America has a particular conundrum in devising its foreign policy – we have never sorted out the tension between regarding our country as the champion of democracy and those who argue for realpolitik, the concept that morality and principle should be subordinated to practical considerations (however defined). For the latter, support for democracy abroad is the very definition of wooly-headed naivete. The proponents of realpolitik also exploit the fact the United States alone among major world powers has a strong isolationist bent – a product of an early coddled existence created by two vast oceans. Those who support promoting democracy abroad counter with the historically proven argument that realpolitik lacks a long-term vision, a fatal omission that almost always comes back to bite us in our backside.
Which argument has greater merit? There have been times U.S. foreign policy attempted to balance pragmatism and principle, but President Woodrow Wilson was the first President to declare support for democracy across the globe as a core principle of U.S. foreign policy. His initiative foundered when isolationist Senators blocked ratification of the League of Nations Treaty in 1920. A decade later, isolationist tariffs took the Great Depression from very bad to catastrophic. Revisiting history has many pitfalls, but a good case can be made that we might have avoided World War II, the most destructive war in history (so far), had the Senate vote gone the other way or had we not passed those tariffs.
Afghanistan provides the most recent example. We helped the Afghan people in their struggle against the Soviets, an exercise encompassing both principle and realpolitik. Then realpolitik took over – we abandoned the country and ten years later Afghan-based terrorists brought us 9/11 and 3,000 dead Americans. Our overthrow of Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953 to save an oil company brought us the mullahs in 1979. Decades of coddling Turkey because of its strategic position brought us the invasion of Cyprus, the massacre of Kurds, and recently the threat of a war with Greece that would tear apart NATO, our most important alliance.
The United States had the amazing good fortune to emerge victorious from World War II with its foreign policy in the hands of giants such as George Kennan, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall, to name a few, who employed pragmatism in the service of principle. They constructed a world order that prevented the outbreak of another war and ushered in the period of greatest prosperity the world had ever known. It also created a world in which the largest ever percentage of people lived in democracies. It wasn’t perfect, but did more good than ever before in history.
Unfortunately, the American politicians who followed them lacked their wisdom and failed to understand that the system was very much like a plant that needed tending so it could continue to grow and to ensure that no one fell into the cracks. Their failure led ultimately to the election of President Donald Trump, who can correctly claim the title of the first American President who made no secret of his refusal to support democracy abroad (some would say at home as well). He pursued a foreign policy he described as ‘America First’ that combined a realpolitik based on commercial interests and isolationism. Trump disrupted our alliances, insulted our allies, befriended adversarial dictators, threw international trade relations into confusion, and reversed efforts to fight global climate change.
President Biden has proclaimed a return to American first principles, supporting democracy and human rights as the foundation of our foreign policy. Unfortunately, his predecessor not only left behind a foreign policy that resembles an ongoing train wreck but a full plate of domestic issues. To complicate matters, powerful interests in the United States, from both right and left, have come together to embrace isolationism and realpolitik. ‘Conservatives’ have reduced U.S. interests abroad to constructing a protectionist trade balance while ‘progressives’ argue that every dollar spent abroad is a dollar that could be better spent on social programs at home. How else to explain for example, the massive funding from the far-right wing Koch Foundation of ‘progressive’ think tanks, among them the Carnegie Endowment, the Quincy Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the International Crisis Group for the expressly stated purpose of ‘shaping a more restraint-oriented foreign policy.’ Many progressive Democratic politicians, from Bernie Sanders to AOC, also have fallen into the same trap, believing that an isolationist foreign policy can uplift equality and democracy at home.
Biden has embarked on an ambitious program of reviving American prosperity and well-being in the spirit and vision of FDR’s New Deal, such as the recently enacted America Cares Act and his critically essential Infrastructure programs. At the same time, he must rebuild our alliances, adjust to the new paradigm of dealing with a resurgent China, and fix the open sores Trump created such as the Iran nuclear agreement. Logically, Biden needs to get as many as what he sees as less threatening issues as possible off the table so he can concentrate on his first priorities. His decision to abandon Afghanistan, unfortunately, appears to be a triumph of realpolitik over principle. The isolationist left-right cabal apparently convinced him that we could safely walk out without consequence. They are wrong. Our departure will lead to renewed civil war and chaos which will spill over into a region that we cannot ignore. The Taliban need the support of jihadist terrorists in 2021 as much as they did in 2001. Retaining a small residual military force, together with NATO troops – whom we have forced to depart as well – in Afghanistan would have been a small price to pay to keep history from repeating itself and sparking an almost inevitable future disaster.