America’s Foreign Policy: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly



“The people who want government’s head to be in the clouds should remember that its feet are mired, understandably but inevitably, in the clay” (George F. Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, 54-55). 

I am not sure if Kennan ever read the Kybalion, but as Yath00m likes to put it, “The stars will always kiss the feet.” Lofty, ethical ambitions have a place in foreign affairs, but Kennan, the father of America’s Cold War strategy, sees that policymakers by necessity trudge through mud. It is for this reason he writes:

[G]overnment, while worthy of respect, should not be idealized…Its task…is largely to see to it that the ignoble ones are kept under restraint and not permitted to go too far…Its doings are something that should be viewed by the outsider only with a sigh for its unquestionable necessity, and by the participant only with a prayer for forgiveness for the many moral ambiguities it requires him to accept and for the distortions of personality it inflicts upon him.

—Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, 54, 58. 

This idea of necessity will return.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Walter McDougall writes in his book Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1777 that American foreign policy can be understood through the lens of Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. While the left emphasizes The Bad (the slaughter of native Americans, enslavement of Africans, a predatory war against Mexico, the interment and nuking of the Japanese, and economic imperialism [so called]), the right emphasizes the The Good (FDR’s Atlantic Charter, the defeat of heinous regimes in Germany and Japan, and victory over Soviet tyranny). Those who see America as The Bad tend to believe that America ought to flagellate itself for past crimes.  Advocates of America The Good tend to advocate their country’s forceful moral leadership of “the free world” (see George W. Bush and almost the entirety of the current Republican presidential candidates).

The Ugly folk, the realists, are more circumspect on both accounts. Lovers of America as a good, albeit flawed country worth defending, they nevertheless argue that power and raison de’ etat dominate world affairs. The job of government is to protect its people, and to this end, necessity, not morality, guide policymakers in the defense of the homeland. Sometimes all you have is bad option #1 and worse option #2. It is this idea of necessity and the subsequent “distortions of personality” that neither partisans of America The Bad or America The Good can countenance.

McDougall thinks the inclusion of the Ugly in our thinking provides clarity: “[I]f we adopt the ‘Sergio Leone position,’ to the effect that the United States has always been good, bad, and ugly —idealistic, hypocritical, and just realistic, often at the same time—then we are obliged to rethink [American foreign policy in the past and present.]”  The rethinking should lead us to conclude the following: America is a land with ideals worth defending and promoting; she has done and will do bad things for selfish reasons; she has done and will do ugly things driven by necessity. McDougall suggests that the inability to see the the necessity of the Ugly is maybe “why no new George Kennan has yet appeared to give us a post-Cold War doctrine that the American people can agree on.” (McDougall, 3).


Expounding on the idea of necessity later in life, Kennan, in a telling footnote in his autobiography, cites Niccolo Machiavelli positively.

Too often characterized in popular culture as a ruthless, psychopathic advisor, Machiavelli embraced the ugly while eschewing the bad. The esteemed historian Jacques Barzun has one of the best, most succinct summaries of Machiavelli in his book From Dawn to Decadence. He writes, “Machiavelli’s program rests on the conviction that since one must start from the present state of things, one can work only with the material at hand…[and] the human material at hand (he saw and said) was bad.” A participant and witness to the ruthless, backstabbing politics of 16th century Italy, Machiavelli had plenty to be cynical about. But he hated Italy’s chaos. A patriot, he wanted to end all the senseless bloodshed.

According to Barzun’s analysis of Machiavelli, “[B]adness must be used to create not good conditions but tolerable ones; both morality and immorality must contribute.” Machiavelli had no illusions of utopia. He simply desired order. To this end, Machiavelli saw nastiness as an inherent part of foreign affairs and human nature (Christianity refers to this as sin, and while we are on this side of eternity, we will deal with sin). Indeed, a cursory view of history demonstrates that distrust, nastiness, and war govern foreign affairs more than peace and generosity. This did not mean moral judgement was not in order: “The prince must be honest and decent as far as he can and he must certainly uphold the precepts of Christian ethics. He must be just and if possible popular.” “But,” he clarifies, “[the prince] had better be feared than loved. He dare not let ethics keep him from doing whatever evil must be done to preserve…the state.” The wise prince desires peace and justice, but knows the necessity of decisive nastiness in protecting the realm. The great crime, then, was not in failing to eliminate immoral violence, but in not wisely incorporating  such violence into one’s political philosophy in such a way as to make life more tolerable. In this way, Barzun writes, “One might say that The Prince is a utopia [a land of ordered liberty] that has abandoned ideal measures for possibly workable ones” (Barzun 257). The stars kiss the feet. 

Is There No One Righteous?

But is this declaration of inevitable nastiness merely a rationalization of political violence—the ends justifying the means? Historically we have certainly seen examples of this, but this is where Machiavelli and Kennan would reject this moral assault, for both would argue that foreign policy is amoral as interactions among states take place essentially in the state of nature. Granted, we have international law and norms, but in the final call, international relations are dictated primarily by power and the desire to protect one’s own. Consequently, when nations are threatened, they fight not for moral reasons but because they must. As Machiavelli put its, “A just war is a necessary war.” And necessity eliminates the idea of choice, which is essential to the moral act.

This isn’t to say there is no choice at the strategic level (does this war and method of carrying it out advance or hurt our national security?), but the choice is made in terms of necessity not morality as such. In such a world, invading another country because it behaves poorly is morally indulgent and a nonsensical, indulgent expenditure of precious resources. With an apathy to the plights of others and an at times ruthless defense of one’s own, it’s of little surprise that Machiavelli and his followers are accused of being cold-hearted, calculating monsters willing to slaughter anyone that threatens the security of the state.

But this is not entirely fair. For one, at the strategic level, completely slaughtering your opponents may actually end up undermining your national security (America sensibly rehabilitated Germany and Japan after WWII and used them to contain an even bigger threat in the Soviet Union). Second, as the famous Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman put it, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it…the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Decisive, bloody war often introduces a new era of peace by clearly redefining the power structures in a region or the world to the point where no one questions the victor’s dominance. Third, as Kennan points out elsewhere, war is a blunt instrument. If you can solve a problem without unleashing Western firepower, do—the path of least resistance.

And yet, this still seems monstrous at worst, calloused at best. But international relations take place in a state of nature, which is inherently animalistic. Goodness and badness have no relevance when a lion eats a gazelle or a lioness defends her cubs. It is merely a matter of the calculation of power and protection of your people. But are men not more than mere animals? Yes, and this is where we meet the tragic.

Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears the Crown

One thing that both left-wing American haters, and right-wing American praisers miss is that the people they excoriate or glorify often found themselves in tough situations confronted by a series of muddled and morally torturous choices. But the criteria at the end of the day is American security. By necessity, that’s the government’s job: the protection of one’s own. This will at times necessitate unpleasantness. Not only that, but such decisions occur in a fog of war and a fog of intelligence. Mistakes are made. Violence is initiated that, in retrospect, was not entirely necessary.

It is not enough, then, to righteously point out that the American government did something nasty. After all, this begs the question, what was the supposed alternative? Not only that, but such pronouncements benefit from hindsight, free of the fog of pre-war and war. As the historian Burkhardt once put it,”Our moral criticism…views personalities according to set principles and makes too little allowance for the urgencies of the moment” (Burkhardt, “Judgements on History”). Likewise, it is equally disingenuous to ignore acknowledgments of ugliness as the ravings of the anti-patriot left. In the final verdict, we expect too much from leaders if we require their actions to fall into a neat “good and evil” categorization.

With that said, Kennan for one was hopeful that goodness, and not mere necessity could undergird foreign policy. According to the esteemed Cold War scholar, John Lewis Gaddis, Kennan believed that “there need be no conflict between the demands of security and those of principle, provided the first were understood as necessarily preceding the second.” Political greatness and moral goodness could live together albeit uneasily. Kennan explains, “Our country has made the greatest effort in modern times…to treat questions of international life from the standpoint of principles and not of power…but even we in the end are compelled to consider the security of our people,…because…unless they can enjoy that security they will never be able to make any useful contribution to a better and more peaceful world” (John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 31). Hopeful, Kennan nevertheless acknowledges iron necessity: the protection of the homeland.

It is this necessity that begets the tragic leader. But such a figure can only be tragic if at first he desires the good and thus suffers “from distortions of personality” in the protection of one’s country.  His struggle is one of raw power, but he maintains his humanity through his anguish at the ugliness of the situation.

The left and the right are both correct in their own way, but their great conceit is that policymakers faced unambiguously clear moral choices and chose poorly or wisely. Consequently, while the left drags America through the mud, the right seeks to lift her falsely to the stars. Reality does not conform to the dilemmas found in simplistic morality tales. And thus, by assuming that there are unambiguously good and bad choices, both sides remain blind to the tragic.

None of this is to say that all of America’s questionable policies in the past fit the bill of “tragic necessity.” American leaders have not always led with a Kennan-sense of necessity. Quite the contrary. America’s past demonstrates the good, the bad,  the ugly all at work and often simultaneously. The ugly realist must contend with the well-meaning good, and the sinister bad. Further, policy rarely has a single source and is refracted through government agencies and personnel, and the resulting actions are often a mixture of the three. Understanding the twists and turns of such policy and implementation is hard work. Moralizing is easier.

2 thoughts on “America’s Foreign Policy: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

  1. Pingback: Build That Wall: America v. Castro | The Feral Yawp

  2. Pingback: Machiavelli’s America | The Feral Yawp

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