A quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War, and eleven years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, it has become commonplace to say that we Americans have no consensus on foreign policy. Across the political spectrum, left or right, most Americans still cling to whatever assumptions they held during our long journey through the cold war. Having inhaled the sweet narcotic of a false triumphalism, Washington’s foreign-policy elite talk as if America’s “soft power” can prevail in nearly every instance. And where it cannot–as in Colombia’s narco-civil war or against the specter of “international terrorism” in Afghanistan or Sudan–Republicans and Democrats alike sanction cruise-missile diplomacy or outright military interventionism reminiscent of Vietnam. Naturally, such behavior reinforces the anti-interventionist instincts of citizens on the liberal-left. But here–as in many aspects of foreign policy–I believe the American left has failed, perhaps understandably, to face up to a new set of post-cold war imponderables. It has also failed to take advantage of this post-cold war period to put forth truly fresh ideas on matters ranging from nuclear weapons to the environment.
It is one thing to be against unilateralism and against nonhumanitarian interventionism–but it is quite another thing to be against humanitarian interventionism. To put it bluntly, the lessons we learned from Washington’s bloody-minded intervention in Vietnam have little relevance in dealing with ethnic cleansing or oppression in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, East Timor and Kosovo. And though the victims of these internal wars cry out for our help–and the aggressors are invariably thuggish regimes–the American left remains divided on how to respond.
This is understandable precisely because the duration and intensity of the cold war make it difficult to remember what might have been. Sadly, in our determination to oppose nuclear brinkmanship and other idiocies that marked Washington’s foreign policy for forty-four years (1945-89), we have forgotten our basic radical principles and the common-sensical path not taken at the end of World War II. Most Americans have no memory of the designs Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers had for postwar American foreign policy. Human rights, self-determination and an end to European colonization in the developing world, nuclear disarmament, international law, the World Court, the United Nations–these were all ideas of the progressive left. Even the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were initially conceived as vehicles for internationalizing the New Deal.
And then in the spring of 1945, Harry Truman became the accidental President. A narrow-minded man–a product of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City–Truman purged Washington of New Deal visionaries. An insecure liberal, Truman felt compelled to protect his right flank by authorizing internal security review boards. The subsequent witch hunt that we call McCarthyism was very much a bipartisan affair, designed to suppress dissent against the growing consensus of cold war liberalism. We can blame Truman and his supporters in the foreign-policy establishment for a host of missed opportunities during the cold war. They slammed the door on nuclear disarmament by deciding to make nuclear weapons the centerpiece of the nation’s defense. They militarized the cold war by deciding to divide Germany and rearm West Germany within a NATO alliance, a policy that prolonged the cold war at great cost to life and treasure. By closing the door to trade and engagement, by hardening the lines of cold war confrontation, they postponed for years the very real potential for liberalization within the Soviet Union after Stalin.
Elsewhere, Truman reversed Roosevelt’s support for decolonization of French, British and other European outposts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Instead, Washington spent billions of dollars propping up any regime of corrupt mandarins willing to mouth the slogans of anti-Communism. In short, the cold war legacy begun by Truman was a democratic disaster. Nor were these policies inevitable. There was a choice. In 1945, at the beginning of the cold war, our leaders led us astray. We need to think of the cold war as an aberration, a wrong turn. As such, we need to go back to where we were in 1945–before we took the road to a permanent war economy, a national security state and a foreign policy based on unilateralism and cowboy triumphalism.