America's Grand Strategy: A Pattern of History
Byline: James Kurth
In recent years, there have been many proposals about what should be the future direction, even the grand strategy, of American foreign policy. Among them have been the enlargement of democracy or the market, the containment of Islamic fundamentalism or Chinese expansionism, and the protection of human rights or the global ecology. In recent years, too, American foreign policy in practice seems to have been a matter of frantically dashing around the world, engaging in a new confrontation or intervention every six months or so. During the
Clinton administration alone, the
United States has been successively engaged with
China. And with every confrontation, the speculations and debates about the direction of
U.S. foreign policy begin anew.
This article will make some such proposals of its own. It will argue, however, that the course of American foreign policy in the future has already been largely set by its legacy from the past. In most respects, the grand strategy of the
United States has already been composed by the historical tradition and trajectory of American foreign policy and by the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the American nation.
United States has experienced three great cycles in its foreign policy. The first two cycles were each about eighty years in length, and we now are about fifty years into what appears to be the third.
Each cycle commenced with a decisive victory by the
United States in its epic war of the century--the Revolutionary War in the eighteenth century, the Civil War in the nineteenth, and the Second World War in the twentieth. From each war and victory,
America drew lessons that would define and drive
U.S. foreign policy for the next several decades. In the course of these decades, the
United States at times interpreted these lessons with wisdom and discernment to expand and consolidate the legacy from the great victory. The results were major successes, and great and lasting achievements.
At other times, the
United States was driven by a misreading, even an idolatry, of the past achievements to go beyond what Clausewitz called "the culminating point of victory" and to engage in what Paul Kennedy has termed "imperial overstretch." The results were major failures and damaging disasters. From these failures, the
United States then drew new lessons, which became the basis for a more discerning and more focused version of the national project of expansion and consolidation. And from the disasters, it drew new and even deeper lessons that then became the basis for the next great victory and the beginning of the next great cycle.
We are now in the 1990s and near the end of the third cycle. At the equivalent phase in the previous two cycles, the United States had recently experienced a major success in its foreign policy (i.e., the Mexican War, the First World War), but it had then entered into a time of division and disorientation that, in the end, issued in disaster (the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the onset of the Second World War). After its great success in the Cold War, the challenge for
U.S. foreign policy in our own time is to rise above this fatal pattern from the past.
The First Cycle: Territorial Annexation
After the achievement of its independence in the Revolutionary War, the new American nation focused its foreign policy upon the goal of expansion across the North American continent. The strategy--territorial annexation--was obvious and simple, but American tactics were often extremely subtle, even by the standards of the long-experienced powers of
There were grand achievements in this national project of continental expansion, especially the
Louisiana Purchase, which was accomplished through the extraordinary diplomatic virtuosity of the
Jefferson administration, but also the southwestern annexations, which were achieved later on through
U.S. military victory in the Mexican War. In the former case, the
United States took advantage of the fact that the greatest European powers,
France, were then engaged in their own epic war against each other. In the latter, the
United States similarly took advantage of the fact that
France were disrupted by serious internal turmoil. But it was also crucial that the arenas of expansion did not contain modern and organized societies equivalent to the
United States and that the
U.S. expansion did not directly threaten the vital interests of any great power.
The situation was different in regard to the
U.S. effort to carry its project of continental expansion into
Canada, and this resulted in one of the two major failures of the first cycle, the way that the
United States fought the War of 1812. In 1812, the
United States thought that it was continuing its great national enterprise by its invasion of
British North America, this was a major pillar and vital interest of the empire that the British had reconstructed after the loss of their thirteen American colonies, but the
United States thought that
Britain would be distracted by its continuing war with
France. This proved a grave miscalculation. Canada was an organized society comparable to the United States and capable of offering stout resistance, and with Napoleon's defeat in Russia the British were fully able to deploy enough military forces to put the American experiment in mortal danger (and in 1814 to put Washington to the torch).
But the gravest failure of the first cycle occurred in the aftermath of the Mexican War, when the national project of continental expansion mutated into the two competing sectional projects--Northern and Southern--of the expansion of liberty and the expansion of slavery. In the late 1850s the
United States was torn, as
France had been in the late 1840s, by serious internal division, which in the American case even went to the fundamental question of national identity. In this context, the preceding territorial annexations became vital stakes in an escalating conflict between two sections, even two nations. This was one of the fundamental causes of the greatest disaster in American history, the Civil War.
The Second Cycle: The Regional Sphere
After the achievement of reunion in the Civil War, the renewed American nation again focused its foreign policy upon the goal of expansion--now really consolidation--across the North American continent. In fulfilling this great national project, the
United States experienced almost unalloyed success. But this focus and this success were based upon some lessons learned from the previous failures. Now the United States drove straight westward, turning away from annexations of territories to the south and to the north, which were either populated by peoples of a different culture (the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico) or protected by a great power (Canada).
When in the 1890s the
United States neared the completion of its national project of continental expansion ("the closing of the frontier" then observed by Frederick Jackson Turner), the obvious question was what kind of national project would come next. The equally obvious, and simple, answer was more territorial annexations beyond the continent, even further to the west (e.g.,
Philippines, and beyond) and even to the south (e.g.,
Puerto Rico, and beyond). The subtle, and ultimately more sound, answer was to create a new and different mode of expansion that better suited both these new arenas and the character of the United States itself, i.e., to replace the strategy of territorial annexation with the strategy of a regional sphere of influence.
The new arenas to the west and to the south of the continental
United States had much larger and denser populations than had the territories gained through the
Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War. But unlike
Canada, their societies were less modern and organized than that of the
United States. It would be difficult to annex and troublesome to rule such peoples, but easy to influence them. A regional sphere of influence was accordingly the suitable strategy. Further, a good number of the territories in these new arenas were not part of the empire of a European great power, but merely remnants of the empire of a decrepit
Spain or, as nominally independent countries, part of no empire at all. This meant that the European great powers had no vital interest in these territories. But because of their proximity to the United States as an emerging great power, the United States could easily persuade the European powers that it did have a vital interest in them. This asymmetry between a
U.S. vital interest and the absence of a European one in most of the
Central America meant that the
United States could easily establish a sphere of interest in that region and have it accepted as legitimate by the European great powers.
After its victory in the Spanish-American War, the
United States thus established a secure sphere of influence and interest in the
Central America. This was the second major success of
U.S. foreign policy in the second cycle. It went beyond the first success of continental consolidation, not only geographically but conceptually, by creating a new strategy of expansion.
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