Power Politics - America's power problem

Over the last two centuries, U.S. diplomatic history has been marked by varying attempts to solve the "power problem" in the form of debates, decisions, and divisions over the politics of force and of power. Some of these attempts and decisions shaped foreign policy for decades, so that, from 1775 to 1945, American diplomacy assumed distinctive and what might be termed traditional forms. After 1945 the changing position of the United States in international affairs altered, but did not destroy, such traditions.

Any discussion of early American foreign relations is complicated by Americans' contradictory sense of themselves in two very different roles. One role was that of victims of Old Word power politics—colonists vulnerable to imperial machinations and abuse of power from abroad. But these same Americans also saw themselves as an aggressive, powerful people destined to expand into "the West" as a new "rising American empire." Both these self-images had foreign policy implications.

How Americans reconciled their sense of mission or "manifest destiny" in expanding over the continent with the dispossession, and in the case of Indian tribes virtual extermination, of foreign competitors is discussed later. The American colonists' sense of victimization by Old World power politics was ultimately dominated by the issue of independence from Britain. It is probably an error to assume that most Americans in 1776 sanctified liberty by force in revolution, notwithstanding Thomas Jefferson's later glorification of bloodshed in the French Revolution, of which he remarked that the tree of liberty needed to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. American colonists were, on the whole, reluctant to resort to force even to win independence. For many years they were more ready to negotiate than to fight.

The clearest indications of the ways in which Americans first hoped to resolve the problems of power, influence, and force in foreign affairs appear in explicit plans for the organization and conduct of foreign relations, the treaty plans of 1776 and 1784. In those documents American leaders recognized, and at the same time abhorred, the predominant features of international politics in their time: war, deception, and ruthlessness. In their view, international relations could be, and should be, harmonious. Americans devised plans for a diplomacy antithetical to that of Europe. Their treaty plans called for freer trade in an era of mercantilism and assumed national independence in the heyday of colonial empire. Americans proposed to influence nations great and small and to establish foreign ties by granting or withholding access to the riches of the nation's commerce.

In sum, Americans hoped both to solve their initial power problem—the way in which they would deal with the threat posed by the power of France, Spain, Britain, and other great states—and to avoid the strenuous and immoral politics of force by basing foreign policy on neutral economics. In demoting the power of force and promoting the power and mutual benefits of commerce, they looked forward to a new nation freed from the immorality and violence of European-style power politics by the principle of mutual advantage. Finally, Americans of the founding generation hoped to guard themselves from baneful Old World powers by studious noninvolvement in the affairs of Europe. The warnings of President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson against foreign alliances and entanglements, as well as the additional principles enunciated by John Quincy Adams and James Monroe in 1823, shaped and limited American foreign affairs well into the twentieth century.

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