Should the United States act with humility in international affairs?

Should the United States act with humility in international affairs?

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  • No... John R. Bolton

    “A United States infused with humility works right up until Europeans — and we ourselves — need real protection."

    For individuals, humility is typically considered a desirable virtue, in contrast to its opposite number, pride, often deprecated and broadly perceived as a less-desirable personal characteristic. Both humility and pride are, of course, simply different aspects of situational self-awareness, divergent points along the continuum of behavior toward other people. Humility connotes modesty and respect for others, while pride is seen as masking arrogance, and is frequently accompanied by a swaggering cohort of other undesirable attributes.

    It is therefore far from surprising that Dwight Eisenhower normally wins the contest for "most popular" over Lyndon Johnson. Alternatively, Winston Churchill once described his political opponent, Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, as "a modest man with much to be modest about." Churchill's humility was obviously not his strongest suit; he insisted even to his own family, "I am a great man." Indeed he was. Humility in the face of Hitler and Nazi Germany, despite Gandhi's advice not to resist a fascist invasion of Britain, would have rendered Churchill an abject failure in history.

    Accordingly, the appropriate balance for individuals is unresolvable. And yet, notwithstanding the imponderables involved in appropriately sizing and judging humanity one by one, we have nonetheless long analogized large political entities - from empires to kingdoms to nation-states - to individuals. We do it in many ways, large and small, perhaps because it is easier to grasp international complexities in familiar terms, or perhaps for propaganda purposes to enhance or delegitimize the holders of various anthropomorphic attributes.

    Assigning human characteristics to political organizations, however, is essentially false and misleading, and often dangerous. All nations have interests, and some have values, and their respective interests and values frequently conflict. Some, like Woodrow Wilson and his followers (Barack Obama comes to mind) see essentially all conflicts as resolvable through diplomatic means, essentially advocating humility as a way of international life, especially for the most powerful, like their own country. Others, notably Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, see conflict as a more inherent human quality, to be avoided when possible but accepted when the costs to core values and interests would be too high. The Wilsonians see this as the sin of pride replacing humility, with necessarily adverse consequences, although they cite no evidence that humility ever deterred belligerence. Indeed, in the international arena, humility can be fatal.

    And this is the real question: both the Wilson-Obama and Roosevelt-Reagan schools want international peace and security, but they diverge significantly on methods. Thus for both analysts and policy makers, at least in American terms, what we should want is cold-blooded realism. Instead of constantly wondering whether we are highly enough regarded by friends and foes, whether in their universities or their salons, we should worry about whether we and our global friends and allies are adequately protected. International politics is not domestic campaign politics, and public opinion polls rarely determine outcomes. Our inquiry is far from simply a military calculation, but necessarily encompasses political and economic factors to ascertain whether our "big stick" is in fact big enough.

    Realism is not some midpoint between humility and pride, but a professional attribute of statecraft, something necessary at the national government level in ways personal characteristics simply are not. Without realism, as in Wilson's case, the consequences are rarely favorable and are often deeply wounding to our national interests. And even where it is present, it is only a necessary and rarely a sufficient condition for success, as the consummate realist Richard Nixon (rarely characterized as having deep humility) found in Vietnam. Nor would humility have fared better as national policy in Vietnam; it may simply have advanced the date of the Communist victory and ensuing subjugation of South Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge's mass murder in Cambodia.

    Of course, no one disputes that optics and political posturing can have their benefits, so that an ostensibly low-key approach may be desirable in appropriate circumstances. It was, after all, Theodore Roosevelt who advised that we should "speak softly," and he actually won a Nobel Peace Prize for accomplishing something, brokering peace following the Russo-Japanese War. But beneath the optics must lie the hard reality, which almost inevitably involves assertive advocacy of American interests. This does not mean an overly prideful approach or insufficient humility; it simply has nothing to do with these individual human attributes.

    Despite the Europe-centric notion that America was an isolationist country out of the global mainstream until World War I, we have faced threats and challenges throughout our history, generally with a deep understanding of the calculus of power, what the Marxists like to call the "correlation of forces." Today, despite the current economic turmoil, we still find ourselves incredibly strong, in both comparative and absolute terms, and this strength helps define the choices we face. Those favoring the halo-surrounded path of humility argue that our strength is too prideful and is actually a source of many current challenges, and that less strength and more humility will reduce those challenges. This is certainly the predominant view in Europe, and seemingly also now prevails in Obama-era Washington.

    The more realistic view is that American weakness, not our strength, is provocative, as the Europeans should better understand after almost sixty-five years of sheltering under the American umbrella. A United States infused with humility works right up until they - and we ourselves - need real protection. It is realism's virtue never to forget that lesson.   


    John R. Bolton, a diplomat and lawyer, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006 and is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. 

  • Yes... Lawrence J. Korb

    "U.S. presidents should not shy away from employing the human qualities of humility and caution in their approach to dealing with the world’s problems. Indeed, exercising humility in the short run can bring about more security in the long run."

    Although humility is seen primarily as a virtue in human interactions, some would argue that it is not a good characteristic for American foreign policy makers; that is, as the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, its leaders need to display a certain amount of boldness or arrogance to deal successfully with the threats to our national security. But while the U.S. is indeed powerful, it is not omnipotent, and there are limits to what even this great power can accomplish. Therefore U.S. presidents should not shy away from employing the human qualities of humility and caution in their approach to dealing with the world’s problems. Indeed, exercising humility in the short run can bring about more security in the long run.

    One president who seemed to recognize this was George W. Bush. In the controversial 2000 campaign, he actually promised that if elected he would pursue a humble foreign policy. Although the statement was intended as a criticism of the Clinton-Gore policy of squandering American power to undertake nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia with mixed results, it was also in keeping with the traditional American approach to protecting American national security interests that has existed since the U.S. assumed a dominant role on the world stage in the aftermath of World War II.

    For example, George Kennan, the architect of the containment policy that enabled us to prevail in the Cold War, told Congress in 1966 that “Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country,” because “this is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully.”

    President Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, put it much more graphically in a 1999 speech to Gulf War veterans to rebut the claims of groups like the Project for the New American Century that were criticizing him for not removing Saddam Hussein from power in the first Gulf War.

    The forty-first president told the veterans, “Whose life would be on my hands as the commander in chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our macho? We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power — America in an Arab land — with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.”

    When the U.S. government has forgotten the promises that George W. Bush made in his campaign, or the warnings of strategists like Kennan, or successful foreign policy presidents like George H. W. Bush, the results have been disastrous. For example, while the CIA’s role in engineering the ouster of the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mossadegh in 1953 may have fit into the Cold War mentality of the time, U.S. meddling in another country’s internal affairs — especially meddling that went against our professed values — caused ripple effects, both in Iran and the greater Middle East, that continue to plague us today.

    Up until the invasion of Iraq, the most egregious example of American arrogance was our involvement in Vietnam. Not only did the U.S. military and political establishment not understand the motivations of the Vietnamese, but they also overestimated the utility of our military power to create a unified, democratic, non-Communist South Vietnam.

    Senator J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during that war, put it well when he said, “What I do question is the ability of the United States or any other Western nation to go into a small, alien, undeveloped Asian nation and create stability where there is chaos, the will to fight where there is defeatism, democracy where there is no tradition of it, and honest government where corruption is almost a way of life.”

    After the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the apparent early success in Afghanistan, President Bush forgot his campaign promise and the lessons of his predecessors, including his father, and became increasingly less humble and more arrogant in his approach to other nations, telling them “you’re either with us or against us,” and that the United States intended to shape the world. He threw caution to the winds by invading Iraq in March 2003, with the aim of creating a stable, pro-American democracy in the Middle East. The invasion occurred about two years after he took office and fewer than three years after he had criticized President Clinton for trying to impose democracy on the Balkans.

    The invasion of Iraq to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein was based on two arrogant ideas. First, ignoring the warnings of military men like Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki, a veteran of both Vietnam (where he was severely wounded) and the Balkans, Bush believed he could get the job done quickly with a small military force (our invading troops were told they would be home by Christmas) and without significant international support, and that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators (exactly what the British thought when they occupied the country almost a century ago). Six years later, after the loss of nearly five thousand American lives and the expenditure of approximately a trillion dollars, Iraq is still a squabbling, tenuously secure state whose leaders celebrated the withdrawal of our troops from their cities on June 30, 2009, by claiming they had evicted the invaders.

    Meanwhile, as a result of this invasion our military is near the breaking point, the war in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and America’s standing in the world is at an all-time low.

    President Obama recognizes that our foreign policy must be less arrogant and more humble. As he said in his inaugural address, “Our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

    In his first three hundred days in office Obama has lived up to those words: setting a plan to withdraw from Iraq, working with our NATO partners to establish a goal in Afghanistan, closing Guantanamo, stopping the needless and provocative deployment of missiles and radars in Eastern Europe, and negotiating directly with “evil” regimes like Iran and North Korea. If he continues on this humble path, America’s role in the world and our security will resemble that which existed in the administration of the first President Bush.


    Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at The Center forAmerican Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. He is a former senior fellow and director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of more than twenty books, including A New National Security Strategy in an Age of Terrorists, Tyrants, and Weapons of Mass Destruction (Council on Foreign Relations Press).