Foreign policy often defines the way we perceive the world. For most of the 19th century, it was the main focus of the British government and into the 20th and 21st centuries it has shaped how nations interact with one another.
Yet the role of foreign policy has drastically changed. Where previously governments viewed foreign policy as a means of exerting power, through economic exploitation or military dominance. Lord Palmerston was famously unmoved when, in 1863, the British navy accidentally destroyed a Japanese town, killing 1,400 people, stating that he thought “I am inclined to think that our relations with Japan are going through the usual and unavoidable stages of a strong an civilised nation with weaker and less civilised ones.”
Such recklessness is now absent from our foreign policy.
Today, governments are often cautious to become involved in wars or the business of other countries. In a post-Iraq world, foreign affairs has become constricted and states are much more aware of how their actions will be interpreted on the global stage.
It can be argued that this is a good thing; since the end of the Cold War there have been fewer deaths as a result of conflict per year than at any time in human history. Further, due to the implications of foreign intervention in a world where sovereignty is championed above all else and where international rules and norms reign supreme, conflict in general is declining and is becoming more intra-state instead of inter-state.
However, this reticence to entertain any form of foreign intervention can lead to more suffering than it avoids.
Take Syria, a country that has been bulldozed by the dictator Bashar al-Assad for his own gain and his puppet master Putin in which the West has only slightly intervened for fear of a public reaction – a reaction that is misplaced and fails to understand the terror that is being caused by tyrants like Assad.
This political inertia could not come at a worse time, when Rohingya muslims are being persecuted in Myanmar and when India is escalating tensions in Kashmir by revoking their semi-autonomous status and deploying 100,000 solders to the region.
Interventionist politics has become undesirable to most. Yet, there is another way to enact foreign policy that does so with balance and proportionality.
John F Kennedy should be looked to for a blueprint for world leaders on how to engage in foreign affairs.
Whilst serving as Senator for Massachusetts he made a name for himself advocating that the United States should not support France’s suppression of Algeria. Kennedy argued that “the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile, it is man's eternal desire to be free and independent”.
Kennedy’s foreign policy was firm but flexible. Whilst he blockaded Cuba during the Missile Crisis to ensure that the Russians did not have an outpost a mile from the US coast, he was not against reconciliation. Whilst Bobby Kennedy was still considering a second invasion of Cuba in 1963, JFK was aware that Castro, cut off by Khrushchev was considering peace talks with the US and was potentially open to them.
Kennedy’s internationalism, harsh against potential threats but also welcoming of potential allies, was not the kind of imperialism against which he spoke in his 1957 Algeria speech.
This runs throughout Kennedy’s words – his Illinois university speech of the 24th October 1960 attacked the Republicans for failing to engage with African nations that were being courted by the Soviet Union. He ended the speech by stating “I want the world to wake up and wonder what the United States is doing, not what Mr Khrushchev is doing”.
Kennedy’s foreign policy approach was never to lessen the role of the US on the world stage, but it ensured that countries that need assistance to develop into stronger nations could do so – as can be seen in the Alliance for Progress, a scheme to unite countries across the Americas in better educational, economic and social standards.
There are a great many things we can learn from President Kennedy’s foreign policy doctrine. Kennedy favoured a foreign policy that was firm, flexible and was not simply concerned with the United States. Kennedy’s aim was to encourage other nations to become better, partly through American help and partly through their own initiative.
He never shirked responsibility, most notably for the Bay of Pigs which had not even been his own failure. His vision of an open, strong and authoritative foreign policy is one that should be seen as a blueprint for how we deal with the many issues that face our world.
Author: Will Barber Taylor
Will is a student of History at the University of Warwick and co host of the Debated Podcast.