“The Peace of Illusions, American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present” – Christopher Layne

We are defending a way of life and must be respectful of it as we proceed in our problem of building up strength, not only as not to violate its principles and precepts, but also not to destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.” –  Pdt. Dwight Eisenhower, North Atlantic Council Meeting, April 24, 1953

Among precautions against ambitions, it may not be amiss to take one precaution against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded… It is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men we shall never wish to aggrandise ourselves in some way or other… we may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.” – Edmund Burke, “Remarks on the Policy of the Allies with Respect to France”, 1791

Edmund BurkeIn his compelling study of “American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers” Perry Anderson observes that “At every stage of American imperial expansion, from the nineteenth century onwards, there was a scattering of eloquent voices of domestic opposition, without echo in the political system. Strikingly, virtually everyone of the most powerful critiques of the new course of empire came from writers of a conservative, not radical, background… Christopher Layne, holder of the Robert Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security at the George Bush School of Government and Public Services at Texas A&M, has developed the most trenchant realist critique of the overall arc of American action from the Second World War into and after the Cold War – a fundamental work.”

We believe that for any serious student of American Foreign Policy, this work has its place next to Nicholas Spykman’s “America’s Strategy in World Politics”, Schurmann’s “The Logic of World Power”, Arrighi’s “The Long Twentieth Century”, and Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. In two hundred pages of densely researched analysis, Mr. Layne deconstructs the logic of a US foreign policy born from Wilsonian ideology, in the aftermath of the Great War, and from the unmovable belief in the economic and political necessity of the “Open Door”. The latter “posits that closure abroad – either economic or ideological – would endanger the safety of America’s core values by forcing the United States to adopt regimented economic policies and to become a garrison state.” The book is, fundamentally, about US hegemony. Its conclusion is that, since the early 1940s, the US has pursue a grand strategy of extra regional hegemony which, as many others in history, will prove self-defeating, as they result in “counter hegemonic balancing and imperial overstretch”.

To my generation, born in the decade that followed WWII, the overwhelming political reality of our world was the Cold War. By contrast, Layne shows that, despite their role in US foreign policy, the Cold War and the Soviet “threat”, were, strategically, secondary, and far more relevant to Western European would-be great powers, inasmuch as that perceived threat made Europe more willing (less unwilling?) to accept American continued dominance, well after it had recovered from the war. The bipolar world that prevailed from 1945 until 1991, and the implosion of the USSR, did not determine US policy but hegemonic ambition and the Open Door imperative did. The evidence is clear to see today: the fall of the USSR, and thus the disappearance of the “Soviet threat”, have left US policy unchanged, NATO bigger than ever, and a massive US military presence in East Asia, central Europe and the Middle East. Since 1991, wars have been fought, at enormous costs, in order to maintain US hegemony and control (aka “protection”) of its “allies”.

One of the risks Layne identifies in current US policy, for America itself, is that of being drawn into Eurasian conflicts, in the name of its client states (South-Korea, Japan, the new NATO members in central Europe) which he considers to be secondary to American interests. On the nature of US strategic interests, it is only in the conclusion, that Layne touches on the complex subject of who really profits from current policies, given the catastrophic impact of those policies on the US economy and indebtedness. The present ideology has transformed the US, if not in a garrison state, but a national security state, characterised by “the expansion of state power, the accretion of power in the imperial presidency (and the concomitant diminution of congressional authority in the realm of foreign affairs), the decay of traditional social institutions, and a general coarsening of public discourse.”

“Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state. The United States has pursued hegemony because that grand strategy’s served the interests of the dominant elites that have formed the core of the US foreign policy establishment since at least the late 1930s, when the New Deal resulted  in the domestic political triumph of… “multinational liberalism”. At the core of the multinational liberal coalition were the large capital-intensive corporations that looked at overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks.” What chance has the alternative strategy, offshore balancing and a gradual withdraw of the US military presence in Eurasia and the Middle-East, advocated by Layne and the modern days realists?

“Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion, as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy. It probably will take a major domestic political realignment – perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis at home – to bring about a change in American grand strategy.”

Image: “EdmundBurke1771” by Joshua Reynolds – National Portrait Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EdmundBurke1771.jpg#/media/File:EdmundBurke1771.jpg

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