The former senator accused President Obama of “appeasement” for not launching air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, thus Santorum branded himself as an advocate of an aggressive/populist foreign policy.
Santorum’s approach has the advantage of the kind of clarity you’d expect to find in a barber shop’s parliamentary debates: “Those Iranians are crazy and they hate us; we should bomb them back to primitive times — when their religion began.”
Heads would nod approval of the simple logic that asks policymakers to choose either appeasement or war, as if there was no space for other options between the two extremes.
It is the logic of Vietnam and Iraq wars but, if the opposite is doing nothing, where is the wisdom of a no-policy approach?
America’s leaders didn’t torture themselves with agonizing foreign-policy choices until the early years of the 20th century.
When George Washington warned against foreign entanglements in his farewell address, that was a prudent stance to take for loosely organized agricultural states that would not reach puberty as a nation for decades.
There was nothing to be gained for our young nation from the continuous conflict in old Europe caused by its statesmen’s belief in a balance of powers.
But by the dawning of the 20th century, our adolescent nation had developed industrial muscle greater than France and Germany combined, and the United States was led by a vigorous advocate of manliness — Theodore Roosevelt.
In his 1904 message to Congress, he declared, “more and more, the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world.”
Manliness to Roosevelt in nations as well as individuals meant being able to take care of oneself, not by treaties or international law but by one’s own strength, which in 1908 led him to accept Japanese occupation of Korea.
He explained his passive reaction thus: “… it was out of the question to suppose that any other nation … would attempt to do for the Koreans what they were utterly unable to do for themselves.”
A strain of Roosevelt’s rough and ready, individualistic admiration of power — almost might makes right — as a dominant value can still be found in the Republican Party. Santorum’s tough-guy talk of appeasement is an example.
But another great president in the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, introduced a more idealistic interpretation of “right” in foreign policy.
In his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany in World War I, he said we will fight “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself free at last.”
Wilson introduced in 1917 a wholly new concept of international relations in a speech criticizing the old balance-of-power theory. “There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries but an organized common peace.”
Though his proposal of a League of Nations died in the U.S. Senate, it survives today in the various forms of “collective security,” such as NATO, and is a policy favored more by the Democratic Party.
Collective security most recently succeeded in lifting the siege off Sarajevo and support for — survival really — the government of Bosnia, and support of the people of Libya in overthrowing the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi.
Two great presidents led America’s first entry into world affairs, neither of whose policies extended to their logical conclusion would benefit the country or the world.
Roosevelt’s muscular self-reliance would mean the perpetual, violent devouring of the small by the great nations, and Wilson’s self-determination would have the United States refereeing every dispute everywhere in the world.
But Wilson’s “concert of nations” refined by being applied only where feasible in the light of experience is a worthy legacy for his nation and his party; there are options between war and appeasement.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.