Walter McDougall on the Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of Pennsylvania professor Walter McDougall is regarded as one of the finest contemporary American historians. On January 10, 2017, the Charles Koch Institute hosted him for a discussion of his latest book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest. The Charles Koch Institute’s Vice President of Research and Policy William Ruger moderated the conversation.

Central to McDougall’s thesis is his concept of America’s “civil religion.” Citizens of the young United States saw themselves as being part of a unique, divinely inspired mission. McDougall argues that this sense of “divine right republicanism” animated and shaped how the country behaved on the world stage.

McDougall and Ruger’s conversation charted the evolution of this civil religion and how it has evolved—or devolved, in McDougall’s opinion—since the republic’s founding. According to McDougall, the Founding Fathers, most notably George Washington and John Quincy Adams, established a “very prudent, very sound, and very modest” tradition of American global engagement. This policy was well captured in Washington’s First Inaugural Address.

At that time, the United States shaped its foreign policy in an impartial manner that avoided permanent allies or enemies. Rather, it would pursue good relations with any other country, and, above all, it would pursue its own, limited interests. McDougall quoted Adams’ description of American prudence, which states that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

In McDougall’s view, a restrained approach to America’s role in the world assured the success and prosperity of the young nation. It led to the creation of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the “New World and the Old World should remain worlds apart,” and allowed for the country’s westward expansion. Moreover, it drew upon the lessons of classical history to ensure that the United States would survive and flourish.

But amidst industrialization and the Progressive Era, America’s civil religion changed. At home, progressives “aimed at the administrative management of society.” Abroad, they hoped that Washington could manage and uplift the world. This hope proved not just futile but dangerous, undermining American security. McDougall notes that “instead of a humble, prudent foreign policy, now pride and assertion became the new virtues.”

The Progressive Era’s foreign policy reached its zenith with America’s entry into World War I and the subsequent failure of Wilsonian efforts to reshape Europe in America’s image. For a short time, a return to the prudent policy of the 19th century seemed possible, until the aftermath of World War II confirmed a prolonged era of American engagement. With Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and the other Cold War presidents as its “high priests,” America’s neo-progressive civil religion provided the country’s citizens with an unshakable faith that the United States would use its global pre-eminence to make the world a better place. In McDougall’s view, however, this has not been the case: Instead, the world seems more unstable than ever, and Americans have undermined the country’s unique constitutional freedoms in order to finance their global role.

While the prospect of a return to the prudent civil religion of the 19th century seems unlikely, Walter McDougall still holds onto a faint hope. In McDougall’s view, “We have had religious revivals in this country before … maybe we can have a constitutional revival, too.”

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