Editor’s Note: This essay is fourth in a series on American Ideals and Interests. The first essay, Tod Lindberg’s “Moral Responsibility and the National Interest,” can be found here. The second, David J. Kramer’s “Human Rights Problems a Commission Won’t Solve,” can be found here. The third, Adam Garfinkle’s “Is Pompeo’s Rights Commission More or Less Than Meets the Eye?,” can be found here.
Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine and amanuensis in 2016 of the Obama Doctrine—“Don’t do stupid shit!”—recently applied his skills of strategic divination to our current commander-in-chief. He boiled the Trump Doctrine down into a similarly pithy and profane formula: “We’re America, Bitch!”
A more nuanced explication—or inference—of the president’s strategy comes from the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and distinguished historian, who has made The Case for Trump at book length. Hanson allowed that “the verdict by mid-2018 was still out” and that “Trump’s first few years were . . . marked by a number of setbacks,” but that the president had scored a win with China, “given that, for the first time in memory, the United States talked credibly about reexamining the entire asymmetrical trade relationship between Washington and Beijing.”
This “realist” reading of Trump might equally be applied to his predecessor; from the political Left and Right, the two arrived at a similar America First or, in the argot of political science, “offshore balancing” posture, a prudent tending to the balance of international power. Both administrations saw themselves as redressing the excesses of post-Cold-War hubris, expressed most egregiously in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ever the hipster intellectual, President Obama’s contribution to a White House show with the cast of the Hamilton musical was a reading of George Washington’s “Farewell,” the 1796 address most remembered for its warning against “entangling” foreign alliances.
Yet, except for the late 1920s and early 1930s, Americans have almost never—and never for very long—thought it wise to turn too much away from world events. The Founders itched for the day, which they believed to be just around the corner, when they could muscle their way to the top of the geopolitical pole. The real money quote from Washington’s “Farewell” is: “[T]he period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance . . . when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
“Guided by justice”—this has been the governing principle of American strategy-making, or strategic culture, not simply since 1776 but since the first English colonists splashed ashore on Roanoke Island in 1585. Ideology—one derived from the Reformation struggles of European Protestants, combined with a global understanding of power, an expansive imperial impulse, and frontier fears of proximate threats—has propelled the English-speaking peoples of North America through centuries of often horrible conflict. Modesty in international affairs does not make great powers, let alone “sole superpowers.” Nor do abundant natural resources or oceans’ remove from Eurasian continental affairs or other material considerations alone suffice to explain why Americans have behaved—that is, wielded power and especially military force—as they have done. It is very difficult for the United States to be a “satisfied” power, as political-science realists would like it to be. It is not in our stars, but rather in ourselves, in our habits of mind and experience, to be perpetually unsatisfied with national interest alone, but be guided by our sense of justice.
It may be that the policies of the last two presidents represent an epochal shift in the American way of strategy for which the past, immediate or distant, is not prologue. And yet the weight of the American past is a heavy thing, not easily laid aside. While there have been periodic moments when the ideological enthusiasm for liberty—be it individual, national, international—has dimmed or deferred to the need for security and the desire for prosperity, it would be a momentous change indeed if this proved permanent.
The history of Anglo-American strategy-making is marked by halting patterns of reform—adaptation to critical geopolitical and military circumstances—leading to restoration, to the discovery of new ways and means to advance traditional ends. It seems more likely that the current era marks another cycle of adaptation to be worked out, possibly over decades, but such reforms are most likely to lead to a strategic restoration rather than a realist revolution.
In July 1947, the magazine Foreign Affairs published “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Writing as “X,” State Department official George Kennan intended the article, which reprised points he had made in several official memoranda, including the so-called “Long Telegram” the previous year, to be an explanation and guide to understanding Soviet strategy and behavior. He aimed to describe the “political personality of Soviet power,” an effort he called a “task of psychological analysis” to discern a “pattern of thought” and the “nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders.” If Soviet “conduct is to be understood”—and, as a matter of American strategy, “effectively countered”—it required not only a grasp of the principles of Soviet ideology but the effects of “the powerful hands of Russian history and tradition.” Kennan thus argued that Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders saw international politics and the struggle for power through a unique set of lenses, lenses that might filter and distort even nature’s purest colors and shapes. It mattered less what wavelengths objects reflected than what wavelengths appeared to Russian eyes.
Ironically, Kennan might be said to have had more empathy for the sources of Soviet and Russian conduct than he did for that of the United States. As he lost the struggle over Cold War policy within the Truman Administration to a more deft group of intellectuals led by Paul Nitze, Kennan began to see America as a kind of strategic brontosaurus, “slow to wrath” but once provoked liable to cause much collateral damage beyond just subduing the threat.
Kennan’s contemporary Hans Morgenthau thought that the ideological impulse in American strategy needed to be not just bridled but destroyed. It was a “nefarious trend of thought.” He lamented the fact that the American political establishment had a “bias against a realistic approach” to power.
Modern realist scholars often follow in Kennan’s and Morgenthau’s footsteps. “Why,” wonders Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt, “is a distinguished and well-known approach to foreign policy confined to the margins of public discourse, especially in the pages of our leading newspapers, when its recent track record is arguably superior to the main alternatives?” Why, indeed? Distinguished and well-known, realism and other materialist schools of thought would appear to be familiar yet uncongenial to the American mind. And worse, they don’t appear to either explain or predict actual American behavior.
The source-code for American thinking about strategy was written centuries ago in Elizabethan England. Or, to be more precise, Elizabethan “Britain,” a place of myth about the heroic past and a proposition for a glorious future. The political elites of the Elizabethan age were profoundly aware that England was riven by domestic dissent and disorder, driven from its last toehold on the European continent, with an impoverished and arthritic government, a minuscule and antiquated military, and unsure about which of the two continental great powers, Spain or France, was the larger threat; England feared it was “a bone thrown between two dogs,” as historian James Anthony Froude put it. The comfortable dynastic framework of late medieval and early modern European politics was being torn apart by the passions of Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. England was also decades behind Spain and Portugal in translating New World exploration into Old World wealth, military might, and political influence. England’s very independence rested upon its ability to play an expansive game of ideological and confessional global power. To grant Philip II of Spain, who engraved his coins with “The World Is Not Enough,” his desired sphere of influence would be suicidal.
To be sure, Elizabeth chafed at being cast as the leader of the Protestant cause throughout Europe. Protestantism by its very nature tended to dissent; beyond the break with Rome, the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Calvinists were already making the international “Protestant interest” a herd of cats, and that herd would grow more feral, fractious, and fissiparous as the reformed faith put down roots across northern Europe and throughout the British Isles. Protestantism also carried with it a whiff of republicanism, or at least anti-authoritarianism, particularly on the part of the Dutch; indeed, for more than a century the English and Dutch would have a strategic love-hate relationship. The Anglican via media reflected the queen’s own religious views (and she had well-reasoned and well-informed ideas) and was a political compromise. That made it a sometimes-wobbly platform for strategy, both domestically and internationally. But the power of a guiding and shared sense of justice—God’s “providence”—made a common cause possible.
During Elizabeth’s five decades on the throne, a rough set of strategic priorities took root in the quest to realize her just claims. The first concerns were about the durability and legitimacy of the regime at home. Thus the primary principle of English strategy was to secure the queen’s ability to govern domestically. Even in the late sixteenth century, this was a question of asserting London’s writ throughout England and Wales. It was also a matter of asserting the primacy of the Protestant faith.
The second set of strategic priorities for Elizabeth and her Privy Council was Scotland and Ireland. Unless these “postern gates” were closed to French, Spanish, and Popish influence, and friendly, Protestant local regimes put in place, England faced an existential threat.
Elizabeth, like her predecessors and successors, preferred to fight her great-power battles not at home but away. The saga of the Gran Armada of 1588 highlights the role of rising English naval power during the period, but it is better to see this third element in Elizabethan security architecture as encompassing not just the Channel, the “Narrow Seas,” but the eastern Atlantic from the North Sea through the Bay of Biscay and the related coastal parts of Europe from Holland to northern Spain and Portugal. Indeed, although Elizabeth did her best to avoid and to limit English land-force engagements in continental Europe, the need for commitments of men and money proved constant. As Brendan Simms has convincingly argued in his magisterial Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, a clearer picture of England’s strategic and operational reasoning emerges when the region is taken as a whole, a “moat-and-counterscarp” system intended to add some strategic depth to an exposed England. The situation in Europe and Philip II’s hegemonic ambitions made offshore balancing too risky. The “wooden walls” of English ships could not secure every Elizabethan interest, nor preserve the Protestant faith. It was in this larger western European theater of operations, both maritime and continental, where England’s status as a great power would be measured.
These domestic and western European priorities, however, were nested within a truly globe-spanning appreciation of power. Thus, in addition to lusting after the mountains of Aztec and Inca treasure that financed Philip, Elizabethan expansionism included, on a small but still important scale, the first English attempts at a permanent lodgment in this New World. Englishmen also understood that the Spanish had a head start not only in exploiting the riches of the New World but in Catholicizing it. Bringing the reformed faith to the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have been more moral justification than motivation, but it was a constant theme of the Elizabethan strategic conversation. As Richard Hackluyt, both the most distinguished collector of writings on exploration and a some-time intelligence agent, put the case to the queen in the “executive summary” of his Discourse of Western Planting of 1584:
The Spaniards govern in the Indies with all pride and tyranny; and like as when people of contrary nature at the sea enter into gallies, where men are tied as slaves, all yell and cry with one voice, Liberta, liberta, as desirous of liberty and freedom, so no doubt whensoever the Queen of England, a prince of such clemency, shall seat upon that firm of America, and shall be reported throughout all that tract to use the natural people there with all humanity, curtesy, and freedom, they will yield themselves to her government, and revolt clean from the Spaniard….
By Elizabeth’s death, the queen’s strategic ambitions, despite her caution and conservatism, had created a moment of imperial overstretch for which her immediate Stuart successors would pay a heavy price. Yet she had set goals that could not be easily renounced. Englishmen extolled Elizabeth as “Gloriana” not because they remembered her reign as peaceful—it was not at all peaceful—but because they remembered their aspiration to greatness and the securing of the “liberties,” both at home and abroad, which they held dear. Her subjects might grumble about failure or the cost in blood or taxes, or divide themselves into faction, but they could not accept a lowering of sights.
The first Stuarts, James I and Charles I, lacked both Elizabeth’s strategic sense and her political sensibility. Unlike their Habsburg and then Bourbon competitors, early British monarchs could not play the game of thrones without cajoling their Parliaments to finance them. And the price included Parliament debating the arcana imperii that the Stuarts regarded as their absolute domain, the rights bequeathed to them alone by God. The Stuarts’ unwillingness to lead the Protestant alliance during the end-of-days struggle of the Thirty Years’ War—and their manifest military incompetence—provoked a series of civil wars across their three kingdoms and cost Charles not just his crown but his head. In the view of the victorious Parliamentary leaders, it was Charles who was the revolutionary; their military, fiscal, and governmental reforms were in service to restoring an essentially Elizabethan approach to strategy.
Charles’s sons, Charles II and James II, never forgot their father’s fate, but neither did they learn from it. James, in particular, was too impressed by his time in France and proximity to Louis XIV. Attempting to model his British—and expanding North American—empire on the Sun King’s formula, James also wished to reach a strategic modus vivendi with France, renouncing continental interests in return for colonial expansion. In the end, his subjects invited the Dutch stadholder, the Prince of Orange, to invade England, and then made him a British William III.
This “Glorious Revolution” was also a restoration of the Elizabethan imperial tradition. It likewise firmly planted the North American colonies as part of the imperial equation; what was “The Nine Years’ War” or the “War of the Grand Alliance” in Europe was “King William’s War” in the New World. And it reflected a changed great-power reality: Bourbon France, not Habsburg Spain, was the new hegemonic danger. This justified a host of revolutionary imperial reforms. At home, this meant a new regime, bound more firmly by Parliament and to be secured by a second Protestant succession, this time by the German Hanoverian line. It also meant a revolution in state-building and, especially, state finance; the Bank of England allowed William to borrow his way to great military power. The king, the bank, and the army were all Dutch imports.
These changes enabled a return to the Elizabethan form of strategy; the appeasement of France and neglect of the European balance of power—offshore balancing, Stuart style—was on the outs. William presented both his invasion of England and the otherwise dreary and indecisive contest with France as a defense of the Protestant Cause; the Peace of Westphalia’s attempt to “de-confessionalize” international politics cut rather less mustard with Britons, especially those Britons on the wild and howling imperial frontier in the New World, where French Jesuit priests inspired and enabled the frighteningly and seemingly barbaric Indian way of war. Their ideological fervor was of the Cromwellian kind. The Reverend Philip Vincent rationalized the Massachusetts Puritans’ burning to death of hundreds of Pequot women and children—but precious few warriors: “Severe justice must now and then take place.”
“King William’s War” was followed by “Queen Anne’s War”—the War of the Spanish Succession” in Europe—then “King George’s War”—The War of the Austrian Succession—and finally the smashing victory of the French and Indian War—the Seven Years’ War. The period from 1688 to 1763, and the Treaty of Paris that recognized the global and first British Empire upon which “the sun never set,” also marked the increasingly global nature of the conflict, as well as the increasing importance of the American theater.
The paramount victory of 1763, however, revealed a profound difference of imperial opinion in the two poles of the British Atlantic world. George III, who had inherited both the government and global strategy of William Pitt from his grandfather, saw these conquests as a punctuation, an “end state” to be sustained, preserved and paid off. British colonists in North America, like Pitt, saw the victory more as an opportunity to exploit. As that arch-imperialist Benjamin Franklin put it in 1760 after the capture of Quebec and Montreal:
No one can rejoice more sincerely than I do, on the reduction of Canada; and this merely not as I am a colonist, but as I am a Briton. I have long been of the opinion, that the foundations of future grandeur and stability of the British Empire lie in America; and though like other foundations, they are low and little seen, they are nevertheless broad and strong enough to support the greatest political structure human wisdom has ever erected . . . All the country from the St. Lawrence to the Mississippi will in another century be filled with British people. Britain itself will become vastly more populous, by the immense increase of its commerce; the Atlantic sea will be covered with your trading ships; and your naval power, thence continually increasing, will extend your influence around the whole globe, and awe the world.
Franklin had both a remarkably accurate vision of the American future but a blurred understanding of the English present of the 1760s. When the new king declared that he “gloried in the name of Briton,” that really meant that he was a kind of 18th-century “Little Englander,” with little strategic regard either for his Hanoverian inheritance or the Americans’ ambitions. Thus the path from the realization of the original British empire in 1763 to its initial crack-up in 1776 was a long road traveled rapidly, and the first push toward separation came not from fiscal motives but from strategic differences: It was the royal Proclamation of late 1763, which forbade colonial expansion west of the Appalachians, that drove the initial split. In American eyes, the French and Indian War was fought to secure the settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys—to subdue French and Indian claims and power, not sustain them.
But if the pace of imperial crack-up was quick, the path to imperial reform and restoration, when Americans finally felt that their empire for liberty could stand on its own, was traveled painfully slowly. To declare independence was one thing, to achieve and maintain it quite another. The work of the American “founding,” of creating and organizing a union of states powerful enough to survive in a hostile geopolitical environment while preserving their individual liberties, was the work of several generations and much trial and error including a major redesign of the instruments of government, particularly the armed forces. In this regard it was cannily similar to the Williamite “founding” almost exactly a century before.
The American founders did not imagine that, after two centuries of almost constant conflict, their revolution alone was sufficient to secure their liberties. It certainly would not free them from the inevitable entanglements of European power politics. Nor was their wartime confederation strong enough to stand by itself, let alone realize their imperial imaginings. Like the Elizabethans, the earliest Americans were vividly aware of their own political and military weaknesses; they inherited the age-old “bone-between-dogs” dread. In a letter to George Washington, Alexander Hamilton imagined the new American republic as “Hercules in a cradle,” but at the beginning it was the cradle that counted most; American power was potential, great but unrealized. The new republic could not preserve its virtue in perfection; it must become a “republican empire” and employ traditional means of statecraft and military power. While Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others might hope to “conquer without war,” such an idyll was already proving impractical.
Hercules did not escape the cradle until the end of the Napoleonic wars—“The War of 1812” in America. The “Monroe Doctrine” was something of a Herculean boast, but it was not simply a question of spheres of influence but also of regime type. Republics and monarchies made strange bedfellows, even, as in the case of the British, when there were deep and lasting attachments. “The political system of the allied powers [of Europe] is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments,” Monroe argued. The liberty-loving character of the American regime gave it special license in Monroe’s view. He saw no contradiction between principle and power in securing the expanding Empire of Liberty—five states were admitted during Monroe’s presidency.
However, the “good feelings” of the 1820s required Americans to avert their eyes from the “peculiar institution” of plantation slavery, long a matter of sectional discord and, more importantly, incompatible with justice. As America expanded westward, its future was now fatefully entwined with the future of slavery, which would not simply wither and die. For three decades, Americans fought a series of “Slavery Wars”: the Mexican-American conflict from 1845 to 1848, the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and the subsequent Southern insurgency during Reconstruction, which continued until 1877.
These wars also resulted in a third trial and translation of the Anglo-American, imperial proposition not only in North America but globally. The Confederacy could not be induced to rejoin the Union under the pre-war status quo, affirming slavery as it existed in 1861 but preventing further expansion. Thus, by late 1863, it had become apparent in the North as well as the South that this was a “regime change” war, one that targeted the social and economic structure of plantation slavery as well as the armies defending it or the main Southern citadels or lines of communication.
This was a revelation that occurred first to Union commanders in the western theaters, particularly Ulysses S. Grant and his lieutenants William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan. Grant’s successful siege of Vicksburg, completed just a day after the Gettysburg victory, was an indication of the direction of the war to follow, not for the fall of the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi or Grant’s tactical and operational audacity in crossing the river, but because when, on their approach march, his soldiers beheld the brutal reality of slave life, the cause for which they fought became all too tangible. The spirit of righteous vengeance, not unlike that which motivated British Protestants in the European wars of the Reformation era, remained powerful through the remaining two years of the war and afterward. As Sherman’s troops sang, addressing the liberated black men, women, and children who now followed in the army’s wake:
Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the Jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The Flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia!
Like their Elizabethan and Cromwellian forbearers, the “Roundheads” of Grant’s armies found their inspiration in the Old Testament. Sherman’s troops’ song explicitly evoked the Jubilee of Leviticus: “On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family.” Such stern inspiration carried over to post-war reconstruction. In 1868, Congress passed three “Enforcement Acts” to deal with the Ku Klux Klan and the related violent insurgent groups in the South, which remained divided into military districts even as the seceded states were readmitted to the Union.
But the war had not only been about the present but the future. As Grant moved more aggressively to make America free, he likewise moved to make it whole through accelerated westward expansion, offering federal aid to “homesteaders” and marking, in 1869, the completion of the first “Transcontinental” railway, a project that had also begun in 1863. This also set the stage for the final set of conflicts with the indigenous peoples of North America, which began in Grant’s second term. The president preferred a “peace policy,” but was also a realistic in his reckoning of the sources of conflict. As he told Congress:
The building of railroads and the access thereby given to all the agricultural and mineral regions of the country is rapidly bringing civilized settlements into contact with all the tribes of Indians. No matter what ought to be the relations between such settlements and the aborigines, the fact is they do not get on together, and one or the other has to give way in the end.
The Plains Indian wars provided a coda to the original American imperial project. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, America was “whole and free,” even if its inhabitants did not yet enjoy full or equal rights.
At the conclusion of these wars in the 1880s, America entered its “Gilded Age” of banking tycoons, barons of industry, and excess, confident that it had come through its internal struggle to stand in the front rank of global powers. It no longer felt threatened in its crib. The American Empire of Liberty now enjoyed an expanding understanding of its strategic interests, buoyed by a righteous sense of justice that had been tested, and tempered to greater strength, by its terrible trials in war.
No one embodied the restored era of good feeling and imperial possibility more than Theodore Roosevelt. The Civil War was a formative experience in his young life, though he regretted that his father, for whom he had immeasurable reverence and regarded as the “best man I ever knew,” had paid another man to take his place in the draft. In many ways, and for many others of his generation, the rest of Teddy’s “strenuous life” was an effort to participate in a glorious and martial cause to advance American power and moral and political principles, for which the Civil War provided the model.
Roosevelt wrote eloquently about his worldview. In his four-volume Winning of the West, he was clear in drawing out the moral component of America’s westward expansion.
All other questions save those of the preservation of the Union itself and of the emancipation of the blacks have been of subordinate importance when compared with the great question of how rapidly and how completely they were to subjugate that part of the continent lying between the eastern mountains and the Pacific.
As in the American West, so in the world. “We stand on the threshold of a new century,” he enthused to the Republican convention that in 1896 nominated him as its vice-presidential candidate,
Big with the fate of mighty nations. It rests with us now to decide whether in the opening years of that century we shall march forward to fresh triumphs or whether at the outset we shall cripple ourselves for the contest . . . We do not stand in craven mood asking to be spared the task, cringing as we look on the contest. No! We challenge the proud privilege of doing the work that Providence allots us.
Assuming the Oval office upon the death of William McKinley, Roosevelt seethed with an almost Puritan zeal, one that might have seemed all but adolescent to a Washington or a Lincoln but would have resonated with an Essex or a member of the Rump Parliament.
His strategic enthusiasm never waned, not even during World War I. The American imperial spirit was muted by the slaughter of the trenches, but only sank into outright isolationism with the onset of the Great Depression. Indeed, what is remarkable in retrospect is that, in leading the nation to war in the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt—Teddy’s fifth cousin—framed the effort as a return to the traditional themes that defined the Empire of Liberty. In his “State of the Union” address one month after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the 32nd president told the Congress that
Prior to 1914 the United States often had been disturbed by events in other continents. We had even engaged in two wars with European nations and in a number of undeclared wars in the West Indies, in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific for the maintenance of American rights and for the principles of peaceful commerce . . . What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained opposition, clear, definite opposition, to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall while the procession of civilization went past.
In this way Roosevelt initiated a fourth major period of reform and restoration of the original Anglo-imperial project. But as always, the strategic understanding was shaped by a moral commitment to liberty. As in 1914, “the American people began to visualize what the downfall of democratic nations might mean to our own democracy.”
No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion—or even good business . . . [W]e are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of others people’s freedom.
Here was the traditional “Protestant Interest” molded to mid-20th century form, deprived of its confessional and racial meanings, but powerfully ideological, meant to appeal to not only the American political nation, but the British and other allied publics. As Lincoln had done in the Gettysburg Address, so Roosevelt looked to the distant past, and the reforms and restorations that had come before, to frame the task before Americans in 1941. “Since the beginning of our American history,” he asserted, “we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions.” Roosevelt knew that he lived in a violent time and that military confrontation was the only path toward peace; “there can be no end save victory.” But the goal was a “world order,” a global “good society,” defined by “four freedoms.”
That war also was fought in a very Elizabethan and Williamite way, to secure “counterscarps” across both the Atlantic and Pacific, and deep into the Mediterranean. In addition to oceanic power projection and the deployment of vast American armies, the United States subsidized many allies, particularly Great Britain and Stalin’s Soviet Union, which paid a horrible price in blood. The War Department’s annual report for 1938 concluded that “in the military sense the Americas are no longer continents” and that “the simple unadulterated fact that the range and destructive potentialities of weapons of warfare, primarily those whose realm is the skies,” had “shortened the elements of [military] distance and time.” The risks of “offshore balancing” were too great and its methods—raids, strikes and naval “descents”—too ineffective. It was certainly no strategy for a global power.
Yet despite the great victories of 1945, the Cold War created a new version of Elizabethan fears: The “Free World” still lacked strategic depth. Given the history I have thus far recounted, it should come as little surprise that it fell not to realists like Kennan or Morgenthau to shape American strategy for the Cold War, but to Kennan’s bureaucratic nemesis, Paul Nitze, to again redefine and restore the American imperial enterprise for the new geopolitical situation.
Nitze’s memorandum for the National Security Council of April 7, 1950, “NSC 68,” expressed the essentials of U.S. strategy for the decades-long competition with the Russians. NSC 68 observed that the defeat of Germany and Japan and the decline of the British and French colonial empires had “altered the distribution of power.” Moreover, the Soviet Union was more like Counter-Reformation Spain than “previous aspirants to hegemony.” Russia was “animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” Not surprisingly, Nitze described the country’s purpose in a manner that would have resonated with Reformation Protestants: “The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself.”
NSC 68 began not with its analysis of the Soviet system or international affairs as a whole but with the “Fundamental Purpose of the United States,” citing the Preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, from which emerged three strategic “realities”: “Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom . . . our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life.” The Cold War was both a global geopolitical contest—for the Soviet Union’s “efforts are now directed toward the domination of the Eurasian landmass”—and one “in the realm of ideas and values,” that is, ideological.
“Soviet domination of the potential power of Eurasia,” continued the memorandum, “whether achieved by armed aggression or by political and subversive means, would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States.” The weakness induced by the demobilization of the World War II armed forces in the United States and its allies, to say nothing of the demilitarization of Germany and Japan, exposed vulnerabilities in multiple theaters. What was required was nothing less than “a rapid and sustained build-up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world” and “an affirmative program intended to wrest the initiative from the Soviet Union,” focused on “the gradual retraction of undue Russian power and influence from the present perimeter areas” in Europe and Asia—the reduction and “rollback” of Soviet influence and the expansion of American imperial sway. In the end, the goal was regime change in Moscow: “Our policy and actions must be as such to foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system.”
In times of trial and uncertainty, Americans and their British ancestors have found their way forward by renewing their commitment to a “Good Old Cause,” as Cromwellians called the Elizabethan heritage that they strove to recapture. This commitment sprang from within, from how leaders and the political nation thought of themselves, from the ideas and habits of thought that gave meaning to national life and purpose to power. Through centuries of changes in geopolitical circumstances and frequent conflicts—large and small, quick campaigns and “endless” efforts—the personality of this power has remained remarkably consistent. Material “interest” alone does not suffice without a guiding sense of justice.
It’s true enough that through eight years of the Obama presidency, realism in deed (if not in speech) received a second hearing. And insofar as Trump’s National Security Strategy provides a blueprint for his administration’s strategic outlook, it is notably unadorned with the kind of idealistic language that Nitze channeled in his day.
But those who have fought the tides of American strategic tradition have repeatedly failed. “He kept us out of war!” has not been a slogan that has long resonated with Americans. “First in war, first in peace” rings more true. Confronted with the crises of world politics and, in particular, the prospects of a hostile hegemon in Eurasia, the Empire of Liberty has roused itself again and again to reform and restore, to defy external annoyance and be guided by justice. It will happen again. Bet on it.