The Rhythm to the American Foreign-policy Debate

Published June 1, 1995


George Weigel: In Security and Sacrifice, you describe a consistent rhythm to the American foreign-policy debate, a rhythm captured by the dual imagery of “security and sacrifice.” In itself, that strikes me as an interesting claim: that what we usually call the “internationalist/isolationist” debate didn’t start with Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. “America First” but has in fact been going on since the earliest days of the republic. Could you elaborate that claim a bit?


Elliott Abrams: There has been a tendency, these last few years, to imagine that we’re writing on a blank slate at the end of the Cold War. Some argue that we’ve only had a foreign policy since 1945, a policy summed up in the word “containment,” and now that the threat to be contained no longer exists, we’re back to square one. Others argue that we’ve only had a foreign policy since 1917, when the United States entered World War I. But in both instances, the argument ends up at the same point: we’re now facing a blank slate, because prior to 1945, or 1917, we simply had no foreign policy.

That is just not true. The United States has always had a foreign policy; every country, by definition, has a foreign policy. And what strikes me is that when you clear your mind of the stereotypes, you discover that there is in fact a remarkable degree of continuity in America’s approach to the world, from the immediate post-Revolutionary War period to today. That continuity consists in a never resolved, never-ending argument among the American people: Does the security of this unique country, in its unique situation, require the United States to actively promote the democratization of the world— a difficult, but less and less impossible (or, better, more and more possible), task? Or should we simply disentangle ourselves from the endless squabbles and conflicts of others?

Neither of these positions—the democratization position or the disentanglement position—has struck the American people as inherently foolish. It has been a real debate for over two hundred years, even during the Cold War, when virtually everybody assumed that the interventionists had won. So what we’ve got today is a return to a classic pattern of argument in America: an argument that’s the continuity is our foreign-policy history.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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