One of the more strange electoral campaigns of American political history took place in 1916, as World War I waged in Europe and other parts of the world, and the United States vainly thought that it would be able to remain neutral in the face of conflict between the Triple Entente and their allies and the Central Powers. Similarly, in 1940, an intramural dispute between an internationalist Republican neophyte politician in Wilkes and an FDR running for a third term took place in an atmosphere of grim conflict in East Asia and Europe and with a national mood that supported peace even as political leadership was engaged in foreign policy moves that seemed designed to provoke a conflict with Japan that the ordinary mass of Americans was largely ignorant of.
One of the characteristic problems of countries dealing with the behavior of American governments is the wide variance between the interests and behavior of ordinary Americans and that of American political and economic elites. Ordinary Americans, even those of us who are inclined to enjoy traveling, are not the sort of people who have financial interests or entanglements in foreign countries. We are happy to see nations free to do what they do and have little interest in formal or informal empires of any kind, and even a certain hostility to them. The behavior of our political and economic elites, though, is not nearly so benignly isolationist, and frequently in American history there have been interests in foreign countries to support that have involved competition with the imperialist ventures of other nations, leading to a great deal of potential for armed conflicts that have inflamed populaces against American involvement and domination, to say nothing of hostility directed at American military forces (which despite everything often remain popular with Americans as a whole) as well as civilian populations.
One of the characteristic problems that other nations have in dealing with America’s behavior with regards to provocation to warfare is that it has proven to be difficult to limit the damage to those elites who are causing the trouble. It was not the mass of America that was shipping arms to the United Kingdom during the period of official neutrality in World War I, nor was it the mass of ordinary Americans that engaged in provocation of Japan or Lend-Lease with the UK (and later USSR) during the period of World War II before America’s direct involvement. Yet the Zimmerman telegrams and unrestricted submarine warfare and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized American hostility to nations who had been at least somewhat provoked into conflict by what appeared to them as completely reasonable hostility to official neutrality that was of active benefit to their enemies. And the same problem, it should be noted, is present in the case of American involvement in Ukraine and neighboring areas (like Moldova) even now. America’s government is not behaving in a neutral manner, and yet to attack American interests is to threaten an escalation of conflict to involve the great mass of American people as a whole.
So long as American interests remain decoupled from that of our elites, but where Americans are quick to unite in the face of foreign conflicts that are provoked by the behavior of those elites, American foreign policy amounts to a moral hazard that indicates the severity of the problem of agency. Our society (and, to be fair, many societies) has long has leaders whose interests did not align with the well-being of the American people or our desires for an honorable peace with all nations. It seems particularly that our current crop of leadership–recently embarked on a sustained effort at weakening freedom at home that continues with efforts to enshrine government disinformation as a subcabinet level office to serve as the official source of what will likely be a large amount of government disinformation and self-serving propaganda to silence unpleasant and inconvenient truths, or even speculations and surmises that hit too close to home–is not going to be inclined to be more honest and candid about its behavior than past generations of leadership. The question remains, as always, how will the people respond to the manipulations and machinations of leaders. Upon that question much depends.