Mission Impossible

America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century

by Tony Smith
Princeton University Press/A Twentieth Century Fund Book, 455 pp., $24.95

America’s Mission is a book with a mission. Its aim, for most of its pages, is nothing less than to overthrow the hitherto dominant theory dealing with American foreign affairs and to put in its place a different one. The old theory is said to be “realism”; the new one, which is more “idealistic” or “moralistic,” is called “liberal democratic internationalism.”

Whatever else may be said about this effort, there can be no doubt about its lofty seriousness and high ambition. The book is sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund and was chosen for inclusion in the Princeton Studies in International History and Politics, edited by three well-known academics. In effect, it is a bid by Professor Tony Smith of Tufts University to replace some old gods and put himself in their stead. It seems sure to create a good deal of controversy, which Smith makes no effort to avoid.

By “realism,” Smith means an interpretation based primarily on balance-of-power principles. He names as its practitioners Walter Lippmann, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Henry Kissinger. By “liberal democratic internationalism,” Smith basically understands a policy of promoting free elections and constitutionalism abroad. Promoting democracy elsewhere is, however, not viewed as altogether altruistic; it is said to be wedded to the advancement of American national security. In this way, Smith can have both the idealistic sponsorship of democracy and the realistic gain of national security.

Smith is an aggressive writer who, more than once, tells the reader that he has done something that no one has ever done before. He claims to be the first who thought of truly investigating the American “ambition” to foster democracy abroad. He goes out of his way to criticize other writers, including Samuel Huntington, who he says had inspired him.

To make his case, Smith uses both history and theory. He primarily restricts himself to the twentieth century and effectively starts with the Spanish-American War of 1898. But his main interest takes hold with Woodrow Wilson, because he considers that liberal democratic internationalism is synonymous with Wilsonianism. Subsequent presidents are judged by their degree of Wilsonianism.

In the end, Smith’s book stands or falls by whether his history supports his theory. To what extent did US policy actually foster democracy abroad in the twentieth century?Are we dealing here only with an “ambition” and rhetoric or with a long-term policy carried out with determination and success?What does Smith’s own history tell us about his theory?

Smith covers so many countries and subjects that he has necessarily written potted history. Nevertheless, he tries to do justice to it, even at the expense of his theory.

The Philippines offers an early example of Smith’s historical problem. It was fortuitously conquered from Spain in the war of 1898, which had been fought over Cuba, not the Philippines. But the one-sided naval victory in Manila Bay by the US fleet under Commodore George Dewey opened the islands to US occupation. The land assault on Manila was supported by an indigenous Filipino force under General Emilio Aguinaldo. He had been fighting the Spanish before the Americans arrived and was given reason to believe that allying his force with the Americans would result in independence for the Philippines. Instead, the McKinley administration decided to take over the islands from Spain and turned on Aguinaldo and his native pro-independence army. In the campaign of subjugation, the United States employed a force of about 70,000 under General Arthur MacArthur, the father of the future World War II generalissimo. This operation lasted until mid-1902, at the cost of 4,000 American and 220,000 Filipino lives. The Philippines remained in US control for forty-eight years; it was not given independence until 1946.

Smith deals with this history in every possible way. In all the years of US control, he says, “democracy would be the moving faith.” But “faith” was not enough to set up a functioning democracy. The Philippines, he also says, became a “narrowly based and highly corrupt elitist” form of democracy, a “fragile democracy,” and a “troubled democracy.” The Americans turned over control of the country to a “class of oligarchs.” The fatal flaw in the Philippines was socioeconomic. “In an agrarian society, a highly unequal pattern of landholding is fatal for democracy,” Smith says—and the United States accepted just such a highly unequal, and fatal, pattern of landholding. In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos installed himself and his cronies as overlords for the next fifteen years. Finally, Smith says, the United States “did act as a traditional imperialist power” in the Philippines.

This pattern played itself out for most of the century. America’s mission almost always began with expectations of freedom and ended with broken hopes and promises. Cuba, which had been promised its freedom by the United States, became an American protectorate until 1934. It was so little prepared by the United States for democracy that the country suffered one dictatorship or authoritarian ruler after another. Smith says that it “constituted nothing like the laboratory for democracy that the Philippines was to be.” Since the Philippines was at best the shell of a democracy, Cuba was even worse.

Central America and the Caribbean figured largely in the early Wilson administration. It authorized the occupation of Veracruz in Mexico in 1914 and sent a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in northern Mexico in 1916. US marines occupied Haiti in 1915 for the next nineteen years. The Dominican Republic was taken over in 1916 for the next eight years. But the results were hardly satisfactory. Mexico continued in political turmoil until one-party rule was established in 1929. The Americans established a national guard in the Dominican Republic, as a result of which the head of the guard, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, set up a dictatorship in 1930 that lasted thirty-one years. The same pattern was repeated in Nicaragua, where the head of another US-installed national guard, Anastasio Somoza, imposed a dictatorship that lasted for three generations of Somozas.

Smith gives Wilson credit for trying “to bring constitutional democracy to Latin America.” But he condemns the results with unusual vehemence. With one possible exception—the occupation of Veracruz in 1914—“there is no reason to think that Wilson contributed whatsoever to the emergence of constitutional democracy in the region.” In the end, “Wilsonianism may be a quixotic ambition, damaging not only to American interests but also to the people on whom it is practiced.” Wilson’s application of American power “offered a textbook case of what not to do.” Wilson’s political efforts “failed completely,” because they were not enough “to create the cultural, economic, and social circumstances that could reinforce a democratic political order.”

Nevertheless, Wilson’s aims, especially after World War I, endear him to Smith. They embraced “nationalism, democracy, a liberal world economic order, a system of collective security, a moral commitment to leadership.” But here again, Smith is in no doubt how far Wilson fell short. Wilson’s style of leadership, which was “too abstract and too moralistic,” brought on the subsequent spasm of isolationism in the 1920s. As in Latin America, Wilson failed in Europe “to root democratic forces in countries where they were struggling to take power.” The best that Smith can say for Wilson is that he wanted to do the right things but that his efforts were nullified by “the constraints of history.” That a leader went against the constraints of history would seem to be a dubious recommendation for following his example.

Smith passes over Wilson’s successors—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover—because they do not fit into his scheme. But the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt also does not quite fit. The Good Neighbor Policy was “not a boon to democracy in the region,” because “under Roosevelt, the dictators who emerged in good measure from the forces put in motion by these earlier interventions were left to manage affairs as they saw best.” Roosevelt himself in 1933 had declared that “the maintenance of constitutional government in other nations is not a sacred obligation devolving upon the United States alone.” For whatever reasons, Roosevelt failed to prevent the East European states from falling into the status of satellites of the Soviet Union. He was a true Wilsonian in his determination to set up the United Nations, but it has not been much more successful than the League of Nations in fostering or protecting democracies. “From FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy after 1933 to events in Greece in 1947,” Smith says, “it seemed apparent that Washington might have to content itself with a secure authoritarian order able to ward off instability or communist takeovers.”

The question is not whether it was right or wrong for Roosevelt to give up on overthrowing authoritarian regimes and substituting democratic ones; the only question is whether this policy made him “the modern embodiment of traditional American liberal democratic internationalism,” as Smith characterizes him. Smith’s history does little to show that Roosevelt successfully promoted that kind of internationalism abroad, whatever Roosevelt’s other virtues may have been.

At last, in mid-century, Smith finds something to justify his major proposition. It is the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. “It was,” he says, “the most ambitious program American liberal democratic internationalism has ever undertaken.” Germany and Japan became active participants “in a liberal world order run by Washington.” Even here, he goes too far. He assumes that there is such a thing as a “liberal world order” and that Washington runs it. Much, if not most, of the world is not liberal, and Washington’s ability to run it is strictly limited, or largely nonexistent.

In the case of Germany, Smith gives the Germans themselves most credit for their democratization. Konrad Adenauer, Kurt Schumacher, and Ludwig Erhard “were the actual makers of a stable democratic order in Germany.” In any case, the US contribution was for a time indispensable. Yet the new order in Germany and Japan required a unique set of circumstances—the prior defeat of German fascism and Japanese militarism in a long and brutal war. The US role in these two countries in such rare circumstances cannot be assimilated to the usual course of US policy.

The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan of 1947 do not conform to Smith’s grand theme. The support of Greece and Turkey was not given to democracies; they were headed by authoritarian regimes and Truman sought to safeguard their independence, not their democracies. The Marshall Plan, however beneficial, was a one-time engagement, defensively intended to preserve the existing democracies in Western Europe rather than to spread the democratic faith elsewhere.

In fact, Smith sees 1947 as a turning point in US policy. He explains:

Explicitly dedicated to the defense of the “free world,” the United States nonetheless found itself defending authoritarian governments that were struggling against communism. On occasion such policies led it to oppose even democratic forces, where they appeared weak and willing to cooperate with local communists. Formerly opposed to great power spheres of influence, the United States now acknowledged its need to act in just such terms abroad. While these policies flowed from a logical evolution of American security concerns, they nevertheless amounted to a substantial change away from Wilsonianism, at least so far as the dedication to promote democracy abroad was concerned.

This substantial change away from Wilsonianism was shown, Smith writes, by Lyndon Johnson’s intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent Juan Bosch, who had been constitutionally elected in 1963 and then overthrown, from returning to power; by the connivance of the United States in the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973; and by, in Smith’s words, “the shoring up of authoritarian governments from Guatemala to Iran, from South Korea to Zaire.” In fact, throughout the cold war, the United States put anticommunism first, and in its behalf favored authoritarian regimes against democratic ones. Smith knows this as well as anyone:”In a word, by militarizing the cold war beyond Europe, the United States usually became reactionary so far as the twentieth century’s move toward some form of popular sovereignty was concerned and so turned local nationalist forces in an anti-American direction.”

Thus, from 1947 to 1989, the United States is said to have done little to spread democracy and much to hold it back. The United States, says Smith, from Latin America to Turkey to China “found themselves in the uncomfortable position of actively supporting authoritarian regimes, and this in the name of fostering a liberal democratic world order.” Or again:

That is, American hegemony constituted a form of anti-imperialist imperialism, aiming to structure other countries economically, socially, and politically so that they would presumably be part of a peaceful world order congenial to American interests. The problem, of course, was that many peoples did not lend themselves to the American vision, either in the interwar period, after 1945, or again after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In these circumstances, the result of American imperialism was often terribly damagingto foreign peoples whose nationalist identity refused to be subjected to American pressure—as in Vietnam or Iran—or who suffered under authoritarian governments supported by Washington.

More recent presidents get marks from Smith depending on how Wilsonian they were. Here again the record is marred.

Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, ceaselessly talked about protecting the “free world” from communism. Dulles “sounded almost as if Woodrow Wilson had been reincarnated.” But Eisenhower had “used the CIA to topple what appeared to be a democratizing government in Guatemala” and had approved “the overthrow of a constitutional regime in Iran.” The Eisenhower years, says Smith, were filled with “hypocrisy about promoting democracy abroad.”

Kennedy was not much better. He “persisted in fostering his neo-Wilsonian ambitions on parts of the world where in many instances they were tragically inappropriate.” But Kennedy is given credit for one innovation in US policy. From its takeover of the Philippines on, Smith points out, the United States frustrated its political intentions with its socioeconomic policy. This policy left local oligarchies in place, and they had no intention of giving up any of their power. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress at least set out to replace “unjust structures and systems of land tenure and use” and with “an equitable system of property” in Latin America. But Smith argues that the Alliance failed for several reasons, the main one being, according to him, “Washington’s inability to find Latin American leaders capable of democratizing their countries.” In any case, Kennedy’s effort was the exception that proved the rule; all other presidents had not even tried to get rid of local oligarchies, and they, not Washington, decided how much political democracy they were willing to tolerate.

Nixon and Ford were altogether hopeless about spreading liberal democratic internationalism. They “would not trade in such rhetoric.” For them, “the hypocrisy of Eisenhower and Dulles and the misplaced idealism of Kennedy was now superseded by a frank honesty that called itself realism (even if it was seen by others as cynicism).” As for Carter, his “brand of resurgent Wilsonianism” was defective. He is held guilty of “naivete about political realities abroad” and of not recognizing what the limits of applying liberal democratic internationalism were.

However, Smith has one shining Wilsonian hero. The oddest aberration in his book is its treatment of Ronald Reagan. He became “the first Republican president emphatically to to embrace the essential tenets of liberal democratic internationalism, or what might be called Wilsonianism.” In some respects, “Reagan was more Wilsonian than any of his Democratic predecessors, including FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Carter.” Reagan himself, Smith admits, “would vehemently deny that he was a liberal.” But Smith knows better. Like no one else, he has discovered “Reagan’s democratic revolution.”

Most of the evidence for this revelation comes from Reagan’s speeches, such as the one of March 8, 1983, in which Reagan said:”There is sin and evil in the world, and we are enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might.” But the same Reagan, nine months later, took back his denunciation of the “evil empire” and told an interviewer, “I would not say that again.” So much for Reagan’s consistency.

Finally, Smith makes a distinction between Reagan’s rhetoric and his practice:”Perhaps the greatest conundrum of the Reagan presidency in foreign affairs is how an administration so motivated by a born-again spirit of confrontation with the Soviet Union and so filled with a sense of the United States’ democratizing mission could in practice be so relatively flexible and restrained.” Reagan’s two military ventures—the invasion of Grenada in October 1983 and the air attack on Libya in April 1984—“were relatively risk-free.” Smith is particularly fond of the Reaganite phrase, “constructive engagement,” which supposedly meant assisting authoritarian regimes trying to democratize themselves. But Reagan did not assist the democratization of the Philippines or Chile. As for the Iran-contra affairs, “the president and his closest advisers (including in all probability George Bush) knowingly and repeatedly overstepped the constitutional limitation of their power.” It was “as great a challenge to the constitutional system of checks and balances as the United States has known in this century.”

Yet Reagan is given credit for “unparalleled Wilsonianism.” To make Reagan a Wilsonian, however, Smith changes the definition of Wilsonianism:”When a president makes American leadership of a world community of democratic nations following free-market practices the core features of his foreign policy, then whatever he calls himself, he most certainly is a Wilsonian.” But this self-proclaimed leadership of democratic nations and actually fostering democracy abroad are two different things. Smith frequently stretches the term Wilsonian far beyond what its originator might recognize.

George Bush is also said to have been “appropriately Wilsonian.” The Gulf War was allegedly the “zenith” of Bush’s liberal democratic internationalism, although Iraq and Kuwait were not democratized and Saddam Hussein remained in power. From then on, moreover, Bush’s worldwide democratization admittedly went downhill. He failed the tests in Latin America and Haiti, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Tiananmen Square protest in China, and assistance to Russia. Here we get one of Smith’s self-protective incongruities:Bush “advocated the selective promotion of democracy abroad,” but “certainly there was something embarrassing about the heady rhetoric surrounding a new world order that never materialized.” The fact is that Bush did not bring about democracy anywhere in the world where it had not previously existed. If he was “appropriately Wilsonian,” the term has lost its meaning.

America’s Mission is a strange book. It is as if it were written by two authors, one a historian, the other a political scientist. The historian realistically tries to do justice—or at least no great violence—to the events of the past century. The political scientist—and Smith is a professor of political science—desperately seeks to impose his theory on the same events. The history shows that the United States, except in rare circumstances, did not follow the Wilsonian ideal “to make the world safe for democracy.” For the most part, Smith’s history reveals that the United States has limited itself to defending the independence of nations, not their democratization; that in the struggle against communism it aided and abetted authoritarian regimes as a better bet than democratic ones; and that democratic rhetoric has been plentiful but the practical fostering of democracy abroad, where it had not already existed, was very meager.

Early in his book, Smith maintains that “liberal democratic internationalism, or Wilsonianism, has been the most important and distinctive contribution of the United States to the international history of the twentieth century.” He presents himself as a valiant warrior against the realist view of American foreign policy—that it has predominantly been based on US national interests, not idealistic propagation of democratic systems abroad. But Smith usually wants to have it both ways. He no sooner calls Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan—his four main Wilsonians—some sort of Wilsonian then he backs away by pointing out how far they fell short of the ideal in practice. In fact, he goes so far as to compromise with his previous bête noir, realism. After noting that “the result of American imperialism was often terribly damaging to foreign peoples,” as in Vietnam and Iran, he writes:

Seen from this perspective, realism and idealism, as they are discussed in academic debates about the political character of American foreign policy, have been complementary rather than opposed approaches to furthering American interests in the world. As realists, American leaders have shown themselves to be practitioners of the balance of power, mindful to fend off the expansion of powers that might threaten American security. Yet rather than annex foreign territories to its own imperial control, the United States, for reasons peculiar to its own national identity (including its geostrategic reasoning, its culture and ideology, and especially its economic and political structures)has favored measures to reinforce the independence of states whose incorporation under the control of another great power might threaten American national security.

But reinforcing independence is not enough to support Smith’s major theme. It requires promoting or fostering democracy abroad, which is not the same as independence. Refusing to annex foreign territories is hardly sufficient evidence of US idealism, especially when it is combined with persistent support for authoritarian regimes. Smith also cautions that Wilsonianism must be practiced “selectively” and “as the examples of Nicaragua and Iran demonstrate, the price to be paid may well be high—for the peoples of the regions concerned even more than for the United States.” Smith takes out so many insurance policies with respect to the application of Wilsonianism that it has hard to know when and where it can be practiced successfully.

In his more combative mood, Smith takes after Professor Robert Dahl, an elder statesman of their profession, for having written in 1989 that “the capacity of democratic countries to bring democracy about in other countries will remain rather limited.” In fact, Smith’s history confirms Dahl, whose skepticism is especially borne out by the Clinton administration’s flight from Wilsonianism. When Clinton decided to waive China’s human rights record to preserve China’s most-favored nation status, he gave an exhibition—and not the only one—of reverse Wilsonianism. Yet Smith attempts desperately to save Clinton for his cause by making this contradictory statement:

For the first year of his presidency, Clinton thus deserved to be called a selective liberal democratic internationalist. While he left no doubt in his public statements as to his administration’s commitment to promoting democracy abroad, Clinton nevertheless had no grand design for how such a program was to be advanced, and he steadfastly refused anydirect intervention for the sake of human rights or democracy abroad (aside from an effort in Somalia, which badly backfired).

With such double-talk, anything can be shown.

Surprisingly, Smith also turns out to be an advocate of an “eclectic hybridization” of “social science paradigms.” He looks forward to a combination of “Marxist, international, and comparative theory,” which he understands as a blending of Marxism and realism. His very last sentence reads:”What better indication of the new era for Western social science can there be than in the successful mating of Marxism, with its historical breadth of vision to a politically centered study of American foreign policy and world affairs?” It would have been more helpful if he had made an effort to mate them, instead of putting it off to a distant, new era on the very last pages of his book.

The main difficulty with America’s Mission is that it promises far more than it can deliver. It promises a new, original, iconoclastic interpretation of American foreign policy. Unfortunately, the historical material does not lend itself to this approach. Smith’s usual method is to make a large statement about a president’s alleged Wilsonianism and then chip away at it with historical data to the contrary. This gives some verisimilitude to his story but has a disconcerting effect on his main theoretical argument. In the case of his favorite president, Ronald Reagan, this method becomes grotesque. In the end, by compromising with Marxism and realism, Smith loses faith in his own mission.


America’s Mission December 1, 1994