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Altruism and interest
Successful foreign policies combine the two
“The most unsordid act in the whole of human history,” Winston Churchill called the Lend-Lease program of World War II, by which America armed, clothed, fed and even provided cigarettes to its allies in the fight against fascism, and didn’t require repayment. Churchill later elaborated, declaring Lend-Lease “the most unselfish and unsordid financial act of any country in all history.”
Franklin Roosevelt used different language in justifying the program to skeptical members of Congress, including some hard-core isolationists. Roosevelt described Lend-Lease as self-interested good sense. If a neighbor’s house caught fire, Roosevelt said, you’d lend him a hose and not worry about payment. Your neighbor’s danger could quickly become your danger.
A similar mix of altruism and interest appeared in commentary about the postwar Marshall Plan, which provided reconstruction aid to countries of Western Europe. In fact the similarity was so striking that Churchill’s “unsordid” characterization was often said to have been spoken about the Marshall Plan. Meanwhile George Marshall himself, the American secretary of state, and Harry Truman defended the reconstruction of Europe as vital to America’s self-interest in preventing the expansion of communism.
By any standard, Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan were two of the most successful ventures in American foreign policy ever. The former ensured the victory over fascism; the second secured the European front in America’s Cold War struggle against communism. And the success of the two programs was a direct result of their merging of American altruism with American self-interest.
Americans like to think well of themselves. They get a warm feeling when they believe they are bestowing favors on other people. The belief that America was rescuing democracy during World War II helped sustain American soldiers on the fighting front and American citizens on the home front. After the war, the sight of starving, shivering children in Europe struck a sympathetic chord with Americans, who imagined how they would have felt if those children had been theirs.
But altruism carries policy only so far. There are always competing claims on resources and sympathies. Sustainable altruism requires the support of self-interest—a satisfactory answer to the question, What’s in it for us? Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan had both.
This was not the case with every American venture in foreign policy. In 1899 the Senate approved a treaty with Spain ending the recent American war with that country and transferring control of the Philippines to the United States. At the time, the acquisition of the Philippines was justified as being good for the Filipinos, who would learn democracy from America, and good for the United States, which would gain a foothold in Asia.
Shortly, however, the Filipinos demonstrated they didn’t think American imperialism was good for them. They launched a bitter war against the American occupiers. As the cost of controlling their new Asian foothold increased, Americans’ interest waned. Unloading the Philippines took time, but Americans never repeated their mistake in overseas acquisition.
In the 1950s the United States sent aid to anticommunist forces in Vietnam. In the 1960s it sent troops to defend South Vietnam against North Vietnam. The aid and troops were justified as being good for South Vietnam, which must not be allowed to fall under communist tyranny, and good for the United States, which preferred fighting communists in Southeast Asia to fighting them in California, as Lyndon Johnson sometimes described the alternative.
But when the war went badly, and the cost of the American effort came to outweigh the potential benefit—that is, when the war no longer served America’s self-interest—altruism couldn’t make up the difference. Fully aware that their South Vietnamese allies would suffer, American leaders withdrew American forces and accepted a North Vietnamese victory. The American government allowed many of the South Vietnamese who fled the country to resettle in the United States—altruism wasn’t entirely dead—but often they arrived only after great hardship.
In 2001 American armed forces invaded Afghanistan. Interest drove the invasion, which was intended to capture Osama bin Laden and punish al Qaeda. Doing so required toppling the Taliban regime that had been ruling the country and had allowed Osama to operate training camps there. The camps were dispersed but Osama got away; meanwhile American leaders found an altruistic reason to stay in Afghanistan: to nurture Afghanistan on the path to democracy.
Travel on that path was slow. Almost two decades later, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan government was corrupt and unpopular, and real democracy remained a distant dream. Donald Trump decided to pull the plug on the American effort. He negotiated a schedule for withdrawal. Joe Biden displaced Trump in 2021 yet stuck to the bargain.
Biden was criticized for lack of concern for the Afghan people, who would again fall under Taliban oppression, and especially for Afghans who had collaborated with American forces during the twenty-year war. Biden responded with expressions of sympathy, yet he made clear that American interest no longer warranted the cost of continued presence in the country. Pundits complained but the American people seemed to accept Biden’s judgment.
The lesson was the same as ever: The glow of altruism makes a policy attractive, but the steel of interest gives it staying power.