President Obama’s supranationalism is not anything new in our foreign policy. What is new is his being supranationalist on the one hand and isolationist on the other. He has often defined himself as a man absolved of ideology, a pragmatist who will do whatever is necessary under the circumstances. Necessary for what? Necessary to achieve a certain goal, which, in his case, has been purely ideological. What is more, he is discordant and ambivalent to the very core. War calls for intervention: you must win the war first, then negotiate the peace. What is more, you cannot change venue. Very rarely can you choose the terrain. Has Obama ever read Sun Tzu? I do not think so. Has he read Alinsky and Mao and heard of Che? I am certain he has.
It was with President Wilson that our move to internationalism and interventionism began. Quite frankly, it was also a product of Theodore Roosevelt’s and William Howard Taft’s pressure, although both had fundamental disagreements with Wilson. First, Roosevelt despised Wilson as a “college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people.” His policy was “utter folly… a milk-and-water righteousness unbacked by force.” Even before Lusitania, neither Roosevelt nor Taft could see any lasting peace with Germany, or even neutrality, as a wise option. Wilson, on the other hand, viewed the British policy of “starving Germans into submission” as inhumane.
You may have noticed the terms “utter folly” and “inhumane.” How does “utter folly” differ from Trump’s “our leadership is stupid?” The left calls us “inhumane” when we want to apply breaks on immigration. As of today, Germany is considering moving 80,000 “migrants” away, “back,” because over 600 women have come up with rape and sexual assault allegations against Muslims. Back where? Most of them want to go further “north” because they think they will get more money, better food and housing – paid for by the taxpayer. Now, vis-à-vis this dire situation, should our foreign policy experts call for isolationism or interventionism? Should they practice the policy of holier-than-thou neutrality instead?
We have always been a country of individuals, mavericks, original men of substance. In his farewell address, George Washington warned us against “entangling alliances.” This advice was a two-edged sword: we did not have the power to fight another war, and – we had nothing to gain by doing so. Washington left us with a lasting legacy: if you do not have the power to conquer and if you have nothing to gain, stay out of it.
Why should we intervene in Europe’s refugee problem? Can we solve it? Can we gain anything by doing so? As to ISIS, can we conquer them? Then the sober pragmatist (that Obama is holding himself out to be) should say: Go ahead and do it! Then, and only then, could we negotiate from the position of power. What would George Washington do? He would stay away from EU and show the world what we mean when we draw a “red line.”
The problem with both isolationism and interventionism is that they are “-isms” – that they want to see the world black-and-white. However, the world revolves in many shades, the hues of a rainbow. There is no clear-cut line separating isolationism from interventionism. In 1823, President Monroe declared a new “hands-off Europe” policy, which was isolationist toward Europe and interventionist with respect to South and Latin America. It was a good strategy, as we had won our Second War of Independence and gathered enough strength to be concerned with our national growth – industry and continental expansion. This led to predominance of isolationism, especially with rising inner tensions and ripening Civil War. A weak nation cannot fight abroad. A nation weakened by disunity cannot fight – period.
The marker of transition from what we might view as “pure isolationism” was the rising power of industry and our reaching the western frontier: in 1890, a public census declared there was no longer a “contiguous frontier” (unknown wilderness) and therefore the frontier was “closed.” The impact of this realization was foreshadowed in a famous essay by Frederick Jackson Turner presented to a special meeting of the American Historical Association at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. Apart from a certain apprehension of national “claustrophobia,” Turner argued that our national drive, core, competitive self and sense of growth might be severely hampered and constricted by this sudden “closure.”
It is not by coincidence that many Americans began to travel abroad at this time, mainly to Europe. To name a few: Theodore Roosevelt climbed on the top of Mont Blanc and was appointed to the Royal Society of London, Henry James visited Paris after introducing a new character to the world: the brash, bold American lady who travels to Europe on her own to face the stern aristocracy and defy local “mores” (Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady), and Mark Twain carried this to new heights with his time traveler in Connecticut Yankee (of course, having already ridiculed the Americans eager to learn from scattered old stones of Italy in his Innocents Abroad)…
The first purely interventionist action came at the turn of the century: the Spanish-American War, in which we won Guantanamo. McKinley (and his “Rough Rider” Ted) was also interested in Panama and Nicaragua as well as other maritime “resorts” of strategic importance (Puerto Rico, Guam, Philippines). Roosevelt’s chief influence, Alfred Thayer Mahan, was born in West Point to a professor of Naval History, man who taught Grant, Lee and other great generals of the Civil War… American Pragmatism arose from the soil and is inextricably tied to the realism of power. C.S. Peirce, Chauncey Wright, William James, John Dewey, George Herbert Mead followed in the steps of George Washington, who started as a licensed surveyor in the Shenandoah and grew into the ultimate pragmatist.
True American Pragmatism has nothing to do with “hope and change” or pursuit of harmony among nations. Indeed, if President Obama, as a man with merely legal background, is unaware of the impact of the Metaphysical Club, he cannot call himself a pragmatist. In fact, the goals of his policies appear to be anti-pragmatic in that the consequences of his actions decry and contradict the requirements of reality – because they are based on beliefs, not on facts. Therefore, no matter what President Obama does, he will always wind up in a state of incomplete, incongruous, ambivalent chaos. Unity (speaking of a nation or in military terms) cannot be based on idealism, but only on reality. Divisiveness results from substituting ideas for reality, creating symbols for abstractions, making words mean more than actions.
Idealism leads to absolutism because no corrective measures in reality will impact abstractions in the ideal world. No doubt Mahan and Roosevelt hated Wilson-Bryan administration of righteousness and appeasement because of this “academic idealism” of “nation-building” and persistent shying from war at all costs. Every -ism puts blindfolds on Common Sense and points him in the direction of another -ism. Battling Isms breed nothing but contempt in a sane, rational onlooker. Pancho Villa called Woodrow Wilson an “evangelizing professor…” Theodore Roosevelt had probably more respect for Villa than for Wilson. To paraphrase Roosevelt: You cannot have peace without victory and you cannot be too proud to fight! For someone to win, someone else must lose – that is the true teaching of pragmatism.
A decade of Jezz Age, the Roaring Twenties, flapper and art deco followed World War I. This was marked by business growth, lower taxes, tariffs (under Harding) and support of all private enterprise. As President Coolidge famously said: “The Business of America is Business.” It is not by coincidence that we heard this repeated after World War II by Engine Charlie (US Secretary of Defense to Eisenhower): “What is good for General Motors is good for America.” Harding-Coolidge-Hoover sequence was a “swing” back to isolationism, which meant conservatism and home values. The depression years also required special economic measures which did not give much room or leeway to any deep concern with what was going on abroad.
However, regardless of the economic situation at home, it would have been impossible to stay completely neutral in World War II – just as it had been in World War I. Wilson may have won his second term on the banner of the jingle that “he kept us out of war” (similar policy contributed to F.D.R.’s third re-election in 1940) but there is no such thing as “complete neutrality.” Even in the tradition of “international concert of peace” and a “community of power” (Wilson’s terms) there were bound to arise “entangling alliances” out of sheer necessity.
It was through the acid tests of world wars that the United States emerged as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” This term had been coined at the end of the Great War, referring to Wilson’s internationalism, but it did not become well known until the Land-Lease Act during F.D.R.’s administration, when the world requested help – and help we did: Great Britain, France… but also China and Russia gleaned significant aid from US. John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” metaphor, which originally referred to us as a group of the brave chosen to be “tested” under the watchful eye of the rest of humanity, acquired a new meaning: we were a beacon to the rest of the world, a shining example worth admiration and imitation, whose purpose it was to go abroad spreading democracy.
America’s charitable effort in helping other nations has since been looked down upon as both a naïve effort based on misunderstanding of local conditions, and a self-serving desire to appropriate and expand – an indirect result or repercussion of the “closing” of our frontier. No doubt, Frederick Jackson Turner had had a similar phenomenon in mind in 1893. It is contrary to our naval-military experience (Mahan) and also to what the Father of our Country had warned us against: entangling alliances. Our efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… have been doomed to failure. The only legacy we take away is that of blame. In Europe, they say we go everywhere “for oil.” In China and Russia, they see us as “land grabbing” and “greedy,” no matter what we do.
We do not help other nations because it would make us stronger militarily nor do we go around the world “nation-building” with an eye on oil wells. We do it because we are good-natured people with strong Judeo-Christian values, morally stable and sturdy. What makes us strong is not what we have but who we are, how we got to be where we are. Trump speaks our minds when he says: “So what if Russia does the job for us?” We are tired of world’s ingratitude for our fallen heroes, for our efforts and energy expanding in teaching others how to be better.
The Swedes gave Obama Nobel Peace Prize. They gave one to Wilson too. So we go abroad to help the world and our Commander-in-Chief gets a medal from a committee of socialist fogies totally abstracted from reality… I grew up looking up to the United States, the Land of the American Dream, thinking: it is a universal dream, alive everywhere… for it has always been the engine in my chest, spurring me on. Today, many people do not see the forest for the trees. The American Dream is a very definite pragmatic road out of serfdom, the untrodden path of a maverick who cannot be uprooted from reality.
F.D.R. found it virtually impossible to persuade the citizens of the United States, who had barely recovered from the Great Depression, to support more than covert aid and intervention – until Pearl Harbor. Just like on 9/11/2001, it took a massive attack on the mainland to mobilize the American interventionist psyche. War is always in part a matter of revenge. The other part is conquest. Trump is powerful because we know if another Bay of Pigs came, he would not blink first, and if there was another 9/11, he would not hesitate to fire the missiles of revenge at the enemy.
Since F.D.R., we went to Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan… all either hell-holes of nationalism or tribal primitivism. We could not understand their habits, customs, culture, we only deemed it not compliant with ours. Modern push for diversity is accompanied by the supranationalist push for “equality.” What President Obama does not understand is that you cannot have your cake and eat it too: you cannot dictate supranationalism and Wilson-like world order on the one hand while staying apart, perhaps aloof, fully “non-interventionist” on the other. What is more, just like in our internal politics – when Congress is silent on a change in law requested by the President – silence speaks volumes in foreign policy. The aged motto of Von Clausewitz that “war is continuation of politics by other means” should be borne in mind when politicians cannot agree on a plan of action.