The American way of foreign policy

high noonI have been teaching American foreign policy for a long time now, and for as long as I can remember I have shown my students the classic Western film High Noon as a way to give them insight into the enduring beliefs about ourselves and the nature of the world around us that animate our conduct of foreign policy.

I originally wrote the comments below as background for my students to give them some context when they watch the film (I’ll be showing it in class today and Friday). But I’ve also been thinking about it in relation to the discussion of foreign policy that has emerged in the current presidential campaign.

As most of the Republicans (Rand Paul the notable exception) seeking the White House have argued over and over again, the world is a dangerous place with enemies that America must confront head-on, with force, lest everything we stand for fall to ruin. America is all that stands between global order and global chaos. We lead not because we desire power, we lead because we must, because no one else will, because no one else is capable.

Lindsay Graham, while an afterthought in the polls, is representative of this perspective, one shared with most of his GOP rivals, with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (though her rhetoric while bellicose is far less apocalyptic), and even with the much maligned (by Republicans) President Obama. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July on the threat of ISIS and his plans to militarily intervene in Iraq and Syria to defeat extremism and stabilize the Middle East, Graham said:

This is the 1930s all over again, and this ISIL threat is something that will come our way soon if we don’t stop it over there … There is no substitute for winning this conflict. There is no substitute for America.

President Obama, speaking at West Point in 2014, while stated in more measured terms, expressed the very same sentiments about America’s role in the world:

[I]t is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come. .. The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

What follows are the comments I originally wrote for my students:


High Noon (1952) is both a product of its times, the early years of the Cold War, as well as a reflection of our enduring collective political values and beliefs. In other words, High Noon tells us much about how Americans see themselves, and how we saw (and I would argue) continue to see America’s role in the international arena. When you watch this film I think it will come as no surprise that High Noon has been screened in the White House more often than any other movie.

The metaphors in the film operate in two ways. First, the character of Will Kane (Gary Cooper) serves as a metaphor for the post-WWII United States. Kane is the archetypal Western hero evidencing the best qualities of the American character: courage, steadfastness, and devotion to justice.

Some of the background details of the film serve to underscore these embedded values. For example, in the pivotal church scene, the congregation is singing this verse from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: / Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! / Our God is marching on.

This implies a divine mission to set affairs aright, a mission that men of courage will meet. By failing to act, the townspeople condemn themselves in the sight of the Almighty, an idea made clear in the piece of scripture, Malachi 4:1, that the pastor reads, which evokes similar visions of both righteousness and judgment:

 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the

LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

At the same, the challenges Kane faces in the film are reflections of the challenges the United States faces in the new reality of the Cold War. Just as Kane is a metaphor for the US, Hadleyville, the town where the action takes place, can be seen as a metaphor for the post-WWII international system.

The setup for the story is that Kane, having cleaned up Hadleyville after a long struggle, is hanging up his gun and badge and retiring. This can be seen as the film’s equivalent of the American victory in World War II. After a brief time of peace and quiet, the bad guys – the Frank Miller gang – return to Hadleyville and once again threaten the peace. Here the film equates the threat of communism with the fascist tyranny of the war years.

The central question is how Kane and the townsfolk, and metaphorically the United States and the rest of the world, will respond to this new threat.

Chip off the ol’ blocks

bush bush bush
Pick a Bush, any Bush.


Speaking to Michigan’s party faithful at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference over the weekend, Jeb Bush made his critics’ case for them.

Riffing on his foreign policy credentials, and arguing that the next president will need to foster international peace, he said:

I know how to do this because, yes, I am a Bush.

Jeb has spent a lot of time arguing that despite the family name he’s his own man. Which I guess is plausible if you ignore the family’s big donors and all those holdovers from his brother’s and father’s administrations in top policy positions in his campaign. (For example, 19 of 21 of Jeb’s foreign policy advisers worked for one George or the other or both, including Paul Wolfowitz and Stephen Hadley, chief architects of W’s war in Iraq.)

Having declared in last week’s debate that his brother “kept us safe” while 9/11 happened on his watch, Jeb has apparently decided to embrace rather than run from his family’s legacy, especially on foreign policy, Iraq War I, Iraq War II, 9/11, Afghanistan, and all. This could finally signal that the candidate has figured out how to respond to questions about the family business he’s hoping to inherit.

As campaign communications go, his Mackinac declaration has the virtue of being short, succinct, to-the-point, even kind of high-energy. “Yes, I am a Bush,” will sound great in a campaign ad.

A Hillary Clinton ad.

Iran deal: Now even more official (with an update)


With four more Senate Democrats announcing their support for the Iran nuclear deal yesterday, Republicans will not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster of their resolution disapproving the agreement.  Not that objections from Congress would have made much of a difference in any course:

For all the drama leading up to this week’s debate, the other five world powers who helped negotiate the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — have made clear they have no desire to return to the bargaining table, and are likely to ease sanctions against Iran and put the agreement in place regardless of the view ultimately expressed by Congress.

Of course none of this stops the political posturing either in Congress (not that the lack of congressional GOP buy-in for any of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives really matters much) or from amongst the ranks of presidential contenders.

Just as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (well, front-runner everywhere but New Hampshire …) announced her support for the deal this morning, opponents were making plans for a rally at the Capitol later today featuring such foreign policy heavyweights as Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck.

Luckily Dick Cheney has resurfaced to offer a fresh alternative to diplomacy, a new Mideast war, backed up by a master class in how not to learn from the past.

“[T]here are lessons from the past on which we can draw,” Cheney declared. He then cited Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor; the Gulf War, in which the U.S. destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program; the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Cheney said convinced Libya to abandon its nuclear program; and Israel’s 2007 attack on a nuclear reactor in Syria. “In each of these cases,” Cheney argued, “it was either military action or the credible threat of military action that persuaded these rogue regimes to abandon their weapons programs. Iran will not be convinced to abandon its program peacefully unless it knows it will face military action if it refuses to do so.”

Of course Cheney fails to articulate how to make threats of military action — like the ones Obama has already made — any more credible without actually going to war. Nor does he manage to explain how such threats failed to stop the Iranians from advancing to the edge of nuclear capability under his watch.

Perhaps he’ll show up at the rally today to spell it all out for us slow learners.


We may never find out if those 42 Senate Democrats really support the deal now that conservative Republicans in the House have blocked a vote in that chamber. Reuters reports this afternoon:

A rebellion by conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday delayed the first congressional vote on the nuclear agreement with Iran and raised the possibility that lawmakers might never vote on a resolution disapproving of the pact.

The House was supposed to vote on a procedural motion to begin debate on Wednesday, but it was put off after some Republicans said they wanted to push President Barack Obama to provide more information about the deal.

The rebel Republicans, led by Representative Peter Roskam, said the Obama administration had not provided all the information about the deal required under the IranNuclear Review Act. They said it includes “secret side deals” about inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities that have not been fully revealed.

The White House dismissed that suggestion.

“If Congress does not vote, this agreement goes into effect. It’s as simple as that,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

For the life of me I can’t figure out what the Republican game is here.


It’s official, the deal will stand

iran deal

This morning Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) announced that she will support the agreement reached with Iran curtailing it’s development of nuclear weapons technology.  With 34 votes in hand, Pres. Obama now has enough support to veto any bill coming out of Congress that would reject the deal.

This is being hailed as a major foreign policy win for Obama. At Politico the headline reads: “Obama prevails on Iran deal.” At Slate, the headline is: “The Iran Deal Will Survive. Now It’s Just Politics.” The New York Times has, “Obama Clinches Vote to Secure Iran Nuclear Deal,” while The Atlantic headlines the story with “Obama Seals the Iran Deal.”

By now, if you are one of the two or three people (shout-outs to my wife and my dad) that read my blog with any regularity, you know that I’ve written before about my support for the agreement with Iran first here and more recently here.  I don’t want to rehash any of that now, but I do want to say a few words related to the cartoon above.

It’s pretty simple: If you want an agreement to stick, if you want the parties to abide by the commitments they’ve made, it is far better for them to walk away from the table thinking they have won than for one or the other to believe that they’ve been taken to the cleaners.

Parties that walk away from the table thinking they’ve won do so with the implicit understanding that the deal satisfies their interests. And a deal that satisfies your interests is a deal that you will hold to. This is a deal you won’t try to subvert or undermine.  As I tell my students when I teach negotiation and bargaining, the win-win outcome is the holy grail of settlements.  These are the agreements that persist and deliver on their promise.

If we’re lucky, that’s the kind of deal that’s been made with Iran.