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A common understanding of how the United States rose to primacy holds thatafter World War II, America was the strongest nation in the world but onewith little appetite for leadership. It stood ready to manage the worldeconomy but otherwise was inclined toward renewed isolation, eschewing alliancecommitments and any permanent overseas military deployments. But with therise of the Soviet threat the United States was again called to duty, grudginglymanning the ramparts of the free world and patiently waiting for a containedenemy to exhaust itself.
The belief that America became a global power out of exigency, not desire,suggests that the United States can now escape from the geopolitical exertionsand military expenditures forced upon it by the Cold War. With the SovietUnion gone, the question goes, shouldn't the United States be able to relinquishthe burden of ensuring world security and turn the bulk of its attentionto domestic problems?
Perhaps so, and this book will explore that possibility. The constructionof the question is simplistic, however, as is the storyline from which itsprings. A more accurate understanding of America's rise to primacy holdsthat the United States was indeed isolationist before World War II, butnot as blithely so as is commonly supposed. In fact, American leaders alwaysmonitored stabilityand its absenceacross the oceans. As far back asJefferson, U.S. leaders worried about the balance of power in Europe, whichwas seen as critically affecting North American security. They also worriedabout the balance in Asia and, beginning in the late 1800s,actively soughtto prevent any one power from dominating that region.
Following World War II it was not only, or even largely, the Communist threatthat propelled Washington to assume a position of international leadership.Instead, by the early 1940s, before the Communist threat was clearly evident,a consensus was emerging among foreign policy elites that the United Stateshad to be permanently engaged in maintaining global stability. It had tobecome the world's leading power because the international system neededa leader and because nobody else could play that role.
The consensus behind primacy had its roots in the changing American thinkingabout the nature of world politics. World War II was only the most recentreminder that U.S. security and prosperity were inextricably linked to stabilityin Europe and Asia and to friendly control of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.Various American political leaders and strategists had long highlightedthese realities, believing isolation to be a chimera. World War II assuredthat these arguments finally achieved ascendancy among political elites.
A simultaneous and closely related development was the conversion of U.S.foreign policy elites to the tenets of political realism. Realism rejectedboth idealism and isolationism. It held that the world was a dangerous placein which the struggle for power among nations was unending. America couldneither escape involvement in this struggle nor end it by reforming theinternational system, as Woodrow Wilson had sought to do after World WarI. Realists argued that the United States had to remain perpetually vigilant,worrying first and foremost about its survival in the way other nationshad for centuries. It could no longer ignore the balance of power in crucialareas of the world as it had in the past, but instead it would have to workrelentlessly to assure that the balance never tipped in a threatening direction.American primacy was seen as essential to this task, since the twentiethcentury had shown that the weight of an outside nation was needed to maintaina balance of power in Europe and Asia.
The Cold War served to amplify and validate these views among U.S. foreignpolicy elites; it was not the occasion for inventing them. Today, thosewho are perplexed by America's failure to quickly shed its internationalresponsibilities have failed to read their history. They mistakenly believethat anticommunism was the principal, if not the sole, rationale for Americanprimacy. They thus imagine that the arguments for U.S. primacy collapsedalong with Soviet power. In a further mistake, some charge that attemptsto sustain that primacy are rooted in bureaucratic inertia, vested military-industrialinterests, and in a plain unwillingness to change old habits and dated thinking.
Now that the Cold War is over, U.S. foreign policy is undergoing substantialmodifications. The Clinton Administration has pushed for changes that aresomewhat more ambitious than those favored by George Bush and his advisors,but fundamentally the case for American global primacy remains unchallengedin the U.S. foreign policy establishment. To understand why so many insistthat the United States must remain number one it is necessary to betterunderstand why the United States became number one in the first place. Inlarge part, this means understanding how concern with stability in Europeand Asia, always present in U.S. foreign policy, finally became its dominantcharacteristic by the middle of the twentieth century.
In Search of Stability: The American
During the early days of the republic, primacy in international affairswas not the goal of U.S. foreign policy. Instead, the overriding challengefor the former colonies was mere survival, and in an age dominated by thegreat powers of Europe, this was no sure thing.
The conventional telling of American history suggests that the young UnitedStates maintained a scrupulously isolationist stance, avoiding the reviledworld of European power politics. This is only partly true. There were,to be sure, powerful isolationist tendencies in the early republic. "Weshould separate ourselves as far as possible and as long as possible fromall European politics and wars," John Adams said in 1776, expressingthe sentiments of many. A resolution adopted in 1783 by the ContinentalCongress declared: "The true interest of these states requires thatthey should be as little as possible entangled in the politics and controversiesof the European nations." Washington's famous farewell address, inwhich he said that "Europe has a set of primary interests, which tous have none, or a very remote relation" and in which he called foran avoidance of "permanent alliances" was the quintessential statementof early U.S. isolationism.