In the depressed state of the president's political fortunes, the one area in which there might be some hope for a brighter future was foreign policy. Conceivably, the president could set forth appealing prospects and manage crises in ways that would attract the attention and approval of the public, and simultaneously diminish its absorption in domestic affairs.
In the initial two years of his term, Harrison had by no means been inattentive to foreign affairs. He entered office intent on abandoning isolation as a cornerstone of foreign policy, and his selection of Blaine as secretary of state augured an era of initiative and creativity. He and Blaine seized the opportunity provided by a law enacted late in the Cleveland administration that requested the president to convene a meeting of Latin American countries. Arrangements begun by Cleveland were completed by Harrison and Blaine. They agreed that the nation's growing industrial production made expansion of foreign markets a principal goal. Discussions preparatory to the conference, scheduled to begin on 2 October 1889, looked toward a customs union, inter-American rail and steamship lines, trademark and copyright laws, and arbitration treaties.
A major feature of this first Pan-American Conference, to which seventeen Latin American nations sent delegates to Washington, was a six-thousand-mile tour to impress the visitors with the size, wealth, and manufacturing capabilities of the United States. When the conference reassembled, with Blaine presiding with brilliance and tact and Harrison watchful of progress and problems, the United States offered its plan for a customs union, through which tariff barriers would be reduced and trade with Europe curtailed.
Despite Blaine's skilled advocacy, the resolution was voted down as unworkable. In a second thrust, Blaine urged that machinery be created for the arbitration of disputes. Again the proposal lost, by a wide margin. National rivalries and fears of United States dominance shaped these decisions. The conference's most signal achievement was the creation of what became known as the Pan American Union, a clearinghouse for disseminating information and fostering cooperation among the member nations. At other junctures, Harrison advocated construction of a Central American canal and increased U.S. presence in Latin America. In both Latin America and the Pacific, Harrison pursued expansionist policies sometimes expressed in a bellicose manner. Although his efforts produced few tangible successes, he heralded the nation's subsequent imperial policies of 1898.
The heritage of foreign policy issues from the Cleveland administration also included the Bering Sea controversy, which centered on the wanton slaughter of fur seals off the Alaskan coast. The scalers, mostly Canadians who stationed their vessels outside the three-mile limit, soon threatened the seals with extinction. Shortly before Harrison's inauguration, the president was authorized by Congress to seize vessels encroaching upon American rights in the "waters of the Bering Sea." Harrison promptly warned all persons "against entering the Bering Sea for the unlawful hunting of fur-bearing animals, "and revenue cutters began intercepting Canadian vessels. An intricate diplomatic controversy ensued, and continued after the termination of the Harrison administration.
More suited to Harrison's need to distract the public from the inadequacies of domestic policy was the Mafia affair in New Orleans. The murder of the local police superintendent on 16 October 1890 was attributed to the Mafia, inspired by the heavy migration of Italians, many from Sicily, where the Mafia Black Hand Society flourished. Numerous Italians in New Orleans were arrested, and fearful of violence, Harrison requested a full report from the governor of Louisiana. In March 1891 a jury found six defendants not guilty and a judge declared a mistrial for the remaining three. An aroused local citizenry stormed the prison and shot down some prisoners and hanged others.
Because Blaine was ill, Harrison composed a telegram to the governor of Louisiana deploring the massacre and requesting protection for Italians in New Orleans. Italian Americans elsewhere in the country called for full and prompt justice. The outraged Italian government demanded indemnity. Harrison directed the American minister in Rome to explain "the embarrassing gap in federalism—that in such cases the state alone has jurisdiction." Although talk of war raged in both countries, in time tempers cooled and the incident was officially closed when Harrison, nudged by Blaine, paid a modest indemnity to the Italian government.
Even more distracting was a stormy interlude in relations with Chile when its government was overthrown in 1891. Harrison disdained the rebels who, he said, "do not know how to use victory and moderation," and he delayed his conferral of recognition. Meanwhile, sailors of the USS Baltimore on shore leave in Valparaiso, Chile, engaged in a saloon brawl in which two sailors were killed, seventeen others were injured, and still others were chased by rioters, aided by police, around the city.
The crisis in Chilean relations coincided with Blaine's absence as secretary of state and Halford's illness, a time of many burdens for the president. When Chile made no apology or expression of regret, Harrison directed that a sharp note be dispatched complaining of the delay. With Chilean legal processes moving slowly in dealing with alleged wrongdoers, Harrison declared in his annual message to Congress (9 December 1891) that if the Chilean investigation did not provide satisfaction to the United States, he would again bring the matter before Congress "for such action as may be necessary." When the Chilean foreign minister responded by maligning the president, Harrison, who regarded this new affront as "an atrocious insult to the American government," ordered the navy to prepare for action. Blaine urged caution and understanding for the Chileans amid angry cabinet discussions, and on one occasion, the president leaned forward and with an emphatic gesture declared, "Mr. Secretary, that insult was to the uniform of the United States sailors."
For a time the public was deeply stirred by hostility toward Chile. A new Chilean foreign minister fortunately proved more accommodating and made an unexceptionable apology. Even as the apology was being decoded, Harrison milked the episode for all of its political worth by dispatching another special message to Congress (25 January 1892), detailing the crisis at great length, and submitted the irritating diplomatic papers "for the grave and patriotic consideration" of Congress "and for such action as may be deemed appropriate."
Harrison, in effect, was inviting Congress to declare war at a moment when Chile was about to back down. The Democratic press, agitated by the president's warlike moves, accused him of maneuvering to commence a war to assure his election with the slogan "Don't Swap Horses in Midstream." Soon Blaine, mindful of the lofty sentiments of the Pan-American Conference, induced Harrison to mute his bellicosity, and the controversy petered out when the Chilean apology was released, followed by an indemnity from its government.
Harrison inherited the perplexities of policymaking concerning the distant Samoa Islands, where Britain, Germany, and the United States had long been jockeying for ascendance. Relations with Germany were particularly edgy when Harrison began his administration, but Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, who wished to avoid further trouble, convened the Berlin Conference (29 April 1889). Thanks to Blaine's firm and efficient management of negotiations, Samoa's native ruling dynasty was preserved and a tripartite protectorate was established. Germany and Britain were not enthusiastic about the arrangement, but Blaine's skill and tenacity induced their acceptance.
Harrison's top priority in the Pacific was the Hawaiian Islands, which he meant to annex to the United States. Opportunity knocked late in his administration when a revolution toppled Queen Liliuokalani. The upheaval prompted the United States minister, John L. Stevens, to call for troops—which were dispatched—to protect American lives and property. Stevens and Provisional President Sanford Dole prepared a treaty of annexation. In a report to Harrison, Stevens noted that "the Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe, and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it."
Harrison was eager to complete the annexation as the crowning achievement of his foreign policy. Although it was late in his term, he placed a treaty before the Senate (16 February 1893) and urged "annexation full and complete." It was essential, the president said, that no other foreign power acquire Hawaii, since "such a possession would not consist with our safety and with the peace of the world." Although Harrison enjoyed the support of most House Republicans and advocates of a big navy and territorial expansion, his project foundered in the Senate, where the Democrats, who controlled the chamber, refused to act before the expiration of Harrison's term. When restored to the presidency, Grover Cleveland, a resolute anti-annexationist, withdrew the treaty.
Although Harrison seemingly used foreign policy to satisfy his own political necessities, and especially the gaining of reelection, much of what he did mirrored basic forces and longings of American society. When he became president, Reconstruction was virtually complete, industrial production was fast expanding, and American manufacturers were eager for foreign markets as outlets for their burgeoning surpluses. National consciousness was growing, patriotic societies were proliferating, and Harrison's plan to build a new and modern navy was widely applauded. In the dawning era of big warships, those built by Harrison's administration were the biggest in the world. A big navy required coaling stations, and Harrison's assertiveness in the Pacific meant to fulfill that necessity.
Although Harrison's handling of foreign policy problems was thoroughly imperial, his use of presidential power in forwarding his designs was, with few exceptions, scrupulously constitutional. He was fastidious in requesting empowerments from Congress, in subjecting his policy initiatives to its approval, and in respecting its constitutionally conferred power to declare war. For major projects, he depended on the treaty power rather than the executive agreement, which can bypass the legislative power. He was solicitous of public approval and alert to the need for informing the public of foreign affairs problems through messages to Congress and his extensive speechmaking across the country.
Foreign policy failed to arouse any tidal wave of demand for Harrison's renomination. Many Republican professionals regarded that eventuality with apprehension and distaste. Minnesota Senator W. D. Washburn represented that opinion when he said, "There are two serious objections to Harrison's re-nomination; first, no one cares anything for him personally, secondly, no one, as far as I know, thinks he could be elected if nominated." Harrison's most dedicated opponents were the bosses, led by Quay and Platt, who resented the president's handling of patronage.