Debate highlights differing foreign policy perspectives

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The debate was sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute. COURTESY IMAGE / WM.EDU

The Alexander Hamilton Society and the John Quincy Adams Society hosted a debate Thursday, Sept. 19 between Dr. Robert J. Lieber and Dr. Eugene Gholz. Lieber, a professor at Georgetown University, argued for more interventionist American foreign policy on behalf of the Alexander Hamilton Society. 

Gholz, the representative for the John Quincy Adam Society, argued for a foreign policy governed by diplomatic restraint. 

The debate was sponsored by the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute. Dr. Susan Peterson, a co-founder of the Global Research Institute and a government and international relations professor at the College, served as the moderator of the debate. 

Peterson opened the event by stressing that disagreements between intelligent, well-informed scholars on approaches to foreign policy are a timeless fixture of domestic discourse. She shared a history of American foreign policy, specifically citing former United States presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s hesitation in being overly involved in international issues. 

In Lieber’s opening statement, he advocated for a more interventionist approach to international affairs. He rejected the claim that this philosophy is searching for conflict. 

Instead, Lieber argued that the United States has played an unparalleled role in international affairs since World War II, citing the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund as examples of its success. Lieber criticized the administrations of President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump for their policies of “retrenchment,” and noted the rise of regional hegemons such as Russia, China and Iran as evidence that these policies have harmed the world order. 

“In these days of high technology, hyper-speed weapons, the Internet, cybertheft and so forth, the notion that we can follow what is a de facto quasi-isolationist policy is a fantasy,” Lieber said.

“In these days of high technology, hyper-speed weapons, the Internet, cybertheft and so forth, the notion that we can follow what is a de facto quasi-isolationist policy is a fantasy,” Lieber said. 

Lieber argued that recent atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda and Syria have resulted from a lack of action on the part of the United States. He asserted that if the world order is not led by the United States, it will be led either by a totalitarian country or a weak country. 

Gholz, on the other hand, described his philosophy of foreign affairs as one of restraint. 

“Corrupting conflicts damage our society and the world,” Gholz said. 

Gholz brought up two specific questions, one about alliances and the other concerning when the United States should intervene militarily around the world. 

He argued that while the United States should have friends and coalitions, it should not have permanent peacetime alliances. Gholz advocated for keeping the military small and defensive, rather than interventionist. 

“We’ve spent lots of money, we’ve run down our own country, we’re politically divided … we haven’t addressed our problems — instead we’ve failed to address those, but we’ve also failed to address the problems we’ve tried to address overseas,” Gholz said. 

Gholz brought up Iraq and Libya as examples of failed interventions. He argued that when it comes to alliances, the United States has “confused means and ends.” Gholz asserted that the United States is supporting wealthy countries excessively by protecting allies like European countries and Japan. 

“If everyone defends themselves, everyone can be secure at the same time,” Gholz said. 

Gholz advocated a long-term view of American foreign affairs and argued that there may come a time in the future when the United States needs to fight. 

“We should keep our powder dry, we should prepare for that moment. We shouldn’t go waste all our money today,” Gholz said. 

Lieber said that his view of foreign policy was prevalent in early America, saying that the United States used “muscular foreign policy” to push others out of North America. He brought up the point that the world has changed since the time of John Quincy Adams and that now events far away impact the United States directly. Lieber cited the 9/11 attacks as evidence for this claim. 

Lieber admitted that not all intervention is positive and that the United States has made mistakes in the past. 

“There needs to be more prudence, more caution, more care in shot selection, but our allies lack the capability and the will to do the kind of counterbalancing that [Dr. Gholz] is talking about,” Lieber said. 

Gholz cited the military’s strength and substantial financial burden as evidence that it should not be used more than necessary. He also focused on providing other countries with agency, saying that the United States should let wealthy, democratic governments make their own choices. 

“There is no policy where we can wave a wand and fix China’s government,” Gholz said.

“There is no policy where we can wave a wand and fix China’s government,”Gholz said.  

Following the final comments, Lieber and Gholz answered questions from the audience, including ones regarding the United States’ relations with Iran. 

Lieber said that U.S.-Iran relations are often caricatured; however, both scholars agreed that the United States should restrain itself from overemphasizing its priority to positively benefit other countries. Gholz said that foreign relations can be a complicated balancing tradeoff of ideals. 

Both speakers were asked about the current administration’s approach to Iran’s threats. Lieber responded that while President Theodore Roosevelt counseled to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” President Trump has “spoken loudly and carried a small stick.” 

After the event, Logan Harrell ’23 said that although both sides had very strong arguments, she wanted to see more of a middle ground between the United States being militaristic and knowing when not to be. 

Athena Zacharakos ’20, President of the Alexander Hamilton Society, said she thoroughly enjoyed the debate. 

“It’s a great debate, especially because it goes to the very core of both the John Quincy Adams Society and the Alexander Hamilton Society,” Zacharakos said.