Rethinking the Moral Agenda within American Foreign Policy: Lessons from Niebuhr, Huntington, and the Japanese Experience

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Introduction: Dissonance and American Foreign Policy

When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, the Japanese people suffered a cultural shock that was roughly the equivalent of the shock that the American people suffered on 9/11. (1) Of course, there are dramatic and significant differences. The events of 9/11 were much more violent, more sudden, and certainly more tragic. Nevertheless, both events signaled a profound change in the sociopolitical, economic, and philosophical environment of each nation. In each case, from the perspective of those who lived through the events, the entire global scene was thrown out of balance, and they were faced with a landscape that was unfamiliar and threatening. The noted political theorist, Thomas Barnett, has identified this experience with a single phrase. He calls it a system perturbation, that is, an event that, in an instant, destroys the old paradigm and replaces it with one that embodies a newer and more accurate representation of global reality. (2)

One of the key difficulties with any new global paradigm is that it appears to make no sense. Unlike the clear-cut rule set that was evident before the event (in the case of the Japanese people that would have been the feudal reign of the Tokugawa regime and for the Americans it was the paradigm of the Cold War), the New World Order seems to consist of situations and events that are as frightening and confusing as they are strange and unpredictable. For the Japanese people it meant facing foreign invaders with technology, financial resources, and military power that far outstripped anything they had ever witnessed before. In the case of the Americans, it meant facing a world filled with shadowy groups of violent terrorists, old allies who suddenly appeared as enemies, a foreign policy dedicated to preventative war rather than diplomacy, and an uneasy sense that things were spiraling out of control. The goal of this paper is to invite debate on how to reformulate American foreign policy and return it to a coherent and productive path that will support its allies, revitalize its military, and reassure its own citizenry.

A Statement of the Problem

The problem is easy to state: American foreign policy suffers from a sharp disconnect between rhetoric (what policy makers say they are doing) and action (what those policy makers and their agents actually do). This schizophrenic disconnect manifests itself in bizarre behavior that is remarkably inconsistent with American ideals. Thus, on the one hand, we have an American president arguing that the United States overthrew the government of Iraq to rid that nation of a repressive regime that terrorized its own citizens, while, on the other hand, we witness alleged incidents of brutality and cruelty on the part of the American forces sworn to protect those same citizens. How did this disconnect emerge? The root of the problem can be found in the history of American foreign policy. Since the end of the First World War, the strategy of the United States in global affairs has undergone several leaps. Nevertheless, for the last 100 years, beginning with the international vision of Woodrow Wilson and culminating in the present neoconservative agenda, the grand strategy of American foreign policy has been grounded in a single constant: the American belief in universal moral values that apply to all people at all times under all circumstances. (3) These universal values include (1) a belief that each individual has innate worth; (2) a dedication to the idea that human beings must be free to pursue their destinies; (3) a contention that the best way to preserve those rights is through a democratic process, and (4) a conviction that those who have benefited from the democratic process have a duty to see that other people have the opportunity to enjoy that process as well. To express this problem another way, for 100 years American foreign policy has been guided not by common sense or by national self-interest, but by morality. …