Center for American Progress

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy

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George W. Bush had reason to be pleased as he peered down at Baghdad from the window of Air Force One in early June 2003. He had just completed a successful visit to Europe and the Middle East. The trip began in Warsaw, where he had the opportunity to personally thank Poland for being one of just two European countries to contribute troops to the Iraq War effort. He then traveled to Russia to celebrate the three hundredth birthday of St. Petersburg and to sign the papers formally ratifying a treaty committing Moscow and Washington to slash their nuclear arsenals. He flew on to Évian, a city in the French Alps, to attend a summit meeting of the heads of the world’s major economies. He next stopped in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for a meeting with moderate Arab leaders, before heading to Aqaba, Jordan, on the shore of the Red Sea to discuss the road map for peace with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers. He made his final stop in Doha, Qatar, where troops at U.S. Central Command greeted him with thunderous applause. Now Bush looked down on the city that American troops had seized only weeks before. As he pointed out landmarks below to his advisers, the pilot dipped Air Force One’s wings in a gesture of triumph.

Bush’s seven-day, six-nation trip was in many ways a victory lap to celebrate America’s win in the Iraq War—a war that many of the leaders Bush met on his trip had opposed. But in a larger sense he and his advisers saw it as a vindication of his leadership. The man from Midland had been mocked throughout the 2000 presidential campaign as a know-nothing. He had been denounced early in his presidency for turning his back on time-tested diplomatic practices and ignoring the advice of America’s friends and allies. Yet here he was traveling through Europe and the Middle East, not as a penitent making amends but as a leader commanding respect.

As Air Force One flew over Iraq, Bush could say that he had become an extraordinarily effective foreign policy president. He had dominated the American political scene like few others. He had been the unquestioned master of his own administration. He had gained the confidence of the American people and persuaded them to follow his lead. He had demonstrated the courage of his convictions on a host of issues—abandoning cold-war treaties, fighting terrorism, overthrowing Saddam Hussein. He had spent rather than hoarded his considerable political capital, consistently confounding his critics with the audacity of his policy initiatives. He had been motivated by a determination to succeed, not paralyzed by a fear to fail. And while he had steadfastly pursued his goals in the face of sharp criticism, he had acted pragmatically when circumstances warranted.

In the process, Bush had set in motion a revolution in American foreign policy. It was not a revolution in America’s goals abroad, but rather in how to achieve them. In his first thirty months in office, he discarded or redefined many of the key principles governing the way the United States should act overseas. He relied on the unilateral exercise of American power rather than on international law and institutions to get his way. He championed a proactive doctrine of preemption and deemphasized the reactive strategies of deterrence and containment. He promoted forceful interdiction, preemptive strikes, and missile defenses as means to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and he downplayed America’s traditional support for treaty-based nonproliferation regimes. He preferred regime change to direct negotiations with countries and leaders that he loathed. He depended on ad hoc coalitions of the willing to gain support abroad and ignored permanent alliances. He retreated from America’s decades-long policy of backing European integration and instead exploited Europe’s internal divisions. And he tried to unite the great powers in the common cause of fighting terrorism and rejected a policy that sought to balance one power against another. By rewriting the rules of America’s engagement in the world, the man who had been dismissed throughout his political career as a lightweight left an indelible mark on politics at home and abroad.

Nevertheless, good beginnings do not always come to good endings. Even as Bush peered out the window of Air Force One to look at Baghdad, there were troubling signs of things to come. American troops in Iraq found themselves embroiled in what had all the makings of guerrilla war. Anger had swelled overseas at what was seen as an arrogant and hypocritical America. Several close allies spoke openly about how to constrain America rather than how best to work with it. As the president’s plane flew home, Washington was beginning to confront a new question: Were the costs of the Bush revolution about to swamp the benefits?

The question of how the United States should engage the world is an old one in American history. The framers confronted the question only four years after ratifying the Constitution when England went to war with France. President George Washington ultimately opted for neutrality, disappointing partisans on both sides. The hero of Valley Forge calculated that the small and fragile experiment in republican government would likely be crushed if it joined a battle between the world’s two greatest powers.

America’s relationship with Europe remained an issue throughout Washington’s presidency. He discussed the topic at length in his magisterial address announcing his decision to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon. He encouraged his countrymen to pursue peace and commercial relations. “Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.” But he discouraged them from tying their political fate to the decisions of others. “It is our true policy,” Washington counseled, “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” His argument for keeping political ties to a minimum was simple: “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.”

Washington concluded his Farewell Address by noting, “I dare not hope [that my advice] will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish.” He should not have feared. His vision of an America that traded happily with Europe but otherwise stood apart from it became the cornerstone of the new nation’s foreign policy. John Quincy Adams eloquently summarized this sentiment and gave it an idealistic twist in an address he made before the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821. America applauds those who fight for liberty and independence, he argued, “but she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” America stuck to its own business not merely for pragmatic reasons, but because to do otherwise would repudiate its special moral claim. “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force,” Adams warned. “She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

However, even liberal, democratic spirits can be tempted by changed circumstances. When Adams spoke, the United States was an inconsequential agrarian country of twenty-three states, only one of which — Louisiana — was west of the Mississippi. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was an industrial colossus that spanned a continent. Its new status as a leading economic power brought with it growing demands from within to pursue imperial ambitions. Intellectuals used the reigning theory of the day, Social Darwinism, to advocate territorial expansion as a demonstration of American superiority and the key to national survival. Church groups saw American imperialism as a means to spread Christianity to “primitive” areas of the world. Commercial interests hoped to reap financial gain by winning access to new markets for American goods. Anti-imperialists such as Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain challenged these arguments for expansion with great passion, but they were fighting a losing battle. As William McKinley’s secretary of state John Hay put it, “No man, no party, can fight with any chance of success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity avails against the spirit of the age.”

The opportunity that imperialists had waited for came with the Spanish-American War. The windfall from that “splendid little war,” as its supporters took to calling it, was an empire that stretched from Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to the Philippines in the Pacific= With victory safely in hand, concerns that America would lose its soul if it went abroad quickly faded. Under Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which had been largely forgotten for seven decades after it was first issued, Washington assumed the role of policeman of the Western Hemisphere. The former Rough Rider denied that “the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Nonetheless, he insisted that the United States could not stand idly by while Latin American nations mismanaged their economies and political affairs. Latin American nations needed to “realize that the right of such independence can not be separated from the responsibility of making good use of it.” In the view of Roosevelt and his successors, they failed to do that. Between 1904 and 1934, the United States sent eight expeditionary forces to Latin America, took over customs collections twice, and conducted five military occupations. The Caribbean was soon nicknamed Lake Monroe.

With the Spanish-American War and the Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, internationalists for the first time triumphed over isolationists in the struggle to define the national interest. However, the imperialist cause would soon begin to struggle. Part of the problem was the cost of empire. America’s new subjects did not always take easily to Washington’s rule. In the Philippines, the United States found itself bloodily suppressing a rebellion. American occupations of several Caribbean countries failed to produce the stability that Roosevelt had promised. By then, the imperialists were confronted by another, more serious challenge. This one came not from isolationists, but from within the internationalist camp itself.

Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913 determined to concentrate on domestic concerns. Shortly before taking the oath of office, he told an old colleague: “It would be the irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs.” Yet fate had precisely that destiny for Wilson. His domestic policies are long forgotten; his foreign policy legacy is historic. Wilson’s importance rests not on his achievements — he ultimately failed to see his proposal for a new world order enacted — but on his vision of America’s role in the world. It was a vision that would dominate American politics after World War II.

Wilson shared with all his predecessors an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism. “It was as if in the Providence of God a continent had been kept unused and waiting for a peaceful people who loved liberty and the rights of men more than they loved anything else, to come and set up an unselfish commonwealth.” But whereas that claim had always been used to argue that America would lose its soul if it went abroad in search of monsters to destroy, Wilson turned it on its head. America would lose its soul if it did not go abroad. His liberal internationalism set forth a moral argument for broad American engagement in world affairs.

“We insist,” Wilson told Congress in 1916, “upon security in prosecuting our self-chosen lines of national development. We do more than that. We demand it also for others. We do not confine our enthusiasm for individual liberty and free national development to the incidents and movements of affairs which affect only ourselves. We feel it wherever there is a people that tries to walk in these difficult paths of independence and right.” Not surprisingly, when Wilson requested a declaration of war against Germany—thereby doing the unthinkable, plunging the United States into a European war—he did not argue that war was necessary because Germany endangered American interests. Rather, the United States must fight because “the world must be made safe for democracy.”

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