The World Today for July 04, 2018

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A Declaration, Then and Now

It’s July 4, and to celebrate the founding of our nation, we at DailyChatter spoke to historian and author Emily Conroy-Krutz about early American foreign policy, and how in the past 242 years, it has changed – or not.

Although our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, was written centuries ago, its words and insights still have relevance for the issues that occupy America today.

Happy Fourth of July!

DailyChatter: The Declaration of Independence is often thought about as an expression of the rebellion against England. But it’s also considered the first foreign-policy document of the newly independent United States of America. Please elaborate.

Conroy-Krutz: We think of the Declaration of Independence today as a statement of our national ideals and the moral standards we hope to hold our country to.

But at the time, that was just one thing it was trying to do – it was really written for an international audience and, to a certain extent, for Americans at home as well who were concerned about the legitimacy of revolution.

By the time the Declaration was written, there was already fighting going on for about a year. The different colonies had already written their Declarations of Independence, so the national Declaration of Independence is really about saying (to others), “This is not an illegitimate civil war, this is not a completely radical break and change,” that this is a completely legitimate move by the states to set themselves up as an independent nation, and to be legitimate partners with foreign powers who might want to trade, or might …want to provide some kind of military aid or financial aid for the United States in its war.

So you have (writer and revolutionary) Thomas Paine, who is very aware of that, and his Common Sense, and the resolution that (statesman Richard Henry) Lee makes in 1776. … These speak to that as well, that this (document) is necessary for foreign alliances and for foreign commerce: If you want to have either of those things, you need to have independence and have this independence be recognized by these foreign powers.

And so the Declaration is written in part as a way of communicating to the broader world that this is who we are, and this is what we are about, and this is why we are a legitimate state that is safe to be allied with.

At the same time, Richard Henry Lee during the conversations about independence raised the questions on foreign alliances: that in order to gain an independence, and in order to enact that independence, you needed foreign alliances and you needed foreign commerce – and those two things together were really key: alliances and commerce.

DailyChatter: Do you think that the Declaration is relevant today in the foreign-policy context?

Conroy-Krutz: I think it is … because of that language of, “All men are created equal.” Since at the least the Civil War, that’s the standard that all American actions are judged (against). And so, internationally, my sense is that the Declaration is, and has been, looked at as a statement of American ideals, and is the benchmark against which not only Americans, but foreign powers as well, judge American actions.

When the US doesn’t (live up to that benchmark), I think it gives foreign powers the opportunity to point to American hypocrisy. We see that during the Cold War era … (in) the ways in which the US did not recognize civil rights fully. I think it’s held up not only by the civil-rights movement at home but by folks abroad, who were then able to say, “Who is the United States to be calling for these changes elsewhere in the world, when they are, at home, not living up to these ideals themselves?”

I think the relevance of the Declaration today is in that language, in that moral language, and in those ideals it sets up. That definitely has foreign-policy implications.

DailyChatter: Would you say we have lived up to the Declaration as a foreign-policy document?

Conroy-Krutz: I don’t know if we ever have. I think that (Thomas) Jefferson and the rest of the drafting committee set a really beautiful lofty goal for this country, but (regarding) full equality, I don’t think that has ever been enacted in this country, and it’s a constant struggle to actually live up to it.

DailyChatter: Do you think we are/have been moving toward it?

Conroy-Krutz: Does the arc of history bow toward this? I think we’ve had moments. … It’s a hard question to answer right now given recent history, and the current moment we are in right now.

But I think one of the interesting things is if you look at 19th-century social movements, they used the Declaration a fair amount in explaining the justice of their cause. So if you think about the very early women’s rights movement of Seneca Falls in 1848, they modeled the Declaration of Sentiments directly on the Declaration of Independence. And you have Frederick Douglass’ beautiful and really incisive speech, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July.” The speech really calls out all of the ways in which those promises are not realized for a huge portion of the American populace.

Those 19th-century moments (came) because it’s a piece of writing that was more immediately known at the time.

Then, Fourth of July celebrations would involve the public reading of the Declaration every year, which is still done in some communities but not nearly as widely today. I think nowadays if you ask people what’s in the Declaration, we know those early lines, but I think people get a lot of stuff that’s in the Constitution confused with stuff that’s in the Declaration and vice-versa. So I don’t know if it is as immediately relied upon within the US as a statement of who we are and what we are about, aside from a more vaguely understood idea: America is about equality.

Whether we are working toward that especially in foreign relations – I don’t know if we are. I hope that the goal of American policy is to be ever moving closer toward that ideal, and I think there are important implications for that, both at home and overseas. But I don’t know if I’d say we are moving toward it in anything like a straight line, or even an obvious arc.

DailyChatter: Vis-à-vis the world, the US has always had a more openly moral component to our foreign policy and foreign aid decisions, something that has sometimes annoyed our allies and enemies alike who prefer realpolitik as a philosophy of engagement. Do you think that it’s the Declaration that sets up that element in US policy, or is that an encapsulation of American ideals from the beginning?

Conroy-Krutz: I don’t think it’s just that. … I would say that American religiosity plays into that a lot. And the longue durée of American foreign encounters.

A lot of the ways Americans encountered the world were through foreign missionaries – they were some of the earliest Americans who were all over the world, they were explaining the world to Americans at home. … And then into the 20th century there were missionaries and missionary children who were populating the State Department and the OSS and the CIA in ways that are not always recognized much. If you take sort of those direct connections with religious organizations, and you add to it some of the more ephemeral kinds of ideas about America … those who would call America a Christian nation, which I don’t believe it is – those ideas certainly influence American encounters with the world.

That only gets exaggerated when you have these (humanitarian) groups like the Red Cross emerging at the turn of the century, who are both nongovernment organizations, but also have deep connections with the American state and are bringing the American foreign policy into these moral questions. And I think it did lead to a sense … that America should be active because it has some kind of special message to give. And that certainly goes back to ideas about the American political experiment, and that republicanism, smaller republicanism, is America’s gift to the world and one that needs to be spread around.

Americans see their influence in the French revolution, and in the early stages of the Haitian revolution, the Latin American revolutions, and they sort of look at these political events around the world as evidence of their own spreading influence. And when those foreign revolutions seem too violent or seem too radical, that becomes a point where it is seen as other countries not learning their lesson correctly from the United States.

And so the US … imagines itself to have the space to go out in the world as this teacher of these political values that are colored by religious and moral values that come out in ways that can be quite profound. And when you get to the late 20th century history, to the Cold War, the War on Terror and now, I think you have all of those tendencies for America to position itself as unique in the world, as having a particular kind of lesson or gift to share with foreign spaces – whether it’s the political system, whether it’s the educational system, whether it’s Western types of scientific knowledge, whether it’s any number of things.

They (foreign-policy decisions) are connected to not only to this political history (going back to the Declaration), but also religious history that academic historians at least are starting to pay more attention to lately.

DailyChatter: George Washington in his last address famously warned of foreign entanglements. In many people’s view, we’ve always yinned and yanged on isolationism over time, with competing strains of “we should stay away” and “this is bringing more problems for us,” to “no we have to go out and change things, so it doesn’t come back on us” and “engagement is beneficial.” Could you just address what’s happened since George Washington’s warning, the yin and yang, and any trend toward more foreign entanglement?

Conroy-Krutz: I think that tension is there actually in the Farewell Address. If you look at the language Washington is using … you see that warning against foreign entanglement, and it’s interpreted as isolationism. But it’s not isolationism because he talks about alliances and trade. And he is absolutely talking about the importance of having the United States be engaged in trade with the whole world, absolutely being connected in commerce to everyone, a sort of early free-trade idea.

But (he says) what you don’t want to have happen is to be sucked into someone else’s politics, and he talks about this in the really evocative language of slavery: He says either too much love for a foreign country or too much hatred for a foreign country is like slavery, and it binds what a country can do. … It would set up the United States to act in ways that are not relevant to its own interests.

Of course, he is speaking specifically to the situation that’s erupting in Europe at the time between England and France, and not wanting to get pulled in, but also wanting to continue to trade with both sides.

In part, we see in that trade language the idea that obviously the US is going to benefit if there is neutral trade … but also in the most idealistic way, that free trade is going lead to world peace, because everyone that is connected through trade is going to have mutual interests and (be invested in) working things out the best way for everybody. But what he doesn’t want to get into is these issues that seem totally internal to what’s going on between Britain and France at that time that have nothing to do with the US.

And I think that we see in what happens in the decades after Washington makes his farewell address that it’s impossible to stay out of the conflict if you want to keep trading. And so you look forward (from then) to the Embargo Act, you look forward to the War of 1812, and see that whole idea just completely falls apart.

And I think that speaks to issues – this push and pull throughout American history where there are moments in which it does seem like issues abroad seem far away and irrelevant to American interests. And yet trade often brings the US in … also a desire to be connected through commerce or through humanitarian issues. Or religious concerns in connection with other places in the world will continually bring America into some conflicts that perhaps seem far away.

I think what Washington was trying to warn against was sort of staking too much of a claim in choosing one side or another in any foreign conflict, because it would pull the US in unnecessarily and sort of unwittingly. And we see those tensions happen again and again, we see that with both World Wars really evocatively, that idea of “again this is a European conflict, what does the US have to do with it?”

And yet, we ultimately realize that all sorts of connections mean (that the US) does have to get involved. So I think that within that early document (the Declaration), we see some of those (tensions), that back and forth that’s going to continue for all of American history, which seems a very dramatic way to put it. But that sense of the anxiety about too much connection (has always been there).

But still, the US has, I don’t think, ever really committed to a true isolationism, and even (George) Washington isn’t advocating for that. In his vision, ideally there’s going to be all sorts of connections between the US and the world just through commerce, not through warfare.

DailyChatter: So basically everything that we are seeing even today, 242 years later, we have seen before, more or less.

Conroy-Krutz: Yes.

Emily Conroy-Krutz is a historian, associate professor of history at Michigan State University and author of Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic.

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