The bulging folder (Foreign Policy-Misc.) at the back of the filing cabinet holds a random compendium of counsel by statesmen and commentators over the years--a resource to rummage around in for something fresh to say on the Fourth of July.
But what strikes this random rummager most forcefully is the sameness, not to say the circularity, of the argument over how to safeguard the independence we celebrate this weekend. At home, we think we know what we are: strong in our beliefs; secure in our values; a model that any right-thinking nation ought to want to emulate.
But my collection of yellowed clips and tattered snippets suggests that after two centuries of war and peace and oscillation between isolation and intervention, we have not yet defined what it is that we want or ought to be.
We hail, but do not always heed, the Founding Fathers. "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connections as possible," said George Washington in his farewell address.
On another Fourth of July in 1821, John Quincy Adams laid out a course for earlier, easier days:
"Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions, and her prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy . . . She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication . . . she might become the dictatress of the world. She would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit."
For all its inapplicability to a world shrunken by technological leaps and bounds, and transfigured by the balance of nuclear terror, the echo of Adams can still be found in today's debate over Central America and over the global outreach of Ronald Reagan's anti- communist crusade. And the language of today's debate is certainly not different in its essentials from the language of, say, the 1950s and 1960s. For an update, here's Walter Lippmann, inveighing against the Johnson administration's Vietnam policy in 1965.
"The problem of our foreign policy today," he said, "will not be fully understood until historians explain how our intervention in the Second World War . . . became inflated into the so-called Truman doctrine of the late 1940s, in which the United States said it was committing itself to a global ideological struggle against revolutionary communism."
For those of that persuasion, Lippmann said, "there is no stopping point between globalism and the retreat into our former isolationism." But Lippmann insisted there had to be: "The test of statesmanship is to find those stopping points and to act accordingly."
For this, said Henry Kissinger in a dialogue with Sen. Daniel Moynihan in 1978, "You must have a geopolitical theory or view. You have to know how to go from your values to your security, your world structure." Very well, said the moderator, but "how do we go about rallying the public toward the issue of freedom?"
Moynihan: "Presidents do it, and they do it by taking a stand. And they say, "Here we are and we will not move, that's all! The trouble is, the last president who did that was Lyndon Johnson, and that's the misery of it all."
Not much help there, and not much more from Kissinger, who agreed that "it cannot be done without the president."
Which brings us to Ronald Reagan--and also back to Lippmann's test. Having made mock of Jimmy Carter's penchant for "stopping points" (Angola, Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan), Reagan practices what he has always preached: "There is a communist plan for world conquest, and its final step is to conquer the United States." So we will do whatever is necessary--without saying precisely what--while a divided Congress seeks to pin down Central American "stopping points."
If Ronald Reagan were to heed Walter Lippmann (small chance) he would "play it cool and not bend to the exhortations of the globalists." If he were to listen to Kissinger he would "define the issue and stick with it." What these counselors from the sidelines are calling for is presidential "leadership." Swell, but we all know what that means. Either it's a knock on an incumbent president or it's a way of not confronting reality
At home, the Fourth is glorious. But the system it celebrates is increasingly incapable of sustaining the sense of a coherent and consistent American purpose abroad.