This past weekend, Nicholas Kristof had an op-ed piece in the New York Times asking a simple question: "Why [is the US] so awful at foreign policy?" [rr]
Kristof's question is a good one. The US has notoriously had a difficult time crafting an effective foreign policy (although I don't know of any country that is necessarily good at it). Here's Kristof:
It’s not just right-wing Republicans who are the problem. President Bush has been particularly myopic, but Democrats mired us in Vietnam: shortsightedness is a bipartisan tradition in foreign policy. Historically, we are often our own worst enemy.
Why is this the case? Kristof offers two explanations:
The first is that great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments, and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability....I tend to agree with the first, but Kristof's second explanation is far too simplistic. Kristof claims that the US fails to grasp the appeal of simple nationalistic politics, in part because few Americas have lived abroad. Why should Americans be any less understanding of the world than other countries? If anything, the opposite should be true. The US is the most integrated, most diverse country in the world. According to the US Census Bureau, as of 1997 10% of the US population was born abroad.
The second reason is particular to the U.S.: We don’t understand the world.
The flaw that I think Kristof is hinting at but ultimately misses is that, historically, the US has failed to understand and embrace cold-blooded realist foreign policies. The two biggest US foreign policy disasters have been the result of attempts at crusading and moralizing: Vietnam and Iraq. Realist politics would have kept the US out of both. Indeed, many realists, so often mischaracterized as hawks, argued against invading Iraq long before the invasion took place. See "An Unnecessary War," by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt (Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb. 2003) for an excellent example.
Of course, a more realist foreign policy is not necessarily a pacific or mistake-free foreign policy. US backing for dictators such as Pinochet during the Cold War or American support for the coup that brought down the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 would both likely be justified in a realist calculus. But, realism would caution against moral endeavors like Iraq; look at the pining for Bush 41 style foreign policy.
But can the US have a more realist foreign policy? Should it? The answer to both questions is, most likely, no. The US has, since its beginnings, seen itself in the "city on the hill" mode. Whether that's the quasi-religious vision of some conservatives or the human rights-based arguments of more liberal types, American foreign policy has always understood itself to be advancing universal truths and improving the lots of others. Furthermore, look what happens when the US ignores moral imperatives in favor of realist calculations: Rwanda. Sudan. The "realist" policies of Nixon and detente likely extended the shelf-life of the Soviet Union; the neo-conservative policies of Reagan forced the issue and led to the end of the Cold War.
For all of its problems, the US will most likely continue to eschew cold, hard realism for a more amalgamated mix of realism and idealism. And yes, that will lead to crusading, moralizing, and misadventures. But it also keeps this country grounded in the ideals that make it great.