Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2. It started with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939. Two days later, Great Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany.
This was a war of catastrophic human destruction – the genocide of European Jewry, the killing of over thirty million Russians, and the termination of the war by the nuclear weapon destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet I was disturbed that I saw virtually no media coverage last week of the commemoration of this anniversary.
In the presidential election of 2016, foreign policy will play a most significant role, perhaps becoming as major a factor as the usual voting issues of jobs and the economy. Increasing isolationism has become a major trend in the American electorate, propelling the presidential candidacy of Rand Paul. The lessons we should have learned from our World War 2 experience are most relevant as to the dangers of this neoisolationist course.
As I have said in previous columns, on foreign policy issues, I am an adherent of the late Hans Morgenthau and his defining work, A New Foreign Policy for the United States. In this book, Morgenthau asserted that virtually the sole criterion for foreign policy making should be America’s national interest, and not grandiose or idealistic visions.
If the neoisolationist trend prevails in 2016, there will be a major shift in American foreign policy – and one, which in my view, is not in our national interest under the Morgenthau doctrine.
Indeed, this was a lesson we should have learned from World War 2. During the 1930s, isolationism was embodied in the concept of a Fortress America – the notion that the United States of America could ensure its own security by enhancing its military defenses within its borders and by improving its naval forces immediately offshore in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The concept of Fortress America was thoroughly discredited by World War 2. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi Lend-Lease British assistance, however deviously it may have been applied, saved America as well as Great Britain. Had Nazi Germany conquered Great Britain in 1941, Hitler would have had control of two of the world’s leading navies, and American national security would definitely have been imperiled.
Yet there are foreign policy lessons equally important to remember from the conflicts involving America since World War 2, most notably Vietnam and the second Iraq war. Yes, America is the most powerful nation on earth, but we are not omnipotent. We do not have the capacity to act as policeman of the world, and we should not attempt to impose a Pax Americana.
Our interventions in foreign situations outside the Western Hemisphere should be limited to those matters where we have a direct national interest, be it geopolitical or economic. We have such interests in protecting the sea lanes of the South China Sea, the safety and security of Israel, which is our vital port of call in the Mediterranean Sea, and in Middle Eastern oil. We do not have any such national interests justifying intervention in the religious civil wars within Islamic nations or in the various conflicts that have ensued between Russia and its former fellow member nations in the now defunct Soviet Union, including Georgia and Ukraine.
It is essential that our next president have the acute insight and discerning judgment to understand the limits of American power as well as the dimensions of our military strength. It is vital that our next president have the capacity to comprehend and articulate the subtleties and nuances of foreign policy, yet still have the courage to dare and the will to do.
It appears that the latest fad to hit the foreign policy reading list is Henry Kissinger’s forthcoming book, World Order. Doubtless, most of the likely presidential candidates for both party nominations will read it and give enthusiastic endorsements for it. Hillary Clinton has already read the book and written a glowing review. I plan to read the book myself, although I am not one of Kissinger’s most passionate admirers.
Henry Kissinger has often been termed as a modern day Prince Metternich. Those of us who are ardent students of history know full well that the vision of Metternich was discredited thoroughly by the European revolutions of 1848.
Interestingly, Henry Kissinger and Hans Morgenthau were good personal friends, despite their ideological disagreement. I would strongly recommend that our presidential candidates of both parties read Morgenthau before they read Kissinger.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.