Cycles Before the End of the Cold War

Cyclical swings between international engagement and disengagement appeared before the post-Cold War era. There were, in fact, cycler movements dating from founding of the Republic. In the early history of the United States, a turn outward was characterized by an expansion of territory to the south or west. Inward turns, by contrast, were “years of consolidation” in preparation for renewed territorial aggrandizement.23 As the United States rose to be a world power, the pendulum phenomenon materialized most dramatically in the twentieth century. America’s strategic withdrawal from international affairs followed its military involvement in World War I. The interwar years are considered a decidedly isolationist chapter in American history. The next global conflict dragged the United States back into world affairs. Following World War II, Washington took up the defense of the Free World against aggressive designs by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In that role, America introduced security and financial institutions to prop up European and non-Western allies the world over against the USSR’s expansionism. Washington’s collective defense alliances, military assistance, and monetary aid proved durable and successful over the long haul in countering the Kremlin’s advances.

Still, there were times of American retrenchment during the Cold War. The most notable disengagement came after the traumatic Vietnam War, when “there was great public doubt and confusion about the future direction of American foreign policy.”24 The fall of South Vietnam to the Communist North’s invasion two years after the US military withdrew “had severely shaken American self-confidence.”25 To limit US international commitments and interventions, President Richard M. Nixon fell back on a strategy known as the Nixon Doctrine, which embraced “a devolution of American responsibilities in the Third World upon regional powers like Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Zaire” (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo).26

This mood of introversion lasted until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which nearly coincided with the end of President Jimmy Carter’s cautious retrenchment.27 President Ronald Reagan introduced steps toward greater engagement in the lingering, post-Vietnam insular mood. His international involvement overtures carried forward into the post- Berlin Wall years and the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Even though, the post-Cold War era recorded cycler movements in US foreign policy, the Vietnam War still cast a shadow over war-making policies.

The chief two proponents of perceiving cycles in US foreign policy, as noted above, wrote books on the subject in the 1980s. In The Cycles of American History, Arthur Schlesinger described mainly domestic cyclical swings “between conservatism and liberalism, between periods of concern for the rights of the few and periods of concern for the wrongs of many.”28 The Harvard historian readily acknowledged the role of “sacrifices” during World War I “to make the great world outside safe for democracy,” as a factor in the nation’s fatigue during the 1930s. But he also called attention to domestic exertions to explain the change in American sentiments. After the activism of the Progressive Era as well as the Great War, Schlesinger wrote, the American people “had had their fill of crusades” by the interwar years. This disenchantment with “discipline, sacrifice, and intangible goals” played out, as we shall, see in post-Cold War presidencies too.29 The eminent professor expressed in the mid-1980s an observation, which still holds abundant resonance for this current volume; he persuasively wrote: “Each swing of the cycle produced Presidents responsive to the national mood, sometimes against their own inclinations.”30 Using the presidential “bully pulpit,” White House occupants could hope to change the public mood.31 But presidents mostly reflected the prevailing feelings of the electorate as reflected in their reading of national polls and election returns.

The second authority, Frank Klingberg, also analyzed cyclical trends in American foreign policy as well as in domestic and cultural affairs. A political scientist at Southern Illinois University, Klingberg studied this pendulum phenomenon for over three decades after his start in the early 1950s. In 1983, he published a book, Cyclical Trends in American Foreign Policy Moods, on the subject. For an explanation of this cycler pattern, he pointed to what he termed “the historical alternation of moods in American foreign policy.” To him, these “cyclical tendencies seemed to be based on the succession of causal factors in human nature and by much historical evidence since 1776.” Professor Klingberg stressed that these trends present “an additional important element in the interpretation of past events and the prediction of likely directions for the future.”32 He identified oscillations between “extroversion” (a readiness to employ forward-leaning diplomacy, economic pressure, or military action to serve US purposes) and “introversion” (a desire to concentrate on domestic concerns with just routine economic and political intercourse with foreign powers).

Professor Klingberg identified several alternations in mood between 1776 and 1983. These phases, as cited above, averaged 21 years for the 4 introvert periods and 27 years for what became the 4 extrovert eras.33 Accounting for these “mood cycles” in American history, Klingberg acknowledged that it was an imprecise science, requiring the weighing of multiple causes. To buttress his case, the university teacher pointed to similar phenomena in the “business cycles” and internal factors within human systems when confronted by imbalances and the need for changes. External factors, such as foreign wars and economic depressions, exerted powerful impersonal forces on American society.34 There are other factors also at work on the direction of policy swivels.

US political party ideology and presidential instincts, this author saw in the post-Cold War presidencies, accounted for a degree of influence over America’s pendulum-like swings in the exercise of its foreign relations. Presidents have drawn on their respective parties’ past stances on issues and on the thinking of other politicians, government officials, and nongovernment experts as well as campaign pledges. Naturally, the sentiments of the body politic often influence presidential decisions. Presidents have singular power to shape the direction of foreign policy. Whereas domestic legislation on matters such as taxes and spending on government programs depend on extensive interaction and negotiations with Congress, the conduct of the nation’s international affairs can be implemented by the commander-in-chief, White House aides, and executive departments such as state, defense, and commerce. Presidents, therefore, enjoy much greater latitude in the exercise of foreign policy than over internal issues that require Congressional approval.

When all is said and done, the general public does not pay much attention to world affairs, unless an event intrudes on their everyday life, as did the Pearl Harbor attack or the 9/11 terrorism. Presidents can act contra- mood, because they believe their decisions are the best for the country. When they set an independent course, the American public tends to fall in behind them.35 For example, President George W. Bush resolved to take the United States into war against Iraq, and the American public followed him until US casualties mounted and no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found. Then deep disenchantment set in with the war and the president.

The Constitution grants the president broad latitude to handle the nation’s overseas business, especially when security and defense are concerned. Since the Vietnam War, presidents have pushed for greater leeway in deploying the military forces. Even the 1973 War Powers Act, designed to rein in the president’s ability to send US troops to foreign wars for more than 60 days without congressional consent, has often been circumvented by White House occupants.36 They have jealously guarded their prerogatives over deciding on international intervention. Thus, presidential administrations have remained the prime mover in charting the nation’s course overseas.

Another factor at work in America’s foreign policy oscillations derives from the debate on how best to attain the benefits from spreading the country’s values of liberty, democracy, and political tolerance. According to Christopher Hemmer, policy makers have agreed on the benefits but disagreed on the means to attaining them. Should the United States engage in crusades to impose its values on other lands? In this view, the country has to expand American principles “as a missionary, either converting or defeating those who reject core U.S. values like democracy.” Or, should The United States “serve as model for others, letting the intrinsic attraction of its values do most of the work?”37

The United States achieved astounding success in the wake ofWorld War II with its crusading impulse in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Immediately after the war, it also actively interfered to shore up Western democracies under threat from communist subversion. Other crusading enterprises have come to grief in Vietnam and Iraq (and quite possibly in Afghanistan too.) The costs in lives, money, and perhaps prestige are high for crusades. Crusading may also alienate allies when carried out contrary to their interests. Opposite of crusading image on the debate spectrum, according to Christopher Hemmer, is the notion that the United States can serve as a Promised Land, a term popularized by Professor Walter McDougall who also posed the Crusader State notion.38 Professor Hemmer contends proponents of Promised Land proposition hold that America must “focus on perfecting democracy at home, thus making it a model that others want to emulate.”39

Two distinct presidencies exemplify how the twin propositions of either crusading or symbolizing figured in the playout of intervention or retrenchment cycles. President George W. Bush used lofty language in his second inaugural address which matched his interventionist actions. He resolutely declared that those who “live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression.” He added in his expansive manifesto that “when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” He dedicated his efforts to advancing democracy “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”40 With a pendulum change in public opinion, his successor gravitated from the hawkish crusader to the iconography of a shining beacon to the world. President Barack Obama frequently alluded to the necessity of refurbishing the Promised Land mantle when he spoke about the need to “reclaim the American dream” and “to focus on nation-building here at home.”41 His fixation was on mending America’s promise as well as its dilapidated infrastructure.

This recurring debate by exponents of either one of the two poles on how best to advance American political values introduces an important variable in the nation’s international role. The debate centers on the part American values play in foreign policy decisions. As such, it forms only one dimension of the battle between engagement and disengagement. In brief, statements and actions favoring the Crusader State approach lend substance to international engagement. The reverse posture highlights declarations and policies endorsing the Promised Land stance that emphasizes dissociation from militarily interfering or diplomatic muscle-flexing to proselytize for democracy.

The worldwide turbulence since the Berlin Wall collapsed also contributed to US foreign policy cycles. Without the lodestone of the Soviet Union to orient US strategy, Washington’s foreign policy cycled—and could afford to cycle—between the poles of international activism and inaction. The post-Iron Curtain world held a host of lesser dangers from rogue powers, terrorist networks, criminal syndicates, and more recently from resurgent Russia and rising China. America’s superpower status almost guaranteed that Washington had to pay attention to almost every trouble spot anywhere on the planet, like it or not. Its global dominance has vastly expanded since the end of the Soviet Union, while that of Britain, France, and Germany—key players during the Cold War—has greatly diminished. So Washington’s decisions, even small ones, stand in sharp relief, because the world watches to see how it will respond to a crisis. Preeminence in military power enables a state to act or to refrain from action as its interests, values, and prospects dictate. As Thucydides notably phrased it: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”42 As such, vast power often confers the flexibility to choose policies. American leaders, therefore, exercised some power over the choice of their priorities, allowing for cycles.

 
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