The Ideas That Didn’t Drive Our Foreign Policy


A few weeks ago, Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) offered his thoughts on how U.S. foreign policy had gone wrong.

When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago this month, more than a few experts predicted the end of history: Communism was dead and democracy triumphant. Now U.S. power would remake the world, which would come to look a lot like America. George H.W. Bush famously called for a “new world order” of “open borders, open trade and . . . open minds,” a new era of international peace and harmony, all to be achieved by American exertion.

But history refused to end. Russia and China conspicuously pursued their own agendas and, in other regions and other places, ancient rivalries flared. None of this stopped American policy makers from pursuing their new global order. All these years later, we are living with the results: the longest war in American history, in Afghanistan; trillions of American dollars expended on failed nation-building; exhaustion at home, aimlessness abroad; and a newly dangerous world.

In our latest issue, Elbridge Colby makes a more muted version of this case. And much of what he has to say, like much of what Senator Hawley had to say, strikes me as sensible. It seems to me, though, that both of them are overstating the role that an ideology of bringing market democracy to the world has played in U.S. foreign policy.

President George H. W. Bush did not, in fact, call for a new era of peace and harmony, “all to be achieved by American exertion.” We did not go into Afghanistan because of our dedication to opening minds abroad. We didn’t go into Iraq for that reason, either. President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address was an after-the-fact rationale for what we were doing in Iraq after it turned out the U.S. government (and many other governments) had been wrong about its nuclear weapons program.

Hawley and Colby are making a welcome call for realism in foreign policy. It ought to include some realism about our recent past.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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