Saturday, July 12, 2008

Foreign Policy Determinism?

Tibor R. Machan
The two Iraqi wars have put the issue of American foreign policy on the agendas of many pundits, writers, intellectuals, and politicians. Why this did not happen when Granada, Panama, Kosovo, and other places were at center stage of actual foreign and military affairs is unclear to me. But somehow the military targeting of Iraq managed to turn a lot of people’s attention to American foreign policy--both the motives for it and its consequences.

In his book, published between the two Iraqi wars, From Wealth to Power (Princeton UP, 1998), current Newsweek International editor--and host of CNN-TV’s very good news magazine program, GPS (Global Public Square)--Fareed Zakaria argued that America has always had an impulse toward expanding its sphere of influence, often through coercive force, rarely only because of the need to defend the country against foreign aggression. And most recently Robert Kagan makes the case, in the new publication World Affairs, A Journal of Ideas and Debate (Spring 2008), that the policy of spreading American influence by aggressive means is by no means an invention of neo-conservatism but some a nearly innate impulse evident throughout the history of the foreign policies of many American administrations.

Both Zakaria and Kagan seem to embrace a form of determinism, Zakaria more directly than Kagan. The fact that America is a prosperous society impels the nation and its governments to be expansionist, even imperialist, in foreign affairs. This is not a matter of choice, nothing that could be otherwise. It is simply the way the world works--big, prosperous countries just aim to grow bigger, even if they do not always succeed with this ambition. Kagan simply claims that contrary to what too many commentators and critics of the George W. Bush administration have argued, the desire to spread democracy by force is a well established tradition evident throughout American history, from the beginning to the present. He believes that the fact that the American Founders believed that the principles sketched in the Declaration of Independence are universal, apply to human community life everywhere, makes the expansionist foreign and military stance unavoidable.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with showing that certain policies, foreign or domestic, are closely linked to a country’s history in view of the principles embraced by its constitution and the convictions of its citizenry (especially its leadership). But does this support the suggestion that these policies are somehow unavoidable?

Certainly the Founders’ choice of first principles wasn’t something they couldn’t help making. Quite the contrary--they chose very deliberately and rejected alternative regimes as they reached their conclusion about what kind of community the United States of America ought to be. Now with that choice came a long series of institutions and policies. At each stage some changes could be made and many have been--throughout America’s political and legal history the big government versus limited government positions have kept battling it out, and this continues to our day. (Initial commitments have considerable but not inevitable influence--one need but think of marriage where “I do” does but need not determine how things will turn out!)

Many foreign--as well as domestic--policy theorists embrace a certain positivist methodology as they “explain” the world. That is, they often have a firm conviction that they need to identify certain natural causes that produce states of affairs and shy away from dwelling about normative matters, namely, what policies ought to be carried. The idea of free human choices that may be judged right and wrong is not deemed scientific enough. So there is a kind of self-fulfilling real political bias in their analysis. Because of this stance, evaluations and proposals are shunted since they involve value judgments, something that too many such thinkers consider mere biases, nothing rationally defensible.

But, in fact, a good deal of foreign and military policy rests on what public policy makers believe should be done, how the country ought to behave abroad (as well as at home). The sooner the leading thinkers in these areas recognize that values are what matter most and need to be rationally explored, the more sensible will the country’s policies become, both abroad and at home.

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