World saviours goof off at home

Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World - Joe Alsop's Cold War - Self-Rule - America's Mission
June 9, 1995

Must America Save the World?" - the celebrated columnist Joe Alsop interrogated his readers in February 1948. Alsop was certain that America should try: Tony Smith endeavours to persuade us that it has, in large measure, succeeded. At the outset of Smith's book, America's Mission, his readers are invited to picture a world without America: "If the United States had never existed, what would be the status in world affairs of democracy today? . . . The answer is self-evident: we can have no confidence that, without the United States, democracy would have survived."

Promoting democracy globally - liberal democratic internationalism, as Smith terms it - has been America's 20th-century mission, whereby "saving the world" has been synonymous with effecting a conversion to democracy. Smith's roll-call of the redeemed is lengthy: the states of eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Nicaragua (where democracy was "restored" with Violetta Chamorro's electoral victory); while democracy's onward march is also apparent in Latin America generally and in diverse parts of Asia, such as Taiwan and South Korea.

Summarised thus, Smith's thesis might appear as little more than an exercise in post-cold war, fin-de-si-cle self-congratulation. Such a precis of course does an injustice to Smith's argument, which is more nuanced than this caricature suggests. He explicitly rejects Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" claims, acknowledging that democracy is fragile in many parts of the world, and the process potentially reversible.

Its fragility is nowhere more apparent than in Russia and the former Soviet republics, the de-communisation (for it can scarcely be called democratisation) of which was the high watermark of liberal democratic internationalism, putting a decisive full stop to the Cold War. But while Smith is wont to notch up such "victories", attributing a large portion of the credit to America's democratising efforts (particularly in post-war Germany and Japan), he admits that one cannot quantify America's role in the promotion of democracy overseas: other agents, both personal and impersonal, have had their role to perform. Yet, despite these caveats, there is something altogether too smooth about Smith's narrative.

Describing the Alsop brothers' fondness for telling an arresting tale, their engaging biographer, Edwin Yoder, cautions us that: "If the story required some dramatic simplification, if it demanded some rounding of the rough edges of complex events for the sake of an intelligible and exciting narrative, the challenge was rarely refused". (No wonder then that Joe should brag that he "invented" the Domino Theory, or that he should have warned so shrilly of a Missile Gap during J.F.K.'s election campaign.) So too, it seems, with Smith. All manner of activities are subsumed under the rubric of America's mission. Unlike Alsop though, who assumed that his gloomy jeremiads brooked no disagreement, Smith, like the good liberal he no doubt is (and he informs us that virtually all Americans are liberal democrats), concedes that his thesis may be challenged. On several occasions, in an effort to disarm his critics, he enumerates possible objections, and proceeds to demolish them - sometimes quite plausibly.

One therefore has to step beyond Smith's parameters of debate in order to challenge his thesis. He appears too willing to accept presidential rhetoric at face value - to believe that fine words expressing noble internationalist sentiment are a sufficient account of the motivations of American foreign policy. Consequently, down whatever blind alleys the search to spread democracy abroad may have led, and however undemocratic the means which may been employed in its pursuit, the reader is assured that America always had the best intentions. These Smith does not doubt. Spreading democracy has been a "Good Thing" in its own right, for only liberal democracy can accommodate the 20th-century's driving force - nationalism - in the shape of mass-based participatory states. But more than this, the effort to spread democracy, however moralistic and idealistic the rhetoric in which it has at times been clothed, has also been hard-headed: a point Smith reiterates frequently, for rescuing Wilsonianism from its Realist detractors is at the core of his project. Being surrounded by democratic states has been, and remains, vital to America's national security and the stability of the international system. It is also a sine qua non of America's financial well-being, for a concomitant of democratisation has been a globalisation of the free market. This search for markets and raw materials has, I would suggest, driven policy to a far greater degree than Smith allows, and, together with cold war geostrategic considerations, helps to explain the selectivity with which America has intervened overseas, and why it has often propped up particularly undemocratic regimes in the process.

To the agnostic, there are, then, many troubling aspects of America's Mission. Should we believe that America's intentions have always been unimpeachable? Should we, indeed, accept that policy-makers' declamations about their policies are the most appropriate level of analysis for a study of America's role in 20th-century world affairs? Given that terrible wrongs have been committed in the name of containment, anti-communism, and the support of democracy, should we be so keen to laud the mission? Should we take on trust that an international system composed of liberal democracies is inherently more peaceable than any other kind: that democracies do not wage war on one another? (Might not this be another plausible but misleading nostrum?) Has liberal democratic internationalism in fact been the leitmotif of American foreign policy?

In order to make his argument, Smith leaves largely untouched the presidencies of Johnson, Nixon and Ford. The first falls from Smith's purview because Johnson's search to spread democracy abroad failed so ignominiously (though that he was similarly possessed of the messianic spirit is a view also espoused in Warren Cohen and Nancy Tucker's comprehensive collection of new reflections on Johnson's foreign policy).

Nixon's policy, on the other hand, made no claims to liberal democratic internationalism: he and Kissinger would deal with strategically significant regimes of whatever ideological hue, while leaving insignificant ones, especially in Africa, to their own devices. While Smith lauds Woodrow Wilson for setting in motion the mission, he sees subsequent presidents, with the exceptions of those mentioned above, as falling into either the strictly Wilsonian tradition or its Rooseveltian subsect. The former have sought to spread democracy globally, impervious to the local resistance it might meet; while the latter have been more selective in their approach, recognising that democracy might not take root wherever America wishes to plant its seed. This categorisation makes for some (on the surface) surprising results: George Bush and Bill Clinton are firm Rooseveltians, while Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan are cut from Wilsonian cloth. Smith goes so far as to claim that "no administration since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson has been so committed to the tenets of liberal democratic internationalism as that of Ronald Reagan".

That Reagan's foreign policy should be represented as a "Good Thing" is particularly unexpected. It is no surprise that Smith defends Reagan's support of the Contras in Nicaragua, and his assistance to "counter-insurgencies" in El Salvador and Guatemala; nor that he has very little to say about the undemocratic channels through which this support was tendered. (Where in the Iran-Contra affair is any reminder of Wilson's insistence that diplomacy should consist of open covenants openly arrived at?) Smith is also prepared to see Reagan's policy of constructive engagement with South Africa as helping to move Pretoria towards liberalisation. However, he does not touch on aspects of Reagan's presidency which fall well short of the Wilsonian. For example, although Smith avows that supporting democracy was the president's principal goal, in Reagan's first term, the fight against international terrorism formed a central plank of his foreign policy. This spawned the Shultz doctrine which would culminate in the bombing of Libya - an act demonstrating scant respect for international law, for all its framing in terms of "self-defence".

More seriously, though, Smith seems oblivious of recent scholarship which has revealed precisely how dangerous Reagan's presidency was. Reagan's resolute condemnations of the "evil empire", his unguarded talk of winning a nuclear war, and championing of an invigorated arms race, far from chastening the Soviets - encouraging economic, and hence political, restructuring - brought the world to the brink of calamity. Oleg Gordievsky and Christopher Andrew, among others, have shown that in November 1983, the Soviets believed that America was actually on the brink of launching a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. As historians of the cold war are now coming to realise, America's supposedly most Wilsonian president could have been America's last president, had the Soviets responded with a pre-emptive strike of their own. If this episode shows the dangers of a state taking another's rhetoric too literally, it should perhaps also act as a warning to the historian and political scientist of doing the same.

While Smith accepts that the story of America's mission is not without its ironies, one paradox which escapes him is elegantly made in Robert Wiebe's Self Rule: that since the period from the 1890s to the 1920s (in short since Wilson's day), American democracy has been in decline. Fewer and fewer Americans participate in their own government, and those with the least say are those with the most need of a politics of distribution which a vibrant democracy would ensure.

That American democracy is ailing is scarcely in itself a novel diagnosis: the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma emphasised democracy's parlous state, revealing the extent to which substantial numbers of American citizens feel sufficiently alienated from their central government to take up arms against its agencies. Not only are they resentful of the latter, they are also (and one wonders what Wilson would have made of this) fearful of a United Nations plot to rule America and the world. While the militias' interpretation of liberal internationalism as "Luciferian globalism" is extreme, it does raise the question of how deeply the American people - as opposed to their presidents - are committed to the "mission". The present crisis in American democracy should ensure that Wiebe's stimulating cultural history of self-rule receives an attentive readership.

Wiebe's conclusions point in a very different direction - his tone being altogether more pessimistic - than Smith's. Whereas Smith's is essentially a Whiggish history of the onward march of democracy across the globe, Wiebe's vision is of restoring American democracy to its 19th-century radicalism and vigour, when individuals truly participated in their own government. Unlike many who have diagnosed the ills of American democracy, Wiebe does not regard individualism as its root cause. Rather, he insists that we return to the years from 1890 to 1920 the better to understand how the "two great constraints on modern democracy - centralisation and hierarchy" - grew up. It is the steady accretion of power to America's centralised institutions of government, he argues, which has weakened democracy at its grassroots. Wiebe, for one, would not have been taken aback by recent events in Oklahoma. In extreme form, the bombing illustrated ordinary citizens' disenchantment with what he calls "national-class" politicians, a disenchantment which has been mounting throughout the 20th century.

Wiebe calls for a local "guerrilla politics", in which citizens "politicise their lifeways", activating their political rights wherever they go. His dissection of the American body politic reminds us that democracy is not simply a matter of holding elections, of having notionally democratic processes.

Proponents of the "mission" abroad have often, consciously or otherwise, ignored this point - preferring to see democratisation as simply a matter of organising elections, without altering any fundamental socio-economic structures which might militate against a meaningful democracy. As for any foreign proselytisation, Wiebe cautions: "We must not expect the national government to promote abroad what it has not accepted at home: a vigorous electoral democracy. Although the opposition of the United States to unusually repressive governments has a better chance of success, chasing the rainbow of security - ours or other people's - has a dangerously inflating, coercing momentum to it . . . . It is arguable, the democrat concludes, that a drastic reduction in the use of the world's resources, and an equivalent scaling back of the power to command them, would be America's greatest contribution to universal human rights". Before America saves the world, Wiebe suggests, it must save itself.

Susan Carruthers is a lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Lyndon Johnson Confronts the World: American Foreign Policy 1963-1968

Editor - Warren I. Cohen and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker
ISBN - 0 521 41428 8 and 0 521 42479 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 342

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments