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How Lincoln Shaped Obama’s World

The morally conflicted world views of the two sons of Illinois.

Images: U.S. Library of Congress
Images: U.S. Library of Congress

One day during the Civil War, a group of men arrived at the White House demanding to see Abraham Lincoln. They were determined, they told the U.S. president, to get their man appointed as a diplomat in the Sandwich Islands — modern-day Hawaii. After making their case on merit, one of the men added earnestly that their nominee was in poor health and that the balmy island weather would do him good. Lincoln wasn’t buying it. "Gentlemen," he said before sending them on their way, "I am sorry to say that there are eight other applicants for that place, and they are all sicker than your man."

The mid-19th century diplomatic corps was indeed a motley bunch. "There is hardly a court in Europe which has not had some specimen of the American character in its worst form — a sot, or rake, or swindler," observed the New York World as Lincoln began his first term. Lincoln himself had never been abroad and spoke only enough German to court immigrant voters. In his early days in the White House, he left foreign envoys unimpressed. "His conversation consists of vulgar anecdotes at which he himself laughs uproariously," the Dutch ambassador griped. Lincoln, at least on some level, shared the diplomats’ concerns. "I don’t know anything about diplomacy," he told one acquaintance as he took office. "I will be very apt to make blunders."

Even after a century and a half of mythmaking, Lincoln is not often remembered as a great foreign-policy president. Yet he ultimately passed the most critical foreign-policy test of the Civil War: He avoided European intervention on the side of the Confederacy — a development that could have irrevocably shattered the Union. In the process, he proved that a popularly elected government could hold its own on the world stage during an acute crisis. (Alexis de Tocqueville, for one, was convinced that democracies were "decidedly inferior" when it came to handling foreign affairs.) All the while, Lincoln and his Republican Party worked assiduously to build a centralized nation — a critical prerequisite to the United States’ rise to power. Perhaps most importantly, the Civil War forced Lincoln not only to rearrange the American diplomatic toolbox, but also to find a workable middle ground between his universal moralism and the harsh reality of the world around him.

It is fun but futile to wonder what Lincoln would have made of Syria, or Edward Snowden, or drones. Pundits have spilled gallons of ink debating whether President Barack Obama is a Lincolnian figure. Yet such speculation largely misses the point. Obama, appealing to the idealism of an interconnected world yet simultaneously constrained by the realities of the international power grid, is operating on a globe that Lincoln helped shape. If the two men share similarities of temperament and character, it is partly because a particular style of stolid forbearance suited global politics in Lincoln’s era just as it does our own.

In the wake of the Crimean War, which ended just a few years before Lincoln became president, international politics evolved into a brutal competition for power and resources. (A German writer coined the term Realpolitik to describe the phenomenon.) By the mid-19th century, the world was dominated by powerful, self-interested warriors. Britain’s foreign policy was directed by Lord Palmerston, its shrewd, ruthless prime minister. Dubbed Lord Pumicestone for his abrasive demeanor, Palmerston was perhaps best known for declaring that Britain had no eternal friends — only national interests. The European continent’s leaders were no more charming. In Prussia, Otto von Bismarck saw Europe’s future emerging from the interplay of "blood and iron." Foreign policy, he said, was "the art of the possible, the science of the relative." (France’s Napoleon III was less competent, but no more warm and fuzzy. French writer Victor Hugo described the emperor as "a man of middle height, cold, pale, slow, who looks as if he were not quite awake" and who was "esteemed by women who want to become prostitutes and by men who want to become prefects.")

Lincoln, too, could be cold and ruthless. He was better suited to the age of great-power politics than is often assumed. An avid chess player, he was steeped in the rational philosophy and political economy of Enlightenment thinkers, and as a young politician, he glorified "reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason" as necessary for peace and order. Lincoln, said his former law partner, William Herndon, was "a realist as opposed to an idealist." He viewed the world without illusion. The future president’s mind "crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham," Herndon recalled. "Everything came to him in its precise shape and color."

Modern realists see strong similarities between our own time and the 19th-century age of great powers. The post-Cold War landscape that left America as the world’s sole superpower no longer exists. Even before the recent credit crunch and stock market crash, emerging nations such as China and India had been eroding U.S. power. Today’s multipolar world of competing countries with vastly divergent interests looks not all that different from the one that Lincoln faced. Such a world demands reasoned calculation — not self-righteous crusades. "For most of its history, the United States was in fact a nation among others, not a preponderate superpower," notes the dean of the realist school, Henry Kissinger. The era before the "American century," he has argued, may well be a more accurate predictor of what is to come.

Like ours, the 19th century was an information age, an era of rapid liberalization and globalization. Steamships had cut the Atlantic passage to a little over a week, and telegraph workers feverishly strung copper lines across continents and below the oceans. Driven by the invention of the steam-powered press, American periodicals exploded in number from 850 in 1828 to more than 4,000 by the eve of the Civil War. "There has never been an age so completely enthralled by newspapers as this," Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, observed in the fall of 1861. Karl Marx, a contemporary of Lincoln and himself a journalist, marveled at "the sheet lightning of the daily press" and the other "immensely facilitated means of communication." National differences, Marx believed, were "daily more and more vanishing."

The new technologies revolutionized the practice of foreign affairs. "Diplomacy has so few secrets nowadays," lamented French Empress Eugénie as she tried to stay ahead of events. (The 19th-century version of leaker Snowden was the acerbic Polish Count Adam Gurowski, who worked at the U.S. State Department and published his candid diary at the height of the Civil War.) The advances in communications, historian Daniel Walker Howe notes, "certainly rivaled, and probably exceeded in importance, those of the revolutionary ‘information highway’ of our own lifetimes." The same proliferating media empowered all types of preachers and reformers, filling the globe with a cacophony of moral (and often self-righteous) appeals.

In this changing world, Lincoln lifted a global megaphone. By exploiting the newspaper culture and innovations like the daguerreotype, he anticipated President Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit by a generation. When the Union’s blockade of the Confederacy resulted in cotton shortages across the Atlantic, Lincoln crafted messages designed explicitly for the consumption of starving European mill workers, in the hopes of discouraging foreign intervention in the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation itself was partially a plea for progressive European sympathies. Secretary of State William Henry Seward also seized the new tools of diplomacy, publishing his official dispatches for their public relations value.

Yet for all the appeals that Lincoln and Seward made to American "soft power," they were also driven by a respect for the material forces that were reshaping the planet. The market revolution, beginning in the early 19th century, had produced a sea change in the way some statesmen viewed international relations. For millennia, national strength had been measured in terms of military capabilities — by the size of armies, the quantity of frigates, the courage of generals, the morale of troops. By Lincoln’s presidency, at least some leaders, particularly in the United States and Britain, had come to view power primarily in economic terms. Access to banks, capital, and international markets was a better predictor of future strength than the quantity of guns and soldiers, the thinking went. Lincoln and Seward were students of this Hamiltonian school of foreign policy, as writer Walter Russell Mead has labeled it. Economic forces — not simply cavalry and cannon — would ultimately boost the United States to world power. Such thinking, Mead observes, amounted to "a radical innovation in the world of great-power diplomacy."

Seward tended to evangelize commercial expansion more loudly and aggressively than Lincoln. (One-hundred-fifty years before the "pivot" to Asia, Lincoln’s secretary of state was already salivating over export markets located "beyond the Pacific Ocean.") Lincoln more often stressed the moral perils of human bondage in his public remarks; he relentlessly defied expansionists when they aimed to spread slavery. Still, these were largely differences of rhetorical emphasis. For much of his political career Lincoln was actually focused primarily on issues of economic development. Like many of his fellow Whigs, he was also a strong supporter of America’s burgeoning navy. He considered it a short leap between promoting commerce at home and protecting it with gunboats on the high seas: "The driving [of] a pirate from the track of commerce on the broad ocean, and the removing [of] a snag from its more narrow path in the Mississippi river, can not, I think, be distinguished in principle. Each is done to save life and property, and for nothing else."

There is, then, a natural tension embedded in Lincolnian foreign policy — one that resonates in the corridors of the White House to this day. The Civil War’s outcome left the reunited nation energized by both its material strength and its moral self-assurance (or what critics like Edmund Wilson later derided as its "insufferable moral attitudes"). Lincoln, on one level, embraced that idealism. "I hate [slavery]," he told one Peoria, Illinois, audience years before he became president, "because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world — enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites — causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity." Lincoln’s later justification of the Civil War in his Gettysburg Address also rang with reformist overtones. Only through a cleansing "new birth of freedom," he declared, would the United States take its rightful place on the world stage.

Yet on his best days and at his most mature, Lincoln tempered his moralism with an awareness of the dangers of self-righteousness. Reinhold Niebuhr, a favorite theologian of Obama’s, admired the way Lincoln’s second inaugural speech "put the enemy into the same category of ambiguity as the nation to which his life was committed." While many of his compatriots crowed about regenerating the world or taking it by storm, Lincoln took a more measured, pragmatic approach. As a young congressman in the 1840s, he had questioned the reasons for going to war with Mexico — not entirely unlike the young Senator Obama would do regarding Iraq more than 150 years later. "Did Mr. Lincoln rule himself by the head or heart?" Herndon, the president’s former law partner, once asked rhetorically. "He was great in the head and ruled & lived there." Lincoln’s sense of human frailty usually prevented his democratic sympathies from sounding sententious.

U.S. foreign policy remains riven by this identity crisis. The mercurial nature of the American approach to diplomacy, the late Sen. William Fulbright observed, "is not an accident but an expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit." In our own era, with the limits of American power on display from Damascus to Pyongyang, the knowledge of human imperfection tends to predominate. (Perhaps that’s also why, with human imperfection on such grand display in Congress, Obama has chosen to resist its calls for more decisive and aggressive action.)

But for Lincoln, that knowledge led, most importantly, to patience — what Hay, his personal secretary, once called "one of the cardinal elements" of Lincoln’s character. A lifelong fatalist, the president often felt as though he were being buffeted by powerful winds that he could not fully resist. "I claim not to have controlled events," Lincoln once explained, "but confess plainly that events have controlled me." Sometimes that worldview inspired hopelessness and melancholy. At other times, it brought equanimity and long-term thinking.

Michael Burlingame, the great Lincoln biographer, has compared the president’s fatalism to the attitude expressed in Niebuhr’s "Serenity Prayer" — that favorite mantra of 12-step programs: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In international affairs, where major shifts in the balance of power are often the product of vast, impersonal forces, the message makes a lot of sense. Lincoln ultimately endured both the designs of great-power politicians and the dizzying change of a globalizing world. Obama will too, but a prayer for serenity in the meantime would certainly not hurt.

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