XVIII. Whither the National Interest?

America's Unknown Enemy: Beyond Conspiracy

Editorial Staff of the
American Institute for Economic Research


In recent years, critics on both the political left and right often have opined that American foreign policy has been adrift in the "postmodern" world. It goes without saying that the diversity of views about what constitutes proper policy is extreme. While some have argued that even the most vicious dictators deserve our understanding and sufferance, others have expressed preference for a policy that would "bomb our enemies back to the Stone Age." But virtually all agree that the lack of clearly stated goals and procedures for assessing the national interest has entangled us in all sorts of predicaments.

Beyond this, foreign policy analysts are nearly unanimous in the view that, far from simplifying America's role in the "new world order," the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have eliminated the principal referents of the State Department's ad hoc foreign policy of the past 30 years and so have complicated matters. Despite vague appeals to such diverse notions as the "end of history," a "Pax Americana," or "neo-Manifest Destiny," few have offered any specific advice as to what we should do next.

Rather, a resurgent current of isolationism suggests that at this juncture many Americans simply are tired of what they perceive as their leaders' half-century preoccupation with foreign affairs. A major reason the Bush administration was not returned to office seems to have been President Clinton's promise to turn his attention away from international affairs and toward domestic concerns. Viewed politically, it may be difficult to exaggerate the windfall effect for President Clinton of the public's apparent expectations about the "peace dividend" in the 1992 elections. But international problems do not just "go away" with a change of administrations in Washington, D.C. It is more than mildly ironic that, with the domestic economy indicating robust recovery, the principal ''crises (other than those that were self-inflicted) that President Clinton and his advisers faced early in his administration were international ones. Almost surely, many others await.

Here we review broadly some of the main currents of thought that have shaped the foreign policy debate during recent decades and assess the foreign affairs outlook of the new Administration in light of what is known about the views of the President and his advisers. Whatever the President's stance, many questions remain about the likely effectiveness of any foreign policy that relies principally or even largely on the prescriptions of the past. The record to date strongly suggests that a major hindrance to the conduct of American foreign policy is the lack of any coherent view of the national interest. The final sections of this discussion seek to develop such a view, and reflect on the possibility of conducting foreign policy in ways that are consistent with the behavioral science procedures to which AIER endeavors to adhere.

Globalism ...

Most recent discussions of American foreign policy per se have tended to follow the rough outlines of one of two major intellectual constructs. Respectively called "globalism" and "realpolitik" by their detractors, they have shaped debate over America's role in the international arena for the past 4 decades. The origins of these competing currents of thought extend back many decades, indeed centuries, and involve by implication a number of the same behavioral issues that have described religious and other sociocultural conflicts throughout the centuries. Given the historical distance between these two views, it is highly unlikely that a "consensus" foreign policy derived solely from either will be forthcoming soon, if ever. Indeed, each has been modified in late 20th-century America in ways that have tended to blur the distinction between them, even though fundamentally they remain based on irreconcilable "world views" that rely intellectually on markedly differing notions of human behavior. It would be impossible in a brief discussion to consider all of the differences between these two lines of thinking or even to begin to explore the many nuances involved. But even a brief recollection of their origins and development may, from a behavioral science perspective, suggest the many difficulties they tend to introduce.

Stated briefly, contemporary globalism in foreign policy -- sometimes called "globalist internationalism" or "disinterested globalism" inasmuch as it generally eschews or seeks a diminished role for national interests in policy calculations -- derives principally from Enlightenment notions of human perfectibility and is largely an extension of the Wilsonian liberal internationalism embraced for decades by the Council on Foreign Relations and resident State Department intellectuals. Viewed broadly, it has ruled the theoretical base of American foreign policy since 1917, and its adherents have included influential members of both major political parties. In its most simplistic expression, it posits the development of a "world community" (a.k.a. New World Order) based on self-detemination, nonaggression, conciliation, arbitration, and, most important, "collective security" that is enforced through an international administration of some sort. Accordingly, national sovereignty at some point must submit to supranational authority -- the League of Nations, the World Court, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the like. During the Cold War decades it found its principal expression in the U.S. policy of "containment," and, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has as its dominant foreign policy motif the "enhancement of democracy" around the world.

In view of the less-than-perfect results achieved thus far by the application of some of its tenets, virtually no one has been satisfied with the product of globalist-internationalist foreign policy. (it should be noted that not even its adherents credit it with forcing the demise of the Soviet Union, which generally is acknowledged to have self-destructed. Its detractors argue that the globalist elements of Cold War policy tended to perpetuate the communist regime.) Its numerous critics, including some former adherents, have observed that the unprincipled application of the precept of "enhancing democracy" has resulted in what Irving Kristol terms "self-debilitating equivocations" that belie American intentions.[1] Why were American policymakers ready to defend self-determination in Kuwait but not in Bosnia? (We need the oil; the Bosnians have nothing to offer.) To send troops to Somalia but not to other African nations where sociopolitical conditions are just as bad or worse? (Starving Somalis got television coverage.) To denounce "human rights violations" in, say, Iraq, while we overiook them in Southeast Asia (who wants war with Indonesia?) or China (a mighty big market). And so on.

Others (including this organization) have observed that economic aid, which is presumed to be a major tool of globalist strategy (as well as realist strategy, discussed below), tends to enhance neither democracy nor the economic well-being of its intended recipients. Rather, it often feeds corruption and further entrenches those in power. Inasmuch as it may distort markets and divert resources from better uses, it impedes economic growth and thwarts improvements in standards of living.

But globalism's most effective opponents may be those who have observed that, stripped of its moralistic and legalistic language, it amounts to an elitist fantasy that is contrary to the views of a majority of Americans, who simply do not concur in the wisdom of relinquishing national sovereignty for the sake of some vaguely conceived notion ol world community. Even former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick has called for the development of a foreign policy that is "ratified by popular majorities" rather than left to the devices of an out-of-touch elite.[2] So widespread have resentments against the globalist elite become that, given the burgeoning market for "New Age conspiracy literature, unlikely support from both the political left and right apparently has grown for the view that globalist plans have been and are being directed by a vast international conspiracy said variously to be ruled by Wall Street financiers and international bankers, a Jewish cabal, "big oil," Vatican bankers, Yale's Skull and Bones, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderbergers, the Club of Rome, or one or more other secret orders.

… vs. Realpolitik

In contrast, realpolitik (called realism by its adherents) derives broadly from a pre-Enlightenment Western tradition which holds, in the words of the political scientist and realist strategist Hans Morgenthau, that "the sinfulness of man is conceived not as an accidental disturbance of the order of the world sure to be overcome by a gradual development toward the good, but as an inescapable necessity."[3] Contrary to the notions of human perfectibility that apparently propel globalist thinking, realists generally subscribe to a view of human behavior that closely parallels the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin. Although there are many nuances in realist thinking that admit the possibility of "the good" in the behavior of humans, a primary consideration in all human affairs is the establishment of various protections against the human propensity to do evil. While the theoretical underpinnings of American foreign policy during the past 4 decades generally have mirrored a globalist-internationalist outlook, its practical conduct often has reflected the application of the principles of realpolitik.

In international affairs, a distinguishing characteristic of realist thinking is its insistence that international relations differ crucially from domestic affairs, inasmuch as the international system is and will continue to be fundamentally anarchic. Accordingly, the various nations have discrete interests and the distribution of power among them -- which permits amoral powerful nations, unless restrained, to obtain by force whatever they wish -- becomes an overriding consideration. Where the strength of one or another of several competing powers becomes so great, or others become so weak, that their ambitions may threaten vast disruption, realism holds that international peace and prosperity are best advanced through fostering and maintaining a "balance of power," an international equilibrium somewhat akin to notions of general equilibrium described by economists.

To sustain such a balance of power over the long run, and especially in times of crisis, according to realist thinking requires that "ideological preferences" occasionally be subordinated to strategic considerations. Hence, the necessity sometimes for alliances with unsavory regimes and the sacrifice even of (usually minor) ideologically friendly powers. As a practical matter, concerts of power, even if fairly long lasting, always will be ad hoc arrangements subject to change.

Not surprisingly, realist views have been described by their detractors variously as "cold-blooded," "heartless," and "immoral," and have been blamed for many of the apparent inconsistencies that have plagued the practical conduct of American foreign policy. Hypocritical alliances with and aid to dictatorial regimes are said not only to have discredited American resolve to defend democracy, but also to have created situations where we have been obliged to arm our very enemies. Expedient promises that were made but not kept are said to have fostered resentments among potential friends. And assorted military adventures that many believe lacked purpose (or were undertaken for wrong purposes) and resolved nothing are said to have discouraged our allies, heartened our adversaries, and fostered domestic discontents.

The Administration's Foreign Policy Dilemma

Regrettably little is known about the President's views on foreign policy per se. Indeed, his campaign seems to have been conducted with the implicit promise that he would neglect foreign affairs. An obscure -- but to date the broadest -- clue as to his possible thinking about foreign policy comes from acomment he made during a campaign appearance. When questioned about the development of his views, he replied that the work of one of his history professors at Georgetown University, Dr. Carroll Quigley, had been a seminal influence on his thinking. If he took Professor Quigley's erudition to heart, there may be hope that he will explore more productive foreign policy avenues than have his predecessors. For Professor Quigley's 1966 work Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, which almost surely formed the basis for his courses while the President was his student, tends to be critical of both the elitist foreign policy establishment and globalist thinking in general.[4]

This may be a dim hope, however. Judging from the personnel the President since has appointed to conduct the affairs of state, it would appear that the same thinking that has muddled foreign policy during prior Administrations probably will hold sway in the Clinton State Department. The majority of Clinton foreign policy appointees appear to have been recruited from the Council on Foreign Relations group. From Secretary of State Warren Christopher on down, there are now so many familiar faces at Foggy Bottom from the CFR-Trilateral Commission-dominated Carter administration that it has been dubbed "Carter II."

Thus the new Administration would seem to face a familiar dilemma -- a hopeless choice between either an astonishingly naive or an appallingly cynical view of human affairs, neither of which appears to have gained, or can be expected to gain, much support from the American public. Indeed, inasmuch as Cold War foreign policy generally reflected a mix of the two views despite the State Department's ideological bias toward globalism, there apparently has been little, if any, practical preference for either view among those who actually do the business of state. The predictable result has been contusion and contempt abroad with respect to our aims and, as noted above, the weakening of domestic support for almost any involvement in foreign affairs. From an economic perspective, the predictable adverse consequences of the new State Department's notions of "fairness" are that they may play into the hands of special interests and produce a new wave of protectionism. In short, unless President Clinton himself influences policy in untried ways, we probably are in store for "more of the same." It need not be so.

A Behavioral Science Critique

From a behavioral science perspective, both of the above lines of thinking would seem to be irreparably flawed. As we have written extensively elsewhere, a principal requirement of inquiry into any human problem, including foreign affairs, is that analysis not be clouded by a priori assumptions about human behavior, the reliability of results obtained primarily through the development of theory without benefit of observation, or the certainty of any outcome.[5] Even the briefest reflection suggests that both globalism and realism fall to meet this basic requirement.

Insofar as globalist notions rely on unobserved but presumed characteristics of human behavior that are supposed to propel humanity toward some harmonious world community fashioned after the liberal democratic model, they fly in the face of human history, which chronicles not the durability but the fragility of all prior human civilizations. Indeed, an empirical assessment of our own situation indicates that, as AIER's founder E. C. Harwood observed 4 decades ago (in "The Counterrevolution," reprinted as Appendix B in this volume), the termination of the American experiment, which posits a civilization based on human freedom, is probable without a renewed commitment to the fundamental principles upon which the Nation was founded. From this perspective, the globalist vision is a dangerous fantasy.

… And An Analogy from Economics

Realpolitik, on the other hand, might appear to be grounded in a more "scientific" approach to human behavior than that of the globalists. However, on close inspection its principal tenets are just as flawed. In brief, the successful conduct of a foreign policy based on theories of realism depends on the unwarranted assumption that foreign policy planners somehow can "manage" relations between nations in ways that achieve some presumed ideal outcome ( i.e., balance of power). It ought to come as no surprise that in practice, realpolitik has tended to be even more interventionist than globalist-directed policy.

The difficulties of knowing under a realpolitik regime either what the desirable balance between foreign powers might be -- or how best to manage it - may be made clearer by way of analogy to economics.[6] In a number of respects, the situation of the practitioners of realpolitik is similar to that of central economic planners who seek to "fine tune" an economy through government intervention in business affairs. Such economic management presumes that some activities are more desirable than others, and that (in both the short and long run) a small group of elite policymakers will make better decisions than do the aggregate millions of market participants. Often, developing policy requires decisions about "proper" levels of activity (the economic "balance of power") and incentives or disincentives for any number of economic endeavors.

The record clearly has shown that the main result of such efforts in the economic realm has been to perpetuate inefficiencies and the misallocation of resources and to make eventual adjustments (i.e., economic contractions) more severe than they otherwise would be. In the foreign policy arena the implication seems more ominous: instead of recessions or depressions, mistaken policy invites war.

In a broad sense, the problems introduced by globalism and realpolitik are inherent in all "top down" regimes that rely on some grand model, however elegantly constructed, as a basis for the conduct of policy. The formulation of an approach to foreign policy that meets the minimal requirements of behavioral science would seem to demand a reconsideration of such central planning and the abandonment of policy that is not grounded in observable human behavior. Foreign policy strategy might usefully follow the process of "incremental decisionmaking" developed by Thomas Sowell in Knowledge and Decisions[7] Simply stated, incremental decisions distribute risks and permit the consequences of bad decisions to be minimized.

When applied to foreign affairs, incremental decisionmaking may imply vastly reduced expectations about the effectiveness of American initiatives in the rest of the world. But it does not necessarily imply isolationism. Our prosperity requires a relatively unrestricted international flow of goods and capital, and this circumstance alone requires that we maintain some sort of foreign relations. But those relations might be developed more effectively through the greater "privatization" of foreign policy -- that is, by requiring private entities to assume the risks of their international business dealings. This approach would, in practice, rely on incremental decisionmaking.

"Friends of Liberty Everywhere, But Defenders of Our Own"

More fundamentally, however, such an approach requires a coherent view of the national interest, which often has been portrayed in the professional literature as a vague and possibly menacing (to "world unity") notion. A renewed understanding of our national interest in turn demands a broad understanding and appreciation of the principal tenets of American civilization, both of which seem lost to a large segment of American society. Indeed, relatively few apparently have any notion of how brief the American experiment with human freedom has been, how exceptional its successes, or how fragile its grip in the face of present circumstances.

There is nothing vague or menacing about our national interest: it resides in the protection and preservation of those institutions that were established by the Nation's governing documents and that have permitted the great revolution in human freedom to proceed and flourish here. This is, in fact, the only thing the President is charged with under his Oath of Office. What seems to have escaped many Americans is that these bulwarks of freedom now are threatened (as they have been for decades) by a broad counterrevolution within Western civilization. In the broadest sense, then, the pursuit of the national interest must begin at home through a redirection of effort toward creating a greater understanding of those fundamental goals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and, most especially, its Bill of Rights.

Decades ago, E. C. Harwood concluded "that the only sound foreign policy for the United States in the long run is to resume our former place in the vanguard of the great revolution, to press on toward the goals of more nearly complete individual freedom, and to encourage other nations to follow." He cautioned, however, that "we shall be ill-prepared for such a position of leadership until we have reoriented the policies that we apply at home." In this respect, he observed that "corrective action will be needed along at least three general lines. First, the distortion of and interference with free market relationships must be reduced as rapidly as possible and ultimately ended; second, all special privileges must be eliminated; and third, the activities of the Federal Government must be reduced to the role of national defense and prevention of license or abuse of freedom."[8]

The corrective action required in all three areas now is much greater than when the above words first were penned. In our view, this alone is reason to observe more closely the maxim that as a nation we be "friends of liberty everywhere, but defenders of our own" -- especially at home.


  1. Irving Kristol, "Defining Our National Interest" (The National Interest, Fall 1990, pp. 16-25) is a useful review of some of the ideologies that have shaped foreign policy since 1917. Kristol is founder and publisher of The National Interest, the principal foreign policy publication that is editorially critical of the dominant CFR-Trilateral Commission-State Department line of thinking found in such publications as Foe'ign Affairs. The above summary of globalism draws heavily from his discussion.
  2. See Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, "A Normal Country in a Normal Time," op. cit., pp.40-44.
  3. Morgenthau is cited in Fareed Zakaria, "Is Realism Finished?," The National Interest, Winter 1992-93, p.22. Zakaria's article is a recent sophisticated explication and defense of realist views, and served as a basis for this summary.
  4. See Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966), available in reprint from Angriff Press.
  5. A full discussion of AIER's views on scientific inquiry is contained in Useful Procedures of Inquiry, by Rollo Handy and E. C. Harwood, available from AIER (price $15, hardbound).
  6. Reportedly, foreign policy strategy as developed under "realism" relies heavily on game and decision theory. For a discussion and critique of game and decision theory, see our publication A Current Appraisal of the Behavioral Sciences (price $15, hardbound).
  7. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1980). This volume is crucial to understanding the fundamental difficulties with all central planning.
  8. See Appendix B, "The Counterrevolution," pages 134-142.