The United States is probably the only major country in the world in which it is taken quite as a matter of course that people will talk seriously about the relation of the nation’s values to its foreign policy. We in this country seem to believe, first, that there is something distinctive about our values, such that we can speak—even if with some uncertainty—about American values; and, second, that these values do, or should, affect our foreign policy. We do not drag out the theme of American values in their relation to foreign policy only because we happen to be celebrating our bicentennial and feel therefore that some special Sunday topic, some ceremonial theme, is necessary. We are used to talking about American values in many contexts besides foreign affairs—our domestic social policies, our racial policies, the urban crisis, the state of religion, or of the youth, or of the family. For Americans, such considerations are not a Sunday special—they are ordinary everyday fare.

There is one other difference between the United States and other countries in this respect. In England, France, Germany, Japan, or India, only the Right speaks of national values and insists that they be made significant in the shaping of policy. In America, however, liberals as well as conservatives are given to asserting that national values should affect foreign policy. I think there is one important reason for this: in the United States when we speak of national values, there is no implication of a primordial past, lost to memory, no suggestion that our values arise from race, blood, and soil. To speak of American values is to speak—still, and for most people—of founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers—known to all, clearly available, existing in the full light of history, and propounding what have by now become universal values, whether or not they are realized in practice. Americans are in the fortunate position that the values asserted in 1776 have in large measure been accepted by all the world. Whatever it was Thomas Jefferson and the other founders meant in asserting that “All men are created equal,” this statement by now has nothing exclusively American about it. Everyone agrees with the words, whatever he may do in fact.

The United States is thus unique in being able to claim that in speaking of its own national values it does not separate itself from other nations, other races, other peoples. But there is another important reason we can make this claim, and that is that the United States is in fact composed of people drawn from every place and every race. We call our country the “United States,” a name which has no ethnic content at all; and we call ourselves “Americans,” a term with so little ethnic specificity that it can refer to any of the peoples of the New World.

This is not of course to say that the words “American” and the “United States” today always conjure up noble founding documents, or a country open to political and religious refugees and to immigrants seeking better social and economic opportunities. Many today see the United States and the American people in quite a different light. Indeed, the first major problem in talking of American values in relation to foreign policy is whether the values that have guided our foreign policy have truly been the benign ones embodied in our founding documents, or whether they have in contrast been the values of racism, imperialism, class domination, and national arrogance. This latter picture of American behavior in the world is increasingly widespread. It may even be the dominant one today in the world at large, if debates in the United Nations are any evidence, and in large parts of the American population as well, particularly among the educated young, to judge by the general tenor of editorials in college newspapers.

There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs. If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.

We are now engaged in a great struggle over the shape of this image. The speeches of the President and his Secretary of State, and of various presidential contenders, show a wide range of views as to the proper assessment of recent American foreign policy. Has it been a defense of freedom by a strong nation, which has suffered some recent reverses but can still recover? This seems to be the point of view of the President and Secretary of State; but the Secretary is said to believe that we are really weak, or weakening, and he is attacked for wanting to make the best deal possible with those who are evil and strong. The attackers divide between one group which believes we are good and still strong and should exercise the powers that belong to such a station; and another group which feels that we are less than good, and that whether we are weak or strong, we would be well advised to reshape and realize our values at home before we try to lecture anyone else about values, or exercise our will on other countries.

To complicate matters still further, the very notion that our foreign policy does distinctively express American values is today under severe attack. On the one side are those who say that we should indeed be guided in our foreign policy by basic American values, but that we have in fact forsaken those values, and that we should now return to them as soon as possible. (Which values to emphasize—whether a commitment to democracy, or a commitment to freedom, or the tradition of non-intervention—is yet another matter.) On the other side are those who say, on the contrary, that material interests, not values, should guide the foreign policy of any nation, including our own; that we have not followed this eminently sensible rule; and that we should get back to it as soon as possible. Oddly enough, these two very different positions—the one which says that we have been supporting the wrong values in our foreign policy and should start supporting the right ones; and the one which says that whatever values we have been supporting, we ought simply to follow our national interests—seem to result in the same practical proposals: that the United States should try to do less in the world, reduce its foreign-policy commitments, scale down its military budget, and tend to its own affairs.

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This is a frightfully oversimplified picture of the complex and I believe valuable debate now going on in foreign policy—a debate that is rather more sophisticated than the one we heard in 1960, or in any of the presidential campaigns since, even though, as in the case of all debates in all presidential campaigns, there is an avoidance of sharpness and clarity.

But one question raised by this debate seems reasonably sharp and clear. When the American government acts in foreign affairs, what should be our bias toward that action? Should we—initially, at least—accept the protestations of our leaders that their policies are meant to advance democracy and freedom as well as, one assumes, the interests of the United States? Or are we to see these policies as very likely expressing the interests of small and unrepresentative and self-serving elements—the security establishment, the armed forces, the multinational corporations? What are we to do about the American claim that the United States alone among the great powers effectively supports certain important values in the world? What are we to do about the claim that Woodrow Wilson made, that Franklin D. Roosevelt and all our Presidents since have made, that the dominating force in the shaping of American foreign policy is not simply national interest—although interest must always be a crucial factor—but also the defense of democracy and freedom?

The claim is truly a unique one. Only the great Communist powers make a similar one. They too say they represent the interests of humanity, and of democracy—a “truer” democracy than our own. Countries like England, West Germany, and Japan put forward much more modest claims. They limit themselves to defending their national interests, and if they also say they are pursuing the values of democracy and liberty, it is only by way of following the lead of the United States.

Important groups of intellectuals and important political forces in those countries, and in ours, of course, deride this whole idea. The consequences of this derision are clear. But is it just? Would it be best for the world—and for the United States itself—if we were to slink back to that position in world affairs we held in the 1930’s, with a neutrality act limiting our ability to intervene in any foreign conflict, and with a public opinion convinced that any foreign-policy initiative must have been undertaken to advance narrow economic interests, probably those of the “munitions makers” and “the merchants of death”?

There is one overriding argument which convinces me that we should not radically alter our stance in world affairs in this way—the argument that there is a major threat to democratic institutions and to the independence of nations coming not from the United States but from Soviet Russia and Communist China and the world movement over whose leadership they compete. I would contend that there is something truly special about Communist governments which separates them from the run-of-the-mill authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships that dominate most of the countries of the world, or from the racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. What is unique about Communist regimes is, first, the thoroughness of their control over all the institutions of society, over every means of the independent propagation of opinion, over, indeed, in the more effective Communist countries (China perhaps), even the very thinking of dissenting opinions. Added to this thoroughness of control is the permanence of control. There are no examples of successful anti-Communist revolutions or coups. There are scarcely any examples of underground movements against Communist regimes.

Aside from the biggest lie about Communism—that it does not suppress freedom—we have a smaller lie more widely accepted, that the suppression of freedom by Communism is no more to be feared than its suppression by authoritarian anti-Communist regimes like Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain, Park’s South Korea, Pinochet’s Chile. In the real world, however, we must make distinctions of degree. And if we make these distinctions, then a wide gap opens between almost any Communist regime and any authoritarian anti-Communist regime. In the latter, independent powers still exist: a Catholic Church, industrialists and small businessmen, intellectuals and universities, a press not completely muzzled. It is the absence of such powers independent to any degree of the state that distinguishes Communism from other regimes. In Communist countries the issue of muzzling the press does not even arise because the press is so entirely in the hands of the state that the question is only what directives will be given to journalists already employed by the state, not how independent journalists may still be controlled by the state. In the press of Communist countries we do not find subtle efforts to criticize the regime, such as are made constantly in the press of ordinary authoritarian regimes. Communist control is of a completely different type, as different as the ownership of a business is from the influence on it that a powerful customer can wield. In authoritarian regimes, the state is a powerful customer, and can lean on the press very heavily at will; in a Communist regime it owns the press (and everything else as well).

Thus in Communist countries the most rigorous control exists over any form of printing press, mimeograph machine, duplicating machine, because they are the means whereby a dissident opinion may make itself felt. The Economist reports that in Russian factories almost all documents are still copied by hand—for it is too dangerous, the state believes, to have xerox machines about. (Think after all of what Daniel Ellsberg did with a xerox machine.)

We are told that there are differences among Communist regimes, that they also evolve, and that Communism may yet prove to be compatible with at least some degree of freedom. Certainly these possibilities should be considered. But if in Soviet Russia dissidents are now exiled rather than executed or sent to labor camps, little else has changed. The press is still totally a state press, spreading the most outlandish lies about the rest of the world, lies which can never be refuted or discussed in print or in any public forum. The duplicating machine is still a carefully held monopoly of the state. Only one Communist country has in effect moved far enough away from the central Communist characteristic of the suppression of freedom to suggest that evolution toward a greater degree of freedom may be compatible with Communism—namely Yugoslavia. I do not know how Yugoslavia comes out on the xerox-machine test, but if we use another key test of freedom—the right to travel or the right to emigrate—we see that Yugoslavia does break the uniform pattern of the other Communist states, all of which sharply limit that right (they own their people). Yugoslavia is indeed a maverick and has been for almost thirty years. But we should also remember that not a single other Communist state has followed its example.

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Yet even if we grant that Communism suppresses freedom to a degree almost never found in other authoritarian regimes; and even if we grant further that Communism never evolves into parliamentary democracy, or is ever even overthrown by force and succeeded by freer regimes (as has happened in the case of such ordinary authoritarian regimes as once existed in Portugal, Spain, and Greece), there is still the question of whether Communism as such need be of any concern to American foreign policy. Here, too, we may grant that Communism, while rarely adventurist, is expansionist—Cuba has tried again and again to spread Communist regimes in Latin America; North Korea and North Vietnam were adamant for decades that they would extend Communism to their non-Communist fellow states; Russia has in recent years developed a major capacity to maintain fleets and land armies in very distant areas; and neither Russia nor China has ever forsworn the ideology which insists that their form of government is destined to spread over the entire world. But does this expansionism really threaten the United States? And if not, why should we worry?

There are many reasons to worry, and some of them have nothing to do with any distinctive American values. One reason is the balance of power—the dangers that inevitably arise when a rival nation becomes too strong. Another is concern for American economic interests abroad—investments which might be lost, trade which might be curtailed or carried on under worse terms. These are the common coin of international relations, and with respect to them the United States is in much the same position as England was in those centuries when it feared that first France and then Germany would grow too strong. The nature of our society as against theirs has nothing to do with such considerations.

But there are also, I am convinced, considerations of another order which make it difficult for us to accept with equanimity the expansion of a form of social organization based on the destruction of freedom. The truth is that we are in fact committed, quite apart from our material interests, to the kind of society which the spread of Communism would make impossible. We do want—and particularly in those parts of the world from which so many of us stem—societies that value and allow for freedom of speech and of the press, diversity of religious belief and practice, a variety of freely competing political parties, many different kinds of institutions independent of the state and maintaining their distinctive styles and strengths. For us the world is a safer and more congenial place with such societies in it and would be a more dangerous and depressing place without them.

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For all this, there is yet another and today very powerful argument against offering the benefit of the doubt to an activist American foreign policy trying to advance or protect the values of democracy and liberty. It is the “clean-hands” argument. We have come a long way from the ringing words of President Kennedy in his inaugural speech. Today we are embarrassed by those words, and what followed them: the support of unsavory and corrupt dictators, the attempts to assassinate leaders of other nations, the massive intervention against a Social Democratic government in the Dominican Republic, the incredibly destructive war in Vietnam, the overthrow of Allende’s government in Chile, and so on. And there followed other things at home that seemed to disqualify us from playing the role of champion of democracy and liberty: the assassination of civil-rights workers and black leaders, the inability to establish sound social policies for the poor, the decay of the cities. What gives us the right, then, to decide that Communism should not advance?

One part of the clean-hands argument can easily be met. However great our domestic failings may be, they are smaller, much smaller, than they were when we took up arms against fascism under Roosevelt, when we defended Europe and South Korea from the advance of Communism under Truman, when we forged a system of anti-Communist alliances under Eisenhower, when we hurled those fine words of defiance at the enemies of freedom under Kennedy. Once again, just as in speaking of the deprivations of freedom under Communism, and comparing them with the deprivations of freedom under authoritarian non-Communist regimes, one has to deal in question’s of degree. The fact is that enormous progress toward equal justice has been made in this country. The black man votes, participates in government, rises to positions of leadership in public and private affairs; greater attention—and governmental protection—is given to Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans and American Indians and other minorities than ever before; the rights of the accused have never been better protected; we pay today the most meticulous attention to what democracy and equal rights seem to demand; we insist on “one man, one vote”; we carefully protect the suffrage regardless of literacy or language; and we have undertaken many other measures that I believe are unique to this country. If the defense of democracy and liberty requires for its legitimacy some suitable measure of these goods at home, then we can say that the United States meets that requirement more fully today than ever before.

So far as our behavior abroad is concerned, the clean-hands argument is not so easily dealt with. We have in the past few years been overwhelmed and embarrassed with all the details of the making and implementation and miscarriages of American foreign policy. Nothing the CIA has ever done, or the National Security Council has ever thought of and discussed, or that Presidents have ever considered in consultation with their closest advisers, is, it would appear, now kept from public scrutiny. Much that we have learned is unsavory, much of it is immoral, some of it seems downright criminal. The plots to assassinate foreign leaders seem to me the worst, but the massive bribery or illegal financial support of foreign political parties—including right-wing and reactionary forces—has done so much damage to the cause of democracy in democratic countries that it is very hard to imagine any excuse. The easiest course is to throw up one’s hands in despair, to say that if this is what is necessary to combat the influence of Castro’s Cuba, or to sustain the Christian Democrats in Italy, or to keep the Liberal Democrats in Japan in power, then it would be better to do nothing at all. There are American values and doctrines enough—from Washington’s farewell address on—to support a withdrawal from such sorry efforts to manage the affairs of the world.

A tempting response—but a wrong one. First, at the very least, the operations of our intelligence agencies and of the multinational corporations will now be subjected to closer congressional oversight, and to the oversight of a self-confident press. The restraints on Presidents, who have all too often approved actions we now find immoral—and which have worked to undermine our interests and our values, rather than to advance them—have undoubtedly become stronger as well.

Thus American foreign policy, whatever its substantive content, will operate with cleaner hands in the future—with such clean hands, indeed, that it may well lose all effectiveness. No diplomatic document, it seems, can any longer be prevented from leaking, even when there is no question of impropriety involved. One hopes that some kind of balance will be restored, perhaps after the next presidential term begins, between the need for secrecy and the need for public scrutiny. In any case, the dirty tricks of the past are unlikely to pose the same kind of problem for American foreign policy in the future.

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The second argument against an activist foreign policy in defense of what we see as our distinctive values is that, as a matter of fact, we have not supported democracy and liberty abroad—we have supported regimes on the basis of their opposition to Soviet Russia and Communism and their hospitality to free enterprise, not on the basis of their commitment to democracy and freedom. Thus we supported anti-Communist regimes in South Korea and South Vietnam even though they rigged elections, jailed their critics, interfered with and hampered the press. In return for military bases we supported authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal and Greece. We made frantic efforts to prevent Allende from coming into power, and when these failed, we made further efforts to overthrow him. In the face of such evidence, how can it be said that we support democracy and liberty abroad?

The answer is that the main thrust of American foreign policy has indeed been to support the shrinking island of democracies in the world, centered in Western Europe and including as outposts Israel and Japan. If one insists—as Communists (calling themselves “socialists”) do—that the parliamentary democracy and civil liberties of these nations are frauds, if one accepts the argument that Israel is racist, that Japan is really antidemocratic, that West Germany is in danger of a renascent Nazism, then indeed there is nothing to explain in the support the United States has sometimes given to what we ourselves call non-democratic regimes. All American foreign policy would then be of a piece. But if, using one’s eyes and one’s common sense, one rejects the Communist view of the world, American actions in support of non-democratic regimes become aberrations to explain. And they can be explained.

First, if the central objective of American foreign policy is to maintain democracy and freedom in the countries of Western Europe and in Japan, then military measures are necessary. This accounts for our relations with Spain and Portugal and South Korea. And if one asks why the West European democracies have not always associated themselves with such policies—undertaken by the United States in order, after all, to protect them—the answer is that because they do not bear the central responsibility for the Western alliance, they have the luxury of acting more purely and righteously. Further, the presence of large left-wing parties and strong left-wing ideological forces in those countries makes it difficult for the ruling parties to accept pragmatic deals with the likes of Franco, Salazar, and the Greek Colonels. The United States takes on the onus.

Military necessity explains some of our dealings with authoritarians. But what explains our hostility to certain democratic regimes—Allende’s Chile, for example? I will not defend these policies, but I will insist that they do not come from hostility either to democracy or to socialism and social democracy as such. That we have a strong bias in our foreign policy in favor of capitalism and free enterprise, and against government ownership and control of the economy, is obvious. At the same time, however, we have no complaints against the Social Democratic party of Germany, our strongest ally. We are not concerned that Norway or the United Kingdom does or does not have a socialist government, or that they levy virtually confiscatory taxes on wealth and business. We are not deterred by state ownership of almost all productive resources in Yugoslavia.

What accounted for American intervention in Chile, and in the Dominican Republic, was the belief that in those cases—but certainly not in all cases—socialism seemed allied with, or a stepping stone on the way to a rapid installation of, Communism. We had undoubtedly been made jumpy by the example of Cuba, our analysis may well have been wrong, and right or wrong, I believe we would have been wiser to refrain from intervention. Certainly intervening undermined the claim that we act in defense of democracy and freedom. But I do not think those interventions, placed against the larger picture of steady American support for the major democracies, have reduced this claim to hypocrisy.

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A final point on the clean-hands doctrine. Whether clean or not, by what right, it is asked, does the United States concern itself with the internal policies of other nations, to the point of supporting one party against another, of “destabilizing” regimes democratically chosen, let alone of planning military intervention?

One basis for such a right would not be denied by any sovereign state: a direct and drastic threat to its security, as occurred when Russia placed missiles in Cuba. But that was an exceptional development. There is, however, another justification for such actions, distasteful as they are—that another great state, owing to its political philosophy, its place at the center of a group of closely linked parties expressing the same philosophy and outlook, is unchangingly interventionist throughout the world, its philosophy and public statements justifying such a policy, its private and covert acts often implementing it. Our interventionism is occasioned and justified, then, by the interventionism of the Soviet Union, an interventionism which inevitably means—when successful—fastening on a country full state power in the hands of the Communist party and the deprivation of all personal liberties. The examples of those nations in which Communism, with Russian support, has taken power—the countries of Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam—are a permanent warning of what Russian intervention, through local Communist parties or by direct military action, is likely to mean. Presumably we could in a self-denying ordinance—which much of American public opinion seems to want—take the position that while Russia may intervene to support local Communist parties which threaten the destruction of internal liberty, we should not intervene to support their opponents. But when one sees what was achieved through the covert intervention by other European states and parties in support of the non-Communist parties in Portugal—the prevention of a Communist takeover there—I think one will hesitate to adopt such a self-denying ordinance in its strictest form (though one will with chagrin agree that the Europeans seem to manage these things much better than we do).

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Undoubtedly there is a danger of arrogance in not accepting an absolute prohibition against interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, even if Communism threatens to achieve power, even if other states are already intervening. We have seen a good deal of that arrogance. Nobody likes it, and we would all want to see it expunged. For myself, I would like to see us undertake operations to save a democratic regime—or a regime that makes the promise of democracy possible—only with fear and trembling, but I would not like to see the self-denying ordinance adopted so that nothing that happens within another country, even if manipulated by states dedicated to the destruction of freedom, is allowed to become of concern to us.

I like the formulation proposed by Daniel P. Moynihan in an essay on Woodrow Wilson.1 Wilson, as we know, was committed to self-determination for all peoples, and to the hope that the newly-freed peoples would establish democratic governments. This was an eminently moral position, but it was surrounded by dangers on both sides. The danger on the one side was that it would become moralistic—that we would simply pronounce our values but do nothing to see that they were realized. On the other side was the danger of arrogance—the conviction that our values were so sound that all possible force should be put behind them. Whether or not Wilson avoided these twin dangers of moralism and arrogance it is not necessary for us here to determine. Moynihan believes he did. He writes:

The essential Wilson remains, the Wilson whose singular contribution to the American national experience was a definition of patriotism appropriate to the age America was entering at the time of his Presidency, which is to say patriotism defined first of all as the duty to defend and, where feasible, to advance democratic principles in the world at large. . . . Always to defend them—prudently if possible, but at the risk, if need be, of imprudence.

The lesson Moynihan draws for the present is the same one I would draw:

. . . There will be no struggle for personal liberty (or national independence or national survival) anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America which will not affect American politics. In that circumstance, I would argue that there is only one course likely to make the internal strains of consequent conflicts endurable, and that is for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty. We shall have to do so with prudence, with care. We are granted no license to go looking for trouble, no right to meddle. We shall have to continue to put up with things obnoxious about which there is nothing we can do; and often we may have to restrain ourselves where there are things we can do. Yet we must play the hand dealt us: we stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty. Anything less risks the contraction of liberty: our own included.

Even if we agree, however, that an interventionist foreign policy in defense of democratic values can be justified, do we have the power for such a policy, do we have the wisdom for it? Especially after Vietnam these are serious questions. I believe the most important development in this presidential campaign is that, however crudely, and with all the distortions and simplifications a presidential campaign makes necessary, they are now being debated. For at least it is not being accepted without argument that what is still the most powerful country in the world, in many ways the most democratic, and the one that still remains to a hundred nations the symbol of an open, free, and desirable social order in which every man may make his way without hindrance, should acknowledge that it is both unable and unwilling to engage in a balanced defense of democracy and freedom.

1 “Was Woodrow Wilson Right?,” COMMENTARY, May 1974.

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