Day of Ideas
Tech & Innovation
Arts & Letters
Idealism & Practicality
Nature & Environment
Markets & Morals
Politics & Presidents
Atlantic Home Page
The Growth of Our Foreign Policy
by Richard Olney
The characteristic of the foreign relations of the United States at the outbreak of the late Spanish war was isolation. The policy was traditional, originating at the very birth of the Republic. It had received the sanction of its founders—of Washington preeminently—had been endorsed by most if not all of the leading statesmen of the country, and had come to be regarded with almost as much respect as if incorporated in the text of the Constitution itself. What the policy enjoined in substance was aloofness from the political affairs of the civilized world in general and a strict limitation of the political activities of the United States to the concerns of the American continents. It had been distinguished by two salient features which, if not due to it as their sole or chief cause, had certainly been its natural accompaniments. One of them was the Monroe doctrine, so-called, directly affecting our relations with foreign powers. The other was a high protective tariff aimed at sequestering the home market for the benefit of home industries and, though legally speaking of merely domestic concern, in practical results operating as the most effectual of obstacles to intercourse with foreign peoples.
While the Monroe doctrine and a protective tariff may be regarded as the distinguishing manifestations of our foreign policy prior to the late Spanish war, our "international isolation" has had other important consequences which should be briefly adverted to. The isolation policy and practice have tended to belittle the national character, have led to a species of provincialism and to narrow views of our duties and functions as a nation. They have caused us to ignore the importance of sea power and to look with equanimity upon the decay of our navy and the ruin of our merchant marine. They have made us content with a diplomatic service always inadequate and often positively detrimental to our interests. They have induced in the people at large an illiberal and unintelligent attitude towards foreigners constantly shown in the disparagement of other peoples, in boastings of our own superiority, and in a sense of complete irresponsibility for anything uttered or written to their injury. This attitude of the people at large has naturally been reflected in their representatives in public life, while in officials brought in direct contact with foreign affairs it has often been even greatly intensified. Apparently, in their anxiety not to fall below the pitch of popular sentiment, they have been led to strike a note altogether beyond it. Hence have come, only too frequently and on but slight pretexts, violent diatribes against foreign governments and gross abuse of their peoples and institutions, not merely on the hustings, but on the floor of the senate or house; not merely by unknown solicitors of votes but by public officials in stations so prominent as to give to their utterances an air of real significance. The bad taste and worse manners of such utterances from such sources, whether in the past or in the future, need not be enlarged upon. The difference for the future is that they can no longer be made with impunity nor be excused by any professed belief in their harmlessness. The cheapest politician, the most arrant demagogue can not fail to realize both that, after joining the international family of European states, the United States can not afford to flout its associates, and that foreign governments and peoples can not be expected to discriminate between the American people and those who represent them in appearance however much they may misrepresent them in fact.
Though historians will probably assign the abandonment of the isolation policy of the United States to the time when this country and Spain went to war over Cuba, and though the abandonment may have been precipitated by that contest, the change was inevitable, had been long preparing, and could not have been long delayed. The American people were fast opening their eyes to the fact that they were one of the foremost Powers of the earth and should play a commensurately great part in its affairs. Recognizing force to be the final arbiter between states as between individuals, and merit however conspicuous and well-founded in international law to be of small avail unless supported by adequate force, they were growing dissatisfied with an unreadiness for the use of their strength which made our representatives abroad less regarded than those of many a second or third class state, and left American lives and property in foreign countries comparatively defenseless. They had come to resent a policy and a condition of things which disabled the nation from asserting itself beyond the bounds of the American continents, no matter how urgently such assertion might be demanded in the interests of civilization and humanity, and no matter how clearly selfish interests might coincide with generous impulses and with what might even be claimed to be moral obligation. They had begun to realize that their industrial and commercial development should not be checked by limitation to the demands of the home market but must be furthered by free access to all markets; that to secure such access the nation must be formidable not merely in its wants and wishes and latent capabilities but in the means at hand wherewith to readily exert and enforce them; and, as it could not hope to compass its ends without a sympathizer or friend among the nations, that it was imperative the United States should be ready to take any concerted action with other nations which its own special interests might require.
In short, when our troubles with Spain came to a head, it had, it is believed, already dawned upon the American mind that the international policy suitable to our infancy and our weakness was unworthy of our maturity and our strength; that the traditional rules regulating our relations to Europe, almost a necessity of the conditions prevailing a century ago, were inapplicable to the changed conditions of the present day; and that both duty and interest required us to take our true position in the European family and to both reap all the advantages and assume all the burdens incident to that position. therefore, while the Spanish war of 1898 is synchronous with the abandonment of its isolation policy by the United States, it was not the cause of such abandonment and at the most only hastened it by an inconsiderable period. So, while the Spanish war ended in the acquisition of Cuba by the United States, that result was neither unnatural nor surprising, but something sure to occur, if not in the year 1898, before many years, and if without war, then by a cession from Spain more or less compulsory in character. It may be thought at first blush that to speak of "the acquisition of Cuba by the United States" as a fact so accomplished is inaccurate. But the objection is technical and the expression conveys the substantial truth, notwithstanding a resolution of Congress which, ill-advised and futile at the time of its passage, if now influential at all, is simply prejudicing the interests of Cuba and the United States alike. No such resolution can refute the logic of the undisputed facts or should be allowed to impede the natural march of events. To any satisfactory solution of the Cuba problem it is vital that Cuba's political conditions should be permanently settled. The spectacle now exhibited of a President and his Cabinet sitting in Washington with an appointee and sort of imitation President sitting with his Cabinet in the Antilles must have an end, the sooner the better, and will end when Congress ceases to ignore its functions and makes Cuba in point of law what she already is in point of fact, namely, United States territory. Were there to be a plebiscite on the subject, such a consummation would be favored by practically the entire body of the intelligence and wealth of the Island. Until it is reached, capital will hesitate to go there, emigration from this country will be insignificant, and Cuba will fail to enter upon that new era of progress and development, industrial, political, and social, which is relied upon to justify and ought to justify the substitution of American for Spanish control.
If our peculiar relations to Cuba be borne in mind—if it be remembered that the United States has always treated that Island as part of the American continents, and, by reason of its proximity to our shores and its command of the Gulf of Mexico, as essential to our security against foreign aggression—if it be realized that during our entire national existence foreign Powers have had clear notice that, while Spain would be allowed to play out her hand in the Island, no other Power than the United States would be permitted to absorb it, it will be at once admitted that neither the Spanish war nor its inevitable result, our acquisition of Cuba, compelled or is responsible for the relinquishment by the United States of its isolation policy. That relinquishment—the substitution of international fellowship—the change from passive and perfunctory membership of the society of civilized states to real and active membership—is to be ascribed not only to the various causes already enumerated, but above all to that instinct and impulse in the line of national growth and expansion whose absence would be a sure symptom of our national deterioration. For it is true of states as of individuals—they never stand still, and if not going forward, are surely retrogressing. This evolution of the United States as one of the great Powers among the nations has, however, been accompanied by another departure radical in character and far-reaching in consequences. The United States has come out of its shell and ceased to be a hermit among the nations, naturally and properly. What was not necessary and is certainly of the most doubtful expediency is that it should at the same time become a colonizing Power on an immense scale. The annexation of the Hawaiian Islands need not now be taken into account and is to be justified, if at all, on peculiar grounds not possible to exist in any other case. But why do we find ourselves laboring under the huge incubus of the Philippines? There has always been a popular impression that we drifted into the Philippines—that we acquired them without being able to help ourselves and almost without knowing it. But that theory—however in accord with the probabilities of the case—that theory, with all excuses and palliations founded upon it, is in truth an entire mistake. It is certain and has recently been declared by the highest authority that, having acquired by our arms nothing but a military occupation of the port and city of Manila, we voluntarily purchased the entire Philippine archipelago for twenty millions of dollars. The power of the government to buy—to acquire territory in that way—may be, indeed probably should be and must be admitted. Its exercise, however, must be justified by something more than the fact of its possession. Such exercise must be shown to have been demanded by either the interests or the duty of the United States. What duty did the United States have in the premises? The question of duty comes first—because, if there were any, it might be incumbent on us to undertake its performance even at the sacrifice of our interests. What, then, was the call of duty that coerced us to take over the Philippine archipelago—that compelled us to assume the enormous burden of introducing order and civilization and good government into uncounted, if not uncountable, tropical islands lying thousands of miles from our coasts—that bound us to enter upon the herculean task of leading into the paths of "sweetness and light" many millions of people of all colors from the deepest black to the lightest yellow, of tongues as numerous and hopelessly diverse as those of the builders of the tower of Babel, and of all stages of enlightenment or non-enlightenment between the absolutely barbarous and the semi-civilized?
It used to be said that our honor was involved—that having forcibly overthrown the sovereignty of Spain in the archipelago, we were bound in honor not to leave it derelict. But, as already noted, that proposition is completely disposed of by the official admission that we never held by conquest anything more than the city and harbor of Manila and that our title to everything else rests on purchase. The same admission disposes of the specious argument, a cheap resource of demagogy, that where the flag has once been hoisted it must never be taken down. But if, as now authoritatively declared, it had never been hoisted over more than the city and port of Manila, no removal of it from the rest of the archipelago was possible in the nature of things. If not bound in honor to buy the Philippines, how otherwise were we bound? A distinguished senator, on his return from England last summer being asked what was thought there of our Philippine imbroglio, is said to have answered that the English were laughing in their sleeves at us. They were not laughing, it may be assumed, at our disasters. They were not merry, unquestionably, over our waste of millions of treasure and over our sacrifice through battle and disease of thousands of valuable lives. They would naturally rather applaud than scoff at our ambitions in the line of territorial extension. But British risibles, not too easily excited under any circumstances, must indeed have been adamant not to be moved by the justifications for our predicament vociferously urged by politicians and office-holders now especially prominent before the public. Does it appear or is it argued that the Spanish war was unnecessary—that the pear was ripe and ready to fall into our laps, without war and the killing of the reconcentrados, could we only have kept our heads and our tempers—that with a fair degree of tact and patience and common sense the Philippines might have been pacified—the astonishing answer is declamation about the beauties of the "strenuous life," the latest euphemism for war!
Does it appear or is it claimed that no trade we are likely to have with the Philippines and China together is likely to compensate us for the enormous cost of first subjugating and afterwards defending and governing the Islands—an equally remarkable reply is that any such objections are shameful and unworthy; that we have a duty in the premises; and that whatever our wishes, or our interests or our sacrifices, we are under solemn obligation to carry the blessings of good government and civilization to the inhabitants of the Philippine archipelago! It is not easy to conceive of anything more baseless and more fantastic. As if war, under whatever alias, were not still the "hell" it was declared to be not by any apprentice to the trade but by one of the great commanders of the age; as if charity should not begin at home and he who fails to make those of his own house his first care were not worse than the heathen; as if New York and Boston and all our cities did not have their slums and the country at large millions of suffering and deserving poor whose welfare is of infinitely greater importance to us than that of the Kanakas and Malays of the Orient, and whose relief would readily absorb all the energies and all the funds the United States can well spare for humane enterprises. No wonder our British kinsmen guffaw at such extraordinary justifications of our Philippine policy. The Britisher himself is as far as possible from indulging in any such sickly sentimentality. He quite understands that the first and paramount duty of his government is to himself and his fellow-subjects; that, as regards all outside of the British pale, whatever his government may do in the line of benevolence and charity is simply incidental and subsidiary. He fully realizes that if territory is annexed or control assumed of an alien race, it must be justified to the British nation by its promotion of the interests of the British Empire. If the transaction can be justified to the world at large as also in the interest of a progressive civilization—and it must be admitted that it often can be—so much the better. But British policy is first and last and always one of selfishness, however superior in point of enlightenment that selfishness may be. It is so of necessity and in the nature of things—as must be the policy of every other great Power. None can afford not to attend strictly to its own business and not to make the welfare of its own people its primary object—none can afford to regard itself as a sort of missionary nation charged with the rectification of errors and the redress of wrongs the world over. Were the United States to enter upon its new international role with the serious purpose of carrying out any such theory, it would not merely be laughed at but voted a nuisance by all other nations—and treated accordingly.
If not bound to buy the Philippines by any considerations of honor and duty, was it our interest to buy them?
Colonies may be greatly for the advantage of a nation. If it leave a limited home territory and a redundant population, distant dependencies may afford just the outlet required for its surplus inhabitants and for the increase and diversification of its industries. It is manifest that no considerations of that sort are applicable in the case of the United States and the Philippines. Were our population ever so dense, it could not be drained off to the Philippines where the white laborer can not live. But the United States, far from having a crowded population to dispose of, has an enormous area of vacant land which for generations to come will be more than adequate to all the wants of its people. Our purchase of the Philippines can be justified, then, if at all, only by its effect in creating or extending trade and commerce with the Philippines and with China. What can be said for the purchase from that point of view?
On this subject the thick and thin supporters of the administration seek to dazzle our eyes with the most glowing visions. A soil as fertile as any on the globe needs but to be tickled with the hoe—to use Douglas Jerrold's figure—to laugh with abundant harvests of all the most desired tropical fruits. Minerals of all kinds are declared to abound everywhere—virgin forests of the choicest woods to be almost limitless in extent—while as for coal, it is solemnly asserted to be even dropping out of the tops of mountains. Nothing, in short, is too good or too strong for the defenders of the Philippine purchase to say of the natural resources of the Philippines, and with declamation on that single point, they usually make haste to drop the subject. They do not stop to tell us what we are to sell to a community whose members live on the spontaneous growth of their mother earth, and clothe themselves very much as did our first parents after the expulsion from Eden. They fail to tell us, further, with what labor the vaunted resources of the Islands are to be exploited, since the white laborer can not work there and the native will not. Shall we take the ground that what is bad for the United States is yet good enough for the Philippines and so legalize coolie immigration from China? Or, being just recovered from the bloodiest war of our time waged for the national life but caused and inspired by hatred of negro slavery, shall we now follow up our Philippine investment by adopting the system of quasi-slavery known as "Indentured Labor" and hire "black-birders," as they are called in Samoa, to "recruit" laborers in India or to steal or cajole negroes from among the outlying islands of the Pacific? Upon these as upon all the other difficulties which lead, not orators nor politicians, but business men and experts on the subject to declare that the Philippine trade will never repay the cost of acquisition, the friends of the Philippine purchase are discreetly silent. They do not, however, rest their case wholly, nor as a rule, even to any great extent, on the Philippine trade alone. They point to China—to its swarming millions and the immense markets which the breaking down of Chinese traditional barriers will afford to the nations of the West—and they triumphantly assert that here is to be found the more than sufficient justification for the Philippine purchase. The claim would be much exaggerated even if the Philippines could give us the entire Chinese market instead of simply letting us join in a neck and neck race for a share of it with every country of Europe.
Volume 85, No. 509, pp. 289–301