Mark Franke: What is U.S. Foreign Policy?


I learned something new the other day in a Wall Street Journal column: the term “cognitive-dissonance reduction,” a form of mental gymnastics used to fit inconvenient facts to the ideology.

I know what cognitive dissonance is, having run into the term in my undergraduate business school classes. Think of it as a propensity to always second-guess your opinions, a mortal sin in the left-wing catechism.

It turns into a vile application when applied to the left’s justification of Hamas’ inhuman brutality against Israeli civilians and the Gaza residents used as human shields. The justification? They’ve got it coming to them, to trivialize a juvenile school yard excuse when caught by the teacher. Only this isn’t grade school bullying; it is a crime against humanity and all that is decent. No matter.

These are Nietzschean anarchists taking his philosophy well beyond any limits he envisioned. Today’s country club anarchists — you know them: the privileged children attending super expensive Ivy League colleges at mom and dad’s expense — have looked into the abyss without heeding Nietzsche’s warning. In fact they welcome the returned stare coming from the unspeakable abyss dweller. It validates their perverted logic.

So what is America to do about it?

The question drives right into the fissure between two schools of thought in our foreign policy strategy, between the realists and the idealists, if I may simplify the positions. The realists look at international issues through practical and often short-term lenses. What is in America’s best interest today? What is the impact on our military commitments and our balance of trade? I exaggerate somewhat but the thinking focuses on what helps the United States and, dare I say it, what resonates with the voting base.

The idealist focus is on America’s role model status as a land of freedom and democracy. Our foreign policy should align itself with those nations that most resemble us and our ideals. Once more I exaggerate, but this approach can look naive to people who see threats at the border and unfair competition in the marketplace. And there is another voting base this appeals to.

Perhaps history can once again instruct us.

John Quincy Adams was quite successful as secretary of state during James Monroe’s presidency. The Monroe Doctrine was actually the Adams doctrine, but the boss always seems to put his name on a subordinate’s work.

A colleague at the Indiana Policy Review pointed me to a speech Adams gave in 1821. Adams provided the right mix of national self-interest and world moral leadership in this speech to the House of Representatives.

He stated that America’s heart will always be with those peoples searching for freedom and independence but cautioned against taking on these foreign causes as her own. America should speak out and lead by example, being what as Ronald Reagan, borrowing from both John Winthrop and Jesus Christ, called “a shining city on a hill.”

I found the most memorable phrase of the Adams speech to be his statement that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” The reason? This would change America’s ethos from liberty to force. Might does not make right in Adams’ thinking.

Where Adams can be faulted, perhaps unfairly, is that he could not conceive of a United States as the most powerful nation in the world. America was new, small and mostly friendless in the 1820s, so his focus was understandably to construct a foreign policy informed by weakness and by America’s fortunate isolation from direct European conflict. This worked well until World War I and subsequent recognition by the rest of the world that America was an economic and military powerhouse.

Not all will agree with me, but I think Ronald Reagan among 20th century presidents best understood how to balance our inherent love of isolationism with the expectation we must be the free world’s policeman. William Imboden’s book, “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink,” eloquently documents this. He didn’t go looking for a monster; the evil Soviet empire was right in his face.

Adams’ principles still stand today but must be applied in a different context from that of the post-Napoleonic world. Adams did not have to confront an empire whose dictator Nikita Khrushchev boasted, “We will bury you!” I doubt he could even conceive of a Hamas with a goal of exterminating a sovereign nation and its people.

What would John Quincy Adams do if he somehow awoke, Rip Van Winkel style, and found himself in Israel? Adams may insist that America stick to its shores and preach liberty, but he was too much the realist to do only that. The cognitive-dissonance reduction syndrome infecting the left wing today would not ensnare him. With an intellect like his, he would figure out a solution.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a John Quincy think-alike in today’s Washington, D.C.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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