America and the World

Security and Sacrifice: Isolation, Intervention, and American Foreign Policy.
by Elliott Abrams.
Hudson Institute. 150 pp. $12.95.

The end of the cold war has ushered in a period of considerable uncertainty about the means and, particularly, the ends of U.S. foreign policy. Many former doves have become high-flying hawks, calling for American intervention in such unlikely locales as Goradze and Kigali. On the other side of the political divide, many former hawks have shed their wings, urging restraint and caution before the United States commits its prestige and power to achieving peace and tranquility in troubled areas of the globe.

With a rising tide of confusion about what the United States should and should not do in world affairs, Elliott Abrams’s new book, Security and Sacrifice, offers both a timely and an important contribution to the debate. In it he draws upon an acute understanding of American history and his own senior-level experience making foreign policy in the Reagan administration; the resulting work demonstrates a meritorious mixture of prudence and thoughtfulness.



Abrams commences by examining the wellsprings of American foreign policy from the founding of the United States to the present day. His historical approach aims to use the lessons of the past to answer a question about the future: what principles should guide American foreign policy now that the cold war has ended?

But American history does not yield easy answers; as Abrams shows, U.S. foreign policy from its earliest beginnings has tended to oscillate between isolation and intervention. The Founders saw the old world of Europe as a continent of capricious monarchies whose disputes were best kept at ocean’s length. But fear of foreign entanglements rapidly came into tension with tangible American interests, as when Britain interfered with American shipping, leading the United States reluctantly to abandon neutrality and enter the War of 1812.

By the close of the 19th century, economic prosperity and expanding naval power had brought America to participate in the world beyond its shores—as in the Spanish-American war of 1898, and again in World War I—to a degree that would have shocked some of the Founders. Still, well into the fourth decade of the 20th century, the United States continued to lurch between intervention and isolationism: it took Pearl Harbor to discredit thoroughly the idea that the nation could remain aloof from world affairs. In the wake of World War II, the overwhelming majority of Americans came to see that our country’s security was intimately connected not only to developments in Europe but to events taking place on more unfamiliar terrain in the Middle East, Latin America, Indochina, and other trouble spots around the earth.

Yet even at the height of the cold war, consensus about the American role abroad remained tentative and uncertain. As Abrams documents, George Marshall’s noble plan to create a bulwark against Communism by rebuilding the wreckage of European economic life was funded by Congress at a mere one-seventh of the level requested by the Truman administration. The Eisenhower administration opted for the riskiest—but also the least expensive—method of deterring a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe: the threat of nuclear retaliation. In hindsight, we can say that while this policy of defending American security by cutting corners and costs succeeded in the main theater—Europe—it failed tragically in Vietnam, Where the Kennedy and Johnson administrations sought to wage a limited war without engaging the public’s support or asking it to foot the bill.



If striking the balance between isolationism and engagement has been problematic, it has been even more difficult for American foreign policy-makers to find an equilibrium between the assertion of American principles and the defense of national interest more narrowly conceived. Some of Abrams’s most acute observations revolve around this point.

Americans, he argues, have always insisted that our country’s core values—our belief in democracy and liberty—be reflected in the foreign-policy commitments we undertake. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s attempt to submerge this understanding in favor of a hard-nosed Realpolitik gravely undercut their own efforts by obscuring the rationale for a policy which the public would support. By contrast, the great virtue of Ronald Reagan’s approach to international affairs lay in his forthright and unabashed embrace of American values, not merely in his public diplomacy but in the entire thrust of his policies abroad. Reagan’s belief in America’s destiny as a powerful force on behalf of the good and the free radiated to others—allies and adversaries alike—and became a significant factor in realizing victory in the cold war.

The two Presidents who followed Reagan have been far less successful. George Bush called for a “new world order,” but never gave the concept flesh and blood. This deficiency in words was mirrored in deeds when he led a grand coalition in the Persian Gulf war to what appeared to be a brilliant victory, only to let it collapse into an ambiguous and unsatisfactory result.

Bill Clinton’s foreign policy, with its morally neutral concept of “flexibility,” is even more troubled. As Abrams shows, the administration’s sharp shifts and perpetual flip-flops have severely eroded our country’s capacity to lead, exposing us as muddled, self-contradictory, intellectually vacuous, and—most distressing of all—weak.

Security and Sacrifice concludes by noting the formidable challenges that will face America in the years to come. In Abrams’s judgment, we are likely to see more frequent and more dangerous regional disputes as weapons of mass destruction continue to proliferate and once-suppressed national and ethnic tensions come unbound. While our armed forces must remain strong enough to meet these dangers, Abrams believes that our first line of defense lies in the promotion among ordinary Americans of an awareness that our future is inextricably linked to events abroad.

Creating this awareness is the task of leadership. If leadership is wanting, American policy-makers will find themselves without support when the inevitable future foreign crises come knocking at our door. It is the singular merit of Elliott Abrams’s book to clarify the choices before us.

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