Contending Schools

March 1, 2001 Topics: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: Bosnian WarSuperpowerYugoslavia

Contending Schools

Mini Teaser: Three distinct schools of thought shape the debate on how America should best pursue its post-Cold War interests in the world.

by Author(s): Charles William Maynes

In his book Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger maintains that at the turn of
the last century the United States faced a choice between two
fundamentally different approaches to international relations, one
represented by Theodore Roosevelt and the other by Woodrow Wilson.
America was then emerging from decades of preoccupation with
continental expansion, the country's economic might was beginning to
outdistance that of all others, and its merchants were establishing
trade ties in every corner of the globe. Two schools of thought,
represented by two men who became president, arose to vie for
influence in charting America's approach to such an altered world.

Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901 to 1909, urged the nation to
establish its relations with the rest of the world solidly on the
concept of national interest, based on military might and balance of
power diplomacy. Woodrow Wilson, president from 1913 to 1921, pressed
the nation to support a foreign policy grounded in law and deriving
strength from cooperation with others.

In Kissinger's view, and in that of others in the traditional school
of foreign policy to which he belongs, Wilson won the argument. As a
consequence, America's approach to the world has been colored by its
resistance to the adoption of a more traditional, more European, more
"realistic" view of international relations. That is to say, America
has been hesitant to develop an approach to the rest of the world
based on a quest for power and a determination to act according to
the standard of the national interest. (We shall leave aside for now
the paradox that a country allegedly so handicapped has been more
successful diplomatically, and has accumulated more power, than any
of the other countries that followed more traditional approaches to
international affairs.)

Now America is entering another century, and, for many of the same
reasons that the debate between Roosevelt and Wilson broke out at the
beginning of the twentieth century, a new debate over America's role
in the world is taking place. Today, as then, America finds itself
having successfully concluded a long struggle and wondering what to
do next. When Roosevelt and Wilson argued about the direction of
American foreign policy, their clash took place against the backdrop
of a nation successfully completing its internal consolidation. The
nation was secure from coast to coast and hence free to consider
important strategic choices, which it proceeded to do. At the
beginning of the twenty-first century, the emerging debate over
foreign policy is taking place in a nation that has successfully
prevailed in a global struggle against a powerful adversary. With
international communism fatally crippled or functionally dead, the
Soviet Union gone and the Warsaw Pact disbanded, America is again
secure and, hence, as it was a century ago, free to consider
different strategic choices.

There is another similarity. Americans are optimistic today about
themselves and their future. As in the days of Teddy Roosevelt and
Woodrow Wilson, we are convinced that we know the way--politically
and economically--and that therefore we have an obligation, if not
also a right, to lead others to a better future.

Most countries, of course, are not so blessed by geography and
history as to be able to consider radical new approaches to the
world. They may enjoy temporary periods of enhanced security or their
populations may develop a greater sense of confidence or optimism,
but geography and history predetermine their international stance.
They are trapped within narrow strategic margins.

America also faced such limitations so long as it was militarily weak
and had not reached its natural limits. But once the country was
internally consolidated, once other major powers were definitively
excluded from its hemisphere, and its own population began to exceed
that of all other industrialized countries, the United States
developed into a unique state in the international system: It
acquired, and still possesses, a larger strategic margin than that
enjoyed by any other power.

It is therefore quite understandable that, at the beginning of the
last century and at the beginning of this one, a debate over basic
strategic options could take place. A country so confident and so
secure begins to understand that it has options open to it that are
not available to others. It has the luxury of the kind of public
debate about its external options that most state elites try to
avoid. And, indeed, over the past few years three schools of American
commentators have begun to clarify three different approaches to the
issue of America's place in the world. Various labels have been
applied to these schools. I believe that they are best described--in
terms of the scope they envisage as appropriate for their country's
role--as the controllers, the shapers and the abstainers, it being
understood that each school has its conservative and liberal wings.

The earliest of the three schools to advance its case has been that
which seeks to control the international system. Its adherents are
the self-proclaimed hegemonists, who have decided that it is in
America's interest to use its immense power not merely to make
America the leader of the international system--its primus inter
pares--but to dominate it. They call for major sacrifices in money
and, if necessary, in blood to ensure that the American domination
lasts as long as possible (though they acknowledge that one day it
must end).

The shapers believe that a quest for leadership is more realistic
than a quest for domination. They are cautious about the use of
power. They believe that as powerful as America may be today, it
cannot prevail without the help of others. In concert with allies and
friends, America's goal should be to shape the changing international
environment into more permanent patterns that will benefit U.S.
interests over the longer run.

In forming their view of America's international posture, the
abstainers focus on the demise of the Soviet Union and the pacifying
effects of globalization. Since America is now no longer threatened
by a major international foe, and as globalization is benign, America
can comfortably scale down its active role in the world, trusting to
natural balances the task of keeping the peace.

Despite their differences, all three schools of thought are
attempting to confront the fundamental problem in international
relations: How can the state be made secure? Each school of thought
strives to place America within a system that will provide that
security. The controllers believe it must be a system that America
determines. The shapers believe it must be a system that America
molds with the cooperation of others. The abstainers believe that the
international system is now sufficiently benign or non-threatening
that America should neither control nor mold it.

A closer examination of each of these three broad schools of thought
may shed light on the nature of American interests as we enter the
twenty-first century.

The Controllers

In the post-Cold War context, the first to speak for the controllers
was the administration of George Bush. As that administration drew to
a close in late 1992, a draft Pentagon strategy paper, leaked to the
press, called for the United States to exploit the demise of the
Soviet Union in order to prevent the rise of any other power that
could challenge the strategic position of the United States. U.S.
policymakers would take steps not only to prevent the re-emergence of
another threat based in Moscow, but also to make sure that America's
allies, in particular Germany and Japan, remained in a dependent

Such views have not been restricted to Republicans. In the late
1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter
administration, published The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and
Its Geostrategic Imperatives, in which he argued, with reference to
the approach of ancient Rome, that America should exploit its new
dominance to follow a strategy "to prevent collusion and maintain
security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and
protected, and to keepthe barbarians from coming together."

The American press judged the paper developed by the Bush Pentagon to
be a bid for world hegemony. In response to the ensuing public furor,
the Bush administration repudiated the paper as official policy,
though, as the administration left office, the Pentagon published a
declassified version that said much the same thing in more subdued

Given one's view of the international system, the position expressed
in the paper can remain not only a legitimate option but a necessary
choice for the United States. The new "hegemonic realists" begin
their arguments with a fear and an observation: No state, not even an
ally or a democracy, can be trusted over the long run. Inevitably,
another state will rise up to challenge U.S. power. Ever has it been
thus and ever will it be. America now has power unparalleled in the
modern era. Perhaps not since the days of imperial Rome or ancient
China has a single state so dominated the international system. Like
them, the United States towers above others in military technology,
economic development, political cohesion and cultural magnetism. Why
not use that power, as Rome did, to hold down others as long as one

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