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Diplomatic Advisers: Washington, Kennan, FDR

by John A. Moore, Jr. and Ralph E. Shaffer on Dec 22, 2008

Who would have thought that President-Elect Barack Obama should be channeling George Washington for foreign policy advice?

After all, the bewigged fellow on the one-dollar bill lived a long time ago. His last communication – the "Farewell Address" of 1796 – was really a long time ago. In fact, the address wasn't even a speech (and certainly wasn't announced on TV, over the Internet, or via an iPod, as would be the case with the avant-garde Obama). Washington presented his case in 18th-century newspapers.
We think of Washington's Farewell Address (if we think of it at all) as an obsolete command for Americans to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. That's a simplistic interpretation. Washington's words offered wise instruction that Obama should heed.
Our first president admonished Americans to avoid foreign influences in foreign affairs. Those who promoted the discrete aims of foreign nations or foreign peoples would always try to manipulate the United States into supporting their parochial wishes. Complying with such entreaties, Washington knew, could harm America's national wellbeing. Specifically, he warned Americans to avoid "inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others."
Yet antipathies against, and attachments to, special nations and peoples too often drive U.S. policy today; as, for example, in the Caribbean (think Cuba), in the Caucasus (think Georgia), and in the Middle East (think Israel). The world will welcome the new president's restoration of Washington's benchmark of impartiality in international relations. The revival will bolster America's clear national interests.
Indeed, Obama ought to reject the fashionable proposition that in the face of novel challenges (such as 9/11 and the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India) historical American international practices are outdated. Other than the Farewell Address, he should bring back two other successful diplomatic formulas: George Kennan's Containment policy and Franklin Roosevelt's internationalist program, crafted at the end of World War II.
In July 1947, the journal Foreign Affairs published George Kennan's "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which became the theoretical underpinning for the policy of Containment. Kennan insisted that, toward the Soviet Union, the United States should apply "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies….such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.'"
The United States, Kennan wrote, should "promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." The Cold War struggle, Kennan concluded, was "in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. . . . the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation."
Kennan's advice became American policy. By 1991, the Soviet Union peacefully collapsed. Containment had been a masterful success.
Consider the American approach to Iraq from 1991 to 2002. Containment of Iraq worked – Saddam Hussein's government developed no weapons of mass destruction, no additional attacks occurred against neighboring countries and Baghdad did not establish any connection with al-Qiada. Yet in 2003, the United States abandoned its distinct containment posture and launched an ill-advised war against Hussein's regime.
As the new administration thinks about dealing with various overseas irritants – such as, for example, Iran – it should find steady containment clearly preferable to a policy of bluster and military action.
Finally, after World War II the United States sponsored a vigorous effort to create multinational bonds. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations encouraged the establishment of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Americans saw these efforts as complementary to the simultaneous launching of the United Nations.
The postwar planners' aim was to bring the world closer together politically, financially, economically and culturally. Sadly, in the last eight years, the United States has abandoned Roosevelt's internationalism. Going it alone with a cocky unilateral stance has only antagonized our allies and emboldened our enemies.
The architects of the next American foreign policy must pursue the practicality of Washington's warning against the influence of narrow interests on national policy. They must abide by the tenacity of Kennan's containment model. And they must restore the vision of Roosevelt's internationalism. These traditions will be particularly relevant amid the growing worldwide unrest that cannot be simply dismissed as a side effect of the "war on terror."
Heeding Washington's injunction will insulate the United States from much of the animosity directed toward this country in recent years. Kennan's containment will rid us of endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. Roosevelt's economic internationalism will provide a safeguard against a return to nationalistic economic practices in the wake of the current worldwide financial crisis.

John A. Moore Jr., professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, is co-editor of the "Encyclopedia of the United Nations," 2d edition, and a writer for the History News Service.

Ralph E. Shaffer is a professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University and a writer for the History News Service.