Alison Cozby 4492
Alan Tonelson, “The Real
National Interest,” Foreign Policy, 61, Winter 1985-86,
Post WWII foreign policies were created by
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
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
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.
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
The 1969 Nixon Doctrine for aiding
friendly countries facing externally sponsored subversion was intended to limit
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
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
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
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
When to Use
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
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.
A specific thinking, interest based, foreign policy has been
avoided because of a fear that such a policy would speedily withdraw
America from the
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.