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The Foreign Policy of the United States

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

A History of American Foreign Policy. By John Holla-day Latane. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. $4.00.

PROFESSOR LATANE’S qualifications are well known. For many years he has been Professor of American History in Johns Hopkins University. In 1876 Johns Hopkins was established, not to add to the number of American colleges, but to domesticate among us the ideals of research scholarship which in English and Continental universities had already begun to mature the gifts which the modern scientific spirit has given to our generation. Other universities have embraced these ideals and while Johns Hopkins no longer has the distinction of being unique either in its methods or its leadership, it has maintained its own original standard and, except for the individual qualifications of great teachers elsewhere, is not surpassed in its position by any of the sister universities which it has welcomed into the field of the highest learning in America. In the public mind research is essentially associated with the physical and exact sciences, but both the spirit and the method of research are applicable in history and politics and mutatis mutandis, it has continuously been applied in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins.

Professor Latane is a product of that Department and now for years has been its leader. We may be sure that the results of his research have been tested out by the free discussion of university seminars where every critical aid was invoked by the teacher and applied by mature and scholarly students. This of course does not mean that all of Professor Latane’s students have agreed with all of his conclusions, but probably it does mean that every conclusion in this book, and every disputed historical fact, has been examined by men who were invited to disagree if they could justify disagreement, and that the facts and conclusions, as they are given to us here have, in the opinion of the author at least, been successfully defended against every attack. In addition to this, Professor Latane is known to be one of that group of scholars in international law and history, who place their services at the disposal of the Department of State and are frequently called in as counsellors when difficult situations need to be approached with a sure-footed knowledge of diplomatic history.

We have before us, then, a history of Ajnerican foreign policy written by a scholar who has for years studied the facts in all the available source material. The style is singularly clear and dispassionate. The interpretations are given with almost judicial poise and dignity. The publishers of this book call it “a basal text for college courses in American Diplomacy” and it is certainly to be hoped that our colleges will find the time in their crowded courses to do a thing so wholly worthwhile as to induce the serious reading of this book by large numbers of young American men and women. If in addition the reading and discussion groups, which in the last few years have so seriously attacked the problem of adult education, can be induced to read it, we shall have gone far towards substituting reason based on knowledge for the casual and sometimes passionate reactions which it is our habit, as a people, to give to the questions of America’s foreign relations as they, are presented to us as separate incidents.

What, for instance, could tend more to stop the mouth of the foolish than to discover that the cry of “British gold” first arose with regard to the Jay Treaty in 1783. Twice within my own lifetime I have heard that cry raised. Each time political campaigns were waged on the theory that the British Government had directly or indirectly corrupted the current of our public life to secure the adoption of policies here which ministered to the growth, in the one case, of England’s commerce, and in the other, to the solidity of England’s financial supremacy. Now of course the fact probably is, as Thomas Jefferson believed and charged, that Jay’s treaty terminating our Revolutionary War was less favorable than it might have been because of Hamilton’s strong pro-British attitude and feeling. The restless genius who presided over the treasury in Washington’s administration was not only pro-British but did far less than justice to the French, who, as our allies in the Revolution, had so stripped their own national treasury, as practically to bankrupt it and thereby invite the French Revolution. That the French expected us to consult them about our treaty was not strange. That they thought Jay’s treatment of France in the matter shabby was most natural. The idea that Jay was corrupted is ridiculous. The most that can be said is that he had an impossible task. He represented thirteen straggling colonies, which among themselves had so little coherence that even in the stress of their war for independence, they had been unwilling to create central power enough to keep their army from starvation. He presented the claims of these colonies to an island kingdom which was mistress of the seas and, through her sea power, was the dominant political and financial power of the civilized world. On the one side there were expectations commensurate with freshly won independence. On the other side there were concessions grudgingly made to revolted colonies with which, for the time being, it was inexpedient further to contest. The treaty which Jay brought back was unsatisfactory. It was ungraciously granted by the British and nngraciously accepted by. us. But perhaps even here we see the beginnings of a gennine historical enigma. In the nature of the case, questions of conflict of interest have been more frequent between the United States and Great Britain than between us and any other country. I have no doubt that the archives of the State Department dealing with British questions are ten times, perhaps fifty times, as voluminous as those dealing with the relations of the United States and any other nation. Our territory is contiguous for three thousand miles along our northern border. Our commercial interests are tangent where they are not in conflict in every quarter of the globe. England is the only nation which has ever invaded our territory. We are the only nation that ever had the power to dismember her empire without first destroying her naval supremacy and every so often we have discussed, officially, and unofficially, the possibility of annexing Canada with a provoking consciousness of power and singular lack of delicacy and consideration for her feeling. Great elements of our composite population have, until recent happy years, had a blood feud with Great Britain and have in politics been as susceptible to the demagogue who twisted the lion’s tail as is a hive of bees to an open sugar barrel. Other vast elements of our population are of a different tradition in language, literature, religion, and temperament and have modified, as they acquired, Anglo-Saxon institutions which at the outset were the common bond between the people of Great Britain and ourselves. Yet with all of these opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict, it is the solemn fact of history that for one hundred and fifty years Great Britain and the United States have been indispensable to each other; have been a rough and wholesome kind of friends; and have each modified, where they have not made, the foreign and domestic policies of the other. In this process neither British nor American gold has played any part, but spiritual kinships, sometimes too deep to be perceived but always too powerful to be resisted, have been at work. We have been free to try our great democratic experiment because England stood as guardian on every savage frontier and held back the hordes of barbarism with one hand, while with the other, she held the balance of power in the conflict of race and religion on the European continent. England has herself become a democracy largely through the force of our example and certainly, because of the fact, which she had forgotten and which we had to reteach her in the days of our Revolution, that absolutism is uncongenial to people of her blood and ours. National policy, both foreign and domestic, is, after all, dictated by the national ideals. Its expression is influenced by national temperament—its substance is made up of national character. Together Great Britain and the United States have been the conservators of the great Anglo-Saxon protestant tradition. In the presence of this trust the hard words we have used to each other now and then have evidenced the attrition of a family quarrel in a high spirited family, but the sun has never permanently gone down on our wrath.

I state the fact but do not attempt to exhaust its possible causes. That this is the fact is manifest if one will compare the traditional antagonisms between European nations with the momentary flares of irritation and temper which have existed between Great Britain and us. The opposition between the Latin and Germanic nations in Europe has lasted in one form or another from the days of the Caesars. The religious antagonisms of Europe, on changing battle fronts and changing lines of battle, have lasted from the days of Huss, Luther and Wycliffe. Pan-Slavism, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Islamism are historic movements with centuries of historical continuity of which we have no counterpart as between Great Britain and ourselves, though perhaps it would not be too fanciful to suggest that there may be a non-aggressive Pan-Anglo-Saxon-ism nnderlying our community of interests.

Professor Latane does not undertake to discuss any question so abstract as the one here proposed, but his book documents that question with illustrations, for it deals exhaustively, with our post-revolution relations; and in its chapters on the diplomacy of the Civil War, the Isthmian Canal, the war with Spain and the World War, one can feel, if he can not always find, the substance of this common basic purpose.

The relations between France and the United States have been next in importance to our relations with the British. They present an extraordinary and instructive contrast. It would be almost fair to say that we and the British have instinctively understood each other and that we and the French have never nnderstood each other at all.

French help to us in the Revolution was undoubtedly anti-British in its origin. Beaumarchais, who converted Vergennes to the American cause, argued frankly that the best policy for the defense of France against England was to aid the colonies in their struggle for independence; but this was far from all. The intellectuals of France had a genuine sympathy with the political philosophy of our revolution and LaFayette and his kind represented quite as much a spontaneous and effective sympathy with liberty as they, did the defensive designs of the French Government against a traditional enemy. Fortunately, in our discussion of these things, we have always refused to attempt a sordid analysis of the parts played respectively by interest and generous enthusiasm. We have accepted and loved LaFayette for what he was—a brave and knightly figure bringing us sympathy and assistance when we needed it most. He has represented to us qualities in the French people which we have never ceased to admire — qualities indeed which are forever admirable. But the essential differences between the French and us are very great. France is a country of frontiers. She has maintained her integrity in Europe for centuries by her ability to repel invasion. To this end she has, in her domestic policy, raised her sons to be soldiers and has baptized each of them with the belief that the highest pinnacle of human happiness and greatness comes to him who dies gloriously on the frontier in the defense of France. Her foreign policies correspondingly have looked to alliances—permanent alliances which could be counted on to contribute in the hour of need to the defense of her sacred frontiers. As a result of these exclusive preoccupations, France has desired always, not unworthily, to capitalize international gratitude and good will. She finds it difficult to understand how any people can be her friend unless they are prepared to mount guard on her frontiers when danger comes. Friendship means nothing unless it means that. We on the other hand have been much more platonic in our admiration and friendship. Rejoicing in the beauty of French spirit and genius and in the contributions France has made to the literature and light of our modern civilization, we are frankly surprised when we find that she regards our voluntary affection as an implied defensive obligation. It is not the barrier of language only, for the French language is infinitely flexible and relatively easy for Americans to acquire so that we understand what France is thinking and she understands what we are thinking, but neither has ever understood why the other thought as it did. Happily our international contacts with France have not been numerous enough or grave enough to make these underlying differences very, important. There has never been a question between us worth fighting about and when one of the great ideals which we have in common was in danger it was easy for us to co-operate.

Professor Latane’s book illustrates this situation in its luminous discussion of Franco-American relations from the French Alliance through the establishment of the Empire of Maximilian in Mexico and to the diplomacy of and after the World War.

One sometimes hears the question asked whether the United States has a foreign policy. This question Professor Latane answers; but it must always be remembered that while elements of a nation’s foreign policy may be quite definite and distinct, other elements of it are as sure to be intangible, if not obscure. When the Russian Czar asked the French Ambassador, Paleologue, in 1914 whether at the conclusion of the war Russia could count on French support for her aspirations as to Constantinople, Paleologue replied that he was authorized to give an affirmative answer, but that he hoped that Russia would in turn sympathize with French aspirations is Syria. Now here you have the contrast. From the days of Peter the Great, Russia has openiy and for obvious reasons desired access to warm salt water and Constantinople has been the natural objective of that aspiration. On the other hand I have asked dozens of intelligent Frenchmen what possible interest France could have in Syria and the answers have varied all the way from purposes of colonization and colonial development, to a kind of trustee guardianship of Maronite Christians against the Druses and other Mohammedan enemies. On the one hand a definite, palpable, explicit objective; on the other an aspiration so indefinite and inexplicit that no two people agree as to what it is, and yet at one of the great moments of history they were put forward as eqnivalent elements of national policy.

Nevertheless, as Professor Latane points out, there are some very definite aims in American foreign policy which have not changed from the beginning. In a general way they may be said to be three:

(1)  Freedom and security for world trade and commerce;

(2)  a fair field for the development of democratic institutions everywhere, not oniy because of our sympathy with institutions of that kind, but because of the deep-seated conviction on our part that the world is safer as more and more countries come to be so organized; and

(3)  a fundamental aversion from alliances or engagements, which might, by any possibility, lead us into military obligations to one side or the other of a European balance of power.

Like every other nation, we have, in times of stress, emphasized some momentary object at the expense of our fundamental purposes, but in the main the thread of these purposes runs through the fabric of our international relations. In the beginning, as Professor Latane points out, “The vital question was not our duty to the rest of the world but whether the rest of the world would let us live. The policy of wisdom was to keep aloof from world politics and to give as little cause of offense as possible to the great powers of Europe.” Even as late as the Civil War, the main impulse of our foreign policy was that we should be let alone, to solve our own domestic questions without outside interference, but the forces of modern life are too strong for the simphcity of our desires. We followed “manifest destiny” across the Pacific and established territorial interests in the Antipodes. In like manner we have built up a civilization which depends for its well being upon the maintenance of peace in the rest of the world, and now that we have exploited our own continent, we are converting its treasures into overseas obligations from others to us, which give us a stake in the stability of European affairs and make it impossible to follow, without modification, the simple rules of isolation and detachment which Washington and Jefferson thought, and thought truly, constituted enough of a foreign policy for the United States in their day.

The reluctance with which we Americans realize the obligations which our changing international position entails is not unnatural. Nations after all are much like individuals. If a man could grow rich without the burdens of wealth, it would be a blessed estate, but unhappily when he has argosies at sea, he becomes sensitive to every wind that blows. So a nation, which has colonies and an expanding foreign commerce to protect, and fabulous and increasing investments in other countries, can not long remain indifferent to relations overseas, which by setting those countries against one another, interrupt the current of our own life, harass our commerce, destroy our investments, and ultimately involve us as a mere matter of self defense in the consequences of their quarrels.

Professor Latane’s little book “From Isolation to Leadership,” published some years ago, points out all this as a necessary consequence of what has happened to us and to the rest of the world in the last one hundred and fifty years. In the present volume the story is told on an ampler canvas with a greater wealth of detail and with an impressive-ness that will awaken a new international conscience among us, if we Americans will but read thoughtfully what Professor Latane has laid before us with so much intelligence and care.


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