“Kerry Admits It”: Setting up the Dominoes in Foreign Relations History

Last week Senator John Kerry received his nomination to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. During his confirmation hearing, Kerry turned the tables on Congress saying, “I’m particularly aware that in many ways the greatest challenge to America’s foreign policy will be in your hands, not mine.” He continued,

“I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home – and the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”

And then, rather bluntly, he said, “foreign policy is economic policy.” (Video of his full testimony can be found here.) As Ira Chernus pointed out in his post “Kerry Admits It: Economic Policy is Foreign Policy,”  you can almost hear some historians of US foreign policy cheering. They have been waiting for this moment of intellectual affirmation. Chernus explained,

“Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.” And now these scholars can rest assured that a person in leadership put their scholarly hunch on record in public testimony. No further inquiry needed. Follow the money trail and you’ll learn what you need to know about foreign relations history.

Chernus isn’t satisfied with this explanation and neither am I. Whereas Chernus insists that Kerry is another example of myth-making in the upper echelons of state power, I think Kerry offers an opportunity to explore a fundamental principle of historical research: the history of foreign policy cannot be boiled down definitively to a single cause. Looking for a single causation–and, at times, I would argue focusing exclusively on causation–can lose sight of the greater context from which policies develop as well as the broader implications of those policies. Tracing the relationship between economic policy and foreign policy certainly contributes to our working knowledge of what happened or why it happened the way it did, but it risks focusing too narrowly on the order of dominoes and the way they fell to produce foreign policy initiatives. Association, as we all know, does not imply causation. So, to those who find themselves cheering, we might ask: assuming economic strength, how do we explain why we spend money on this instead of that? Ideologies play in important role in determining the parameters of “good” policy  versus “bad” policy, even if the consensus is that they are not the direct cause of the choice.

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