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

Conversely, whereas after the first war Russia was in a sense doubly
defeated (first by the German army and then by the chaos of the
Russian Revolution and Civil War), after the second it was doubly
victorious (first by defeating Germany and then by occupying or
annexing--along with its soon-to-be involuntary allies, Poland and
Czechoslovakia--the eastern half of it). The German problem suddenly
ceased to be the central problem of international security and
instead became a subordinate part of the new central problem, which
was the Russian one.

The United States initially tried to apply its overall strategy of
security cooperation and economic engagement to this new Russian
problem. But it was crucial to this strategy that it be implemented
through international institutions led by the United States, i.e.,
the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system. Both the strategy
and its systems were incompatible with the interests of the Soviet
Union, as those were defined by Stalin. Security cooperation and
economic engagement required some degree of an open society and a
free market, and these contradicted the closed society and command
economy that characterized the Soviet Union. Instead, the worldwide
reach of the American system was aborted by the Cold War and the
establishment of the Soviet bloc.

The United States therefore was only able to apply its strategy and
system to the Free World, especially the First World. In Europe, the
United Nations was replaced by NATO, and the Bretton Woods system was
reinforced by the Marshall Plan. NATO represented a sort of second
coming of Wilson's abortive security guarantee to France and Britain,
as was the Marshall Plan a second coming of the Dawes Plan. In East
Asia, the United States concluded a series of bilateral security
treaties and bilateral economic aid programs (including the Dodge
Plan for Japan). The ensemble of security treaties echoed the earlier
Washington system, and since it was based upon U.S. naval supremacy
in the Pacific, it also echoed earlier British strategies based upon
naval supremacy.

This American strategy and this system, whose prototypes had been
aborted after the First World War and whose applications were
confined to only half the world after the Second World War, were
extraordinarily successful where they did operate. They certainly
helped to solve a good part of the old German and Japanese problems.
However, they could not solve the new Russian problem (some
historians think that they even accentuated it). The result was the
Cold War.

Military containment.

The Russian problem was addressed by a version of the alternative
victor strategy, military containment--in this case, containment not
of the recently defeated enemy but of the victorious ally. By 1948
there had already been the sudden reversal of the alliance between
the Western Allies (Britain and the United States) and the Soviet
Union against Germany into an emerging alliance between the Western
Allies and Germany against the Soviet Union. The rapidity of the
transformation was quite breathtaking, but it was readily accepted by
the American public. (In his famous novel, 1984, written in 1948 as
this transformation was being completed, George Orwell portrayed the
sudden reversal of the alliance between Oceania and Eastasia against
Eurasia into an alliance between Oceania and Eurasia against

When the communists came to power on the Chinese mainland in 1949,
they presented a new security problem. For a brief time, the Truman
administration was inclined to hope that some version of the strategy
of security cooperation (perhaps based upon traditional Chinese
suspicions of Russia) and economic engagement would work to solve
this new Chinese problem, but this hope was aborted by Mao's alliance
with Stalin in January 1950, the Chinese entry into the Korean War in
November 1950, and the closed society and command economy that
characterized communist China.

The prosperous and open international economic system of the 1920s
had permitted a strategy of security cooperation or appeasement
toward Germany and Japan. But this was because these two nations had
capitalist economies and were willing to engage with a prosperous and
open international economy. When the international economy ceased to
be so, the basis for a strategy of security appeasement disappeared;
the only effective alternative would have been a strategy of military

The Soviet Union and communist China in the 1940s-50s, on the other
hand, were command economies. Because of this, they were not willing
to engage with an open international economy, even one that was
prosperous. Consequently, there was no basis for a strategy of
security cooperation (or appeasement). The alternative strategy of
military containment therefore became necessary. But although
containment of the Soviet Union and communist China was necessary, it
did present problems of its own. Military containment once led to
defeat for the United States (the Vietnam War) and once led to near
disaster for the world (the Cuban Missile Crisis). And military
containment by itself was not sufficient to defeat the Soviet Union,
to reform communist China, and to bring about a U.S. victory in the
Cold War. The successful and sustained operation of the free market
and open international economy in the First or Free World, in
contrast with the gradual but steady exhaustion of the command and
closed economic systems in the Second or Communist World, exerted a
magnetic force upon the Soviet Union and China, and drove them by the
1980s, each in its own way, to reform their economies and to engage
in the American-led international economic system. But of course this
did not happen quickly or easily. Forty years of Cold War and
military containment were the price.

Why did the United States succeed in adopting a generally coherent
and consistent victor strategy after the Second World War? The main
reason was that its victory was in some sense a Pyrrhic one. The
German enemy was replaced almost immediately by the Russian one, and
the Japanese enemy was soon replaced by the Chinese one. Even more,
since both enemies were communist and initially were in alliance,
they could easily be seen as one enormous enemy. This wonderfully
concentrated the American mind into a generally coherent and
consistent strategy in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Living With Victory After the Cold War

The circumstances of victory and defeat after the Cold War had more
in common with those pertaining after the First World War than those
after the Second.

The redefined Russian problem.

Russia was more defeated after the Cold War than Germany after the
First World War (but less defeated than Germany after the Second). As
the Soviet Union was reinvented as Russia, it lost a quarter of its
territory and half of its population. The Russian economy in the
1990s was beset both by deep depression and by high inflation, and
the Russian military was beset by weakness and incompetence, with
only an arsenal of nuclear weapons remaining as the legacy from the
era of Soviet power. The strategic position of Russia was removed
from the center to the periphery of the European continent, and it
remained the central nation only in the emptiness of Central Asia.
The Russian problem was redefined from being one of organized power
into one of organized crime. Only in 2000--with a new president,
Vladimir Putin, modest economic recovery and ambiguous military
success in the Chechnya war--are there signs that Russia may have
begun a revival to the degree that Germany did in the mid-1920s.

The U.S. victor strategy toward this "Weimar Russia" has been a
variation of that adopted toward Weimar Germany, a new version of the
strategy of security cooperation and economic engagement. Russia's
generally positive role in the United Nations echoes Germany's role
in the League. However, the enlargement of NATO into Eastern Europe
(really a form of military containment of Russia) echoes Wilson's
abortive security guarantee to Western Europe (really a form of
military containment of Germany). The extensive U.S. and
international economic aid to Russia echoes the Dawes Plan (although
it has not been nearly as extensive and effective as the Marshall
Plan). But just as the U.S. victor strategy toward Germany in the
1920s depended upon integrating that nation into an international
economy that remained open and prosperous, so too does the
contemporary U.S. victor strategy toward Russia. It would fail if
either the international economy collapsed into one that was closed
and depressed (like the 1930s), or if the Russian economy reverted
into one that was closed and command (like the 1940s-70s).

The new Chinese problem.

In East Asia, the United States faces the rising power of China, a
situation not unlike that it faced with Japan after the First World
War. China's growing economic and military strengths, and its goals
regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea, have presented a serious
challenge. Indeed, the Chinese problem after the Cold War has been an
even greater challenge for the United States than the Japanese
problem was after the First World War (although it is not nearly as
threatening as the Russian problem was after the Second).

The U.S. strategy toward China that evolved in the 1990s has in some
sense been an inversion of the U.S. strategy toward Japan in the
1920s (and an expansion of the U.S. strategy toward Weimar Germany).
Whereas the strategy toward Japan provided for an elaborate system of
security cooperation (the Washington system) but only for relatively
simple economic engagement (conventional international trade), the
strategy toward China provides for an elaborate system of economic
engagement ("the Washington consensus", including the admission of
China into the World Trade Organization), but for relatively simple
security cooperation (conventional military visits). In a more
important sense, however, the U.S. strategy involves an innovative
combination of economic engagement and military containment
(particularly in respect to Taiwan and the South China Sea). But
since China thinks of Taiwan as being properly part of China, what
the United States perceives as its strategy of military containment,
China perceives as a strategy of territorial dismemberment.

Essay Types: Essay