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A Foreign Policy for America

By Roger Kimball

A friend recently passed along a 5000-word essay by Senator Barry Goldwater called "A Foreign Policy for America." This remarkable work, which appeared in March, 1961 in National Review, is instructive on many levels. I was impressed not only by the substance of the essay--its sober appreciation of the realities of human interplay on the stage of foreign affairs--but also by its tone. The word is out of fashion, I know, but no other term will do: Senator Goldwater's essay exhibits a manly tone, his sober insights are expressed in a sober, virile manner. This is a serious man writing seriously about a most serious subject.

You might think that an essay written in 1961 would, in mid-2007, be little more than an historical curiosity, a sepia-tinged memento from a bygone era. After all, Goldwater was writing at the height of the Cold War: John F. Kennedy had only recently taken office, most people hadn't even heard of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan was a B-list movie actor, Islam was a curiosity, not a threat, and the new wall separating East from West Berlin seemed as impermeable as the Soviet Union itself.

How different the world looks today! As different, I suppose, as the world in 1961 seemed in comparison with the world of 1914--forty six years encompasses a deal of change. But the curious thing about Senator Goldwater's reflection is not how dated but how pertinent it seems. Substitute the phrase "radical Islam" for "Communist," make allowances for a few other anachronisms, and "A Foreign Policy for America" could as well have been written today as in 1961. This is partly because of the clear-eyed view of human nature that informs the essay. The "ultimate objective" of American foreign policy, Goldwater argues, is to foster the largest measure possible of peace, freedom, and economic prosperity around the world, but especially in the United State. The qualification "largest possible measure" is critical, he explains, "because any person who supposes that these conditions can be universally and perfectly achieved--ever--reckons without the inherent imperfectability of himself and his fellow human beings, and is therefore a dangerous man to have around."

That last phrase is a good indication of Goldwater's anthropological maturity--and his political wisdom. Those in whom the appreciation of mankind's ineradicable imperfection is deficient are indeed dangerous to have around, as "idealists" from Robespierre to Pol Pot have demonstrated, to the world's sorrow. It is one thing to profess one's allegiance to freedom, democracy, equality, and the rights of man: just think of what terrors have been undertaken by countries whose names feature "People's Republic" and whose official rhetoric bristles with declarations of brotherly love; it is quite another thing act in a way that tends to foster those desiderata in fact.

The proximate evil that engages Senator Goldwater is Soviet Communism, which he rightly diagnoses as an expansionist, freedom-devouring ideology. But the value of his analysis does not depend upon Communism. It depends upon the metabolism of power, perennially "the key problem of international relations." As the Senator observes, "the main cause of the trouble we are in has been the failure of American policy-makers, ever since we assumed free world leadership in 1945, to deal with this problem realistically and seriously." This remains as true today, in 2007, as it was in 1961. "Unless radical changes are made on our side," he argues, the situation will progressively worsen until the United States is at bay--isolated and besieged by an entirely hostile world. We will have to shed the attitudes and techniques of the Salvation Army, and start behaving like a Great Power. To gain respect, not prestige. I do not mean to disparage the Salvation Army. I do mean, however, that the affairs of nations are not determined by goodwill tours, almsgiving, gestures of self-denial, rehabilitation projects and discussion programs. The affairs of nations are determined--for good or for evil--by power.

It is vastly less important that the world think well of us than that the world respect us--using the term not in the sense of "esteem" but in the sense of "show deference to." For countries as well as for individuals, the promiscuous desire to be liked is a profound character flaw. It is also, as the Senator points out, self-defeating, since "the very admiration and respect we covet is denied to us the moment we go out and beg for it. The would-be beneficiaries of our concessions and self-denials soon construe them as weaknesses, and want more."

"A Foreign Policy for America" is full of sound advice--about dealing with Africa, for example ("We cannot acquiesce in independence movements where independence means a return to savagery or Communist domination"), disarmament ("We begin by announcing that we are against it"), and the U.N. ("We begin by not taking it seriously"). Perhaps its most profound observation comes towards the end when, returning to the issue of power, Senator Goldwater notes that while might does not make right, "right cannot survive without might and without using might." In the 1940s, George Orwell argued that pacifism was "objectively pro-Nazi" because it inculcated an attitude that aided England's enemies. By the same token, those who refuse to live up to the responsibility that power demands tragically ally themselves not with the virtue they admire but with the enemies of freedom they abhor.

Roger Kimball is co-Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books.

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