It has been said that although Americans honor Jefferson, we live in Hamilton’s country, a mighty industrial nation with a strong central government. A similar formulation applies to the foreign policy of the United States, which has kept with Hamilton’s vision of a great republican empire. But even as American power and prestige have swelled in the world, Jefferson’s desire to safeguard democracy at home by abjuring ordinary realpolitik has never quite been banished in the American ideology.
America enjoys a preeminence unrivaled by the greatest empires in history, but its status as the indispensable component of world order is not well understood or appreciated by its own people. The Jeffersonian principle (admittedly more honored by Jefferson in the breach than in the observance) of opposition to concentrated power and its vigorous use in the world continues to hold sway in the upper echelons of American society. No less a figure than President Biden channels it when he declares that America should lead not by its power but by its example.
The contemporary lurch away from the centrality of power in foreign policy is risky because geopolitical rivalry among nations is such a resilient feature of the international system. In view of China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Xi Jinping and Russia’s determination to acquire a renewed sphere of influence by force, to say nothing of the unsleeping quest of North Korea and Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, the reality of rivalry seems destined to persist.
This fierce jockeying for power and advantage, and its implications for America’s role in the world, is the subject of two recent rich and compelling works of history. The first of these is Michael Mandelbaum’s The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy. It covers the full sweep of U.S. engagement in the world from our humble origins as 13 colonies stretching along the Atlantic coast to the global colossus we know today—the theme throughout being one of “expansion and ascent.”
Mandelbaum, who teaches international relations at Johns Hopkins University, offers an original and accessible framework for understanding the history of U.S. foreign policy. This chronological structure divides this part of the American story into four distinct periods defined by the constant accretion of American power: “weak power to great power to superpower to hyperpower.”
On both the noble and unsavory aspects of America’s encounters with the rest of the world, Four Ages ably demonstrates that the country has exhibited both continuity and change. The changes in U.S. foreign policy, Mandelbaum notes, derive from our increasing international power over the course of 250 years. The continuity arises from characteristic features of American society that have been present, and politically potent, since the birth of the republic: a missionary impulse to spread liberal ideas and institutions, the use of economic instruments to clear obstacles to their advance, and democratic input from interest groups to help determine the form of U.S. foreign policy.
The growth of the new republic’s influence is well described by Mandelbaum, but his otherwise meticulous narrative contains the questionable assertion that America’s rapid ascent “did not come about deliberately.” It’s long been commonplace to assume that the United States, having been forged in a rebellion against an imperial master, could never become an empire in its own right. Despite his acknowledgment that the patriots of 1776 “were not challenging the principle of empire,” Mandelbaum seems partial to the idea.
But the historical record tells a different tale. To George Washington, the United States was an “infant empire,” and even Thomas Jefferson, with his usual sense of contradiction, spoke fondly of an “empire of liberty.” But it was Alexander Hamilton who foresaw the potential power of his adopted homeland—a “Hercules in the cradle”—with the most acuity. He referred to the United States—in the opening paragraph of the first of The Federalist Papers—as “in many respects the most interesting…empire…in the world.” Hamilton looked forward to the emergence of a “great American system, superior to the control of all trans-Atlantic force of influence, and able to dictate the terms of connection between the Old and the New World.”
It was such attitudes about the necessity of mustering the American republic’s latent power and embracing the imperial vocation that helped it avoid being the Chile of North America––a long littoral strip between the mountains and the sea. America’s consistent and somewhat ruthless expansion westward, exploiting native vulnerabilities and foreign rivalries to conquer a huge expanse of territory, marks one of the greatest self-conscious imperial initiatives ever contemplated and completed.
The expansion of American power on the continent and eventually across the seas was the culmination of a deliberate design to make the world more conducive to American ideals and interests, but it lunged forward in fits and starts. Even a statesman like John Quincy Adams—“no nineteenth-century American had a greater commitment to territorial expansion,” in Mandelbaum’s view—was reconciled to forgoing national power, even national survival, if the hideous slave power corrupting America’s republican virtue could not be vanquished. Only after the Civil War did the United States begin to lay claim to the status of great power (a term that became common in the 19th century), even if Americans’ profound reluctance about international engagement delayed the transformation a bit longer.
America’s accretion of power in this second age of U.S. foreign policy permitted greater involvement on the international scene. Territorial expansion, political consolidation, and economic dynamism were essential to playing a larger global role. But notwithstanding America’s decisive, if belated, entry into the First World War, this growing stature was not translated into fearsome military might until fascism and militarism almost conquered the world before Pearl Harbor. In the long interregnum, the United States asserted dominance over the Western Hemisphere but was resigned to a policy of “offshore balancing” in the wider world. This strategic muddle was the result of an almost schizophrenic approach to foreign affairs that will seem distinctly contemporary to modern readers. Two recurring features of American diplomacy—across the ages—have been an insular focus on “nation-building at home,” to use modern argot, combined with robust international activism to tame a disorderly world.
By the end of World War II, the United States had fully transitioned to superpower status. The third age of U.S. foreign policy would be defined by “the contest of systems” that broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union. This bipolar struggle was as much ideological as geopolitical, a rivalry between two antithetical ways of organizing economic and political activity, and radically different aspirations for global order.
Here, though, Mandelbaum omits a crucial point. America’s postwar grand strategy to assert Pax Americana wasn’t a response to a specific threat—say, the rivalry with Soviet Communism. Rather, it was intended to prevent a general breakdown of world order—the tragedy that had just befallen humanity and from which the civilized world had been lucky to escape. As much as the Red Menace eventually helped to accustom the American public to global leadership, it was the traumatic experience of a collapsing civilization that conscripted American power in the world.
This is not a trivial matter, considering how many Americans today construe their nation’s deep global engagement as a residual role initially fashioned by the Communist challenge. When the Berlin Wall fell, most Americans greeted the triumph over the evil empire as sufficient reason to relinquish the unusual burden of global leadership and return to “normalcy.” This mood coincided with the fourth age of U.S. foreign policy—what a French foreign minister dubbed “hyperpuissance.”
The preponderant post–Cold War position of the United States made it a Goliath, to employ a term Mandelbaum has used before, but at this “unipolar moment” the governing class decided only, as Mandelbaum writes here, “what its foreign policy would not be.” In short, there would be no retrenchment for the undisputed hegemon. Owing as much to inertia as anything else, Washington doubled down on its global commitments and far-flung military garrisons to keep the sea-lanes open and to deter or punish aggression. Despite occasional bouts of hand-wringing at home and abroad, this informal imperium became normal for American society and offered a welcome sense of reassurance to a host of otherwise vulnerable allies from the plains of Eastern Europe to the lines of confrontation in East Asia.
It is that longstanding but historically anomalous arran-gement that is now at risk from revisionist great powers. A fifth age of U.S. foreign policy beckons in which the American hegemon—until recently defied by middling recalcitrant regimes from Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—now confronts the more menacing prospect of ferociously illiberal and belligerent empires guided by the explicit ambition to bring down the liberal order.
Repelling the designs of these authoritarian great powers will require a dose of “applied history,” which is where the second book under review comes in. Hal Brands’s The Twilight Struggle examines the last time the United States engaged in a protracted global rivalry against a totalitarian superpower with an eye toward finding the proper strategic footing in a new era of great-power competition.
In telling the tale of the West’s Cold War triumph, Brands, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, begins with the oft-misunderstood strategy of containment. The fulcrum of this ever-changing doctrine was the recognition that, as a dying Roosevelt warned, America could not survive “as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship.” After manifold Soviet provocations including the blockade of Berlin and the invasion of Korea, few sentient beings could doubt the grim future that lay ahead if the United States were to retreat back into isolation and keep its strategic defenses “at the three-mile limit in American waters,” to recall journalist Walter Lippmann’s formulation.
The highly charged atmosphere of the Cold War dictated that the United States dramatically expand its traditional definition of national interests. No one grasped this need for a “strategic revolution” in foreign policy better than Dean Acheson. Henceforth, America could protect its own security, Truman’s secretary of state explained, only by defending those “who believe the way we do” and wish to “continue to live the way they want to live.” Maintaining the strength and cohesion of the free world, Acheson elaborated, “requires that we take no narrow view of our interests.” Rather, those interests needed to be conceived “in a broad and understanding way so that they include the interests of those joined with us in the defense of freedom.”
Brands posits that this diagnosis rested on three insights that upheld America’s patient but taxing Cold War strategy. First, “peace did not require appeasement and victory did not require war.” Instead, as George Kennan argued, Soviet expansion could “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Second, if the West remained vigilant, time was not the Kremlin’s ally. The Soviet Union was “externally formidable” but beset by “internal weaknesses”—the futility of the command economy, a sullen and oppressed population, and a brutal and sclerotic political system—that would sap its power over time. Third, the non-Communist world could attain a prosperity and vigor that would consistently elude the Soviet empire.
Over two generations, the resilience of the free world was demonstrated by this “milieu strategy” that sought to build a global environment of freedom to gradually thwart Soviet influence. The creation of what Acheson called “situations of strength” in strategic regions more often than not proved impregnable to Soviet subversion; the internal contradictions of the Communist system helped speed its imperial overstretch; and the West’s economic dynamism and cultural allure brought excruciating pressure to bear on Moscow that eventually felled the Soviet Union itself.
But what distinguishes The Twilight Struggle isn’t Brands’s historical examination of the Cold War, searching though it is, so much as his refined mining of its lessons for our own era. This is not to say that Brands casts the renewal of great-power competition as Cold War II. He admits the important “dissimilarities” between the contest for supremacy in the second half of the 20th century and today’s circumstances—the world is not nearly as prostrate as it was in 1945, for starters—but he also detects fundamental parallels. Just as with the U.S.–Soviet duel, the serious military rivalries among today’s great powers contain the following elements: “the blend of geopolitical and ideological tension, the challenge of managing fractious coalitions, the painful dilemmas of deterrence and defense.”
In an absorbing conclusion, Brands offers a bevy of proposals that merit close attention at a time when China and Russia have begun to practice discrepant forms of totalitarianism at home and pursue determined expansion abroad. No such list would be complete without recognizing the abiding necessity of power, the importance of strategic patience, and the intangible value of keeping the ideological high ground.
In Brands’s assessment, American Cold War policies generally “responded to the transformative aims and insatiable insecurity that made Moscow dangerous, but also to the deep-seated weaknesses that made it manageable.” This mingled audacity and prudence was a potent strategic blend that allowed the West to remain a viable coalition and avoid both capitulation and annihilation in the middle of confrontation with a formidable adversary. In present circumstances, this experience would seem to counsel the vigorous arming of Ukraine in its resistance to Vladimir Putin’s aggression while trying to avoid a shooting war between NATO and Russia.
Another applicable lesson from the past is the obligation of the United States to reaffirm its postwar project of building a strong, cohesive community of democracies. Brands puts considerable stress on this point. As Communist forces surged on both sides of the Iron Curtain, America retained its military edge but steadily diluted its own advantage in key institutions (for example, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and even NATO) to make it a more appealing harbor for weary nations in the free world. By taxing itself (not always without complaint about free-riding allies) and enlisting others in common effort, Washington ensured that its fragile and frightened partners came to regard it as an “empire of trust.”
On this score, Brands does not miss the opportunity for some polemical jousting. He indicts the Trump administration, which abandoned the futile hopes that the People’s Republic of China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in an American-led world, for combining this “overdue emphasis on great-power competition with an overwrought disdain for the liberal order America had built.” One need only recall Donald Trump’s reckless trade wars against traditional allies, which he justified by declaring the European Union a strategic foe, to see the force of this point.
If the Trump right pays short shrift to the idea of democratic solidarity and mutual advantage in the global order, the left remains in thrall to a Jeffersonian dream of a world that has moved beyond power. The leadership and the rank and file of both parties thus seek a more modest and solvent foreign policy that neglects essential components of the distinctly American global leadership that remains instrumental to the defense of the free world.
The most salient lesson of all is that the Cold War forced Americans to understand geopolitical struggle as what Brands calls a “way of life.” Like the bygone Cold Warriors, we’d do well to realize that the high costs and dangers of prolonged competition in the international arena were “the alternative to the greater misery of a world in which hostile ideologies and hostile powers were once again ascendant.”
In a Cold War maxim that deserves to be better remembered, Acheson claimed that “the pattern of leadership is a pattern of responsibility.” As Brands shows, this enlightened understanding of national self-interest was the linchpin of success in the last twilight struggle, and the one on which the fate of freedom will be determined in the twilight struggles to come.
Where The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy provides a masterly conceptual framework for coming to grips with past U.S. foreign policy, The Twilight Struggle addresses the urgent challenges America faces in the impending fifth age. And with brigand empires on the march, such insights have arrived not a moment too soon.
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