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Lincoln And The Limits of American Power

In the photo on the left, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and President Obama are pictured during an update on the Islamic State at the Pentagon on July 6, 2015. On the right,  President Abraham Lincoln is pictured in an undated portrait. (AP photos)
In the photo on the left, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and President Obama are pictured during an update on the Islamic State at the Pentagon on July 6, 2015. On the right, President Abraham Lincoln is pictured in an undated portrait. (AP photos)
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ISIS has forced foreign policy into the presidential election, dividing realists from idealists. Crudely speaking, the former stress the limits on America’s ability to mold the world, with the disastrous Iraq war their Exhibit A, and urge caution with military intervention. The latter either dispute that (neoconservatives) or insist that humanitarianism sometimes demands we intervene, even absent a direct threat (“liberal internationalists”).

Realists favor Obama-like prudence and restraint in, say, Syria, against ISIS. Idealists denounce as “feckless [and] acquiescence to Assad’s barrel-bomb brutality” Obama’s failure to stop the killing by both Syria’s homicidal leader and the religious primitives battling him. The wise realist Stephen Kinzer of Brown University argues that America had better get used to such frustrating standoffs: From ISIS to the up-yours aggressiveness of Vladimir Putin to an ever-more-powerful China, we need help to deal with the era’s greatest global challenges — and we’re not used to seeking it or compromising to get it, Kinzer says.

The first lesson to learn from Lincoln is humility. 'I don’t know anything about diplomacy,' he confessed.

That’s not quite right, if you look back before living memory. Think “successful foreign policy president” and Abraham Lincoln doesn’t spring to mind. It’s not just that his lasting renown is as the Great Emancipator; he never visited a foreign country, knew but a few words in foreign languages, and was a klutz among unfamiliar cultures. The unworldly president once welcomed Native American visitors to the White House with the white man’s stereotypical caricature of their speech: “Where live now?”

That anecdote comes from the engrossing book "Lincoln in the World," by foreign correspondent Kevin Peraino. He documents how Lincoln’s adroit, restrained realism in foreign affairs kept foreign powers from recognizing or aiding the Confederacy, actions that might have doomed the Union and altered history. As presidential candidates bluster about the Obama administration’s supposed failures abroad, without offering anything better, Lincoln can show us how to thrive in the post-American century.

The first lesson to learn from Lincoln is humility. “I don’t know anything about diplomacy,” he confessed. “I will be very apt to make blunders.” He was just as humble about his country’s abilities, by necessity: The United States then was neither a superpower, nor — given the all-consuming inferno of civil rebellion — free to muscle-flex abroad.

The world of Lincoln was led by formidable men, including Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, who would become the “iron chancellor” of the German nation he’d unify, and Lord Palmerston, the prime minister of Britain, then the world’s superpower, who put the empire’s national interest above all else. The era exemplifies what former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote: “For most of its history, the United States was in fact a nation among others, not a preponderant superpower.”

Faced with this daunting bench of foreign leaders, the possibility that they’d aid the Confederacy, and his own parochial background, the American president “was better-suited to the age of great-power politics than might be assumed,” writes Peraino. “Lincoln, said his former law partner, Billy Herndon, was a ‘realist as opposed to an idealist.’ " The Rail Splitter, Peraino concludes, was guided by “a keen sense of international justice and the limits of American influence.”

Take Lincoln’s handling of England. Early in the Civil War, he fretted that the North’s blockade of the South, choking off its cotton exports to Europe, might provoke Britain and France to ally with the Confederacy. Given the feeble Northern navy — just 40 ships at war’s start, Peraino reports — Lincoln decided on a crash shipbuilding effort, blockading however many southern ports as the force could and “say[ing] nothing about the rest,” an acquaintance recalled. No presidential bluster here.

This plan almost came apart in November 1861 after a Union naval captain, without authorization, briefly seized the British mail boat Trent (violating international law) and took away two Europe-bound Confederate envoys. Northerners cheered this sucker punch to rebellious southerners and our former colonizers, but Palmerston demanded his countrymen’s release and spat threats of war.

Lincoln’s adroit, restrained realism in foreign affairs kept foreign powers from recognizing or aiding the Confederacy, actions that might have doomed the Union and altered history.

Initially inclined to keep the prisoners, Lincoln gradually reconsidered, given the Union’s precarious position and the fact that international law backed the British. He cannily worked the public relations machinery, urging supportive newspapers to editorialize for the envoys’ release to swing public opinion his way. When the administration finally sprang the two men, some politicians groused, and “Lincoln recognized that his decision had looked like weakness to some,” Peraino writes. “Actually, however, it was a near-perfect illustration of the president's central foreign-policy principle. The pursuit of America’s national interest, in this case, required conciliation.”

No one suggests we conciliate with the barbarians of ISIS. But the idealist-slash-tough approach to crushing them sooner rather than later would require, by expert lights, perhaps 10,000 American ground troops in a multi-nation military coalition. We can’t foresee the consequences of that, as we learned in Iraq and in Libya, where our help in toppling a despotic regime unleashed chaos and jihad-ism. President Obama found his inner Lincoln after that misadventure. His final State of the Union address last week mocked Ted Cruz’s suggestion to carpet-bomb ISIS, and the president has long conceded that his Libyan intervention was a mistake.

Hillary Clinton, who balked at making that admission in a recent Democratic debate, could learn from Honest Abe. So could the even tougher-strutting Republicans, who should take pundit Mark Shield up on his recent Christmas gift offer: a collection of Lincoln’s speeches, “to remind them from whence they came.”

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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