The American Way of Victory

The American Way of Victory

Mini Teaser: The twentieth century witnessed, and its course was largely defined by, a trilogy of American wartime victories. But in the aftermath of the first two, the peace was lost. After the Cold War, will it happen again?

by Author(s): James Kurth

The twentieth century, the first American century, was also the
century of three world wars. The United States was not only
victorious in the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold
War, but it was more victorious than any of the other victor powers.
As the pre-eminent victor power, the subsequent strategies of the
United States did much to shape the three postwar worlds. They
therefore also did much to prepare the ground for the second and
third world wars in the sequence. Now, ten years after the American
victory in that third, cold, world war, it is time to evaluate the
U.S. victor strategies of the 1990s and to consider if they will make
the twenty-first century a second American century, this time one of
world peace and prosperity, or if they could lead, sometime in the
next few decades, to a fourth world war.

The First and Second British Centuries

Like America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Britain in
the early nineteenth century had passed through a century of three
wars that were worldwide in scope--the War of the Spanish Succession
(1702-13), the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the successive Wars of
the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). Britain had
been victorious in each of these wars, making the eighteenth century
something of a British one. The victor strategy that Britain pursued
after the Napoleonic Wars laid the foundations for what has been
called "the Hundred Years Peace" (1815-1914), making the second
British century as peaceful as the first one had been warlike.

The central elements of the British victor strategy were four; two
involved international security and two involved the international
economy. The security elements were established immediately after the
victory over Napoleon. They were, first, a British-managed balance of
power system on the European continent, and, second, British naval
supremacy in the rest of the world. The economic elements were
established about a generation later. They involved, third, British
industrial supremacy operating in an open international economy
(Britain serving as "the workshop of the world"), and, fourth,
British financial supremacy, also operating in an open international
economy (the City of London serving as "the world's central bank").

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, British naval and
industrial supremacy were threatened by the spectacular growth of
German military and economic power. When in August 1914 it appeared
that Germany was about to destroy the Continental balance of power
system with its invasion of Belgium and France, Britain went to war
to stop it. The Hundred Years Peace and the second British century
came to a crashing and catastrophic end with the First World War.

Victory therefore presents a profound challenge to a victor power,
especially to a pre-eminent one: it must create a victor strategy to
order the postwar world in a way that does not lead to a new major
war. The British victor strategy after the Napoleonic Wars was
successful in meeting this challenge for almost a century. But even
this sophisticated strategy ultimately proved inadequate to the task
of managing the problems posed by the rise of a new and very
assertive power. As shall be discussed below, the American victor
strategies after the First and Second World Wars were similar to the
earlier British one in their efforts to combine several different
dimensions of international security and economy; indeed, the
American strategies relied upon some of the same elements,
particularly naval, industrial and financial supremacy. They did not,
however, succeed in preventing the Second World War and the Cold War.
The fundamental question for our time is whether the American victor
strategies after the Cold War will succeed in preventing some kind of
a new world war in the next century.

As it happens, the Spring 2000 issue of The National Interest
contained an array of articles that can help us address this
question. In considering the lessons that can be drawn from the
earlier American experiences of living with victory, I shall be
making use of them. In particular, these lessons underline the
importance of managing the rise of Chinese military and economic
power and of doing so in ways similar to those that Zbigniew
Brzezinski advocates in his "Living With China." They also underline
the danger but potential relevance of the arguments that Robert Kagan
and William Kristol advance in their essay, "The Present Danger."

Living With Victory After the First World War

It took four years of war and the massive engagement of the United
States before, in November 1918, the Western Allies succeeded in
defeating Germany. But even in defeat, the nation whose rise to
military and economic power Britain had failed to manage still
retained most of its inherent strengths. The German problem, which
had been at the center of international relations before the war, was
redefined by the Allied victory, but it was still there, and Western
victory still had to focus upon the German reality.

Germany remained the central nation on the European continent.
Demographically, it had the largest and best educated population in
Europe. (Russia, although it had a larger population, was convulsed
by revolution and civil war.) Economically, it had the largest and
most advanced industry in Europe. Strategically, it faced formidable
powers to the west (France and Britain), but to the east lay only new
and weak states (Poland and Czechoslovakia). In this sense, Germany's
strategic position was actually better after its defeat in the First
World War than it had been before the war began, when to the east it
had faced Russia as a great power. It would only be a matter of time
before Germany recovered its political unity, gathered up its
inherent strengths, and once again converted these into military and
economic power. This was the long-term reality that the victorious
Allies had to consider as they composed their victor strategies.

There were four basic strategies that different allies employed at
different times: territorial dismemberment, military containment,
security cooperation and economic engagement. These were not new
inventions; they derived from the strategies employed by victor
powers after earlier wars. The first two derived from territorial
annexations and frontier fortifications, strategies that the
Continental powers had used against each other in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. The last two derived from the "concert of
Europe", or balance of power system, and the open international
economy that Britain had managed in the nineteenth century. But these
strategies were not obsolescent conceptions; the latter three
prefigured the victor strategies that the United States would employ
after the Second World War and after the Cold War.

Territorial dismemberment and military containment.

One apparent solution to the German problem was territorial
dismemberment. This was the strategy preferred by France. The
dismemberment of a defeated enemy can sometimes be carried out by
victorious powers, and the Allies did so with that other Central
Power in World War I, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. But while this
division destroyed a former adversary, it unleashed a sort of
international anarchy in southeastern Europe that still reverberates
today. Dismemberment is also what happened to the Soviet Union after
the Cold War. Here too, while this division greatly diminished a
former adversary, it has unleashed internal and international anarchy
in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Whatever might be the advantages of dismemberment as a victor
strategy, they were not applicable to Germany in 1919. By that time,
the German nation had become a solid reality with a solid identity;
it could not be permanently undone by artificial territorial
divisions, unless these were enforced by military occupation (which
is how the division of Germany was to be enforced after the Second
World War). There are today a few international analysts who argue
that the United States should encourage the territorial division of
troublesome powers, particularly Russia and China. There are,
however, hardly any specialists on China or even Russia who believe
that a permanent division of these nations is possible.

An alternative but closely related solution to the German problem was
military containment. This was the objective of the Treaty of
Versailles, which set up what was known as the Versailles system to
carry it out. Military containment was another victor strategy chosen
by France, and in the early 1920s the French were quite active at
implementing it, as in their military occupation of the Ruhr in 1923.

The Democratic administration of President Woodrow Wilson advanced a
kinder, gentler version of the Versailles system in its proposals for
a League of Nations and a U.S. security guarantee to France and
Britain. The military containment of Germany embodied in the security
guarantee would be institutionalized and legitimatized in a
collective security system embodied in the League. But, of course,
the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate rejected these proposals, and
the United States never again considered the strategy of military
containment as a solution to the German problem.

Economic engagement and security cooperation.

Instead, a few years later, the United States addressed the German
problem (now accentuated by the unstable French occupation of the
Ruhr) with a strategy of economic engagement. This took the form of
the Dawes Plan, an ingenious project for financial recycling, in
which American banks loaned capital to Germany, Germany paid war
reparations to France and Britain, and France and Britain repaid war
debts to the American banks. The Dawes Plan thus encouraged an open
international economy among the most advanced economies, and it
sought to integrate Germany into this mutually beneficial system.

Essay Types: Essay