The Past Offers a Way Forward on Foreign Policy

More than a year after his inauguration, it has become clear that President Biden’s foreign policy is not working. The horrific images in Ukraine and the chaos in global food and energy markets are the most dramatic signs that the American-led global order is under severe strain, but they are by no means the only ones. Having alienated traditional partners in the Persian Gulf, the administration is desperately searching for extra oil, even in Iran and Venezuela. However, Biden and his team are not the only people responsible for the decades of misjudgments and failures that squandered the commanding position the United States held at the end of the Cold War.

On one point, there is widespread, bipartisan consensus: U.S. foreign policy is adrift and needs to set a new course. Beyond that, there is still much under discussion. Although most Americans believe that China is a rival for global leadership, that Russia is a rapacious and aggressive power, and that something must be done it, Washington is abuzz with wildly varying plans and proposals about how to handle these revisionist adversaries. Looking back at two earlier shifts in U.S. foreign policy can bring some clarity to today’s questions.

Seventy-five years ago, on March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman told Congress that global events required the United States to dramatically increase its presence on the world stage. The British government had recently informed him that it could no longer support the Greek and Turkish governments against Communist pressure, and Truman asked Congress to foot the bill. However, the confrontation with the Soviet Union would extend well beyond this emergency measure: He announced the Truman Doctrine: “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The Cold War was on.

Over the next several years, American commitments expanded rapidly. To help Western European countries fend off their internal Communist parties and recover economically from the war, the United States encouraged its European allies to coordinate in order to receive Marshall Plan aid. However, it quickly became apparent that political and economic measures would not suffice, and one year after the Truman Doctrine speech he asked Congress to reinstate the draft to rebuild the military that had shrunk rapidly after World War II. By the end of Truman’s presidency, the United States and its European allies had formed NATO and were fighting the Communist powers on the Korean Peninsula. 

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