Untangling US Foreign Policy

By Gourevitch, Peter | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Untangling US Foreign Policy


Gourevitch, Peter, Harvard International Review


Woodrow Wilson versus Henry Cabot Lodge; Franklin Roosevelt versus the America Firsters; Bill Clinton versus Pat Buchanan--ask observers of international relations what foreign-policy views divided these pairs, and most will turn to the familiar dichotomy of "internationalism vs. isolationalism." This distinction remains one of the most powerful analytic touchstones of American foreign policy. Politicians, journalists, and intellectuals use it as an effective heuristic device--a compass for orienting debate about international relations. Nevertheless, this distinction is often used incorrectly. Entangling Relations by David Lake, professor at the University of California San Diego and co-editor of International Organization, provides a valuable remedy for this distortion as well as powerful analytic tools for thinking more generally about issues in international relations.

Lake argues that the critical divide lies not between isolationists and internationalists, but between two types of internationalists-unilateralists and multilateralists. Both think the United States needs to be engaged in the world but disagree on the issues of alliances and commitments to other countries. Suspicious of foreign entanglement, the unilateralists prefer to act alone because they fear entrapment from international institutions and alliances. Conversely, the multilateralists believe the United States can benefit substantially from international agreements and structures.

Unilateralists are often mistakenly labeled isolationists. In reality, unilateralists believe that all events in the world have consequences for American interests. The United States must have the capacity to project interest, influence, and--if necessary--force in the world. In contrast, isolationists reject the need for involvement, believing that the United States is not greatly affected by what happens overseas. Pat Buchanan, for example, has even questioned the touchstone of serious internationalism: the necessity to have taken sides in World War II. No serious internationalist would challenge that engagement; there was never any question about the necessity of US involvement with Pearl Harbor and Hitler.

Lake's book focuses on the interaction of three variables that influence foreign-policy choices: the benefits of cooperation, the costs of opportunism, and governance costs.

The benefits of cooperation, or "joint production economies," as Lake dubs them, lie in the utility of specialization, and therefore of sharing costs with other countries. Does technology allow, encourage, and require sharing of tasks, or are countries better off going it alone? Prior to World War I, it was difficult for America's enemies to project force across the oceans, and there was little to be gained by having forward American military positions overseas. Technology changed that; airplanes, submarines, and missiles brought threats into the US security space and gave the enemy the means to project power far way. It was imperative to move the defense perimeter of the United States outward and useful to share the tasks of defense with others. Defense now provides economies of scale and rewards to specialization. As a result, there are now powerful incentives to be internationalist.

But how exactly does a nation "share" defense with others? The United States must now engage other countries in its defense system--urge them to have troops, allow stationing of American forces on their territory, or permit overflight. How should this be done? The unilateralist proposes alliances: agreements with other countries that have meaning only so long as each country has a vital interest in compliance. Such an agreement can, however, be unilaterally ignored or renounced. Indeed the most unilateral do not even like alliances; they do not want these limits on US freedom of action. The nation retains total sovereign control. Consequently, the nation has no "costs of opportunism" and no "governance costs. …

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