Robert Kaufman's recent book In Defense of the Bush Doctrine takes on the challenge of defending the Bush Administration from some of its many critics.
The book is a defence not of the administration in all it has done, but specifically of the two components that Kaufman understands to make up its dominant foreign policy doctrine: (i) deterrence and containment cannot head off threats, and so pre-emptive and preventative action are sometimes needed; (ii) democracy promotion.
Kaufman devotes a chapter of the book to each of the rival theories critical of this doctrine, which he defines as 'moral democratic realism'.
The first chapter examines the notion of American isolationism. As indicated in our mastheard above, AmericaInTheWorld opposes isolationism in America as much as we oppose anti-Americanism from the rest of the world. Both of these beliefs are contrary to the view we take that America and American engagement in the world are to be welcomed. In light of this view, we find particularly compelling Kaufman's opening chapter, and its refutation of the often vague idea that up until the early twentieth century, America prospered quite safely and happily by following this doctrine.
From America's birth until the twentieth century, Kaufman argues, the degree to which America was isolationist must be understood in light of Britain's role as the offshore balancer throughout this period. He quotes Henry Kissinger:
"Geopolitically, America is an island off the shores of a large landmass of Eurasia, whose resources and population far exceed the United States. The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia's two principal spheres - Europe or Asia - remains a good definition of strategic danger for America ... For such a grouping would add the capacity to outstrip America economically, and in the end, militarily."
Fortunately for America, until the First World War Great Britain was both capable and willing to prevent one single power dominating these parts of the world. America's ability to resist involvement in European conflicts therefore ended not when American statesmen changed their minds, but when Britain proved incapable of resisting alone those who risked dominating Europe. As Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying:
"As long as England succeeds in keeping up the balance of power in Europe, not only in principle but reality, well and good. Should she, however, fail in doing so, the United States should be obliged to step in, at least temporarily, in order to reestablish the balance of power in Europe, never mind against which country or countries our efforts have to be directed. In fact, we are becoming, owing to our strength and geographical situation, more and more the balance of power of the whole globe."
The United States also relied on Britain, in this period, to protect the Monroe Doctrine of opposing any intervention by Europe in South America. This was scarcely an isolationist position, and nor was it respected by European nations. Rather it succeeded as a doctrine because of British opposition to its rivals expanding into South America, and her willingness to use the Royal Navy to prevent it.
Kaufman quotes George Washington's Farewell Address. Despite its call for American in relation to foreign nations to "have with them as little political connexion as possible", even this address, read in full, strays far from the unambiguously isolationist positions it is sometimes understood to advocate:
"If we remain one people under an efficient government the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel."
Such paragraphs arguably suggest that Washington was advising that America adopt not a principled isolationism, but a strategic avoidance of involvement with the outside world only until that moment "not far off" when the United States would have the strength to "choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel".
America has undoubtedly been far more involved in world affairs over the previous ninety years than for most of her history. But this history can be understood better as a consequence of necessity (America's relative size) and luxury (the more powerful Great Britain's identification of her own interests so closely with America's) than as a foreign policy doctrine applicable in all circumstances, ready and waiting to be returned to at any time. Kaufman makes the point strongly: "[I]n the prohibitively unlikely event that the United States ever embraced it, [Pat] Buchanan's or any other variant of an America-first policy would yield nothing but strategic and moral disaster in today's environment."