a grand alliance. In light of this dream, Korea had to be fought in that disastrous way because it was "the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy." Policymakers showed how uninterested they were in America’s own business by not fighting, or even defining, what it considered to be the right war for containment. When Senator Robert Taft argued in A Foreign Policy for Americans (1951), and General Douglas MacArthur repeated to Congress, that America should fight only for its own interest and for victory or not at all, America’s foreign policy elite denounced them as dinosaurs.

By the 1960s, the notion of fighting for our victory and our peace or not at all had become intellectually as well as politically incorrect.

[sharequote align="center"]"By the 1960s...fighting for our victory and our peace...had become...politically incorrect"[/sharequote]

...[The foreign policy establishment] tried to counter the Communist world’s conquest of South Vietnam without ever trying to defeat its sponsors militarily. "There is no victory in Vietnam, for anybody," said President Lyndon Johnson. North Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, thought otherwise.

So did Senator Barry Goldwater, who told the country as plainly as he could that if the Vietnam war was worth fighting, it was worth fighting to victory, but that if it was not worth fighting to victory it was not worth fighting at all. Our bipartisan ruling class called him an unsophisticated warmonger.

Our ruling class...thought it inappropriate to identify any set of persons as the enemy whose elimination or constraint would bring us peace. And so, President Johnson identified America’s enemies in the world as “poverty, ignorance, hunger, and disease.” This also reflected our ruling class’s view of Vietnam as a contest of rival strategies for social engineering. Accordingly, the U.S. armed forces were ordered to hold the line while civilian nation-builders did the decisive work. Our military did not make war on North Vietnam, nor even cut it off from Soviet and Chinese supplies. The Vietnam war has remained, farcically, the paradigm of America’s foreign policy...[In the ensuing years] [k]eeping good relations with the governments that supply, or otherwise support, enemies-in-arms has taken precedence over our own troops’ lives.

...The American statesmen of both parties who for the past hundred years thought that America’s peace and mission would be served by improving and re-ordering mankind got it backward: that effort has ended up undermining our national identity and fomenting war among ourselves. No amount of persuasion, inducement, or force could ever have made "democracy safe" among diverse peoples with unsteady and undemocratic political and religious sentiments. What's more, because the understanding of freedom is not just divergent but often contradictory among different peoples, the latest version of American statesmen’s confusion of our own good with mankind’s—encapsulated in George W. Bush's Second Inaugural statement that America cannot be free until the rest of the world is free as well—effectively condemns our country to a foreign policy athwart reality, one that cannot achieve the "peace among ourselves and with all nations" of which Abraham Lincoln spoke.

On the war against "extremism":

[instory-book ISBN="9780817917159"]

Our ruling class defines as "extremism" the common-sense observation that America's terrorist enemies are Muslims acting on behalf of causes promoted by many Muslim regimes and supported, to various degrees, by millions of Muslims. It indicts as "extremism" the American people’s resistance to its mandates of politically correct thoughts, words, and deeds.

Only a renewed dedication to following the people's common sense can restore true security at home. The only proper way to designate against whom we must protect ourselves at home—in practice, how to do "profiling" properly—is to follow our Constitution. That means public debates followed by elections followed by the legislative process that culminates in votes and laws, as well as in administration of laws that respects the sovereign people's sense.

...Overseas, our ruling class has assumed that terrorism is the work of "rogues" and that most if not all religions, nations, cultures, and subcultures are fundamentally inclined to peace and international order. In reality, what happens among foreigners results from characteristics and choices that are irreducibly their own; we Americans cannot "nation-build" others into something they are not. Respect for their separate character, as well as for our own, requires us to hold responsible those who are powerful among them when their policies and proxies injure us.

In short, the Age of Terror emanating from states, from would-be states, and from so-called failed states in no way eliminates the ancient rules of foreign relations. The first of these, from which all others follow, is to safeguard our way of life from foreign interference. That means pursuing peace by all means that may be required to keep us safe in our independence. As The Federalist explains, we intend to give no offense to foreigners, and suffer none ourselves. Or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it a century later, we must speak softly and carry a big stick.

George Washington, to whom we owe so much else, put the same truth this way: "Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all..." John Quincy Adams warned that we must "enter the lists in no cause other than our own." Any peace depends on the character of whoever wins the war.

On how to keep peace and win wars:

Keeping our peace and winning our wars is both the end and the means of securing respect. In peace and war, this means never letting favors go unrewarded or injuries un-avenged, making commitments smaller than the capacity to fulfill them, and fulfilling the ones that we make.

...Because our peace, like anyone's, depends on the power to defend it, military preparedness is the first priority of our business. Our preparedness must match any possible conflict in which our business may involve us. For example, it is imprudent and self-discrediting to involve America in controversies with powers capable of launching ballistic missiles at us until and unless we have a respectable anti-missile defense. In our time, a geopolitics worthy of respect has to be backed by missile defense.

Force, in all its forms, is fundamental to respect. Whether any foreigners like us or hate us is strictly their business. We have zero say over what they may or may not find offensive. But whether anyone fears offending us is our inalienable responsibility.

Especially when we judge an item of business to require the use of force, the pursuit of peace by the most rapid means possible must be the guiding principle of our military operations. This is because the preservation of our character transcends all other business, and because history does not record instances of people’s mores improving in wartime.

On America's policy in the Middle East:

Protecting ourselves from the troubles of the Muslim world requires that our officials dispense with crippling political correctness, and face reality. The U.S. government’s official position, as President Obama has stated repeatedly, is that the self-declared Islamic State is not Islamic. But the people who run I.S. and who actually have Islamic credentials think otherwise. Undersecretary of State Rick Stengel’s statement that "ISIL is bereft of ideas, they’re bankrupt of ideas. It’s not an organization that is animated by ideas," only confuses ourselves.

Being clear with ourselves, that orthodox Islam—never mind the Wahabi version that rules Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf states—dictates savage cruelty toward any resistance to its rule, should, at the very least, keep our government from continuing to empower, enrich, and accredit persons who have done, are doing, and will continue to do harm to us. A new generation of statesmen must dispel their predecessors’ dreams that the Muslim world, and the entire "Third World," will rise to new ways of life superior in justice and morality to our own. Once we recognize who these peoples are and resolve to defend our principles and identity, that set of storm clouds will loom small.

On China, Russia and the founders:

U.S. officials have emphasized their faith that China's rise as a world power is driven by enlightened self-interest and that it will lead to its internal liberalization as well as good global citizenship. None of its neighbors is persuaded. China's political system, driven as it is by ruthless, amoral, intra-oligarchic competition, seems likelier to be moderated by the seriousness of opposition to its immoderate behavior—if by anything.

As always, the more complex the challenge the more that wise statesmen must rely on the fundamentals of their craft. The American Founders lived by the maxim "if you would have peace, prepare for war"—and so should we. Preparing to defeat China’s military plans furthers rather than contradicts our desire to continue mutually beneficial economic relations with it.

Not least of the perversions of statecraft that compose Henry Kissinger's legacy is the concept of "creative ambiguity." The current generation of officials has accustomed themselves to imprecision in policymaking and diplomacy, believing that they thereby "preserve their options." No, they create options for others. A new generation of statesmen, reversing Kissinger’s baleful legacy, should strive for the utmost clarity in our relations with China. Serious, clear, unambiguous policy that communicates clearly to all what the United States is ready, willing, and able to do is the key to such peace as may be possible.

Let us follow the example of John Quincy Adams's relations with Russia, the despotism par excellence of his day, which had proclaimed the supremacy of monarchical over republican ways and had signaled its intention to expand its settlements in North America. Adams, wanting peace and friendship with the tsar while keeping more of his settlements out of America and asserting our own identity, left no doubt in Russia’s mind about where America stood on these matters. Today’s America has far more sticks and carrots than Adams did. But these are valid only insofar as they answer, precisely and satisfactorily, the questions in the minds of the governments with which we deal. What plans and means do we have to defeat what possible Chinese military moves? Does China understand what our limits are? Does everyone else? Does China, and do others, understand what our objectives in the Pacific are and that our means match our ends? Do we have in mind and can we sustain a relationship with Japan that satisfies its concerns? Just as Adams left no doubt about where America stood, neither should any statesmen today leave any doubt in Chinese minds.

Read the whole thing below, and for similarly substantive food for thought, be sure to check out the Claremont Institute's American Mind video series.


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