“Foreign affairs” smacks, in my puerile imagination, as something risqué between diplomats and sexy female spies as much as about foreign policy. But today let’s focus on foreign affairs, as in affairs between states, not diplomats and spies.
I’ve written about foreign affairs occasionally. I tied Alabama into one study of the air war over the Bay of Pigs, April 1961. Alabama Air National Guardsmen from Birmingham were recruited to train Cuban exile pilots in the B-26s that the CIA acquired for the Cuban invasion force put together to depose Fidel Castro. Some of the American pilots, like Lt. Col. Joe Shannon, a veteran of World War II, and the commanding officer of the Alabama pilots, even flew a combat mission over the Bay of Pigs on the third day of the invasion, taking off and returning from a secret CIA air strip on the north coast of Nicaragua.
What has attracted my attention in subjects like the one described above on the Alabama pilots in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was how this invasion fit in to the overall structure and principles driving U. S. foreign policy in modern times.
By the way, the invasion didn’t fail because of the Alabama pilots. They did a good job. It failed because of one or two basic decisions made during the invasion by President John F. Kennedy.
An article in the Wall Street Journal on July 22, titled “What Truman Can Teach Trump,” caught my attention, especially since there appear to be two schools of thought about Trump and learning: One, he’s a know-it-all; two, he’s a quick study and likes to ask a lot of questions.
At the core of the argument made in the article by Walter Russell Mead is the proposition that American fears were exploited by leaders such as President Harry S. Truman to make effective foreign policy. Or, put another way, Truman invoked the populist sentiments and fears of the American public to create a viable and necessary foreign policy to rebuild Europe and counter the expansionism of the Soviet Union.
Mead writes “Truman and [Sen. Arthur] Vandenberg understood something profound about the politics of American foreign policy. While foreign policy professionals in government, the academy, and the media are often motivated by hope — the prospect of building a global trading order, for example, or of making the world more democratic — the public at large tends to be more focused on fear.” [italics added]
“If the American public had no fears about emerging threats elsewhere in the world,” Mead noted, “it would be very hard to get public support for an activist foreign policy with high-minded ambition. Truman took the fears of the public seriously and tried to give them constructive expression: They were a crucial source of the political energy needed to power America’s global engagement.”
Truman’s key to obtaining public support in crafting American foreign policy was the Communist threat to world peace and democracy. Today, so Mead writes, is more complicated than it was in 1947. Perhaps.
There is no single threat to the U. S. like the Soviet Union under Stalin. We have jihadist terror, the growing danger of nuclear weapons proliferating, possible debilitating cyberwarfare, a rising China, the impact of globalization on American jobs. These can all generate fears for sure, and Trump, like Truman before him, rode those fears into the presidency.
The question then becomes, can Trump replicate Truman’s successes? Truman and his advisers “understood that connecting their strategic goals with public fears was the key to success.”
The second problem is to determine what underlying themes need to drive our foreign policy today. “There is today,” Mead observes, “very little popular support for the [Woodrow] Wilsonian belief that the spread of democracy can solve America’s most urgent foreign-policy problems.”
If not democracy, and everything it has brought us — liberty, freedom, the rule of law, and equality for example — then what? We have been singularly unsuccessful in “nation-building,” unless you consider Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Turkey, and Egypt successes. “The disasters that have unfolded in all of these countries in recent years have driven home the idea, for many Americans, that foreign-policy experts have no idea what they are doing.”
There are crucial questions we need to pose, debate and answer. What are we about in foreign affairs?
What do we embrace, and either respect and extol (like democracy), and what do we fear (like jihadist terror)? The University of Alabama can take an important role in this area if it has the will to do so.
Larry Clayton is a retired University of Alabama history professor. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.