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The End of the American Era: U. S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century

The End of the American Era: U. S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century

by Charles Kupchan

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Refuting the conventional wisdom that the end of the Cold War cleared the way for an era of peace and prosperity led solely by the United States, Charles A. Kupchan contends that the next challenge to America’s might is fast emerging. It comes not from the Islamic world or an ascendant China, but from an integrating Europe that is rising as a counterweight to


Refuting the conventional wisdom that the end of the Cold War cleared the way for an era of peace and prosperity led solely by the United States, Charles A. Kupchan contends that the next challenge to America’s might is fast emerging. It comes not from the Islamic world or an ascendant China, but from an integrating Europe that is rising as a counterweight to the United States. Decades of strategic partnership across the Atlantic are giving way to renewed geopolitical competition. The waning of U.S. primacy will be expedited by America’s own ambivalence about remaining the globe’s guardian and by the impact of the digital age on the country’s politics and its role in the world.

By deftly mining the lessons of history to cast light on the present and future, Kupchan explains how America and the world should prepare for the more complex, more unstable road ahead.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of the outstanding figures of the new generation of U.S. foreign policy thinkers and practitioners. His powerful and erudite book . . . sparkles with insights.” —The Washington Post Book World

“An absorbing and thought-provoking book on what Charles Kupchan considers the central challenges to future U.S. preeminence and global stability.” —Henry Kissinger

“A bold and elegant new statement about the coming breakdown of Pax Americana and a return to great-power rivalry.” —Foreign Affairs

“Indispensable reading for anyone who recognizes the importance of challenging the conventional wisdom about America’s evolving world role.” —The Dallas Morning News

“In this dazzling work, steeped in history and politics, Charles A. Kupchan maps out an original and persuasive vision of where America and the world are headed. The time to read this book is now.” —James Chace, author of Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World

“With his expansive knowledge of history, Kupchan places contemporary trends in perspective. . . . Offers revealing insights into contemporary policy matters with a spectacular eye for detail.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Elegantly explores the benefits and dangers of U.S. primacy and the system of globalization that has come with it. His call for a rethinking of America’s role in the world could not be more timely. . . . Well worth reading.” –George Soros

“An important and provocative reassessment of American power and foreign policy.”–Lee H. Hamilton, Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center

“This original and informative work challenges our conventional wisdom and offers useful strategic guidance. Agree with it or not, Kupchan will make you think and reexamine your assumptions as you enjoy the clarity of his writing and thought.”–Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor in the first Clinton administration

“Provocatively embedding his argument in examinations of historical power shifts . . . Kupchan argues that American preeminence is dangerous to sustain, because it is in fact unsustainable.” –Booklist

“Compelling analysis, rich in the lessons of history, that will shatter the illusions of a perpetual Pax Americana. . . . As controversial as it is insightful.” –Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century

“An ambitious enterprise . . . Kupchan should be congratulated for bravely tackling broad issues in an age of specialization.”–Times Literary Supplement (UK)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Grand Strategy and the Paradox of American Power

Great powers are the main actors in international life. They extend their influence well beyond their borders, seeking to craft a global environment conducive to their interests. To do so effectively, great powers need a conceptual map of the world and a grand strategy that follows from it aimed at keeping the international ends they pursue in balance with the means available to attain those ends. It is by maintaining this equilibrium between commitments and resources that they are able to protect their security while also pursuing the ambition that comes with wealth and military might.

Preponderant power alone can do a nation much more harm than good. When unchecked, primacy often invites enemies and provokes the formation of hostile, countervailing coalitions. When wielded with prudence, however, dominance handsomely rewards the nation that possesses it, securing not only its well-being, but extending through the international system a stable order crafted in its image. The Roman Empire, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana-it was not just the strength of Rome, Great Britain, and the United States that gave rise to these epochs, but also the innovative and farsighted grand strategies that each devised to manage and preserve its primacy.

A look at how Britain dealt with the rise of Germany during the early twentieth century makes amply clear how important an appropriate grand strategy is to the well-being of a great power and to the overall stability of the international system. Despite having focused for centuries on its distant imperial possessions, British elites responded with alacrity to Germany's decision in 1898 to build a major battle fleet. Sensing that growing German ambition was about to overturn the European balance of power, London recalled the Royal Navy from imperial posts and prepared the British army for continental warfare. These moves set the stage for the successful efforts of Britain, France, and Russia to block the German advance in 1914 and ultimately defeat Berlin's bid for European dominance. In short, Britain got it right. During the 1930s, Britain took the opposite course. Germany again embarked on an ambitious military buildup and made another bid for European primacy. This time, however, the British failed to prepare for war against Germany, instead choosing to appease Hitler and focus on the defense of colonial possessions. Britain, and Europe along with it, suffered grievously for letting its grand strategy go so woefully awry.

The Past

The Malta squadron, Winston Churchill insisted on June 22, 1912, "certainly will not operate in the Mediterranean till a decisive and victorious general action has been fought in the North Sea." "Then, and not till then," Churchill continued, "can it go to the Mediterranean."1 With this decision, Churchill was completing the recall of the Royal Navy from its sprawling network of overseas stations. London did cushion the impact of this momentous strategic shift by striking a deal with Paris whereby the French fleet patrolled the Mediterranean in return for the Royal Navy's protection of France's Atlantic coast. Nonetheless, the consequences of withdrawal from the Mediterranean were potentially devastating; Britain was effectively abandoning the vital link between the home islands and the eastern empire. By the summer of 1912, however, Churchill saw no choice. The unmistakable menace from a Germany that was arming and declaring its right to "a place in the sun" was denying Britain the luxury of focusing on its overseas possessions.

Churchill, who had risen to the position of first lord of the admiralty only the previous year, stated his case with such vehemence precisely because he knew he faced committed opponents. After all, by arguing that the Royal Navy should be withdrawn from its imperial outposts and concentrated in home waters, Churchill was striking at the heart of the grand strategy that had brought Britain to the pinnacle of global power. It was by developing a lucrative seaborne empire while avoiding entanglement on the European continent-a strategy affectionately dubbed "splendid isolation"-that the British had made it to the top.

By Churchill's time, Britain had established impeccable credentials as a seafaring nation. As early as 1511, Henry VIII's advisers were urging him to turn to seapower to promote England's wealth and security. "Let us in God's name leave off our attempts against the terra firma," the king's councilors recommended. "The natural situation of islands seems not to consort with conquests of that kind. England alone is a just Empire. Or, when we would enlarge ourselves, let it be that way we can, and to which it seems the eternal Providence hath destined us, which is by the sea."

Queen Elizabeth I refined this emerging naval strategy during the second half of the sixteenth century. She agreed that England's calling was at sea, but she insisted that the country also had to keep an eye on the Continent to ensure that no single power came to dominate the European landmass. A European behemoth, Elizabeth argued, would ultimately endanger England. Even as the country developed as a sea power, it therefore had to intervene on the Continent as necessary to preserve a stable balance of power on land. It was by following this simple yet elegant strategy that Great Britain found itself by the nineteenth century with complete mastery of the seas, continental neighbors that checked each other's ambitions, and unprecedented global influence.

Encouraged by the success of splendid isolation, most Britons had become ardent champions of empire and naval mastery. It is no wonder, then, that the Admiralty met staunch opposition when it began in 1904-1905 to recall the Royal Navy to home waters at the expense of fleet strength at overseas stations. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office were particularly vehement in arguing against this redistribution. The Foreign Office complained to the Admiralty that "the navy will be unable to give the foreign policy of this country such support in the future as the Foreign Office have felt entitled to expect, and have received in the past. . . . The exigencies of British world-wide policy and interests, in the present and immediate future, are being sacrificed." India, Singapore, Australia, Egypt, and Britain's others possessions in the Middle East might end up dangerously exposed. Britain would suffer an incalculable blow to its economy and prestige should the empire be dismantled.

The Admiralty was not about to be swayed. During the first decade of the twentieth century, a quiet revolution in the European balance of power was taking place. And as Queen Elizabeth had wisely admonished, England had to watch the balance of power in Europe even as it built a great seaborne empire.

Germany, a unified country only since 1871, had embarked at the turn of the century on a naval program aimed at building a battleship fleet that would rival Britain's, giving London little choice but to accord Berlin the influence it sought. The imperious and impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II, a self-styled naval buff and avid student of the Royal Navy, had decided that Germany should rank among the world's great powers and enjoy a political status equal to its growing economic might. The kaiser enlisted Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, renowned for his ruthless destruction of personal and professional rivals alike, to draw up the plans and convince the Reichstag to finance the fleet. By buying off the landed gentry with grain tariffs and invoking nationalist passions to disarm political opponents, the kaiser and Tirpitz readily accomplished their objectives. The First Navy Law of 1898 envisaged nineteen battleships; the Second Law of 1900 raised the fleet strength to thirty-eight.

The British did not react immediately to Germany's gambit. At the turn of the century, Britain's "official mind" was still focused on the defense of empire. The Boer War broke out in South Africa in 1899 and proved to be a much greater drain on resources than expected. And other great powers posed threats primarily to British possessions, not to the home islands. As one high-ranking official put it in 1899, "There are two Powers, and two only, of whom I am afraid, viz. the United States and Russia."

Growing American power threatened Canada and British naval supremacy in the western Atlantic. And Russia menaced India, the "jewel in the crown." A firm consensus existed within the cabinet that "the main purpose for which the army exists is not the defence of these shores but the protection of the outlying portions of the Empire, and notably India."

By 1906-1907, however, Britain's map of the world was in the midst of dramatic change. A consensus was taking shape around the proposition that the threat posed by Germany had to take top priority; other commitments could be attended to only after this primary danger had been adequately addressed. A Foreign Office memorandum by Sir Eyre Crowe helped consolidate this line of thinking. The Crowe Memorandum accepted that German intentions were still unclear but maintained that even if Germany did not embark on an aggressive path, its ascent to a position of dominance would nonetheless "constitute as formidable a menace to the rest of the world as would be presented by any deliberate conquest of a similar position by 'malice aforethought.'"

In response to the threat posed by the Germans, Britain, France, and Russia formed an informal coalition, the so-called Triple Entente. London also overturned its aversion to intervention on the Continent and began building an expeditionary force to be dispatched across the Channel to join Britain's partners in blunting a German advance. The Committee of Imperial Defence would then confirm that the main mission of the British army was in Europe, not India. And First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher began the painful process of withdrawing the Royal Navy from imperial waters. This task was facilitated by London's successful effort to orchestrate a lasting rapprochement with the United States, a move that made easier the reduction of Britain's naval presence in the western Atlantic. Churchill then picked up where Fisher left off, striking the naval bargain with Paris and completing the recall of the battle fleet to home waters. To critics still arguing for the defense of empire, Churchill retorted that "if we win the big battle in the decisive theater we can put everything straight afterwards" in other theaters. "It would be very foolish to lose England," Churchill added, "in safeguarding Egypt."

When Churchill in 1912 ordered the Malta squadron to return to the North Sea, he was putting the finishing touches on a swift and thorough overhaul of British grand strategy. This rethinking of priorities and interests is all the more impressive in light of how deeply Britain was invested-both economically and psychologically-in empire and the centuries-old policy of splendid isolation that put it atop the world. Britain's admirable preparations did not spare the country immense sacrifice in the great war that broke out in August 1914. But its withdrawal from empire and its new grand strategy for stopping Germany from overrunning Europe were essential in securing the ultimate victory of the Allies.

On June 9, 1920, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the Imperial General Staff, felt compelled to express to the cabinet his grave concern about the growing mismatch between Britain's military capabilities and its strategic commitments. "I would respectfully urge that the earnest attention of His Majesty's Government," Wilson pleaded, "may be given to this question with a view to our policy being brought into some relation with military forces available to it. At present this is far from the case. . . . I cannot too strongly press on the Government the danger, the extreme danger, of his Majesty's Army being spread all over the world, strong nowhere, weak everywhere, and with no reserve to save a dangerous situation or avert a coming danger."8

Wilson's anxieties stemmed principally from the severe constraints placed on the conduct of foreign policy by a lagging economy. Throughout most of the interwar period, economic considerations trumped all others in shaping British grand strategy. Despite the eventual Allied victory in World War I, the lengthy conflict drained Britain's manpower and financial resources and exposed underlying weaknesses in its economy. Getting the country back on its feet and redressing the public discontent arising from hardship necessitated that defense expenditure be kept to a minimum. The collapse of Wall Street and the global depression of the early 1930s only intensified the preoccupation with economic vulnerability.

With Britain facing these austere conditions, the chancellor of the exchequer understandably played a crucial role in shaping grand strategy throughout the interwar years. The results were self-evident. Between 1920 and 1922, defense spending fell from 896 million to 111 million pounds. The dwindling size of the military was justified through the adoption of the Ten-Year Rule-a planning assumption, regularly renewed, positing that the country would not have to fight a major war for at least ten years. Britain struck agreements in Washington in 1921-1922 and London in 1930 to prevent a naval race with other major powers, thereby obviating the need for expenditure on new ships. The size of the army was kept to a minimum, its mission focused, with the help of colonial recruits, on defense of imperial possessions. Developing international trade, preserving the stability of the pound sterling, and restoring the health of the economy were the top priorities of British grand strategy.

The problem was that developments in Germany soon called these priorities into question. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Germany rearmed and proceeded to cast aside the restrictions put in place to preserve a stable balance of power on the Continent. Hitler began by rebuilding the Wehrmacht, violating the troop ceiling of 100,000 soldiers stipulated in the Versailles Treaty. By 1935, he was amassing an army of more than 500,000 men. Hitler soon put his troops to use. In 1936, he unilaterally militarized the Rhineland, embarking on a policy of territorial expansion that was to culminate in Nazi Germany's occupation of Austria in 1938, its invasion of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, the sweep into Poland that fall, the thrust north in the spring of 1940, and the attack on France in May. Just over a week after General Heinz Guderian's panzer corps crossed the Meuse at Sedan, German tanks had reached the Channel coast, effectively cutting off France from the Allied armies in Belgium. The fall of the Third Republic was imminent.

The rise of a menacing Germany during the 1930s should have prompted a reorientation of British grand strategy, as during the century's first decade. It did not. When both Japan and Germany started to show signs of hostile intent during the early 1930s, efforts to commence British rearmament were quickly snuffed out by the Treasury: "The fact is that in present circumstances we are no more in a position financially and economically to engage in a major war . . . than we are militarily. . . . The Treasury submit that at the present time financial risks are greater than any other we can estimate." Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald concurred that "it must clearly be understood that there would be no big extension of expenditure because this would be out of the question."

Meet the Author

Charles A. Kupchan is professor of international relations at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration. He lives in Washington, D.C..

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