"Do-Good Motivation Underlies U.S. Foreign Policy"
BY GIL TROY
Montreal Gazette, "Review" Section," Saturday, October 14, 2000, B5
|Newspaper and Journal Articles-Written||Sometimes, its not easy to
be an American. Most Americans genuinely believe that
their country can and should be a force for good in the
world. In fact, Americans have overcome their traditional
isolationism precisely because they feel a sense of
responsibility to the rest of humanity.
Yes, it sounds naive. And yes, it sounds arrogant. And yes, it is often delusional and occasionally tragic. But it is impossible to understand American foreign policy without understanding that do-gooding motivation.
In many ways, it all goes back to the first President of the United States, George Washington. In his Farewell Address to the nation in 1796, George Washington proclaimed: "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world." This notion, reinforced by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, guided American foreign policy for over a century. Happily insulated from the complexities of the world by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Americans focused on their own continental dramas and mostly ignored the rest of the planet.
There was, however, a competing and contradictory legacy. George Washington also encouraged his countrymen to "Observe good faith and justice toward all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all." The saintly Abraham Lincoln referred to America, even during its darkest days of civil war, as "the last, best hope of earth."
In the twentieth century, the Washington-Lincoln tradition of idealism trumped the Washington-Monroe tradition of isolationism. Americans found themselves increasingly entangled in the messiest of foreign affairs. And while the thirst for international markets was also a factor, most Americans continued to buy into this notion of their country as a force for good. Woodrow Wilson could not enter the First World War without preaching to Americans that the war would end all wars and make the world safe for democracies. George Bush could not enter the Persian Gulf War without envisioning for Americans a new world order. Other countries dismissed it as rhetoric, but throughout the twentieth century Americans took their mission to be a "shining city on the hill" very seriously. And, again and again, Americans performed magnificently. Where would the world be today without the thousands of Americans who died fighting Nazism? Where would the world be today without the trillions of dollars Americans expended to check Communism?
This idealistic heritage has been the keystone in American efforts to play the peacemaker in Serbia, Ireland, and the Middle East. Since fighting broke out in the Middle East two weeks ago, the United States has characteristically tried to be a broker. It has tried to keep the peace. That is why the Clinton Administration forgave Yasir Arafats intransigence at Camp David, when Israel offered breathtaking concessions.. That is why the Clinton administration soft-pedaled the many Palestinian calls for violence, the immoral use of twelve-year-olds as political and military pawns, the desecration of Josephs Tomb. That is why Bill Clinton betrayed Ehud Barak by refusing to veto a one-sided United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel. Desperate for a Middle East peace as his legacy, Clinton double-crossed an ally naively hoping to maintain the peace process and American credibility.
Alas, despite bending over backward to remain evenhanded, America has been denounced throughout the Arab world. The embassy protests that the State Department feared have occurred anyway, in Brussels, as well as some Arab capitals. And dozens of sailors on the USS Cole have been victimized by a blind hatred for the "Great Satan."
Americans are justifiably outraged and mystified. Their blood has now been shed along with the blood of too many Palestinians and too many Israelis. Part of the problem is that Bill Clinton forgot something that George Washington understood. It is folly to assume that everyone around the world is exactly like us. Washington warned against "European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, [and] caprice." Washington, unlike his successor, would have been more wary of Yasir Arafats "ambition" and "caprice." Rather than nurturing Arafat, cajoling him, flattering him, building him up, hosting him more than any other foreign leader as Clinton has done George Washington would have guarded against "the insidious wiles of foreign influence." A man of few words, slow to anger but remarkably effective when aroused, George Washington might have told Arafat what Clinton must tell him stop your games, take responsibility, end the violence. Otherwise, you will deserve your punishment and you will get no help and no sympathy from me.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. His latest book is Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.
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