Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Features of U.S. Foreign Policy

Let's talk a little about foreign policy before we get into particular issues and policy areas that you've been intimately involved in. What's unique about the making of foreign policy in a democracy?

I think that above all it's a messy process. It's hard to predict. Now of course during the time of the Cold War, as you know from your own work and studies, there was an organizing principle with respect to American foreign policy. There was an overriding concern, the threat perceived or real (and I would submit it was very real), from the Soviet Union militarily and ideologically. Therefore most of what the State Department did, or the White House did in foreign affairs, turned around the fact that we were at the head of an alliance of, for the most part, free nations, which were allied principally to defend our common interests against Soviet encroachments.

Even during that period there was, at various moments -- as we saw during the Vietnam War, for example -- intense debate about how this should apply and how far it should go. But it's never been easy to predict a steady course for American foreign policy, the defense of American interests around the world. Of course, since the end of the Cold War, and I know we'll get into this a little later, it's become almost impossible to have anything resembling an organizing principle to guide either politicians or taxpayers in the defense of America's interests overseas.

Let's focus in, we can do this because you're a former philosophy student, on the "American" adjective. In addition to being a foreign policy in a democracy, there are certain distinctive things about the way the United States [conducts foreign policy] that you must have had to explain to your colleagues in France and Germany and elsewhere. What stands out now in your mind as enduring qualities that come out of our history and our culture that are distinctively American as opposed to just democratic?

That are rather unique?

Yes.

The first, I think, Harry, and the most striking, is the moral character to our foreign policy. Now I'm not saying this to defend it, because at times it is not as moral as it seems. But a certain sense of altruism which is part and parcel of the way any president will explain to the Congress and the country what the U.S. is all about. Human rights is one recent example of this. But in the struggle against the Soviet Union, the repression of the Soviet system, not only in Russia itself but throughout the Warsaw Pact countries, was a very, very strong issue. You may remember the differences between the United States and some of our principal friends and allies in Western Europe over the plight of the Soviet Jews, for example, during the seventies and early eighties. So there's the moral character.

And even then, the opposition groups to American policy toward the Soviet Union had human rights concerns about our policies in other parts of the world.

That's right. Exactly. And that would reflect an opposition to the support [that] the United States gave sometimes at that period in particular to repressive regimes, authoritarian regimes, around the world, in the interest of having them as allies in the overall front against Soviet expansionism in one form or another. So it permeated, to a large extent, the decisions that we would make internationally and internally.

The second [unique feature of U.S. foreign policy] was a sense of not wanting to be at the head of an empire in the way some of our good friends in Europe had been during the course of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century. I don't think there was ever a real inclination on the part of American policy makers, after the First World War even less so, but certainly after the Second World War, to have the U.S. in charge in a direct way. You may remember the decision to provide considerable aid to Europe, not only Western Europe, the offer was also made to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the context of the Marshall Plan. It was predicated on the requirement not only that these countries come up with a rational plan, but that they do it cooperatively, that the money would be given for what amounted to a collective effort at reconstruction and development, which some might consider was short-sighted on the part of the United States because, as we're now seeing fifty years later, Europe developed into a partner but also a competitor of the United States. But we never thought that the United States would be at the head of an empire in a traditional sense, which was quite different.

Finally, although it remains a factor in American foreign policy, we were never as mercantile as the traditional European colonial powers. I don't remember any discussion in terms of higher policy interests where the economic stake the United States would have was a paramount concern. I'm not saying that it was irrelevant, and we had to find hard-earned taxpayers' dollars to fund a lot of what we were doing during the Cold War, especially in the defense budget. But the economic interests of the United States was never a major objective when we came to very large strategic concerns during that period. Economics has subsequently become much more important, of course, as you know.

Next page: U.S. Foreign Policy after the Cold War

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