Ideology is what drives the success and failure of empires. It’s what made the United States the most powerful nation on earth, and what might end up bringing it down. The greatest blunders of US foreign policy over the past century were driven by ideology: a belief in America as the defender of freedom and democracy around the world. The last three presidents, in their own very different ways, sought a return to pragmatism, national interest and problem-solving. But America’s ideological mindset might prove too powerful to overcome, writes Alex Roberto Hybel.
Ideology helps build and destroy empires. Its latest victim is the United States.
It is assumed that an aspiring empire will seek to change the international system through territorial, political expansion until the marginal costs of further change are equal or greater than the marginal benefits. The assumption is incorrect. Throughout history, any actor seeking to become an empire has been guided by an ideology of its own making, one that through time became so engrained in the mindset of its leaders that it prevented them from grasping the moment the marginal costs of further change were greater than the marginal benefits. Such failure has engendered their downfall. For more than five decades the United States was aggrieved by the same ill – a blind commitment to ideology that helped it become an empire but ultimately undermined its capacity to avert its own downward spiral.
The nature of political ideology
Politics is about interests; but interests are rooted in values, beliefs, and ideas. Ideology operates as the mean to express them. According to Mustafa Rejai, a “political ideology is an emotion-laden, myth-saturated, action-related system of beliefs and values about people and society, legitimacy and authority, that is acquired to a large extent as a matter of faith and habit. The myths and values of ideology are communicated through symbols in a simplified, economical, and efficient manner. Ideological beliefs are more or less coherent, more or less articulate, more or less open to new evidence and information. Ideologies have a high potential for mass mobilization, manipulation, and control; in that sense, they are mobilized belief systems.”
The initial definition of a problem has a decisive effect on the alternatives considered and the decision reached.
As Amos Tevrsky and Daniel Kahneman have shown, the initial definition of a problem has a decisive effect on the alternatives considered and the decision reached. Mindset - the beliefs, assumptions, and rules of behavior adhered to by one or more individuals, groups of people, a community, or a nation - create powerful incentives to accept an existing definition of a problem, behavior, choice, or tool, and in turn to prevent the consideration of alternative definitions, behaviors, choices, or tools. Mindsets can help solidify and protect a system of social dominance, or they can lead to its destruction. Every American president has been influenced by one or more mindsets – his own, his predecessor’s, Washington’s and possibly, in a broader sense, America’s. Theoretically, these mindsets differ; in practice they are seldom totally at odds with one another.
The Truman Doctrine and America’s foreign policy ideology
Early in his administration, Harry Truman concluded that President Franklin Roosevelt’s goal of establishing a long-term association with the Soviet Union was unattainable. As argued by Secretary of State James Byrnes, “There is too much difference in the ideologies of the US and Russia to work out a long term program of cooperation.” In a speech he delivered to the US Congress, Truman stated that one of his administration’s leading objectives was to create the conditions in which “we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.”
Mindsets can help solidify and protect a system of social dominance, or they can lead to its destruction. Every American president has been influenced by one or more mindsets – his own, his predecessor’s, Washington’s and possibly, in a broader sense, America’s.
By then, Americans had accepted Winston Churchill’s pronouncement that “[f]rom Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent . . .” All the countries behind that line “lie on the Soviet sphere and all are subject in one form or another not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow.” In Moscow, Joseph Stalin was convinced that the United States’ monopolistic capital was “striving for world Supremacy.” In short, both actors developed views about one another that were “ideological mirror images.”
Truman’s Doctrine of Containment, guided by the ideological conviction that the United States as a liberal democracy committed to free trade had a moral obligation to stand against the threat posed by Communism, remained firm in the mindset of multiple presidents. It steered Truman’s actions against North Korea in 1950; Dwight Eisenhower’s decision against Guatemala in 1954; John F Kennedy’s failed attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961; Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Brazilian military’s overthrow of the Joao Goulart government in 1964 and authorization to invade the Dominican Republic in 1965; and Richard Nixon’s decision to help topple the Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973. In the midst of those troubles, came Vietnam. Still guided by the ideology that saw Moscow as the puppeteer of communist actors, the United States, first under Eisenhower’s leadership, then under Kennedy’s, Johnson’s, and Nixon’s, thrust its military might against Hanoi. Exhausted by its miscalculations, the US retreated in 1973. By then, Washington’s refusal to reassess its ideologically bounded mindset had resulted in the deaths of more than 1.3 million American and North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
American Ideology from the Bush Era to the present
The end of the Cold War in 1989/90 did not abate Washington’s inclination to become entangled in the affairs of other states. Ironically, the refusal on the part of the administration to accept that power politics between major rivals was not the only game in town, prevented members of the George W. Bush administration to recognize that Washington’s policies in the Middle East had provoked a backlash from Muslim non-state actors. In the words of Osama bin Laden, one of its most noted leaders, priority “should be given to the pagan leaders, the American and Jews who will not end their aggressions and stop their domination over us except with jihad.” Though signals of an attack by al-Qaeda were prominent, Bush and his advisors did not take them seriously until it was too late. The rage induced by the September 11, 2001 events led President Bush to claim that the United States would not differentiate between those who launched the attacks and those who harbored them, and that it was time for other international parties to take side.
The Cold War ideology that had captured the mindset of Washington’s central figures for decades was replaced by one that claimed that, as the world's leading market democracy, the United States had the responsibility to foster democracy globally.
More significant were the steps Bush took several months after US forces had invaded Afghanistan. He borrowed from Anthony Lake, President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, the argument that the “successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement – enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” The Cold War ideology that had captured the mindset of Washington’s central figures for decades was replaced by one that claimed that, as the world's leading market democracy, the United States had the responsibility to foster democracy globally. Freedom, said Bush, “is God’s gift to everybody in the world,” and the United States “has a duty to free people in the world. I would hope we wouldn’t have to do it militarily, but we have a duty.” Bush and his advisors became so attached to that notion that they never asked whether the structural and cultural conditions that facilitate the formation of democratic regimes existed in the Middle East.
It took the arrival to the White of three very different individuals -- Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Jon Biden -- to conclude that the United States could not afford to depend on rigid ideological mindsets.
From early on, Obama opposed the notion that the foreign policy of the United States should be ideologically driven. As he stated in 2006, the United States should carry out a “strategy no longer driven by ideology and politics but one that is based on realistic assessments of the sobering facts on the ground and out interests in the region [Iraq].” In 2007 he said that as president he would not leave troops in Iraq even to stop genocide. If stopping genocide were to become the criteria, the United States “would have to have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now, where millions have been slaughtered . . . , which we haven’t done.”
If there was an ideology in Trump’s foreign policy, it was domestically oriented, not internationally.
As president, Obama tried to erase the Cold War ideological mindset that had plagued the US government for decades in its dealings with Cuba. In March 2016, after having met President Raul Castro in Cuba, Obama stated publicly that it was time “to bury the last reminiscence of the Cold War,” and justified his recommendation by stating that “what the United States was doing was not working.” Moreover, despite his failure to remove American forces from Afghanistan, in 2011 he kept his promise and extracted American forces from Iraq.
During his presidency Trump, viewed the world through a simple prism: his own domestic political interests. As Max Fisher and Amanda Taub explain, Trump’s foreign policy is “not a foreign policy at all, but rather a vessel for reaching voters on a purely ideological level.” If there was an ideology in Trump’s foreign policy, it was domestically oriented, not internationally. It was designed to persuade voters that he is only interested in the United States, not the rest of the world. As he liked to state, globalists are people who are less interested in the United States. Hence, he was not a globalist. It could be argued that Trump’s foreign policy has a powerful nationalist component, and as such it was ideologically driven. But Trump’s nationalist foreign policy was not unique - it has always driven the actions of the United States. Every nation-state determined to protect and promote its interests internationally is, in fact, an advocate of domestic nationalism. At one point in history, with the formation of states, nationalism became the driving ideology. But since their creation, states that are not multinational or multiethnic have depended on nationalism to gain domestic backing. In other words, nationalism has become the common domestic ideology of all nation-states.
Biden, the most experience of the three due to his political longevity, is guided by a center-slight-left ideology, but at his core he is a pragmatist who refuses to be steered blindly by ideology. It took his ascension to the presidency to remove US forces from Afghanistan. He did not make the decision in the spur of the moment. In 2009, as the Obama administration debated whether to increase the US troop level in Afghanistan, Biden opposed the idea, repeatedly emphasizing that the US had not thought through its strategic goals. Instead of withdrawal, he pushed for a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism accompanied by a troop surge smaller than the one recommended by the generals. Later, Biden wrote that historically the foreign intervention in Afghanistan had not generated the intended results. He added that the US did not have a reliable partner in the Afghan government and questioned the claim that the Pashtun Taliban projected a global jihadist ideology, let alone one directed against the American homeland. Ironically, it fell on the shoulders of Trump, a non-ideologue whose expertise on foreign policy was almost nil, to reach a deal with the Taliban to end the war. Biden, the forever the pragmatist, chose to accept Trump's agreement.
The United States is no longer the world’s hegemon, but its present position in the world system is not perilous. The extraordinary human and material costs its ideologically informed actions have generated internally and externally have compelled Washington to become more attentive to its foreign policy problem solving approach. Obama and Biden, as astute students of history, rejected the idea that the US had become the leading moral force in the international arena and, thus, that it was Washington’s responsibility to create a world system inhabited by democracies. Whether their thoughtfulness will last is hard to predict.