Remembered pictures, scenes, objects from childhood sometimes give us clues as to our way of thinking, as to the questions that keep haunting us. The small town where I grew up had, in those days, a single dancing locale, which was, on Saturday evenings, the meeting place for the young, the not so young, and visitors. Among those were American GIs, whose campment was hidden in the dark pine forests, planted in the Second Empire, that surrounded the town. There they would stay until, in 1967, De Gaulle, in a spirit of national independence, withdrew the French military from the joint command of NATO, and sent SHAPE packing from their palatial abode in Fontainebleau to Brussels.
In my childhood, my friends and I looked at those tall and strangely spoken gum-chewing fellows, riding their huge trucks and noisy jeeps, as we wondered who they really were, and what they were (still) doing there. Particularly entertaining were Saturday nights, when I was allowed out a little late, as we witnessed the Military Police, helmetted and brassarded, collecting the bodies of recalcitrant or far too-drunk-to-move GIs. Everyone was well behaved, and only occasionally the MPs used their long truncheons to calmly herd the unruly. Especially well-behaved were the chaps of the Combat Engineers battalion, stationed within the US campus, all black soldiers, and seggregated as was then the entire US army. These men had seen real combat in Germany, and were, for us, a subject of amazement and deep interest. They were even taller than the others, always impeccably dressed in their strange uniforms, and among them were, mysteriously, very good French speakers. During the frequent maneuvres, their GMCs crossed villages and country roads, gratifying the local urshins with oranges, various sweets and the highly valued gum. My childhood impressions of the US military presence were benevolence and gigantism.
These days have long gone, but the childish questions, after several decades, have remained, transformed by adulthood, experience, and the flow of history:
- What were the American troops still doing in Europe, more than a decade after the end of the war?
- What are they still doing here now, thirty years after the end of the Cold War?
- How is it that US Foreign Policy appears, at least since 1945, to have been unchanged, through wars and cataclysms, irrespective of whose majority holds Congress, and which president sits in the White House?
(Image: Par Fab5669 — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32658017)
The puzzle of Empire
I had read in Arrighi that the Vietnam war had been the “signal crisis” of American hegemony. However it took me until 2006, the publishing date of The Peace of Illusions, American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present, to gather some of the main pieces of the puzzle. The author, Christopher Layne, is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
Mr Layne explains in his book the rationale for the Post-World War II US Hegemony in Europe, and in Eurasia, and hence America’s role in the world. This is a work of thorough academic-historical research, unbiased by ideology. Mr Layne is a realist, who unravels the causes, motivations and consequential costs of the US hegemonic strategy. In the following the emphasis is mine (except in bold) :
Since the early 1940s, the United States has pursued a grand strategy of extraregional hegemony. From the standpoint of neorealist theory, this is puzzling. The historical record shows that hegemonic grand strategies invariably have proved self-defeating, because they result in counterhegemonic balancing and/or imperial overstretch […] The puzzle is explained partially by the fact that America’s geostrategic position in the international system is sui generis. Unlike Europe’s great powers – which could attain security only by establishing hegemony on the Continent – the United States has not needed to seek security through extraregional hegemony. Because of military capabilities and geography, since its emergence as a great power, the United States has been extraordinarily secure. Moreover, before 1945 America’s security was bolstered by the fact that Europe’s great powers had to focus their strategic attention on threats close to home and were unable, therefore, to build up the power projection capabilities to seek extraregional hegemony.
Unlike Europe, the Western Hemisphere was a power vacuum rather than a multipolar system, which allowed the United States to attain regional hegemony. America’s uniques status as the only regional hegemon in the international system was a launching pad for US pursuit of extraregional hegemony. The stopping power of water did not prevent the United States from extending its hegemony to Western Europe after Word War II. Combined with military capabilities, water (or, more correctly, geography) often is a barrier to great power expansion, because it is difficult to project great power over long distances. However, the “stopping power of water” is not an ironclad rule. As America’s experience demonstrates, distance is not invariably an insurmontable obstacle to the attainment of extraregional hegemony. The United States was able to establish its extraregional hegemony on the Continent after World War II because Western Europe was a power vacuum, the United States had overwhelming military capabilities, and it was the beneficiary of sheer good luck (the war ended with a massive US military presence on the Continent.
Thus Layne explains how the US pursuit of hegemony, outside its natural sphere of influence (the Western Hemisphere), at the end of Word War II was possible. This is no surprise: with the Soviet Union, England and all West European countries on their knees, the vacuum was economic, human and military. By comparison the US were an economic and military superpower, without competitors. But why pursuing hegemony?
If security did not drive America’s postwar pursuit of extraregional hegemony, what did? That question is best answered by extraregional hegemony theory, a neoclassical realist theory of US grand strategy. After World War II, the presence of American military power in Europe, the shift in the distribution of power between the United States and Europe in America’s favor as a result of the war, and America’s hard power capabilities provided the opportunity and means for the United States to seek hegemony in Western Europe. But what were the motivations animating US grand strategy? The answer is found at the domestic level: the economic and political Open Doors – in other words, America’s liberal (Wilsonian) ideology – caused the United States to seek hegemony.
The Open Doors is a complex set of linkages among economic and political (ideological) openness abroad, America’s prosperity, and the security of its core values domestically. Since World War II, the Open Doors has reflected what present-day US policymakers call the virtuous circle (which is based on circular logic): international economic openness and the spread of Americam ideology abroad create peace and security for the United States, and the US military presence in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East creates the conditions that allow for international economic openness and the spread of American ideology. By the same token , the Open Doors posits that closure abroad – either economic or ideological – would endanger the safety of America’s core values at home by forcing the United States to adopt regimented economic policies and to become a garrison state. In essence, the Open Doors substituted an open-ended, ideological, and de-territorialized definition of American security for a more traditional conception of security based on the international system’s distribution of power. That is, it divorced the concept of security from defense of the American Homeland and, instead, ultimately defined security ideationally […]
The Open Doors posits that the United States can be secure – that its domestic political and economic system can survive – only if it enjoys absolute security. Unsurprisingly, therefore, even as World War II was still being fought, US postwar planners had concluded that the United States needed to aim for unipolarity. To this end, Washington used its economic leverage to reduce Britain to an adjunct to American power and its military muscle to ensure Germany and Japan never again could reemerge as great powers. During the late 1940s and the 1950s, US policy makers also aspire to eliminate the Soviet Union as a great power by fomenting internal dissention and “rolling back” the Soviet empire in East Central Europe. However, this aspiration – which never entirely disappeared as an element in America’s cold war strategy toward the Soviet Union – ran up against the harsh realities of the nuclear revolution, and its realization had to be deferred.
Thus, I finally uncovered the truth about the continued presence of American forces, and the ideology that fired US hegemonic ambitions since the 1940s. Layne’s analysis also clarifies the reasons for the peculiar predicament of the European Union.
Postwar US grand strategy toward Western Europe was based on the perception that America’s prosperity and its domestic political stability were linked inextricably to an open Western Europe and that, by fostering peace, an open international economic system would contribute to US security. US policymakers believed that economic openness could not take root in Western Europe if the Continent reverted to multipolar power politics. In this respect, America’s postwar Western European grand strategy was neither cold war-driven nor counterhegemonic. The aims of that strategy had been decided on even before World War II had ended, and they required the United States to establish its own hegemony on the Continent. As the cold war unfolded, it was superimposed on this preexisting grand strategic foundation. Even if there had been no Soviet threat, the United States would have maintained a permanent military presence in Western Europe, because the attainment of its economic Open Doors aims compelled it to act as Western Europe’s stabilizer (or “pacifier”) to keep the Western Europeans – especially the French and the Germans – from being at each other’s throats.
The United States also wanted to make certain that Western Europe did not emerge as an independent pole of power – a “third force” – in the international system. Thus the United States had to keep the Western Europeans together economically but apart strategically to prevent them from coalescing and contesting US hegemony. Hence, the United States promoted Western European integration to “de-nationalize” the foreign and security policies of the Western European states, and it established its hegemony on the Continent to subordinate the Western Europeans to American leadership in the realms of “high politics”. The most important piece of evidence supporting this explanation is the fact that although the cold war ended some fifteen years ago [Layne writes c. 2005], the United States has not given up its hegemonic role on the Continent and has opposed the European Union’s emergence as an independent strategic pole of power in the international system […]
By many measures, America’s grand strategy from 1945 to 1991 indeed was successful – but not without a price. Not only did US postwar grand strategy impose great costs – and serious risks – on the United States, but the cold war obscured from view America’s underlying hegemonic ambitions and the costs of pursuing them. Some of these costs are tangible, measured in the opportunity cost of trillions of dollars diverted from other – arguably more economically productive and socially benefitial – uses to pursuing US global ambitions […] Other costs were more subtle: the expansion of state power, the accretion 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. Ironically, US officials claimed that America’s post-World War II grand strategy would prevent the United States from becoming a garrison state. Instead, the United States became […] a national security state – a point made by Eisenhower when he warned of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex”.
Image: The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, destroyer Russell and cruiser Bunker Hill conduct routine operations in the eastern Pacific Ocean. (MC2 Anthony Rivera/U.S. Navy) – source
The dominant elites
Why has the United States stuck so long with its hegemonic strategy? Were US policymakers foolish, or were they willfully indifferent to the burdens placed on the United States by its grand strategy? The answer is both complex (a topic worthy of a book in its own right) and yet simple. In his book Myths of Empire, Jack Snyder talks about elites “highjacking” the state. This fails to make the point quite strongly enough. Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state. The United States has pursued hegemony because that grand strategy has 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 what Thomas Ferguson calls “multinational liberalism” [“From Normalcy to New Deal“, 1984]. At the core of the multinational liberal coalition were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks. This coalition displaced the so-called system of 1896, which was organized around labor-intensive industries that favored economic nationalism and opposed strategic internationalism.
The multinational liberal coalition that cemented its hold on power during the New Deal had its roots deep in the Eastern establishment; it also included the national media, important foundations, the big Wall Street law firms, and organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations. This coalition favored economic and political Open Doors and the strategic internationalism that accompanied them. Although the bipartisan consensus among the US foreign policy establishment favoring strategic internationalism and US hegmony that was forged some six decades ago has occasionally been tested – notably during the Vietnam War – it has proved remarkably durable. 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.
Layne concludes his analysis by considering if and how the United States could distance itself from its hegemonic grand strategy in order to preserve its own interests. We are now reading The Peace of Illusions fifteen years after its publication. In this “modest search for truth”, we accept that it provides a very clear and convincing demonstration as to why US foreign policy appears to have been constant, since the 1940s, in its pursuit for global dominance and hegemony. Yet some questions remain unresolved (emphasis mine).
In Thomas Ferguson paper, quoted by Layne, its author intends to “outline the major elements of the coalition that triumphantly came together during and after Roosevelt Second New Deal – the coalition that, in its successive mutations, dominated American politics until Jimmy Carter […] I sketch the systematic, patterned disintegration of the System of 1896 and the simultaneous emergence of another New Deal bloc, whose interests and ideology shaped what can conveniently be termed ‘multinational liberalism'” The full title of Ferguson’s 1984 essay is “From Normalcy to New Deal: industrial structure, party competition, and American public policy in the Great Depression”. Did Ferguson mean that the “coalition” ceased to be dominant under, or after, the Carter presidency, or that its objectives, and hence American politics, then changed and took another direction?
Yet Layne asserts, in 2005, that no such change ever took place:
It is often said, with respect to US grand strategy, that the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington DC, “changed everything”. But they did not. After 9/11 – as before – geopolitical dominance has been the ambition of the United States. If anything, 9/11 gave Bush II administration’s “hegemonists” a convenient – indeed, almost providential – rationale for implementing policies they would have wanted to pursue in any event, including “regime change” in Iraq (and possibly Iran); the projection of US power into the Middle East and Central Asia; a massive five-year defense buildup […] and a nuclear strategy that aims at attaining meaningful nuclear superiority over peer competitiors and simultaneously ensuring that regional powers cannot develop the capacity to deter US military intervention abroad. In short, the Bush II administration has sought security by expanding US power and pursuing hegemony. In this respect it has stayed on – not left – the grand strategic path followed by the United States since the early 1940s.
In considering the merits of Layne’s arguments, some fifteen years later, one must observe that, judging by results, the main outcomes of the Bush II administration’s – and its successors’ – initiatives in Central Asia and the Middle East, appear now to be opposite to the grand strategic aims. While the global US military presence, the expansion of NATO, and the bloated defense budget, public and hidden, remain constants of American foreign policy, the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos imposed a heavy cost on American credibility and influence, a blow to the hegemonic ambition. If Vietnam was America’s hegemon “signal crisis”, according to Arrighi, was the second Iraq war not an ignominous sign of its decline? Is this the inevitable result of the “self-defeating” grand strategy?
Especially in the Middle East, the US lost friends, failed to succeed in their regime change ambition in Syria (assuming regime change was the objective), and, worst of all, was unable to prevent the armed intrusion, in Syria, at the heart of this most strategic area, of a dreaded “regional power”, the Russian Federation. It must be legitimate to ask who really benefited from the “providential” events of 2001 and the actions of the Bush II “hegemonists”.
In the following posts we will investigate the apparent contradictions of the grand strategy in recent history, as well as attempt to answer this last question: who benefited? To achieve this we will have to look back at some of the influences that may have inflected US foreign policy and its actors.
For a European left critic of Christopher Layne’s book, see “A Radical Realist“.
A modest search for truth – 3 >>