Or simply put, is our influence in the world growing or declining? Remaining the same or stagnating is all but impossible in a rapidly changing world with determined nations vying for foreign influence, if not downright hegemony. To understand the present with respect to foreign policy, it is illuminating to understand the past.
An assessment of the history and effectiveness of America’s foreign policy could involve countless volumes. Attempting to do so in an essay of little more than 2000 words is undoubtedly a fool’s errand, but here goes.
During the 232 years and the 46 presidents comprising the American experience, we have probably enjoyed about 60 years of outsized political influence on the world stage. Think about it. For most of the 19th Century, we eschewed, with a few exceptions, excessive involvement in foreign affairs. While we were not entirely absent abroad, we pretty much adhered to the Monroe Doctrine. This part of the world would be our sphere of influence. We’d leave Europe and Asia pretty much to European and Asian nations to sort out (with the Philippines, somewhat of an exception for a half-century following the Spanish-American War). Some could say our early foreign policy was, “you plunder there, and we’ll plunder here.”
During about a third of the 20th Century, America was essentially isolationist. However, we fought with distinction for about six months during the First World War at a cost of just over 53,000 American lives. Teddy Roosevelt and his volunteer Rough Riders assuaged TR’s adventurous ego during President McKinley’s Spanish-American War at the Battle of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It has been reported, no doubt apocryphally, that Teddy Roosevelt was heard to intone that “the bravest man I ever saw, followed me up San Juan Hill.” Of course, much earlier in our history, Thomas Jefferson had successfully extended American foreign policy on the Barbary Coast by clearing Muslim pirates from the Mediterranean Sea.
Every President has reigned over both foreign policy setbacks and successes. Still, periodic reversals, or triumphs for that matter, have limited overall effect on the general, total sweep of any given President’s foreign policy reputation. There are always reversals, such as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and, perhaps, what Biden will or won’t do concerning Chinese intensions with respect to Taiwan, or possible Russian incursions into Ukraine. However, history untimately judges a nation’s foreign policy based on whether a nation’s position or reputation in the world has improved or diminished during a given president’s entire time in office. Critics hyperventilating over this or that instance of an administration’s foreign policy going badly risks losing sight of the larger foreign policy picture. Biden’s overall foreign policy success or failure will crystalize soon enough. I found the Zoom summit conferences between Biden and Putin and Biden and Xi rather interesting because summit meetings between heads of state are generally convened with an agreed-upon agenda and some likelihood of a mutually desired outcome.
The statement that I think best illustrated how the world viewed America at the zenith of its foreign policy journey was simply, “The Yanks Are Coming!” Word throughout Nazi-occupied Europe that the Americans had landed at Normandy, and that the Yanks were coming elevated America in the eyes of the world community to the loftiest stature America has achieved in the republic’s history.
So, let’s first take stock of America’s foreign policy successes and failures over a wide span of time.
I believe the real watershed moment for America and its place on the world stage was the passage of the Lend-Lease Act in 1941, when, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership, America became the Arsenal of Democracy and the essential, indispensable western power confronting Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. From the Roosevelt years through the balance of the 20th Century, America was unquestionably the world’s indispensable nation.
We entered World War Two with World War One rifles, antiquated warplanes, and an overwhelmingly volunteer or conscripted military. By the end of the war, we were the world’s only nuclear power with, perhaps, the largest and best trained and equipped army, navy, and air force the world had ever known. We were, then, the world’s most admired and successful nation. Roosevelt enjoyed a well-earned international reputation, notwithstanding the woeful journey of an ocean liner named MS St Louis.
President Truman, following FDR’s death, ended the war in the Pacific with two atom bombs, one detonated over Hiroshima and the other over Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, 1945–weapons about which he knew nothing 90 days earlier. Truman then initiated the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Europe after the war. The Truman Doctrine stopped Russian advances into western Europe, and America stopped Russian-sponsored aggression by the North Koreans south of the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. Truman also defeated the Russian blockade of Berlin with the greatest airlift of food and other essential supplies the world had, or has, ever seen.
In one 24-hour period, April 15-16, 1949, America landed a military transport plane every 60 seconds, delivering nearly 13,000 tons of cargo equivalent to 22 trainloads with 50 railcars each. In all, we delivered 2,326,406 tons of food, coal, and other material to the people of West Berlin. The U.S. military even parachuted 23 tons of candy to keep up the morale of the West Berliners. It was among our finest defining moments. No U.S. president had ever risen to the occasion more than Harry Truman following his ascendancy to the Presidency during the waning days of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Truman’s accomplishments have properly placed him among our greatest presidents. That said, had Truman refused to support French colonialism in Indo-China, the agony of our involvement in Vietnam would have probably been avoided.
During the decade of the ’50s, President Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the end of the Korean War and an uncommonly peaceful decade after that. There is little to mar President Eisenhower’s well-deserved reputation. Still, there were reversals. Egypt’s Nasser played Eisenhower during the 1956 Suez crisis and then abruptly turned to the Soviet Union to secure his longer-term interests. And then there was the Bay of Pigs fiasco put in motion by the Eisenhower Administration and carried out shortly thereafter by President John Kennedy.
The early ’60s saw a young President John F Kennedy successfully face down the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis and initiate America’s race into space before an assassin’s bullet cut him down in Dallas on November 22, 1963. These spectacular foreign affairs successes overshadowed Kennedy’s disaster at the Bay of Pigs and his fateful decision to begin sending military “advisors” to Saigon in 1961.
The balance of the decade was overwhelmed by President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to prosecute the war in South Vietnam, which was concluded painfully by President Richard Nixon a decade later. Viet Nam has largely defined the Johnson presidency, notwithstanding LBJ’s bold steps to pass historic legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as legislation to establish Medicare and Head Start.
President Nixon’s foreign policy moment came during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria. Nixon pulled all stops out to make sure Israel emerged from the war with its holdings on the Sinai Peninsula intact and available as a bargaining chip in a process that ultimately led to Peace between Egypt and Israel. Nixon demonstrated adroit statesmanship when, unbeknownst to just about everyone in the world, he sent his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to Beijing to coax China into the 20th Century and the American and Western world’s economic orbit. Notwithstanding how that decision has played out since, it was a world-class diplomatic, strategic accomplishment. While Nixon’s Presidency will be defined primarily by Watergate, his foreign policy successes were historic.
President Gerald Ford’s ascendance, of course, accompanied Richard Nixon’s fall from power. Given the circumstances that elevated Ford to the Oval Office, he presided over a number of foreign affairs challenges with confidence and greater skill than is generally recognized. Détente with the Soviet Union was pursued and achieved during the Ford presidency. America’s final, and pictorially-chronicled, withdrawal from South Vietnam, including the final helicopter evacuations of thousands of Vietnamese nationals who had worked with the United States, will forever symbolize America’s departure from Saigon.
The significance of President Carter’s Camp David accords cannot be overstated. The years of Jimmy Carter’s stagflation, breathtaking interest rates, and crisis at the gas pump were, perhaps, offset by the Camp David accords he orchestrated between Israel and Egypt, which have held firm for nearly a half-century through the proverbial thick-and-thin of Mideast tensions. The accords broke the ice, enabling Israelis and Arabs to sit down together and plot a new path forward. The substantial thaw we are witnessing today between Israelis and their Arab neighbors began at Camp David. President Carter’s presidency was, of course, largely defined by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard storming our embassy in Tehran, and holding our diplomatic staff hostage through the balance of the Carter Presidency.
The Reagan Presidency certainly had its ups and downs. Still, it will, deservedly, be credited with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, for which Reagan deserves enormous credit. When Mikhail Gorbachev was asked in an open forum what, or who, was responsible for ending the cold war, he answered without hesitation, “Reagan at Reykjavik.” Russia simply could not outspend America in a future battle to fund each country’s defense capability. Reagan’s famous Berlin exhortation, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” will, deservedly, be remembered as one of the great and consequential moments in presidential oratory.
The Iran-Contra Affair, in which the Reagan Administration planned to use funds acquired through the covert sale of weapons to Iran to fund arms shipments to the Contras in Nicaragua, undoubtedly marred but did not significantly diminish the foreign affairs reputation of the Reagan Administration. Iran-Contra was an outrageous scheme hatched in the Reagan White House to circumvent American law. However, Reagan’s foreign policy accomplishments far overshadow Iran-Contra in burnishing Reagan’s foreign policy accomplishments.
President George Bush (41) continued the Reagan legacy of rapprochement with Gorbachev, and his skillful leadership during the 1991 Gulf War will, I believe, ultimately secure his place in history as a substantive President. His 1992 loss to Bill Clinton, who won with a scant 43% of the vote, could be chalked up to the spoiler campaign of Ross Perot, who claimed 19% of the popular vote but no electoral votes. I believe Perot’s constant hammering of Bush during the presidential campaign of 1992 made the difference by greatly inuring to Clinton’s benefit. Bush, largely because of his leadership in forming the large international coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, achieved the highest approval rating of any president at 90%. Still, economic issues and his “read my lips, no new taxes” kerfuffle quickly chased him from that lofty position down to an approval rating of under 30%.
The Clinton years ushered in a prosperous time for America with balanced budgets and impressive prosperity. Clinton’s early foreign affairs setbacks in Somalia, Rwanda, and Haiti were overshadowed by successes in the Baltics when he persuaded Russia to withdraw troops from Estonia and Latvia. Clinton went on to broker peace in Ireland and he successfully brought Israelis and Palestinians together to sign the Oslo accords at the White House in 1993. Clinton’s most enduring foreign policy accomplishment was the Dayton Accords which brought Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims to the negotiating table. In the final year of his Presidency, Clinton led a NATO coalition to end Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. Clinton’s success in Ireland and Bosnia and Kosovo have pretty much erased the setbacks that characterized his early White House years.
The George W. Bush years will forever be defined by 9/11, and the years America subsequently spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush years ushered in a period of declining influence abroad and economic trauma at home. His foreign policy legacy is simply an unnecessary war in Iraq and America’s 20-year response in Afghanistan to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida attack on the World Trade Center.
With virtually no prior experience to commend him to the Presidency of the United States, President Barack Obama rose to the occasion remarkably well. He was handed an economic catastrophe by President Bush (43) and then presided over a painfully slow recovery. President Obama blundered by drawing a red line in the proverbial sand during the Syrian civil war over Syria’s use of poison gas against its civilian population, and then did nothing when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad crossed that line. A foreign-affairs high-point of the Obama years was the tracking down and elimination of Osama bin Laden.
President Donald Trump enjoyed substantive foreign affairs accomplishments, including the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by steps to normalize relations between Israel and Sudan and Israel and Morocco. President Trump also moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, something other American presidents promised to do but never did. Under President Trump, another American nemesis, ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was also tracked down and killed, as was Iranian Revolutionary Guard Chief, Qasem Soleimani.
However, President Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the Kurds who did most of the ground fighting on our behalf against ISIS in Syria with a loss of about 11,000 Kurdish men and women was shameful. His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the imposition of a tariff war with China will substantially mar his foreign-affairs accomplishments. I applauded President Trump’s rejection of the nuclear accord with Iran, but the jury is still out on that decision given Iran’s unfettered return to nuclear enrichment, and Iran’s continued enhancement of its guided-missile and drone attack capability.
America’s reputation on the world stage reached its zenith during the years bracketed by victory over fascism during World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th Century. Thus far in the 21st Century the Administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have not further burnished America’s foreign policy reputation. Our star on the world stage seems to be fading, but, of course, the Century is still very young.
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I am so grateful for this weeks’s column because its a history lesson and I am sharing with my daughter .
Amazing history .
Excellent history lesson.
Great recount of history, sharing with our grandchildren. Love the much easier to read (for my old eyes) format.
As a history lover, I enjoyed reading your essay. But why did you stop at Trump? How about covering Biden’s first year in office. I presume you will cover tomorrow morning.
Brilliant and concise overview of history and a great reminder to me of the recent past. Thanks
A marvelous commentary of American history . Congratulations on a brilliant job!!
Having lived thru the history that you so brilliantly described above, truly makes it come alive (again) for me. It was an amazing time. Thank you for bringing it back for our attention.
Wonderful description of past eras.
Thank you for honest, stage setting through this unbiased Foreign Affairs history summation.