A very American foreign policy

Posted: Feb 16, 2004 12:00 AM

The Bush administration has created a radical break in American foreign policy, embracing a strategy of pre-emption and unilateralism that is unprecedented in the nation's history and alien to its traditions. So goes the typical critique, which can be heard in any John Kerry stump speech. But it's just not so.

This is the message of an important new book by the pre-eminent Yale Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. In "Surprise, Security, and the American Experience," he links Sept. 11 to another assault on the nation's capital, the British attack on Washington on Aug. 24, 1814, which left the White House in flames. In response, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams devised a national-security policy that depended on tools, Gaddis writes, that "sound surprisingly relevant in the aftermath of Sept. 11: They were preemption, unilateralism and hegemony."

Prior to the British raid in the War of 1812, America had tended toward a "duck and cover" foreign policy. Thomas Jefferson responded to the threat to American maritime rights during the Napoleonic Wars by refusing to trade. (Problem solved!) August 1814 exposed the folly of trying to hide, and brought out another American tendency. As Gaddis puts it, "Americans have generally responded to threats -- and particularly to surprise attacks -- by taking the offensive, by becoming more conspicuous, by confronting, neutralizing and, if possible, overwhelming the sources of danger rather than fleeing from them."

Centuries before anyone heard of Paul Wolfowitz, Adams realized the danger of what we now call "rogue states" on the perimeter of the United States. They could provide sanctuary to bandits, or a foothold for hostile European powers. So they couldn't be tolerated. As Adams demanded of the Spanish when they controlled Florida, they could either properly police it or "cede to the United States a province ... which is in fact a derelict, open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage, of the United States." Echoes of President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein.

This kind of pre-emption defined American policy straight into the 20th century. James K. Polk annexed Texas and California, and William McKinley took the Philippines to forestall any possibility that a European power might take them. "Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson," Gaddis writes, "would use similar arguments to justify a succession of pre-emptive interventions in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua and ultimately Mexico."

The United States was resolutely unilateralist, not relying on the good will of other parties to guarantee its safety. "The unilateralist 'turn' in post-Cold War American foreign policy," according to Gaddis, "reflects a return to an old position, not the emergence of a new one." And even in the 19th-century United States, statesmen imagined an American empire, dominant in the North American continent. "Despite the difference between a continental and a global scale," Gaddis writes, "the American commitment to maintaining a preponderance of power -- as distinct from a balance of power -- was much the same."

Now, Gaddis isn't ready to take a job on Bush's National Security Council. He explains how Franklin D. Roosevelt did not rely on preemption or unilateralism and did not openly seek American hegemony, instead shrewdly relying on the consent of other international actors to create it. Gaddis suggests Bush can use some of FDR's soft touch, but he is under no illusion -- as many Bush critics are -- that 9/11 can be minimized, or that we can return to the folly of the 1990s.

Then we assumed that the forces of democracy and capitalism were inevitably making the world more benign. Gaddis places "the Clinton team closer to the examples of Harding and Coolidge than to those of Roosevelt and Truman, for those presidents of the 1920s had also allowed an illusion of safety to produce a laissez-faire foreign and national security policy." Sept. 11 punctured the illusion. It taught us a lesson -- about the dangers of the world and the need to defend ourselves aggressively -- that we as a nation had already known, as far back as 1814.