It’s been widely noted that the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airbase seem at odds with Donald Trump’s electioneering opposition to American intervention. But there should be little surprise. A president’s foreign policy often sharply contrasts with a candidate’s foreign policy because exigencies of governance are very different from exigencies of political campaigns. And every nation’s foreign policy is to some extent the product of national character rather than the personality and preferences of particular heads of government.
Arguably, presidential elections have not altered the fundamental overall direction of American foreign policy. Last week was the centennial of the declaration of war on Germany by Woodrow Wilson, who had campaigned for reelection on a peace platform. But he never doubted America’s interests and values aligned with the Western democracies against the Kaiser. And there’s little doubt that had Wilson lost in 1916, Republican president Charles Evans Hughes would have led America into WWI. Hughes too may have touted a League of Nations, but more successfully, with his own party’s support.
A President Wendell Willkie, had he defeated FDR, certainly would have declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, itself precipitated by America’s oil embargo against Japanese aggression, which Willkie also would likely have eventually initiated. Similarly, a President Tom Dewey, had he won in 1944 or 1948, would probably have countered the Soviet Union in much the same way Harry Truman did after WWII, including entry into Korea. Dewey may have even fired MacArthur, for whom he would have had no more patience than Truman did, perhaps less so.
Would Adlai Stevenson’s foreign policy have been very different from Eisenhower’s? Less deft perhaps, but overall, probably not. And in foreign policy, Kennedy and Nixon disagreed on very little. JFK’s speech writer Ted Sorensen would later claim Nixon would have precipitated nuclear war because during the Cuban Missile Crisis he would have heeded the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attack Cuba. But Nixon, when he later did become president, notoriously distrusted the military chiefs. Likely, in 1962 he would have followed JFK’s course.
Goldwater in 1964 wanted to prosecute the Vietnam War more vigorously than LBJ. Humor columnist Art Buchwald would later spoof LBJ’s war escalation as the mirror of Goldwater campaign rhetoric. Would Humphrey have withdrawn from Vietnam any more quickly than Nixon? Probably not. Nixon would say only he could have gone to China, but American interests inevitably required overture to China. Jimmy Carter would campaign against the realpolitik of Nixon/Ford/Kissinger, but after an initial focus on human rights he practiced his own realpolitik. And the Reagan defense buildup began during the later years of the Carter administration.
Bill Clinton had equivocated over the Persian Gulf War but launched several of his own military interventions, expanding the mission in Somalia, plus the Balkans bombing campaigns and Haiti. George W. Bush campaigned against nation building before trying to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq. Would President Al Gore have acted much differently after 9-11? Maybe, or maybe not. Barack Obama campaigned as an anti-war candidate but governed with drones and reignited involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are of course still significant differences among the presidents and their opponents. Personality, character, and temperament of each president and his advisors are important. Some are more intuitive and visionary than others. FDR was more comprehensive in his understanding of the Axis threat than Willkie, and his wartime leadership was superlative. Reagan more clearly saw the Soviet Union’s vulnerabilities than almost any other politician in either party. His confidence uniquely helped end the Cold War successfully and peacefully, after his seven predecessors had sustained American resolve to varying degrees across 45 years.
Both Reagan and FDR, with every other elected American leader and their administrations, are products of the American character. America, like all nations, has permanent interests that every administration will acknowledge. And America, somewhat uniquely but similar to our British mother country, has within its DNA a messianic moralism, rooted especially in Protestantism and Puritanism, that infuses its global outlook with spiritual purpose. This trait maybe negative or positive, but it is intrinsic to our national personality.
It’s the vanity of every age and generation to ignore or reject this continuity, preferring to believe it is completely exceptional. But nations are not vapors in the moment but accumulations of experiences across centuries and, in some cases, millennia. Each nation has its role within the plans of Providence. And every nation has a particular consciousness, and spirituality, that cannot be escaped and must be understood, for which missiles in Syria are only America’s latest chapter.