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Our Foreign Policy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

The Latin American Policy of the United States. An Historical Interpretation. By Samuel Klagg Bemis. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.50. U. S. Foreign Policy. Shield of the Republic. By Walter Lippmann. Little, Brown and Company. $1.50.

The Latin American Policy of the United States” by Samuel Flagg Bemis and Walter Lippmann’s “U. S. Foreign Policy” are both of them first-rate books, by writers of the first order of ability. The first is essentially retrospective, the most convenient survey of our relations with Latin America that we have yet had in this country. The second is an attempt to suggest the course of future policy, one of the most stimulating that has yet been made. Both ought to be welcome to students of American foreign policy.

Professor Bemis is one of those historians who, while pursuing the scientific method, does not believe that the end product of historical research should be a pallid objectivity that forbids any generalization or conclusion. He has written his book with his eyes fixed chiefly on the last thirty years; and he has not only described, but interpreted this period. On the whole, he believes that few nations have a more honorable record of intercourse with their neighbors than has the United States in its relations with Latin America. True, in the period of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, there was, for a time, a kind of American imperialism, manifested in the exercise of an international police power in the area of the Caribbean. Between 1912 and 1916, there were American interventions in Nicaragua, in Haiti, and in Santo Domingo. Yet the longest of these interventions lasted for less than twenty years; each of them was accompanied by an improvement in the political conditions in the states interfered with; and all can be related, (though in my judgment Professor Bemis exaggerates this point), with the strategic interests of the United States in the region of the Panama Canal. Considering the vast material power of our country, is there any more remarkable example in modern history than that which we present of the moderate use of the great physical force at our command? Has not the government of the United States demonstrated a self-restraint and a forbearance in its intercourse with the states of the New World in which every American can take pride?

Professor Bemis lays great stress on the development of the good-neighbor policy, and rightly so. By that policy we have, by solemn international treaty, waived the right to intervene in the affairs of other American states, and on the basis of this fundamental act of renunciation we have built up a cordiality of relationship which has never existed before, and which stands us in good stead today. In the World War of 1917, the list of Latin-American neutrals was a truly impressive one; it included our neighbor, Mexico; it included two out of three of the greatest states of South America, Argentina and Chile; and it included also Colombia and Venezuela, Ecuador and El Salvador. In the present war, every one of the New World states save the Argentine has severed relations with the Axis; but they have done more than this. They have co-operated in many instances with the United States in a policy of hemispheric defense; great bases open to the vessels of war or to the planes of our own government are being constructed in Uruguay, in Ecuador, in Brazil, in Mexico; they have outlined a great program of economic co-operation; they have demonstrated a degree of unity in action that is truly remarkable. Some of this is due to the sense of danger which Hitlerism inspires, and inspires inevitably; some of it is due to wise statesmanship on the part of the American government. In that statesmanship, reflected in the diplomacy of Dwight Morrow, of Henry L. Stimson, of Cordell Hull, every American ought to rejoice.

One of Professor Bemis’s best chapters is entitled “The Myth of Economic Imperialism.” It should be read in particular by those misguided persons who through some curious quirk of mind seem to regard the export of capital as inherently nefarious, instead of indispensable to progress, as it really is. In what sense has American capitalism been supported by the government in any program of exploitation or economic aggression in the states of the New World? Diplomatic representations we have made, of course, when it seemed to us that our nationals were unjustly treated; but we have never intervened in any state outside the Caribbean area, and in only four of these; and from all of them we have withdrawn. In the most striking cases of expropriation by foreign governments, we have accepted settlements that were certainly not over-generous to our nationals; and we are now engaged in providing many of these Latin-American states with public capital through the Export-Import bank on terms that may reasonably be described as liberal. It is a sheer perversion of the facts to describe the United States as supporting the exploitation of the other states of the American continents.

The policies which Professor Bemis analyzes in the last two hundred pages of his book have met with very general support in this country. The unanimity with which they have been praised suggests that they may serve as guides for a long future. But Walter Lippmann deals with a much more difficult problem, the problem of the organization of peace at the end of war, and, in consequence, the problem of our relationships with Europe. Mr. Lippmann has a good deal to say about the past, and as is usual with him, he displays a kind of insight that is not always vouchsafed to the professional historians. He generalizes broadly, and in the main suggestively and fruitfully, about the historic foreign policies of the United States, and uses them as a basis for his suggested course of action for the future.

The Lippmann thesis is this. By the year 1823 the United States had become the leading power in the American hemisphere. In that year it made a “vast foreign commitment” in the Monroe Doctrine, in concert with Great Britain. It virtually declared that “at the risk of war, the United States would thereafter resist the creation of new European empires in this hemisphere.” By virtue of an “informal alliance” with British sea power, this commitment was valid, and it gave a consistency and solidity to American diplomacy for three quarters of a century. But in 1898 a new epoch began. We extended the range of our diplomatic action by the acquisition of the Philippines, but we made no effort to provide for ourselves a physical power or a political association with some other nation such as would “balance the commitment.” Though we had immensely enlarged the scope of our activity, we were unwilling to recognize the implications of such action. We fought the first World War on a theory of neutral rights, though what was really involved was our own security. When it was over, we actually forced disarmament on the powers on which we could most count as* friends; first at the Washington Conference of 1921-22, and then at London in 1930. We were for a long time unable to perceive that there was forming against us a coalition—the coalition against which we contend today— which threatens our vital interests and our security. We have been misled, (1) by the illusion that peace is the supreme end of foreign policy, (2) by refusing to understand that whether we like it or not, force plays a great part in international relations, and that to disarm, as we disarmed in the twenties, is really to sacrifice our interests to sentiment, and (3) by declining to enter into any binding association with those nations whose interests in some measure parallel ours, especially Great Britain.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this analysis. A professional historian will doubtless quarrel with Mr. Lipp-mann’s interpretation of the nineteenth century as a period of quasi-alliance between Great Britain and the United States. But he can hardly deny that British sea power, indeed Britain’s unchallenged world domination in the nineteenth century, was one of the main reasons why that century was, on the whole, a peaceful one. And it is impossible to refute the critique of our policy since 1898. In what he has to say on this subject, Mr. Lippmann is magnificently right.

What, then, of the future? .Mr. Lippmann hopes for what he calls a “nuclear alliance” of the three great nations, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. These nations are great industrial powers; their union would provide a solid basis for peace. What of China? China is not yet a great power, in the sense of a power which possesses the organization and technique for waging modern war; her position is not quite the same as that of the other three. But China may become in the future what the other three of these states are today; and it is in line with American tradition to foster this development.

The easiest part of this prescription is Anglo-American understanding. Self-interest clearly points to the close association of the two great English-speaking peoples; our American interests, our interests in the Orient, our interest in a tranquil Pacific, and a tranquil Atlantic, run parallel with those of Britain. The next step, understanding with Russia, is more difficult. We will, at the end of this war, for the first time, be neighbors of Russia, or our “indispensable friends” will be neighbors of Russia. How make certain that we are “good neighbors”? The answer depends upon the settlements in Europe and Asia. In Europe, so thinks Mr. Lippmann, there must be a neutralized group of states to the West of the Soviet Union; in the East we cannot yet see the bases of understanding, but we can see that understanding must be based on regard for the liberties of other peoples. It must rest on the forswearing of imperialistic ambition, on the ordering of the world in the interest of small and large states alike.

The elements of Anglo-American understanding today are numerous and solid. No one can foresee the future; but it will be a monumental demonstration of unwisdom if at the end of the present war Great Britain and the United States do not maintain the harmony of action which they have attained as the result of a great peril. Understanding with the Soviet Union is no less desirable, but the problem, it must be confessed, is much more difficult. The Kremlin is secretive and suspicious; for years after the Bolshevik revolution it played no part in, was held aloof, indeed, from the European community; it has unhappy memories of those interventions in Russian internal affairs in which Winston Churchill, among others, participated in the early twenties; it has not forgotten that we did not even recognize its existence till 1933, and that we chose to lecture it roundly on its annexation of the Baltic states as late as July, 1940. It feels that it is bearing the major part of the burden of the German war; it is certainly not content with the war effort of the Western powers as laid beside its own. It has, it is true, suppressed the Third International; but its hopes for the future of Eastern Europe can hardly fail to have the flavor of its own social ideas.

It may be, indeed, that Mr. Lippmann’s formula for the neutralization of the Balkan or Baltic regions is more than we can hope for. I suspect that the price of understanding with Russia is to give her a relatively free hand there. There are Americans who will cry out with horror at the idea. There are Americans who, not being isolationist, think that the alternative is to prescribe morally for the whole world. But it is just possible that an accord with Russia means respect for Russian interests, as Moscow understands them. At any rate, we need to know much better than we do today what the Russians want, and what they think they have a right to. We shall doubtless find that their views and ours differ. And unless we are prepared to make some concession the chances of understanding are not good. I will be blunt. We may have to be prepared to condone some things we do not like (say, the absorption of the Baltic states), in the interests of a larger accord. Such an accord, if possible, is worth some sacrifice of prejudice, of sentiment, yes, of principle. Peace is not the most precious of jewels; but it is a jewel of great price. The price is recognition of the interests of others, unless they challenge profoundly one’s own. We need less moralizing on American foreign policy, and more realistic facing of this fundamental fact. When we face it, we may help to make Mr. Lippmann’s broad formula of a “nuclear alliance” come true.


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