A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility
Joan Hoff, December 2007, 978-0521714044
Jonathan Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust tells of the title character’s ‘deal with the devil’ in his search for self-fulfillment, in which he trades his soul for a series of short term gains. In A Faustian Foreign Policy from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush: Dreams of Perfectibility Joan Hoff, Research Professor of History at Montana State University, Bozeman, draws a parallel between Faust, with his headstrong and shortsighted desires, and the United States, with its willingness to ignore the principles on which it was founded, as well as the potential implications of its unapologetic foreign policy decisions, in order to build and maintain its hegemonic position. Dr. Hoff offers a sharp critique of US foreign policy while chronicling the progression of Faustian diplomatic agreements made since 1920 and revealing their roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century American history.
Hoff first traces the beginnings of US foreign policy to the nation’s Puritanical founding and the American colonists’ enduring belief that their territorial expansion was a force for good and blessed by God. The conviction that America is an exceptional nation with God always on its side is reflected in the words of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who in 1630 preached that the Puritans’ purpose was to found a ‘city set on a hill.’ This myth of American Exceptionalism has maintained its position in American cultural identity, with Woodrow Wilson’s view of the US’ ‘self-possession’ and Ronald Reagan’s oft-cited echoing of Winthrop’s phrase standing among many such examples of its presence in contemporary society. As she explains, power in the US’ hands becomes automatically virtuous due to this belief and thus Washington feels it is free to act unilaterally because its actions are in the world’s best interest.
The US presidents are here divided into three eras: the traditional, premodern presidencies from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge; the modern presidencies, beginning with Herbert Hoover’s transition and ending with Ronald Reagan; and finally the postmodern presidencies, which began with George H.W. Bush. Traditional presidents differ from their modern and postmodern successors in that they were much more under the thumb of Congress regarding both foreign and domestic policies, although a select few were markedly more assertive, particularly Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Hoff takes care to highlight the presidential doctrines from this time period that have influenced US foreign policy, whether by their original intent or through later interpretations and corollaries, including Washington’s 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality and the Monroe Doctrine (and its Roosevelt Corollary).
While many debate the matter, the author makes clear from the beginning her stance that the US is indeed an empire, though when compared to past historical powers, such as the Roman or British Empires, the US attained its standing in an extremely short time period of roughly 50 years. This quick assent did not require the US to first mature as a nation and learn how to handle this power, and therefore it remains an immature hegemon due to its refusal to take responsibility for its actions and policies. Hoff explores in depth the concept of independent internationalism, in which the US prefers to take action on its own and resorts to cooperation only when it must. She eschews the application of personal moralistic absolutism in US foreign relations, arguing that such behavior prevents self-critical analysis and the acknowledgement of the negative effects of US policies both of which are necessary in order to shed the myth of American innocence. Encouraged by American exceptionalism, independent internationalism thwarts cooperation and hinders diplomacy, although it tends to be less prevalent during times of crisis.
As indicated by the title, she spends the majority of the book analyzing the foreign policy decisions of Presidents Wilson through George W. Bush, taking a great many pages to examine Wilson’s policies, beliefs, his view of the Monroe Doctrine, and policy of self-determination, as well as to differentiate between Positive and Negative Wilsonianism. The concept of independent or unilateral internationalism comes into play here as well, since every modern and postmodern president has engaged in this behavior. While this tendency began well before the 20th century, it became most pronounced during this time and was highlighted by a presidential commission in 1933.
Another pervasive theme is the osmosis of power from the legislative to the executive branch. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first truly modern president according to Hoff, greatly increased the powers of the presidency in both foreign and domestic affairs, and this power shift from the legislative to the executive branch became even more pronounced during the fear-filled Cold War years, in which Congress frequently yielded to the president’s requests for a freer hand to make foreign policy decisions. Congress’ steady relinquishment of its right to weigh in on policy decisions is directly correlated with the rise of the US as a global force, and this progression of Faustian bargains has yielded a modern presidency much more powerful than the founders intended.
The postmodern presidencies, described by Hoff as ‘imponderable,’ are those following the end of the Cold War, and are defined by the lack of a cohesive, coherent foreign policy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the powers of the presidency, which had been bolstered in the name of national security, were left unexamined despite their violation of separation of powers. George H.W. Bush’s presidency served as a transition between the modern and postmodern, with Clinton acting as the first real postmodern president. Neither man attempted to restructure US foreign policy in light of the new world order or to confront the myriad diplomatic issues created by the Cold War; this neglect facilitated the free rein of George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives.
Referred to as the ‘most Wilsonian president since Wilson himself’ due to his overtly religious rhetoric and tendency to moralize diplomatic issues, George W. Bush failed to take up the mantle of developing a responsible 21st century US foreign policy and scaling back executive power, choosing instead to wage a disastrous preemptive war and further expand the presidency. Hoff chronicles in detail his two terms in office and his legacy of hundreds of presidential signing statements, which are used to void sections of Congressional legislation; the CIA ‘black hole’ prisons that deny prisoners the right of habeas corpus; and the Faustian practice of government-authorized torture, to name but a few of his administration’s offenses.
While intensely critical of the ideological basis for American diplomacy and the stubborn adherence to American exceptionalism and independent internationalism, Hoff remains hopeful of the potential for change, due to the regenerative nature of the presidential office. Despite all of its missteps and irresponsible actions, she believes there remains an opportunity to acknowledge these errors and to develop a new, responsible foreign policy.