Toward a Global Society of States

By Lind, Michael | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Toward a Global Society of States


Lind, Michael, The Wilson Quarterly


Here is an instructive and entertaining exercise for students of American foreign policy. Match the quotation to the appropriate American statesman: Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, or Woodrow Wilson.

The first quotation is this: "Our aim should be from time to time to take such steps as may be possible toward creating something like an organization of the civilized nations, because as the world becomes more highly organized the need for navies and armies will diminish." Woodrow Wilson, you might think, the naive idealist who dreamed that the League of Nations would put an end to war. But no. The words belong rather to President Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1905 State of the Union address.

Perhaps you'll have better luck with the second example: "Unhappily for the other three [parts of the world], Europe, by her arms and by her negotiations, by force and by fraud, has in different degrees extended her dominion over them all. Africa, Asia and America have successively felt her domination. The superiority she has long maintained has tempted her to plume herself as the mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit. Men...have in direct terms attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority....Facts have too long supported these arrogant pretensions of the European." Thomas Jefferson, surely, denouncing European imperialism and racism. No again: Alexander Hamilton, the quintessential realist, in The Federalist 11.

Here, in fact, is Jefferson, sounding like the "realist" Hamilton in a letter of 1814: "Surely none of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia, and lay thus at his feet the whole of Europe. This done, England would be but a breakfast....It cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy." And here, sounding like his bellicose critic Roosevelt, is Wilson in 1919 describing what it would take for the United States to be an independent great power if the League of Nations did not secure world peace: "We must be physically ready for anything to come. We must have a great standing army. We must see to it that every man in America is trained to arms. We must see to it that there are munitions and guns enough for an army that means a mobilized nation."

As the quotation game suggests, it's a mistake to divide the architects of American foreign policy into "realists" and "idealists." Realpolitik of the Continental kind, with its contempt for international law and its elevation of the pursuit of national self-interest by brute force, has had little influence in the United States. (It's not surprising that one of the few American proponents of this school, Henry Kissinger, is a German emigre.) American realists such as Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge had a healthy respect for the role of military power in foreign affairs, but they also believed in international cooperation--among "civilized" nations, if not among all countries. America's leading "idealists," for their part, have been willing to use force, particularly when the interests of the United States and the international community have converged. Jefferson waged war on the Barbary pirates, who threatened American shipping and Mediterranean commerce in general. Wilson ruined his presi dency and his health in his campaign to persuade the Senate to ratify U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the purpose of which was not to eliminate the role of power in world politics but to replace the "balance of power" with a "community of power."

If the American tradition of foreign policy, then, is neither militaristic realpolitik nor ineffectual pacifism, how should it be described? The mainstream American philosophy of foreign policy, from the 18th century to the 21st, belongs to a broad school of thought that scholars call the "Grotian tradition," after Hugo Grotius, a 17th-century Dutch theorist of international law. …

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