Why Did Anyone Believe That Power Politics Went Away?


Be sure to read this piece by Raphael Cohen and Gabriel Scheinmann, which serves to remind us that, even though it is not the 19th century, nation-states still play the Great Game. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering in this revelation, but it has to be emphasized nonetheless because the Obama administration—through the comments of Secretary Kerry—seems to have thought that international power politics were a thing of the past. The Administration ought to have known better than that, but, for a time, it seemed to pretend not to know. If that kind of naïveté doesn’t bother you, you are more laid back than I am.

The following excerpt is especially worth pondering:

Ironically, it is the Obama administration’s reaction, not Vladimir Putin’s behavior, that seems out of step with historical precedent. To be sure, the administration shares the combined feelings of horror, revulsion, and pity of European power politics with early American leaders. In his Farewell Address, George Washington characterized European disputes with the same disgust that Kerry expressed for Russia’s recent actions, describing them as “the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” Thomas Jefferson similarly remarked on the “calamitous scenes of Europe,” noting that “it is our duty to look on the bloody arena spread before us with commiseration indeed, but with no other wish than to see it closed.”

The founding fathers, however, were not naïve. Washington, Jefferson, and others were fully cognizant of American weakness and the limited interests the country had in such far-flung corners of Europe. They understood the way the game was played and decided it was best for the United States to sit it out until it could compete. As Washington imparted, “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.” This approach, whose echoes can be seen in contemporary libertarianism, is at least internally consistent, if not always prudent.

The Obama administration’s reaction also marks a break from the giants of 20th-century American internationalism. Awoken from their slumber by the wars in Europe, Americans realized that while they may not like the zero-sum nature of European politics, they had to live with it, and thus they sought to shape it. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt argued that “from 1815 to 1914— ninety-nine years— no single war in Europe or in Asia constituted a real threat against our future or against the future of any other American nation.” But, he asserted, this was no longer true: “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion—or even good business.” And with this, Roosevelt cemented the conversion of American foreign policy that began with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, lasted through the Cold War, and persists today among the more hawkish elements of both parties—transforming the United States from a neutral, if sometimes naïve, power to the indispensable nation. The game was simply too important for the United States to sit on the bench any longer.

Again, it is worth emphasizing—as Cohen and Scheinmann do—that the Obama Administration simply tried to pretend that great power politics went the way of the dinosaur. That fact ought to be remembered the next time someone tries to claim that this administration has brought foreign policy realism back from the dead.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member

    “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” – George R. R. Martin

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