Between Virtue and Power

Between Virtue and Power: The Persistent Moral Dilemma of U.S. Foreign Policy

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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    Between Virtue and Power
    Book Description:

    In this survey of U.S. history, John Kane looks at the tensions between American virtue and power and how those tensions have influenced foreign policy. Americans have long been suspicious of power as a threat to individual liberty, Kane argues, and yet the growth of national power has been perceived as a natural byproduct of American virtue. This contradiction has posed a persistent crisis that has influenced the trajectory of American diplomacy and foreign relations for more than two hundred years.

    Kane examines the various challenges, including emerging Nationalism, isolationism, and burgeoning American power, which have at times challenged not only foreign policy but American national identity. The events of September 11, 2001, rekindled Americans' sense of righteousness, the author observes, but the subsequent use of power in Iraq has raised questions about the nation's virtue and, as in earlier days, cast a deep shadow over its purpose and direction.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15171-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    When george w. bush came to office in 2001, he offered America an apparently bizarre conjunction of qualities to encapsulate his administration’s perspective on foreign policy: “strength and humility.” “Strength” signaled a Reaganite determination that the United States would “stand tall” in the world and not allow itself to be pushed around. The question was, to what purposes would American strength be put? In his inaugural address, Bush, speaking in the manner of Woodrow Wilson, expressed an intention to defend freedom, democracy, and peace, but not through direct action abroad. Rather, on a traditional assumption that what is good for...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Origins and Significance of the American Mythology
    (pp. 18-31)

    The idea of america’s justificatory mission is an historically embedded article of national faith. Like all faiths, it can be expected to impose certain constraints upon the faithful even as it opens to them certain possibilities. Faith may be a malleable constraint, but it is a constraint nevertheless, conditioning what actions may be deemed acceptable or otherwise. Contrarily, it may also, when it has an enduring hold on masses of people, be wielded by political leaders as a powerful political instrument. If the American faith was originally adopted and promulgated by elites (not necessarily inbadfaith) for the sake...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Founding a Virtuous Republic
    (pp. 32-49)

    The founders were insistent on the need for virtue yet uncertain whether Americans really possessed it, or, even if they did, how long they could sustain it in a large commercial republic devoted to the pursuit of self-interest. There was considerable irony in the fact that, just as Americans were settling on a myth that asserted the reality of their virtue, they were designing institutions on the assumption that widespread virtue could not be expected. Self-interested human beings were eminently corruptible, most especially by power, either by possessing it or by being made subject to it. Power was the antithesis...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Problems of Virtue and Power
    (pp. 50-65)

    What then, when all is said and done, was the supposed actual content of the virtue that Americans presumed their nation to foster and themselves to exhibit? Despite the apparent clarity of the lists cited in the previous chapter, there is in fact no simple or singular answer to this question. Our discussion of republicanism has inevitably focused mainly on civic virtue, which Montesquieu argued was quite distinct from either moral or religious virtue (though he allowed they were causally interrelated). In American conditions, however, such a separation was impossible to make. A number of different, and not wholly compatible,...

    (pp. 66-80)

    The principle of nonentanglement with foreign powers that was to characterize U.S. foreign policy for a century, and to leave significant traces even after the United States had become a world leader, was born during the first few turbulent years of the nation’s history. Potentially fratricidal bitterness between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans during the 1790s, caused by the intrusion of foreign affairs into domestic politics, gave serious pause to both parties. It caused even Jefferson to think that the American mission had to be a purely exemplary one rather than one of active engagement in foreign struggles.

    Yet there...

    (pp. 81-97)

    It was highly significant that the first major test of the new republic and of its actual or prospective character should have been sparked by events abroad that raised the vexing question of entanglement in foreign affairs. Revolutionary turmoil in Europe between 1787 and 1799 reverberated violently at home, causing ideological divisions that threatened the very survival of the young United States. A consensus was eventually reached that the only safe solution was a declaration of American neutrality as between belligerents and a policy of nonentanglement in the destructive quarrels of Europe.

    The practice of neutrality was made both difficult...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Innocent Virtue and the Conquest of a Continent
    (pp. 98-122)

    A major disruption to the general sense of international isolation that America felt during the nineteenth century occurred during the Civil War. This was because intervention by the European powers, particularly Britain, was devoutly sought by the South—because it would have the effect of confirming its independence—and stoutly opposed by the North for the same reason. On several occasions, relations between Britain and the North approached crisis point, though matters were always fortunately resolved short of war.¹ But though the United States escaped serious embroilment in Europe, it remained commercially engaged; indeed, U.S. commerce grew with the general...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT From Imperialism to World Peace
    (pp. 123-143)

    A nation that now spanned a continent had three main directions in which to look as it took stock of its strength and its needs and contemplated a new place for itself in the world: southward to the countries of its own hemisphere; eastward, back toward Old Europe; and westward to the Pacific, in which direction its expansionist impulses had been carrying it all along. Looking to the south it felt a resurgence of traditional distrust about European power and influence and, as the decrepit Spanish Empire finally crumbled, discerned important strategic imperatives for asserting its own dominance in the...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Woodrow Wilson and the Reign of Virtue
    (pp. 144-164)

    In the course of a few hectic years, the presidency had passed from warrior to lawyer to priest. Wilson’s presidency marked the ascendancy of innocent virtue in U.S. foreign policy, which he promised to make “selfless” and exemplary. No exercise of American power would be allowed to offend innocent virtue on his watch.

    Yet Wilson was unable to keep his promises. He intervened violently in Latin American politics whose turbulence was in some degree a result of America’s own policy, drawn partly by the expansionist logic established by McKinley and partly by his own obstinate moralism. He would commit the...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Disillusionment and Hope
    (pp. 165-180)

    Lodge, in the bruising Senate battle over the League of Nations, defeated Wilsonian multilateralism but also accidentally defeated his own larger goal of having the United States play a role in world affairs commensurate with its power. The senators who insisted that the country remain absolutely free to choose when its vital interests were at stake, and when to act to defend them, were staying true in effect to the nonentanglement principle. Such strict unilateralism automatically turned into isolationism when, in the prevailing postwar atmosphere of disillusionment, the bar for what constituted a vital American interest was set impossibly high....

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN American Isolation
    (pp. 181-199)

    The interwar years were a severely testing time for Americans and also for the mythology that sustained their faith. The evident failure of liberal democracy to deal effectively with the Great Depression caused profound distress, particularly when that failure was compared with the burgeoning success of powerful new rivals on the left and right. After 1917 the American mythology confronted a competing universalism in the shape of Soviet communism, whose mission, like America’s, was to transform the world and usher in an era of liberty and peace, but on assumptions quite incompatible with American understanding. In the 1920s, European and...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE American Virtue and the Soviet Challenge
    (pp. 200-221)

    Pearl harbor had shaken America’s confidence in its hemispheric invulnerability, while wartime technological advances in aviation, rocketry, and atomic energy finally ended any sense of geographic isolation the nation had enjoyed. Future effective defense of the homeland would have to be defense in depth and in breadth. America’s new “strategic frontier” would, in other words, have to be located far from its own shores and across broad swathes of the earth. The blood and treasure expended in capturing Pacific islands from the Japanese had convinced U.S. officials and military planners, as early as 1943–1944, of the need for a...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Anticommunism and American Virtue
    (pp. 222-237)

    It follows from what has just been said that the United States, to remain the nation it was born to be, must necessarily be anticommunist and that the defense of American virtue must necessarily imply resistance to communism. And, despite reckless accusations hurled by conspiracyminded people on the ultraright, most of America’s leaders and a vast majority of the American people have always been solidly anticommunist. Yet the threat of communism has been registered with varying degrees of intensity ever since it became clear that Soviet Russia was not (as Woodrow Wilson and many after him hoped) about to collapse...

  17. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Cold War Ironies
    (pp. 238-260)

    Such amity as had existed in the expedient friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War II was already somewhat fractured before the war had ended. In such a complicated and wary relationship, it was perhaps inevitable that the only dimly transparent actions of one side would cause offense to the other, leading to reactions that were as poorly understood and equally offensive. A deepening rift thus laid the seeds of the Cold War that followed. Whoever was ultimately most to blame for this (about which argument still proceeds), it was clear that the Americans by...

    (pp. 261-277)

    Henry kissinger used the label “Wilsonianism” to designate what he regarded as a regrettable but persistent strain of moralism in U.S. foreign policy: “As an approach to foreign policy, Wilsonianism presumes that America is possessed of an exceptional nature expressed in unrivaled virtue and unrivaled power. The United States is so confident of its strength and the virtue of its aims that it could envision fighting for its values on a worldwide basis.”¹

    I have argued that this supposed unity of power and virtue was in fact a post–World War II phenomenon rather than characteristic of Wilson and his...

  19. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Putting Humpty Together Again
    (pp. 278-302)

    The problem with U.S. military power after Vietnam was not that it had been significantly diminished—it had not. The fearful arsenal of nuclear weapons was intact, and the great military bases around the world were maintained. American power was still preponderant, yet somehow useless. American might had not been crushed as had that of Germany and Japan in World War II; it had simply been emasculated. The full extent of American power had not even been employed in Vietnam, and if it had, that nation might have been annihilated. This truth gave rise to a legend similar to that...

  20. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Offended Innocence, Righteous Wrath
    (pp. 303-329)

    American mythology fostered suspicion of power in all its forms but harbored a special fear for the corrupting and brutalizing effects of militarization. Yet Americans always understood that military strength was a source of both national pride and worldly respect, and after World War II they came to accept that it was also necessary for combating evil. But Vietnam destroyed the reconciliation that world war had effected. The misjudged commitment in Southeast Asia corroded innocent virtue and humbled republican pride. The result was not just confusion but an obsession with the dangers of military power that, in the long run,...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 330-336)

    Samuel hynes, reporting on a gathering of veterans at the new World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, wrote:

    American wars since the Second World War have been different: lost, or not won or even finished, or trivial, and morally ambiguous at best, though brave men fought in them. The Second World War was our last just and victorious war, the last war a man could come home from with any expectation of glory. The old men must be thinking about that as they gather together, must be glad that their...

  22. NOTES
    (pp. 337-392)
  23. INDEX
    (pp. 393-403)