How the United States Sold Its Soul to Win the Cold War, and Now Cannot Develop a Coherent Post-Cold War Foreign Policy

By Hoff, Joan | International Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

How the United States Sold Its Soul to Win the Cold War, and Now Cannot Develop a Coherent Post-Cold War Foreign Policy


Hoff, Joan, International Journal


Distinguished Research Professor of History at Montana State University. This is a slightly amended version of an address delivered to women historians at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), Toronto, June 2000.

AT THE END OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the United States had an opportunity to take stock and shoulder responsibility not just for the future but also for some of the less savoury aspects of the last fifty years of American foreign policy. Unfortunately, this honest and systematic re-evaluation has yet to take place - in part because American diplomacy for most of the last century was characterized by a mercurial assortment of unilateral and collective actions that I first described in the 1970s as 'independent internationalism.'

Independent internationalism does not, however, refer to the ideology that imbued United States diplomacy by 1900, but rather to the modus operandi of the country's foreign affairs. Most simply, it means that when the United States cannot, or does not want to, solve a particular diplomatic problem through unilateral action, it seeks co-operative methods to pursue its goals. In these short-lived and usually opportunistic times of co-operation, the shibboleths of self-determination or self-government, wrapped in the rhetoric of democracy, prevail in American foreign policy discourse. But the country's first inclination for most of the last century was to act unilaterally whenever possible and to co-operate with other nations only when absolutely necessary.(1)

With the cold war over, it should be possible for American foreign affairs experts and scholars to reassess traditional strategies for controlling nation-state anarchy between (and sometimes inside the poorest) nation-states and to devise a less erratic and arbitrary way of implementing them, other than independent internationalism, to serve the best interests of the United States and the world. (Of course, to do so realistically, they must now factor in the 'irreversible effects' of modern information technology, not only on capitalism but also on the nation-state system.)

The trend towards independent internationalism can be seen as early as 1933 when a presidential commission reported to Herbert Hoover that the postwar diplomacy of the United States in the 1920s had alternated 'between isolation and independence, between sharply marked economic nationalism and notable international initiatives in cooperation moving in a highly unstable zigzag course.'(2) The United States continued to follow this 'highly unstable zigzag course' in the 1930s, again after the Second World War when its power was unprecedented, and yet again in the post-cold war era. The latest, largest, and nominally co-operative effort took place during the 1990-1 GulfWar. Its most recent unilateral action, taken much to the consternation of Russia and the European allies of the United States, was the decision to construct an anti-missile defence system in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. (An earlier unilateral action that had disconcerted the same countries was the insistence of the administration of President Bill Clinton on expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.) The foreign policy of George Bush junior in the first six months of his presidency has been almost completely along unilateral lines.

Prior to 1933, the stage had been set for the independent internationalist course that the United States would follow for most of the twentieth century. By the time of the 'splendid little' Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war (1900), the United States not only acquired an overseas empire and tried to assert itself unilaterally into the affairs of the world for economic gain with 'dollar diplomacy' under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, but also had developed a foreign policy ideology - all the while refusing to use the word ideology because of its leftist taint. …

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