Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Something Unnew under the Very Hot Sun

After the French Revolution in 1789, France had formed a republic and, therefore, had a philosophical bond with the American republic in its opposition to the British Monarchists. And the Americans owed the French a debt; the French had been crucial in the American independence war. (In fairness, the monarchist French help was not philosophical, it was practical. The Americas offered opposition to their old enemy and a unification between the Americas and Britain would be intolerable for the French.) But Britain had become a major U.S. trading partner. Britain also controlled the North Atlantic and could blockade American ships and strangle the American economy. So, when the U.S. had to choose between alignment with Britain or its old ally, France, the U.S. chose Britain. When faced with a choice between reality and morality, the U.S.--as the French had in supporting revolutionary America--chose to protect its own interests.

George Washington summed up the ideal American strategy in his Farewell Address:
"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence, she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."

The essence of the problem was that the Americans recognized that Europe was an evolving international struggle, a landscape that was changing and vicious. The Americans could not be isolated from them as their commercial interests were great, but they could not militarily align with any because the Europeans were soaked in a history the Americans had escaped. If they were unconvinced in the 19th century, they certainly were in the 20th. They volunteered for the first great war and behaved afterward as if something momentous had been achieved. Then came WW11. Europe was revealed as a cauldron of ancient hatreds, animosities, ambitions and angst. Americans struggled with its responsibilities to itself and to others.

They face a similar problem now in the Middle East.

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