Carrie Chapman Catt

Is Our Foreign Policy at Fault? (Elements in a Constructive Foreign Policy) - April 23, 1927

Carrie Chapman Catt
April 23, 1927— Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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For two days I have been trying to profit from the wisdom and the information that have been poured from this platform by the many distinguished men who have spoken. The first result of my education is that I have thrown aside the speech in intended to make her to-night, and I am coming to you with a different suggestion as to a possible national contribution to peace. My idea is the essence that I have drawn out of the programs to which I have listened. To all of you who will call it drivel let me say that you are liberty to hold me up as a dreadful example of what happens when wise but indiscreet experts are turned loose upon the lay mind.

The program has consisted of many addresses concerning different phases of the application of American foreign policy. I am sure all who have listened to this program are convinced that whatever else may be said of its application, our foreign policy creates resentment, irritation, and even fear, on the part of many at home and abroad that war may ensure because of it. It has been said on this platform that our foreign policy and its application is flawless. It has been said that it is doing great mischief. I believe both statements are correct. How can that be? It is easily explainable. The President has followed the law and the precedent, therefore he is right. Ethics in international affairs has changed, therefore this policy has been criticized because it is regarded as wrong. Any one of you, had you been President of the United States, would have done just about what Mr. Coolidge has done in the last few months. It is not possible for any president to follow a different course. Why? Because he is forced to follow the precedent.

What is our foreign policy? Where did it come from? What does it mean? I have heard it said here that our government has been caught following the cue of Great Britain! We undoubtedly got our entire foreign policy from Great Britain, as we also took our institutions, our ideas of freedom and liberty from her. But this foreign policy was not originated in Great Britain. She received it from Rome, and Rome from Greece, and Greece from the Phoenicians and the Babylonians, and if we want to fix the source of our foreign policy we might say that Nebuchadnezzar began it. When the application of this foreign policy in China resembles that of Great Britain, it is not because the United States is following the command of our one-time mother, but because the policy toward foreign countries of Great Britain and the United States is the same, having preceded from the same source. Foreign policy of the entire world has been an evolution, and in principle it has changed little, but in detail of application it has grown somewhat kinder. If Nebuchadnezzar were here he would say to Mr. Coolidge, – "What you are doing is exactly what I would have done, and exactly what say 100 per cent Babylonia would have done. A 100 per cent. American resembles closely a 100 per cent Babylonian in the matter of foreign policy. Our foreign policy plus our war and Navy Departments, trinity of our defense, work automatically to one end. They originated at the same time, and the pressure of the combined great machine is such that no president can resist it. You remember that when Mr. Wilson went into office he had very liberal ideas about our dealings with the Latin countries, but yet did he not intervene in Mexico. And now we have the opposing party in power and a wholly different type of man as President. He too is on the verge of intervening, and we may read in the morning papers that he has intervened. You would do the same thing. More, any other country would follow the same plan.

If our policy can be applied in no other way, and if it produces continual resentment and irritation, what about the future? Certainly the difficulty in Nicaragua and China and Mexico will in time be adjusted in some way, but after that, what then? You know the resentment will continue, that disputes will arise in other nations, and that the present crises will be repeated again and again until the end of time. The difficulty seems to be that when a nation applies its foreign policy it views it from the standpoint of precedent and any violation of its rights as a violation of national honor, while the nation to which it is applied views that situation from the newer but confused standard of ethics and holds its own honor as infringed. As a matter of fact, honor is not a factor in the case. The introduction of the principles of the Golden Rule into everybody's Foreign Policy would contribute to a more peaceful world.


My suggestion therefore is that if our foreign policy, like that of all the nations, is not abreast of our modern thinking, the president should not be criticized but the policy changed.

The principal thing that is making present international disturbance is investments. When there is an investment in Timbuctoo and somebody comes to the president declaring that this investment is being disturbed, the president can do nothing but call his state department and ask for treaties, laws and precedent, and they are all of one kind. He then makes a war gesture. It may be that a warship sails, a political fist shakes, a threatening note or two passes. Any other nation would do the same. If that policy continues among the nations, I judge from what I have heard upon this platform that we are always going to have disturbance and irritation, and generations to come will gather here to discuss the nature of the succeeding unpleasantness, under the benign protection of the Academy.

Why not change the foreign policy and move ahead. Who can do it? Can Mr. Coolidge do it? No. Mr. Coolidge cannot do it; he must wait for his party. Could his party do it, or any other party do it? Certainly not. We are a brave, wise people. We can kill Indians and wild beasts and bandits, but all of a tremble we take to the woods at the sight of a new idea. No political party has ever yet lead forth with a new idea. It has only sponsored a big idea when "we, the people" behind it, have many, many votes to secure. We, the people must therefore find the idea and persuade the voters.

Here in the Academy is a good place to begin. Why should not those in management include in next year's programme the history of the evolution of foreign policy for all the world around? Why should that discussion not tell us what our own foreign policy it, and just how it operates? Go further. Why not appoint a commission from among the wise men who are here, men who are the specialists of international law, of economics, of political science, and all other things that lie in the background of peace, and urge it to consider the question – Is there any possible foundation for a foreign policy other than that in operation? Cam we put into the foreign policy of this country more gestures of friendliness and fewer gestures of war? Let this commission make a new kind of foreign policy if they can. Perhaps they could not write a complete foreign policy that would serve coming centuries, but I am sure they could find some new principles that would lead the world out of the old complex.

The Academy is not a propagandistic society. It could not accept those findings and advocate them. That doesn't matter; if anybody under the sun finds principles that appeal to our reason as a better basis for a foreign policy, there are plenty of people in this country who would pick them up and see that they were pressed forward until at last they were written in the platforms of political parties. I ask, is it not time to begin a revamping of our foreign policy? Other nations will follow.


It is not for us to say what new foreign policy should be. Most delegates apparently are experts. I've discovered since I came that I am an expert too. I never knew it before. Unfortunately I have no parchment from a university telling the observer that I am an expert, and the thing I am an expert in has no chair in the university anyway. I am an expert in the "rights of man," and as an expert I venture to say what is wrong with our policy is that there isn't anything in it but trade and dollars. There should be human rights in it. It contains none of the world principles for which men fought, bled and died not so long ago. Have we forgotten those principles? It occurs to me that the first principle ought to go back to the Declaration of Independence. The declaration of the equality of man has established and perpetuated peace at home and carried us forward without revolution. "Men are born free and equal," said the Declaration; not alike, but equal in the common guarantee of rights. If Americans still believe that principle, does it not follow as the night the day that collective men organized into nations are also equal? Not alike but equal in the guarantee of right. Must it also not be the right of every nation to govern itself in its own way? Does it not follow that any nations that interfere with these rights are bandit nations, just as individuals who interfere with the right of the individual are outlaws? Surely, no nation or collection of nations can justly claim the right to dictate the control of a nation's tariff, or set up a president and hold him in office by the aid of marines. That is the old and present policy; it cannot belong to the new.

Let me repeat, the new policy should, as it seems to me, contain three commandments as a beginning. 1: All nations are created free and equal. 2: All nations possess the inalienable right to govern themselves each in its own way. 3: Any nation which interferes with the right of another nation to govern itself shall be declared an outlaw among nations. These principles, certain to be recognized some day, cut straight across all the precedents of trade and investment and their supremacy. The cut straight across the traditional rights of imperialism, including the pretty theory of "The white man's burden," the thing that white men invented and taught themselves to believe in order to soothe their accusing consciences. There is a great deal of truth in the question I heard put by a brilliant Japanese at a Foreign Policy luncheon in New York: "Is it not time to ask whether the white man has a burden or is a burden?"

Where investments and the fundamental rights of man conflict, the right of man should have the supremacy. What then becomes of the investments of disorderly governments? These are questions the new policy must answer and answer justly for all concerned. Do not say it cannot be done. In can be done, and one day it will be done. Why not now?

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