America’s European Conundrum: Isolationism or Engagement?

Ukraine’s new Prime Minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, will visit Washington on Wednesday for ‘top-level meetings’ with members of the Obama administration, possibly including the President himself. Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney announced that the visit would emphasise “the strong support of the United States for the people of Ukraine, who have demonstrated inspiring courage and resilience through recent times of crisis”.

How far the US is prepared to go to defy Russian interference in Ukraine, particularly in the Crimea, remains to be seen. Certainly, the US has retained an ambiguous stance towards Europe; at once bound by economic and historical commitments, yet reluctant to become embroiled in a ‘continental crisis’ when serious security issues in the Middle East and East Asia remain a stated priority.

How far will the US go to defend Ukrainian sovereignty?
How far will the US go to defend Ukrainian sovereignty?

Former US Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg (1856-1937) was blunt in a 1926 address to the Council on Foreign Relations when he claimed:

I suppose all men will agree that the feature of our [foreign] policy which gives it its chief distinction, and which at the same time is least understood and appreciated by the rest of the family of nations, is the fixed determination to avoid participation in purely European political matters. This policy has its roots deeply embedded in our history and we have clung to it consistently ever since we came to be a nation. 

There seems to have existed, and remains, a desire for successive American governments to steer well clear of European politics. However, defining ‘purely European political matters’ is problematic in an interconnected world, a world far more interdependent than when the Americans intervened in the wars of the first half of the 20th century. Certainly the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the American entrance into the Second World War, yet operations were not restricted to the Pacific and many Americans gave their lives on European battlefields to deny the warped ambitions of a European dictator.

Kellogg was a firm believer in the institutionalization of peace - seeing it as far more stable than military intervention
Kellogg was a firm believer in the institutionalization of peace – seeing it as far more stable than military intervention

Kellogg continued:

Much is constantly being said, especially in the foreign press, about our isolation as a country, our refusal to coöperate with other countries in the settlement of the economic and political problems now confronting the world.

This accusation is no longer prevalent, rather the converse. American interference in international politics is often decried, especially by those nations such as China that resent any meddling in what they view as ‘internal affairs’. Many in the US would likely welcome a return to post-WWI American isolationism, characterised by the support garnered by Ron Paul in some quarters during the Republican presidential primaries in 2012.

Having avoided direct confrontation with Russia during the Cold War it would be understandable now if the Americans wanted to avoid agitating Vladimir Putin, whose unpredictable behaviour makes conflict in the Ukraine a distinct possibility.

For the US to take a back seat now, however, would be unthinkable. Its leaders consider themselves the guardians of world peace and security and as such they must be involved in the geopolitics of the globe.

Kellogg claimed that the American people were “interested in every movement for the peace and advancement of civilization”. There may be some truth to this, as long as the advancement of civilization is consistent with America’s liberal democratic doctrines.

I would bet, however, that there are those back in the US who are far more concerned with their own personal security: employment, housing, public safety and such like.

Some Americans today share the pre-WWII sentiment of avoiding European entanglement
Some Americans today share the pre-WWII sentiment of avoiding European entanglement

Such concerns are always going to have to be balanced against the international ambitions of the US, for Kellogg’s foreign policy aspirations have not quite been realised.

Source

Kellogg F B, ‘Some Foreign Policies of the United States’, Foreign Affairs (January, 1926)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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