A Revision and Update of the 2005 Article; US Foreign Policy Since WWII: An Essay on the Corrective Qualities of Realism.

Author:Staten, Cliff
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

September 2016

Speaking to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs in 2007 then US Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama stated "America cannot meet the threats of this century alone but the world cannot meet them without America." In an article in Foreign Affairs the same year, he emphasized the need to exercise US foreign policy through alliances and rejected the unilateral, idealistic, and missionary approach of the George W. Bush administration. Obama promised to end the quixotic nation-building experiments and to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. He recognized that the United States was vastly overextended in the Middle East, that there was a mismatch between US resources and its objectives. He believed that America must reprioritize its foreign policy objectives and make distinctions between vital threats and lesser threats. As he assumed the powers of the presidency, US foreign policy shifted from idealism to realism.

This was not the first time that such a shift had occurred. Idealism and realism are rooted in the American national character. Idealism grows from the mythology of the "New World" and the idea of American exceptionalism. John Winthrop articulated that idealism in 1630, "... we shall be as a city on the hill. The eyes of all the people are on us." Often referred to as Wilsonian idealism in foreign policy, it leads America to believe that it should and can remake the world in its image. Realism or pragmatism involves a non-ideological approach to problem solving. If one method does not solve the problem, try another, and another until the problem is solved. It requires a focus on the facts of the situation and the application of a rational decision-making process. Its logic dictates that the resources and capabilities of America must be, at a minimum, great enough to achieve its stated objectives and solve its problems. This split personality of idealism and realism has historically manifested itself in the cycle of American foreign policy since WWII. (1)

Idealism is problematic in two ways. It causes America to lose sight of the realist principle that resources are always limited and that these resources, measured not only in terms of diplomatic, economic, and military power, but also political will and public support, must, at the least, be great enough to achieve its objectives. This logic was the insightful criticism of American containment strategy toward the Soviet Union by journalist Walter Lippman in 1947. (2) Lippman focused on the problem of the mismatch between the goals of containment policy and the resources required to achieve those goals. The idealist side of the American character also brings out a missionary instinct. This missionary instinct results in a failure to prioritize goals or to define them so broadly that there are never enough resources to achieve them. It causes America to become overextended.

When the Lippman gap, the mismatch between resources and goals, reaches a critical point, there is an eventual recognition of limited resources that either encourages, allows, or forces the realist American character to step forward. In other words, the corrective qualities of realism save America from the sins of its idealism. The noted Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis argued that the history of containment policy reflected the swing of a pendulum between periods when American resources did not match its ever-expanding goals and periods that required America to react to this problem by either reducing, redefining, or reprioritizing its goals to bring them in line with its limited resources. (3) This pendulum swing is illustrative of the shift between the idealist and realist sides of the national character of America. In the early years of the Cold War, foreign policy goals focused on containing communism in Europe. There was a recognition that resources were limited. Containment was focused upon western Europe where American military, economic, and political strengths were greatest including the implementation of the Marshall Plan in 1948 and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by 1949. This period represented a genuine pragmatism or realism in US foreign policy. American resources and prioritized goals were balanced. Yet, events during this time period laid the groundwork for the American idealist character to emerge. These included the Berlin Blockade, the fall of China to the communists, the development of the atomic bomb by the Soviet Union, and the red scare. It is important to note that the emergence of American idealism was predicated on the existence of an intense anti-communist value system. Communism was incompatible with the "city on the hill."

By the middle of 1950 National Security Document 68 called for a dramatic military build up to meet the growing communist threat, in particular, in East Asia. The invasion of South Korea by the communist North led President Truman, without Congressional approval, to mobilize and place troops on the Korean peninsula. By late 1950 US troops were moving into North Korea and by November 21 had reached the Yalu River and the Chinese border. Military aid was extended both to the French in Indochina and to the Philippine government that was facing an internal rebellion by the Huks. The Seventh Fleet was ordered to prevent any Chinese attacks on Taiwan. Defense spending nearly tripled that year. Containment was no longer limited to Western Europe. It now included East Asia. Thus, from 1950 until the election of Eisenhower, American foreign policy objectives greatly expanded and required a massive buildup of resources. This massive build-up of resources and political will would never be enough to achieve these ever expanding goals in East Asia.

China's entry into the Korean War on November 26, 1950 led to a retreat of US troops below the 38th parallel and resulted in a stalemated war. By February 1952 more than 50 percent of the American public believed that the war was a mistake. Eisenhower was elected with the promise to bring the war in Korea to a rapid and successful conclusion. By December 1952 he had come to the conclusion that the United States should not be engaged in a conventional war on the Asian mainland. He recognized the "limits of its [the Unites States] military and political power." (4) His Cabinet was made up primarily of former businessmen who were staunch fiscal conservatives and believed in balanced budgets. At the same time, the former General and now President understood the need to balance American resources with its foreign policy commitments. Eisenhower was a realist. He ushered in a pragmatic foreign policy by redefining and limiting the goals of containment. Understanding the costs of liberating North Korea, he negotiated a cease-fire agreement between the North and the South at the 38th parallel on July 27, 1953. He redirected support for the French efforts in Indochina and initially promised only economic aid to the Diem government in South Vietnam. He came to rely more upon the resources of other countries...

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