Opinion

When nations collide | Rich Elfers' Politics in Focus

Henry Kissinger’s book, "Diplomacy," is a fascinating study of two different approaches to foreign policy in the West. These two competing worldviews have deeply affected and are still shaping the history of the modern world.

Kissinger begins by describing President Teddy Roosevelt’s brilliant balance of power approach to foreign affairs, and then he contrasts it with President Woodrow Wilson’s more idealistic moral diplomacy. Oddly, Wilson’s perspective has come todominate international affairs more than Teddy Roosevelt’s. Let’s examine these two opposing views to glean a deeper understanding of the world we live in.

Teddy Roosevelt is probably one of our best-educated presidents in his understanding of how nations interact. Being born into a wealthy New York family in the latter 19th century, he had an early opportunity to travel the world and meet the monarchs and leaders of Europe and Asia and America. He learned several languages; was a prodigious writer of books on many subjects, like botany, biology, history and politics; and his attitudes and actions are probably most responsible for the United States being the great world power it is today.

Roosevelt imbibed the early 20th century diplomatic culture of Europe and made it his own. The attitude at the time was based upon what has come to be known as balance of power.

The goal of balance of power is to keep any one European nation from dominating the other major powers. According to this worldview, nations act according to their own self-interest to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of other nations, forming and breaking alliances as events change.

“Its (balance of power) goal was not peace so much as stability and moderation” (P. 21).

Foreign policy morality and the standards of private morality are distinct in this view. Where an individual would be expected to be honest and concerned about the welfare of others, national morality under balance of power diplomacy is totally self-seeking: The world is a jungle and only the strong and cunning survive. The key goal of this worldview is gaining and using power to serve nationalistic goals.

Roosevelt strongly believed America should and would become the dominant nation in the world. To do so, we needed to grow militarily and expand our reach through conquest and diplomacy.

A second view came out of the brutality and destruction of World War I. Woodrow Wilson was the son of a Presbyterian pastor and a mother who was the daughter of a pastor. Wilson, being born in the South before the Civil War, saw the effects of modern warfare close up from a very young age. This experience had a deep effect upon the development of his worldview. Wilson was a Princeton University professor with a Ph.D. in history and political science who eventually became president of Princeton University, then governor of New Jersey and, finally, president of the United States in 1913.

Wilson’s foreign policy views deeply reflected his Christian faith. He called his foreign policy stance “moral diplomacy.” In contradiction to Teddy Roosevelt’s perspective and strong denunciations, Wilson’s view was that national foreign affairs and personal morality should be one and the same values (P. 46).

“Disdaining the balance of power, he insisted that America’s role was ‘not to prove…our selfishness, but our greatness’” (P. 47).

According to Wilson’s view, America should be a beacon – a light on the hill. The United States has an obligation to spread its core beliefs: equality, Christianity and democracy to the world. Wilson’s goal was to keep the peace through “collective security rather than alliances” (P. 30). In other words, nations, like individuals, should talk out their differences rather than become violent. That’s why Wilson advocated the creation of the League of Nations after World War I, a precursor to the United Nations.

Wilson’s more exalted views have become the standard of American foreign policy for every American president since, both Democrat and Republican. Unfortunately, this desire to balance power and principle has made America ambivalent in its foreign affairs.

We tend to vacillate between Teddy Roosevelt’s balance of power approach and Wilson’s moral diplomacy. It explains the protests of the Vietnam War and the criticism of George W. Bush with his policy of a preemptive strike against Saddam

Hussein. It also explains why America was horrified at the use of torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib.

Both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were great presidents. Both their views have prevailed in part, but paradoxically, it was the idealistic Wilson whose worldview dominates America and the world.

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