Nearly 50 years ago historian William Appleman Williams wrote the first edition of "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy," once thought to be the most influential book ever written about the history of U.S. foreign relations.
The classical definition of tragedy is greatness brought low by some fundamental flaw in one's character. Williams insisted that the record of the nation's foreign policy had been a tragedy because of the gap Americans had allowed to develop between inspiration and accomplishment.
Particularly since the turn of the 19th century, Williams argued, we have preached self-determination but objected when others sought to practice it. We have proclaimed the virtues of economic freedom even as we have sought to impose economic control. We claim to champion free trade but bow repeatedly to calls for protectionism from special interests.
The persistent theme of Williams' writing was that throughout much of the nation's history, Americans held "the firm conviction, even dogmatic belief, that domestic well-being depends upon sustained, ever-increasing, overseas economic expansion."
Williams, of course, had his critics. I was one of them. I met him once in the mid-70s at Johns Hopkins. He had argued that the Founding Fathers thought of themselves as an empire at the outset of their national existence. "The vigorous expansionism manifested in the Monroe Doctrine was only the continuation and maturation of an attitude held by the Revolutionary generation," he had written. I had replied that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence did not justify the intervention of a foreign state, for example, the United States, to overthrow another government, even a tyrannical one.
Thomas Jefferson regarded it as a self-evident truth that all nations had the right to determine for themselves the form of government they would adopt. "Americans," Daniel Webster noted, may "sympathize with the unfortunate or the oppressed everywhere in their struggles for freedom," but their duty was "not to interfere in the government or internal policy of other nations."
I was no match for the depth and breadth of Williams' knowledge but he suggested we could both agree British historian Arnold Toynbee was correct in describing the United States "to be like a friendly dog in a very small room -- every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair." Williams was quick to add that the tragedy of Vietnam, however, was more than that, where U.S. leaders became locked in their mad conviction "to save Vietnam at any cost." He was fond of mocking Secretary of State Dean Acheson's post-WW II mantra: "We are willing to help people who believe the way we do, to continue to live the way they want to live."
Since his second inaugural address, President Bush has been fond of proclaiming the roots of U.S. foreign policy to be the imperative of self-government: "Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation." The question raised by the Bush Doctrine, however, of whether it is right to overthrow another nation's form of government is simply lent no support by our Founders.
Long after Williams' death, it is eerie in the midst of the Iraq debacle to re-read in the closing chapter of "Tragedy" his hope that in foreign policy "Americans would no longer find it necessary to embark upon crusades to save others." Some years ago in Bush's offhand reference to a Crusade-like effort in the war on terrorism, the president told us, "God is not neutral."
When Bush used this language to describe the war on terrorism, many Americans saw themselves to be witnesses to the slow-motion wreck of our most basic values. Instead of being a last recourse, or a necessary evil, Bush seemed to be striving for a divinely sanctioned war, specifically against Islam.
It is not the lesson that Williams would have wanted to teach. Nobody doubts there is a U.S. empire with unprecedented military capability. There is still the continuing question, however, of what sort of empire we intend ours to be. At the very least we have no choice but to navigate carefully, even humbly, between the rocks of timidity and the shoals of hubris. The war in Iraq, so often wrongly justified as a vindication of U.S. purpose, represents, in fact, its latest betrayal and yet another tragedy.
Tom Thompson is a member of the adjunct faculty in the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University.