The next and final Presidential debate is about foreign policy, or so the official statements claim. I fully expect it to feature cutting taxes and reforming health care anyway, but that’s really beside the point. There shall be jabs about the response to the Libya killings, at least one mention of taking out Osama, and possibly a minor brawl about pulling out of Afghanistan…at least, rhetorically speaking. So I felt that in order to prepare a bit for the fireworks it might be useful to look at how foreign policy has changed since…well, since this country declared independence. Here it goes…
Early on, United States international policy was governed by two fundamental precepts: all the land to the west actually belonged to them, but let’s not make the French and Spanish too angry, okay? Manifest Destiny was the rallying cry of the pioneers, leaving men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to make sure their “conquests” were actually legal. Of course, war was always possible when diplomacy failed, as evidenced by the incorrectly-named War of 1812 (which was also the only time Canada was directly mentioned in my high school textbook), but the US had no pretenses to world military dominance at this point.
The First World War marked the first time that the American military was a deciding factor in a large international conflict, and it was nevertheless an isolated incident. Both before and after the War, the States followed a policy of isolationism, content to make money off their foreign trade but unwilling to go to war overseas. Of course, there are those who argue that the US had simply found a more effective way to exert influence: funding. For instance, Panama was long at the mercy of the Panama Canal construction project, and the Canal itself (the only direct route from the Pacific to the Atlantic) remained under American control for years after completion. However, most of these actions were carried out by corporations, not the government, so I won’t detail them here.
Instead, I’ll talk about the two turning point events from the last century. The first was Pearl Harbor, the deadliest attack on American soil since the early 19th Century (excluding the Civil War, which involved no invading foreign force). It catapulted a mostly unprepared United States into World War II, eventually triggering a massive equipment overhaul in the armed forces, research into rocketry, and the Manhattan Project. It was immediately followed by the Cold War, with its frequent standoffs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a proxy battle in the Middle East and China, which everybody lost. This period didn’t end until the Reagan Presidency, but the interventionist bent to US policy continued with Bush Sr.’s Operation Desert Storm and Clinton’s involvement in Yugoslavia. But by the turn of the century, even with the election of an admittedly hawkish administration, the chaos seemed to be waning, and there almost was a respite.
And then came September 11.
I lived in a town called Ferndale, in northern Washington State, and would like to point out that the most significant change in my normal life was that the Canadian border closed. Now, I know Ferndale is hardly a primary target for potential terrorist attacks, and the shifts in larger cities and transit centers particularly were much more drastic. But I would also like to point out that, even with all the Canada jokes, the government effectively closed the border with the place Barney Stinson called “America’s hat.” And since then?
Smuggling drugs in from Canada was briefly a hot-button topic. More recently, Canadian health care has been lambasted by conservatives in the media. This is in a context where people of Middle Eastern descent, even some US citizens, are imprisoned, torture becomes a debate topic after inmates at Guantanamo Bay are waterboarded, the United States military invades two countries, and a spate of laws targeted at sealing the Mexican border or expelling illegal immigrants are passed or debated in states like Arizona. The United States is suspicious of everybody. It’s almost like we never really moved on from the Cold War, and are starting to feel like our assumed supremacy is teetering.
This mentality is obvious in some of the criticisms leveled against Obama’s tactics. The oft-repeated “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” mantra is one example, as was Romney’s immediate attack on the administration for not promptly condemning the attacks in Libya. It’s gotten to the point where a statement like Romney’s, based on a release from the embassy in Libya prior to the faux revolt, can gain significant traction. To oversimplify the situation: we hate when our leaders are prouder of their peace than they are of their ideals. Even the Cold War Presidents saw foreign policy as a forum for diplomacy; the recent release of the Cuban missile crisis papers is testament to that.
Notably, Carter lost his reelection bid because of the perception that he “blinked” during the Iran hostage situation, failing to issue a strong enough ultimatum early on, so maybe the public hasn’t changed any. Or maybe it has. Only time, and exit polls, will tell.
And we can only hope that no American scientist comes up with a weapon quite like this. Thank you, by the way, for getting the reference.
Up next week: “Face of the Nation,” inspired by, of all things, xkcd.
Until next time!