Introduction: The Cycler Nature of US Foreign Policy

This book hypothesizes that pendulum-like cycles took place in US foreign policy alternating broadly from engagement to disengagement and back again in the four American presidencies since the Cold War. These cycles of international extroversion and introversion reflected political sentiments of the presidents, major parties, and the voters themselves. Engagement-cycle presidents resorted to military power and diplomatic pressure against other powers, whereas disengagement-cycle presidents retrenched from international entanglements, while relying on normal economic and political interaction. These cyclical arcs reflected public sentiments, as mirrored in national elections and public opinion polls. But the policies carried out by the White House occupants must take into account presidential decisions made to secure US interests or to nail down historical legacies, which could run counter to the national mood.

Much has happened to America and the world since scholars wrote in the 1980s about political cycles in the American past. The Iron Curtain fell, and with it the former bipolar standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, which bifurcated the planet into two armed camps. Communism’s expansion no longer frightens Western democracies. The United States, in fact, emerged after the Soviet Union’s demise as the sole remaining superpower, although today, it faces a more multipower world.

“Full knowledge of the past helps us in dealing with the future.” Theodore Roosevelt1

© The Author(s) 2017

T.H. Henriksen, Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-48640-6_1

When the Cold War still seemed permanent, American scholars wrote convincingly about interpreting America’s past through a prism of cycler ebbs and flows of international activism and in-activism. The renowned US historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called attention to the cycles between liberalism and conservatism in US domestic annals in his book, The Cycles of American History.2 The Harvard professor drew for theoretical guidance on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, and his own father, who was also a prominent academician. Another scholar, Frank L. Klingberg, identified what he termed “mood cycles” in American society, which impacted foreign policy pendulum swings as described in his book, Cyclical Trends in American Foreign Policy Moods. Professor Klingberg paid close attention, over many years, to pendular alterations between “extroversion” and “introversion” in America’s foreign policy dating from the founding of the Republic to beyond World War II.3 Neither of these scholars were the first to comment on the patterns or recurrence in history. Famed illuminati such as Niccolo Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, Arnold Toynbee, and others have posited some form of historical repetition.4 The two American advocates, nonetheless, were among the most recent and precise observers of the cycler alterations in US policies.

Professors Schlesinger and Klingberg perceived cyclical arcs spanning different time spans. For Schlesinger, the “model of a thirty-year alternation between public purpose and private interest” fit the political history of the United States.5 During “public purpose” times, according to Schlesinger, the country moved toward the expansion of federal government programs for the general welfare of its citizens. But in the years of “private interest,” the nation’s “public problems are turned over to the invisible hand of the market” in a reference to Adam Smith’s metaphor of the economic market bestowing unintended social benefits.6 For Klingberg, who wrote about the shifts from “introversion” and “extroversion” in “international mood phases,” the “average length of the introvert phase was 21 years, and of the extrovert phase about 27 years” dating from 1776 to 1983.7 Extroversion denoted “a willingness to use direct political or military pressure on other nations.” Introversion, on the other hand, “stressed domestic concerns as well as normal economic, humanitarian, and cultural relations abroad.”8

These definitions suffice for this current book about the post-Cold War’s engagement-disengagement alternations. The use of military force or strong diplomatic pressure defines an engagement strategy, while emphasis on domestic concerns and routine diplomacy identifies a disengagement game plan. This study found that the back-and-forth cycles in the post-1989 timeframe were much briefer than the observations advanced by Schlesinger or Klingberg of an earlier period. The post-Cold War cycles roughly conformed to the presidential terms. Writing in the American Political Science Review, three additional scholars examined cycles in electoral politics from 1854 to 2006 by using statistical evidence. In their analysis of “realignment cyclicity,” they posited that the “partisan seat share of the Democratic and Republican parties has not varied randomly over time.” Rather, it has “oscillated back and forth in a fairly regular pattern for the past 160 years.” The period of “oscillation ... is approximately 25 to 30 years.”9 This political science article pertains to political party dominance but its relevance here points to the cycler nature of American politics.

Yet another political scientist assessed the pendulum shifts in the American mood, or political opinion, as a factor related to governance. Commenting on “liberalism and conservatism in public preference,” this professor wrote about “the public changing its attitude toward government action” as a reaction to its approaches. The academician concluded that “this common national mood we know responds thermostatically to government policy. Mood becomes more conservative under liberal governments and more liberal under conservative regimes.”10 The same factors impacting the public mood, domestic political parties, and their programs also influences public opinion on international engagement and disengagement cycles. Fatigue, weariness, fear, disenchantment with the status quo can sway the public mood. Professor Schlesinger wrote about how “disappointment is the universal modern malady” and how it might drive political cycles:

People can never be fulfilled for long either in the public or the private sphere. We try one, then the other, and frustration compels a change in course. Moreover, however effective a particular course may be in meeting one set of troubles, it generally falters and fails when new troubles arise. And many troubles are inherently insoluble. As political eras, whether dominated by public purpose or private interest, run their course, they infallibly generate the desire for something different.11

Arthur Schlesinger and Frank Klingberg concluded that a cycler theory offered insights into history and even about the possibility of what was to come. About the future, Schlesinger wrote: “The dialectic between past and the future continue to form our lives.”12 And the other proponent of historical cycles, Frank Klingberg argued that cyclical trends were not only an “important element in the interpretation of past events” but also “the prediction of likely directions for the future.”13

Such strong convictions in the forecasting power of historical analysis might be less than 100 percent on the mark. But they are one reason—not the only one—to look again at the hypothesis of rhythmic patterns in the most recent period of US foreign policy. Did cycler fluctuations occur in the post-Cold War era? Where the historical cycles just a fluke before Berlin Wall toppled? Or, can we divine cycles in the contemporary timeframe? Finally, why did these purported oscillations take place at all?

The hypothesis of this work is that post-Cold War US foreign policy, indeed, has swung between the poles of active international involvement and disengagement, or at least detachment. Cycles of international engagement coincide with the use of direct military power or diplomatic pressure against other nations or entities. But cycles of international disengagement reflect a strong domestic orientation and dissociation from risky overseas problems. A sub-hypothesis centers on the observation that both engagement-orientated presidents—George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush—modified their initial pronounced internationalism prior to leaving office in recognition of growing domestic opposition to engagement actions. On the other hand, the two disengagement-orientated presidents—William Clinton and Barack Obama—largely maintained their inward-looking focus to the end of their terms. These two theses are confirmed by abundant empirical evidence, which will be presented in subsequent chapters. But first a little historical perspective about the search for cycles in the past is necessary.

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