Thursday, August 11, 2011

Top Ten Foreign Policy Presidents: Part I

Recently, Dr. Daniel Drezner of Foreign cited a study done by The Atlantic in which Michael Cohen gave his list of the "Best and Worst Foreign Policy Presidents". When I read it I realized that the only Presidents listed were from the 20th Century (and none before Woodrow Wilson) which perturbed me greatly. Time to time I've seen this before where foreign policy analysts, academics, journalists, etc tend to ignore completely the foreign policy achievements/failures of Presidents prior to Wilson. Indeed, the standard narrative continues to be that for the end of the 18th century and through the 19th the United States was happily isolationist, concerned only with focusing on its own internal affairs and building itself into a proper nation until the occurrence of the "hinge" event, namely, the Spanish-American War. According to this narrative, it's this conflict with Spain that begins to turn America's interests towards quasi-imperial musings which then become intensified (and to a degree ratified) with Woodrow Wilson and the US entrance into World War I. So then in this standard narrative the United States doesn't really begin to conduct a robust foreign policy until the 20th century, particularly until Woodrow Wilson.

This is a very myopic take on the history of American foreign policy. Yes, of course the 20th century witnessed two World Wars and one cold one. But this doesn't mean that the 18th and 19th centuries were any less significant in terms of the impact of geopolitics on the United States. So to remedy the situation I offer my own, much more comprehensive top ten list of the best foreign policy Presidents with brief explanations:

Note: these aren't necessarily in any particular order of importance.

10.) George Washington: During a very vulnerable phase in the history of the United States Washington was able to keep the foreign policy of the newly formed Republic restrained, maintaining a healthy balance between France, its most recent ally, and Britain, its most recent foe. Furthermore, in his famous Farewell Address Washington exhorted the young country not to forge "entangling alliances" with the countries of Europe because he understood that a country as newborn as itself couldn't realistically maintain such alliances and would probably find itself quickly snuffed out from history if it did so.

9.) Richard Nixon: I know this one is going to raise many eyebrows but the fact remains that no matter how detestable Nixon's domestic politics were he was (with of course the aid of Henry Kissinger) a master at crafting foreign policy. His policy of Russian detente and rapprochement with Communist China are the most notable of his achievements though they are often, along with his Vietnam policy, heavily criticized. But the fact of the matter is that a policy of detente with the Russians and an opening with China were the right policies to pursue during a decade when the United States' prestige and power was at its nadir.

8.) Abraham Lincoln: Because of the massive importance of the Civil War, Lincoln's foreign policy often gets overlooked. In fact, of the tens of thousands of books that have been written about Lincoln and the Civil War I'm not aware of one that devotes itself to studying Lincoln's foreign policy (though I'm sure at least one must exist). But the fact of the matter is that Lincoln (along with his Secretary of State William Seward) had to tread very carefully in terms of his diplomacy with the European countries, especially Britain who at one point strongly considered backing the Confederates because at the time they were importing most of their cotton from the South. But Lincoln was able to keep Britain and other countries from intervening in the Civil War; in my mind a major foreign policy achievement.

7.) Harry S. Truman: Truman tends to be a rather polarizing figure among foreign policy buffs; many detest his policies and blame him for "starting" the Cold War while others fulsomely praise his approach to foreign affairs. I tend towards the latter, minus the fulsome praise. I think Truman was a very good foreign policy president especially when you consider that he was thrust into the role of world statesman upon the sudden death of FDR when, by his own admission, he had no prior foreign policy experience. Truman had to preside over the end of WW II, the beginnings of the Cold War, European reconstruction, the Berlin crisis, the creation of Israel, and many others. Of course he had his failures, among which I would include some of his miscues during the Korean War, but overall I believe Truman handled the foreign policy load that was abruptly heaped upon him with diplomatic finesse.

6.) George H.W. Bush: I was a little hesitant to put George Sr on here because I have many problems with his approach to the Gulf War but his overseeing of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union was handled with diplomatic care and for this very simple but major reason I include him on the list.

To be continued with the final five next week, of the list that is and not the final five Cylons.

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