Alison Cozby 4492


Alan Tonelson, “The Real National Interest,” Foreign Policy, 61, Winter 1985-86, pp. 49-72


Main Point

Post WWII foreign policies were created by United States leaders that suffer from what Tonelson calls “delusions of universalism”. Policy makers neglect to make priorities, and, in fact, feel that the United States has important interests in every corner of the globe.  The United States cannot deal with unlimited foreign policy issues when it has limited resources. The abstract notions that are the basis for foreign policy need to be replaced with a finite set of policies that support a concrete idea of national interests. 



What is universalism?  Why does the universal mindset cause problems? What problems does it cause? What should change? The universalistic mindset does not allow priorities to be set for foreign policy, but instead allows unimportant issues to take priority.  The attempt to manage everything is impossible with a limited amount of resources.  Problems resulting from a universal foreign policy agenda are that the line between primary and secondary concerns is blurred, it is likely that the U.S. will waste resources and energy on things that should be considered low priority, the lack of a clear purpose make allies untrusting and enemies disrespectful, and ultimately the lack of strategy and self interest can be self damaging.  Only with clear goals in high priority regions of national self interest can foreign policy effectively use available resources.


Presidential Doctrines under Universalism

Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s American policy makers strove to convince themselves, the American people, and foreign audiences that unlimited interests could be preserved with limited means.

The 1969 Nixon Doctrine for aiding friendly countries facing externally sponsored subversion was intended to limit U.S. involvement to military and economic aid, while the troubled country should provide the bulk of the manpower for its defense.   However, once Nixon announced that Americans would “maintain our interests in Asia and the commitments that flow from them,” it was very difficult to follow through given that the U.S. has a limited set of resources.  The Nixon Doctrine failed in the case of South Vietnam, which was incapable of self-defense with U.S. troops, as it eventually fell.

            Kissinger stated in 1968 that the U.S. needed to focus goals, but policy did not reflect this idea.  Nixon-Kissinger policies in dealing with the Soviet Union consisted of a complicated system of reward and punishment that tried to manage the rules of competition.  They held to the belief the Moscow was behind all Third World instability as it was innately expansionary.  They also believed that any left-leaning forces in the Third World were pro-Soviet. Furthermore, they believed that America would lose all credibility if it did not counter any Soviet move, without regard to a larger set of goals, and no matter what the costs. 

Carter too felt the Soviet threat, but he viewed the Soviet government as expansionist only out of fear, and felt that many Third world leftist were merely nationalists, not necessarily pro-Soviet. As a result, he dedicated resources to combat Moscow through diplomacy and economic aid.  He tried to gain Third World countries’ support and prevent Moscow from befriending them.  This was successful in Zimbabwe and the Panama Canal treaties struggle. However, because of the magnitude of Third World struggle, an overall success by these methods would be very expensive.  An additional drawback to Carter’s policies was that the Soviet’s could win with aggression where the Americans were not persuading through aid.  An example of this is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  When Carter reached a point where he could not handle a problem through his preferred means, he was left with a gap between professed interests and available power to accomplish them.


The problem with both the Nixon-Kissinger policies, and Carter policies is that both are responsive, trying to merely predict and prevent Soviet actions. Both policies lack a mechanism to set priorities and clarify U.S. interests.


When to Use Force

In every debate to set Foreign Policy priorities and goals (limitations), Americans always return to the importance of national security.  In 1984, Defense Secretary Weinberger (working under Regan) verbalized this contradiction when in one speech he stated “We cannot pay any price or bear any burden.  We must discriminate” yet in a different speech he stated, “We must confront aggression. We must defend what is dear to us”, and also said America “must bear responsibility for the consequences of inaction as well for its action.”  Weinberger later tried to create conservative criteria for the use of force which followed the mentality that “we should only engage our troops if we must do so as a matter of our own vital national interest.”  Kissinger too spoke of limits, but also stated that the U.S. had to take part in what is “vital” to American interests.  Of course, the problem being that American interests were not well specified, and thus allowing many things seem vital and worthy of a military involvement.


The “Acheson Problem”

A possible objection to foreign policy based on specific thinking foreign policy is credibility.  The Regan administration believed that credibility would be lost if we did not stand firm in Central America, and have reactions to every Soviet move.  Those concerned about credibility also thought that American officials cannot afford to imply that some parts of the world are more important than others.  What the administration did not consider was the ability a superpower has to project an impression of power, shape public concerns, and keep opponents guessing without having to commit force everywhere the country has a mild concern.


Without priorities well set and strategic plans that align with those priorities, there is the risk of accidentally encouraging assaults in low priority areas, at which time they turn into a higher priority, and use more resources.  This is known as the “Acheson Problem”.  If this occurs, even thought policy makers have not made the implication that some parts of the world are not important, they are now forced to recognize areas that were not formerly a concern are presently indeed important.  They are also forced to sacrifice resources in having to deal with these areas.


The National-Interests Tests 

A specific thinking, interest based, foreign policy has been avoided because of a fear that such a policy would speedily withdraw America from the world.  America could plausibly protect itself from attack without playing a large international role.  This fear would not exist if foreign policy would be viewed as the accumulation and expansion of benefits from as many places as possible.  Every foreign policy action should have national interests at heart, or pass the National-Interest Test.  This idea, for example, would encourage defense of western Europe and Japan as this would protect the global economy, a direct national concern. This would also lead to the protection of oil for reasonable oil pricing. Other areas proving to be worthy of support, are Egypt, with its willingness to allow U.S. use of military facilities, and South Korea, as its security affects Japan.  These areas have been included in foreign policy for those reasons, but the United States has failed to make specific goals and limit its actions to those areas that pass the test.  The lack of direction leads to complicated and demanding relationships. 



The universalism era must end. Foreign policy must be based on a view that finds other countries to have varying degrees of importance. Specific policies for primary concern areas that relate directly to national interest must be developed.  In secondary areas American can base policy on preferences not needs. In less than vital regions the United States should recognize that it is forceful and not interested enough to dedicated time and resources.