The Grand Presumption

by Doug Bennett

“President Obama’s policy toward Syria has failed, and it’s time to try a tougher approach.” Nicholas D. Kristof wrote those words in a column in the New York Times on August 28th. He went to urge that the U.S. arm those opposing President Assad, and launch missile strikes against the Syrian regime.

Kristof was hardly alone in urging military action when he wrote those words, and a good deal has changed since then. Kristof’s support of military action was striking because he seems like one of the least likely commentators to urge such a course. Most days and most situations, he would urge an approach grounded in dialogue, respect for human rights, and adherence to international agreements. But beyond the surprise of his hawkish urgings in this case, I want to focus on his judgment that U.S. foreign policy had “failed.”

By “failed,” I think Kristof means that we hadn’t gotten our way; our efforts did not produce the outcome we wanted. We hadn’t gotten the Assad regime to stop the violence against its own citizens.

That is an astonishing expectation: that the United States will always get its way in foreign relations. and if we do not, we should count the effort a failure. What anyone else wants doesn’t matter and doesn’t count. If we don’t get what we want, we fail.

Let us call this ‘the grand presumption.’

It isn’t just an expectation that the U.S. is a superpower. It goes even beyond an expectation that we will be the only superpower on the world stage. It is the widely held (even if rarely articulated) assumption that we will always get our way.

Among Americans, it isn’t just Kristof who holds this expectation. It is held by nearly everyone who has a significant voice in the making of U.S. foreign policy: Republicans and Democrats, hawks and doves, soldiers and diplomats. Some who hold this grand presumption favor military means; others encourage diplomacy or ‘soft power.’ But the underlying assumption is the same. If I single out Kristof here, it is only to emphasize how broadly shared is this grand presumption among those whose views are considered sensible in the making of foreign policy.

To break with this grand presumption – as I do – is to set yourself on the fringe – to disqualify yourself as one who should be taken seriously in discussions of U.S. foreign policy.  And yet breaking with this grand presumption is the first step towards shared security.

No other country looks at its foreign relations in this way. No Belgian, no Russian, no Egyptian, no Argentine would entertain such an expectation. They may put their own interests first, but they do not always expect to get their way.

In this grand presumption there is no room for shared security, because there is no real room for sharing. There is no room for giving equal respect to the views of others. In this mindset, we may seek partners or form coalitions with other countries, but in these joint efforts we will always expect to dominate. We will be the ones to set the terms. We may try to work through the United Nations, or (failing that) through NATO. But if we cannot persuade or press them to see it our way, we are prepared to act on our own.

It should come as no surprise that much of the rest of the world – even when they agree with our goals – views us with caution or distrust.

The grand presumption is the antithesis of shared security. Those of us who seek a different approach must be prepared to be seen on the fringe. We must be prepared to be labeled naïve. But the turn to a safer world for all of us depends on breaking with this grand presumption.

About the author: Douglas Bennett is clerk of AFSC’s Friends Relations Committee, a member of AFSC’s Corporation, as well as as a member of AFSC’s Standing Nominating Committee. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. His scholarly publications include Transnational Corporations Versus the State: the Political Economy of the Mexican Automobile Industry, co-authored with Kenneth Sharpe (Princeton University Press, 1985), and many articles on transnational corporations in developing countries, immigration, and other topics in public policy and in higher education. Doug serves on the FCNL General Committee. In the past Doug has served on various of AFSC’s advisory committees.  He is married to Ellen Trout Bennett, and has two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).   He is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, part of the New Association of Friends that is forming in the midwest. You can learn more about Doug at his blog.



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