Pragmatic US foreign policy in the 20th century | Pakistan Today

Pragmatic US foreign policy in the 20th century

How pragmatism worked in the name of moralism and isolationism

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Boer War brought significant losses to the French Empire, the British Empire and the German Empire


Pragmatism is one of the foundational principles of US foreign policy. It is a practical approach to shape the foreign relations in such a manner that the ultimate objective behind the foreign policy may be achieved and obviously the driving force or motivation is none other than the national interest. It can be argued that pragmatism is coupled and flanked by isolationism and moralism, which are also the principles of US foreign policy.

Before the start of the twentieth century, the United States and its leaders were pretty determined to bring America to the heights of glory. The Monroe Doctrine that is considered to be the cornerstone of the US foreign policy laid down the foundations of America’s determination to lead the Americas. The John Hays “Open Door Policy” for China further enhanced the American views on China and trade options. The Roosevelt Corollary was a decisive moment which clearly exhibited American role as an international policeman.

The dawn of the twentieth century and the continuous animosity among the European powers proved to be the opening of a new beginning for the United States. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Boer War brought significant losses to the French Empire, the British Empire and the German Empire. The balance of power in Europe was shifting in Germany’s favour. The Schlieffen Plan devised by General Alfred Von Schlieffen under the orders of Wilhelm Kaiser-I in 1905 laid down the foundations of World War-I. The formation of Triple Entente and Triple Alliance in Europe made it clear that war was on its way.

US President Woodrow Wilson took office on 4 March 1913. The hostile European situation was quite evident before him but instead of poking his nose in European affairs he elected to focus on his own country. One dimension can be drawn from Wilson’s behaviour that perhaps he thought it would be in the best interest of America to maintain a safe distance from European matters and to interfere and intervene when the situation invites and demands American intervention. The Zimmermann Telegram and the alleged sinking of HMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 by a German U-Boat was just a pretext and American pragmatism for Wilson to join and lead the Allied Powers against the Central Powers.

The pragmatist American approach towards Europe eventually proved to be pretty useful for them and by the end of World War-I, it was understood that without American support and intervention the Central Powers could have won the war. The day US Army General John Pershing set foot on France is regarded as the day the war took a U-turn.

It is widely believed that Wilson did not want to severely punish Germany and instead it was French President George Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd who insisted to teach Germany a bitter lesson in the form of TheTreaty of Versailles. But yet again it was American pragmatism to play the game with a view of realistic consequences. The US did not play its role to loosen the terms in the treaty but left the matter with the regional players i.e. Britain, France and Italy.

In one’s opinion America did not go into isolation during the inter-war period (1919-1939), but it was American pragmatism to flourish its economy from all aspects by remaining absent from European troubles. The Great Depression of 1929 is an example by which one can understand that America deliberately and intentionally crashed the European economies and cleared its path to become a future superpower.

The Nixon Administration sent Henry Kissinger via Pakistan to Beijing to start relations with Communist China. The driving force behind this incident was pragmatism

American pragmatism often takes cover under the veil of moralism and isolationism. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt exercised this phenomenon significantly. For some America was in isolation, but the Quarantine Speechgiven by Roosevelt on 5 October 1937 and the events in Germany afterKristallnacht (night of the broken glass) on 9 November 1938 and the subsequent calling of US Ambassador in Berlin to Washington for consideration; are among the historical facts which lead to doubt and skepticism about the American isolation. Roosevelt’s declaration of unlimited national emergency on 27 May 1941 was perhaps a provocation. It can be said with confidence that the pragmatist approach of the US regarding Germany kept America out of war until the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. The Lend-Lease Agreement is a facet of American pragmatism that helped nourishing the US war economy and the annihilation and destruction of the Tripartite Pactmember countries.

The indifference of Roosevelt in stopping the holocaust and the systematic extermination and deportation or perhaps persecution of Jews at the hands of Germany can be translated as another vector of US pragmatism in its foreign policy. The Bremen Incident of 26 July 1935; that actually happened in the United States was in fact a pragmatist attempt of the Roosevelt Administration to gather up the support of Jews, Communists, Catholics and anti-Nazi elements against Hitler and Germany.

The United States entered into World War-II not on the basis of moralism or isolationism, but it was pragmatism that became the driving force behind that decision. After the Second World War, the Allies were divided and the Soviet Union and the United States entered in to an era of Cold War and became enemies of each other. The Truman Doctrine and the formation of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was a pragmatic decision to counter the spread of Communism and the subsequent Warsaw Pact. It is viewed that the animosity between the US and the USSR is characterised by the moral principles of US Foreign Policy i.e. democracy, freedom, human rights, free market economy and liberty; but in reality it was a practical decision of the Truman Administration to gain hegemony and supremacy on an international and global level. The Soviet Union just happened to be in the way of the United States.

The tug-of-war continued in a cold manner between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Korean War (1950-53), Vietnam War (1955-75) and the War in Afghanistan (1979-89). American pragmatism guided the foreign policy decisions made during that particular era.

The United States did not recognise the Peoples Republic of China and instead recognised Nationalist China (Taiwan) as the sole representative of the Chinese people till 1971. The Nixon Administration sent Henry Kissinger via Pakistan to Beijing to start relations with Communist China. The driving force behind this incident was pragmatism. America knew that closer relations with the Chinese were need of the hour both for China and America. By doing this Nixon also wanted to weaken Sino-Soviet relations especially regarding the Vietnam War. Nixon compromised American support for Chiang Kai Shek’s Taiwan and announced that there is only one China in 1972.

One can conclude that pragmatism has always dominated US foreign policy and the following decisions not only in the twentieth century but from the very beginning of America. America fought the War of Independence against the British from 1775 till 2 September 1783 and Britain was the former master of the American people and was hated the most. It was American pragmatism that the former enemy became a close trading partner during the American Civil War (1861-1865).