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

Probably the most difficult single challenge facing the contemporary U.S. victor strategy is how to sustain this innovative and complex combination of economic engagement and military containment in regard to China. The article by Zbigniew Brzezinski, "Living With China", is a sustained and eminently sensible analysis of this problem. In essence, he hopes that the Taiwan independence question can be dissolved into the World Trade Organization, that the tensions from military containment can themselves be contained by the rewards of economic engagement. His proposals are thus very different from those of Robert Kagan and William Kristol in "The Present Danger", who hardly consider the international economy at all. Consequently, they advocate a pure strategy of military containment toward China, including U.S. efforts to bring about a "regime change."

We have seen that the U.S. strategies toward Germany and Japan in the 1920s depended upon integrating those nations into an open and prosperous international economy, and that the U.S. contemporary strategy toward Russia depends upon the same. To an even greater extent, the U.S. strategy toward China has as its foundation the integration of that giant nation--one with more and more of a nationalist mentality--into such a global economy. If the global economy were to exclude China from its benefits, or if it were to become a closed and depressed one, the entire complex U.S. strategy toward China would collapse. The United States would be driven, at best, to the classic alternative, a simple strategy of military containment, or, at worst, as was the case in the 1930s in regard to both Germany and Japan, to no strategy at all. At that point, the proposals of Brzezinski would become obsolete, and the proposals of Kagan and Kristol could appear to be necessary. The management of the new China problem therefore de pends upon the management of the new global economy, and the development of any real Sino-American security cooperation depends upon the performance of the United States as the global economic hegemon.

Challenges to the Victor

The culminating point of victory.

EVEN when a victor power conceives a victor strategy that is sound and appropriate to the military and economic realities of the time, there will be challenges that arise from how it is implemented. The first of these challenges is to determine what is, in Clausewitz's phrase, "the culminating point of victory", and to not go beyond it. Victor powers are prone to succumb to "the victory disease"; they continue to pursue the strategies that brought them victory in the utterly new and inappropriate circumstances that the victory has created. Concentration in war becomes compulsion in victory. The most famous example of the twentieth century was Hider following his successful blitzkriegs of Poland and France with his disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union. The most familiar American example was MacArthur following his successful landing at Inchon and recovery of South Korea with his disastrous drive to the Yalu River and the Chinese border, resulting in China's entry into the war.

A contemporary American example of going beyond the culminating point of victory could be the enlargement of NATO. Although the admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary may not have passed that point, a "second round of enlargement" including the Baltic states and reaching the most sensitive borders of Russia probably would do so. This kind of victory disorder may also be developing with the U.S. promotion of human rights over national sovereignty, and especially with the use of military force for the purpose of humanitarian intervention. The 1995 U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Bosnia was accepted by all of the other major powers. The 1999 U.S.-led humanitarian intervention in Kosovo was greatly resented, and in some measure rejected, by Russia and China. A third such intervention anytime soon, especially in a country traditionally in the sphere of influence of Russia (e.g., the Caucasus and Central Asia) or of China (e.g., the South China Sea), very likely would go beyond the culminating p oint of victory; it would represent a humanitarian disease.

The realistic range of opportunities.

The second challenge for the victor power is in some sense the opposite of the first. It is to determine what is the realistic range of opportunities resulting from victory. The victor power is suddenly in a position where all things seem possible, where there are too many options. It may erratically pursue this objective, then that, and then another. Versatility in war becomes diffusion, even dissipation, in victory. This is an error to which pluralist democracies, with their different interest groups, are especially prone.

It has often been argued that Britain succumbed to this victory disorder in the nineteenth century. The British continued to expand their colonial empire, one of the opportunities that came with their victory in the Napoleonic Wars, until they entered into the condition of "imperial overstretch." One result was that Britain had to undertake numerous and continuous military operations on "the turbulent frontier." Another result, more serious in its long-run consequences, was that the ample British investment capital was diffused across a wide range of colonies and foreign countries, rather than concentrated upon the development of new technologies and industries within Britain itself. Such new technologies and industries would have better suited Britain for its competition with Germany.

A contemporary American example of the error of diffusion or dissipation seems to be developing with the U.S. promotion of every aspect of the American way of life in every part of the world. The promotion of economic globalization may be inherent in the U.S. performance as economic hegemon, but it does weaken the economic conditions and social bonds of many Americans. Even more, the promotion of social and cultural globalization--of the American way of expressive individualism, popular culture and the dysfunctional family--has generated resentment and resistance in a wide arc of countries in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. This, it seems, is the American way of producing a turbulent frontier.

The balancing effect.

The third challenge is the most familiar and the most fundamental, although Americans are inclined to think that they are exempt from it. It is derived from the well-known balancing effect. Victory brings the pre-eminent victor power hegemony, which in turn can initiate a realignment of the lesser victor powers against it (perhaps joined by the defeated one). The balancing effect was always especially pronounced among the continental powers of Europe. However, since Britain was an offshore power with no ambitions for territorial acquisitions on the continent, its victories did not initiate this balancing process. Indeed, its role as an "offshore balancer" helped it on occasion to exercise a sort of offshore hegemony.

The United States has served as an offshore or rather overseas balancer for Europe and also for East Asia. Even more than Britain, its remote position has permitted it to exercise an overseas hegemony over the nations of Western Europe (while balancing against the Soviet Union) and over those of East Asia (while balancing against China). Indeed, the United States continues to exercise this overseas hegemony, now over all of Europe, even with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with no other power to balance at all. By historical comparison with the European past, this hegemonic security system is an extraordinary achievement on the part of the United States. Were America located on the continent where France is, or even thirty miles offshore where Britain is, it probably would not have occurred; it can exist because the United States is located an ocean away and in another hemisphere. The U.S. hegemonic security system in East Asia continues to include Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and the problematic Taiwan; it provides the basis for any strategy of military containment of China.

The overseas location of the United States thus enables it to avoid the balancing effect and instead to perform the role of security hegemon in Europe, parts of East Asia and, in more complicated conditions, parts of the Middle East (as in the Gulf War and the continuing air strikes against Iraq). Of course, the United States also acts as the security hegemon in Latin America, where there is no prospect of a balancing effect against "the colossus of the North" (a case of an opposite phenomenon, which international relations specialists call the "bandwagoning effect").

Hegemony versus hyper-victory.

The U.S. role as the security hegemon in several regions of the globe complements the U.S. role as the economic hegemon in the global economy. America's security hegemony is acceptable because of its unique overseas location and the sustained peace that it has provided. Its economic hegemony is acceptable because of the unique economic functions that it performs and the sustained prosperity that it has produced. The United States has operated the security and economic dimensions of hegemony together to consolidate and preserve its great victory after the Cold War. It does so in ways reminiscent of Britain coordinating the security and economic dimensions of its supremacy to consolidate and preserve its great victory after the Napoleonic Wars.

Essay Types: Essay