At the same time, however, the
United States made major errors resulting in problems that would only be fully revealed decades later. The annexation of the
Philippines immediately gave rise to the costly Philippine Insurrection and eventually contributed to the long-term conflict with
Japan. The quasi-annexation of
Cuba eventually resulted in Castro's revolution and
Cuba's alliance with the
In short, the grand national project of expansion and consolidation continued in the second cycle, but certain distinctions now became important for the national strategy. Expansion through annexation had reached its natural limit with the end of continental expansion westward and the closing of the traditional frontier. The further annexations westward and southward were at best anomalous and unassimilable. As for annexations northward, these were out of the question, ruled out by the consistent opposition of the Canadians and by the vital interests of the
Instead, expansion would now take place through the projection of influence and interests, specifically with the construction of a regional sphere of influence. This became the American strategy in the
Central America in the 1900s-1910s and in
Latin America more generally in the 1920s-1930s. But in this cycle the
United States only cast its sphere of influence over societies that were culturally different from itself and much less economically developed. And it only cast it over one region, which was an immediate neighbor.
United States was now a great power, and when a Great War broke out between the European great powers, the
United States also became involved. The
U.S. participation in the First World War was crucial in breaking the stalemate on the Western Front and tipping the balance in favor of beleaguered
Britain. The results were the decisive defeat of
Austria-Hungary, and the apparent triumph of the American ideals of democracy and self-determination.
However, in terms of the pattern of
U.S. foreign policy, there was little connection between the
U.S. victory in
Europe in 1918 and the national projects of the previous one hundred and thirty years. There was no way for the
United States to engage in territorial annexations on the European continent, as it had on the American continent. There was even no way for the
United States to construct a regional sphere of influence in
Europe, as it had in the
Central America. The
U.S. strategy for
Europe would have to be a new invention, not a familiar tradition.
President Woodrow Wilson, of course, had a conception of such an invention. His proposals for the
League of Nations and for an American security guarantee to
Britain were novel by
U.S. standards. Later, some American business leaders had another conception of such an invention--the Dawes Plan of 1924, to finance the recovery of the German economy. These were embryonic versions of a new mode of expansion and consolidation, one based upon American leadership in international organizations and the international economy, rather than upon regional spheres of influence or territorial annexations.
Although grand in their conceptions, the
U.S. foreign policy elite was committing the error that is fatal to any grand strategy. It was going beyond the domestic base that would be necessary to support it, one of the ways of engaging in imperial outstretch. For most Americans in the 1920s, this new strategy--with its international scope and its innovative methods--required too great a stretch beyond the old and familiar strategies. The connections with American traditions were not clear enough--and with American interests not broad enough--to sustain it. The collapse of the new strategy and the return to earlier strategies on a continental or regional scale were, as is well known, basic causes of the Great Depression, of German and Japanese aggression, and finally of the Second World War. The division and disorientation in
U.S. foreign policy that followed upon the
U.S. victory in the First World War, like the earlier division and disorientation that followed upon the
U.S. victory in the Mexican War, brought about a new great disaster.
The Third Cycle: International Order
After the achievement of its great victory over
Japan in the Second World War, the
United States was once again ready to focus its foreign policy upon the goal of expansion, this time on a truly international scale. It had learned fundamental lessons from the great disasters of the recent past. From the Great Depression, it learned that the massive American economy--the leading industrial economy in the world--could only prosper in an open international economy, even one that included its recent enemies,
Japan. From the Second World War, it learned that its own American continent and regional sphere could only be secure if no single great power dominated the European continent, or, more broadly, the Eurasian land-mass. The strategy to achieve these goals would now be the most sophisticated of all--American design and leadership of new international organizations, which in turn would institutionalize the opening of the international economy and the containing of any potential European or Eurasian hegemon.
There were grand achievements indeed in this national project of international expansion. It was not the United Nations, where American leadership was often checked by Soviet vetoes, that best represented these achievements, but the international organizations that helped to restore and open the international economy, especially the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the "Bretton Woods system"). Further, when the United States had to solve the problem of European security, it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (nato) to contain the Soviet threat, and it added to this the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) to help implement its economic aid program (the Marshall Plan).
In NATO and the OEEC, the
United States combined its concept of international organizations with its earlier concept of the regional sphere of influence. Indeed, in its leadership of
Western Europe, the
United States perfected the regional sphere of influence to the point of including nations that were modern and organized, and not merely underdeveloped, and that were located at a remote distance, and not merely in the immediate neighborhood.
These achievements marked the "heroic age" of American foreign policy. For the rest of their lives, the men who participated in them would be proud to have been "present at the creation." But there would soon be major failures in this third cycle as well. As it happened, each involved a violation of the central norm of a regional sphere of influence, the very strategy at which the
United States had been so successful in the second cycle.
The first major failure of the third cycle occurred early in the Korean War. The error was not entering the war to defend
South Korea; this was necessary for the defense of
Japan, which was a central pillar and vital interest of the emerging American international order. Nor was it crossing the 38th Parallel to punish
North Korea; this may have been necessary to deter aggression in the future. Nor was it refusing to extend the war into
China after the Chinese intervened in
Korea. The error was carrying the war with
North Korea to the point of eliminating it as a political entity and bringing
U.S. troops to the border of
China's own Korean buffer state, the American advance to the Yalu violated the central norm of any neighboring regional sphere of influence, be it the traditional Chinese order in
East Asia or the modern American sphere in the
Caribbean. The cost of this violation was a dramatic American defeat inflicted by the Chinese armies in the winter of 1950-1 and two years of military stalemate until the armistice agreement of 1953 provided
America each with their own Korean buffer state.
The second major failure in this cycle involved
Cuba and was a violation of a sphere-of-influence norm in the opposite direction. The causes of Fidel Castro's revolution in
Cuba are still a matter of debate. (My own view is that it largely resulted from years of intrusive American involvement that went beyond what was appropriate for a sphere of influence.) The consequences, however, were extremely dangerous.
Cuba defected from the American sphere of influence into a Soviet alliance, and when the
United States allowed
Cuba to get away with it following the
Bay of Pigs fiasco, this also violated the central norm of a neighboring sphere of influence. This violation of international expectations led the Soviets into grave miscalculations--the Cuban Missile Crisis--which had the potential (President Kennedy himself put the chances as between one in three and one in two) to issue in a nuclear war and the greatest disaster in world history.
The third major failure of this cycle was the Vietnam War. From the Korean War the
United States had correctly learned the lesson not to threaten the existence of a Chinese buffer state, which in this new war was
North Vietnam. But this imposed major limitations on the ways that the
U.S. military traditionally operated, which used the American advantages in mass and mobility to isolate and destroy the enemy's army. The
U.S. military was not allowed to exploit these advantages against
North Vietnam, and it was not able to isolate the enemy in
South Vietnam, given that country's peculiar geography. The limitations on carrying the land war into the North in effect made the Vietnam War unwinnable. In a sense, the most important battle of the Vietnam War had actually been fought and lost at the Yalu, more than fifteen years before.
Essay Types: Essay