Christopher Layne

Supremacy, and delusion

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In his 2006 seminal opus, titled “The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present“, Christopher Layne, 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, exposes the fallacies of a US foreign policy continued through all administrations since before the onset of WWII. “Does the United States need to pursue hegemony to gain security (offensive realism), or should it be an offshore balancer (defensive realism)?” asks Layne in the first chapter of the book. 205 pages later the reader is clear for the reasons, the logic, and the illusions. The successive US administrations have sought to maintain hegemony, especially through military supremacy, in order to maintain the “Open Doors” dogmatic strategy, the right to influence, exploit, preserve the US worldview, its corporate interests, the influence of its culture, and above all, prevent its isolation. Wayne concludes: ” 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.”

We now know that this change could not be brought about, neither by the 2008 financial crisis, nor by the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. In the meantime, NATO’s enlargement to the former Warsaw Pact’s countries and encirclement of the Russian Federation, backed by relentless economic sanctions, have brought Europe and the world to the brink of war. As observed by John Helmer, in a post reviewing Tariq Ali’s book on “Lenin’s Dilemmas“, the  military situation now is analogous to that of 1922, when western armies encircled the young Soviet Union. But this is a different Russia, and the Soviet Union is no more.

The perspective presented by Andrei Martyanov‘s “Losing Military Supremacy: the Myopia of American Strategic Planning“, in many ways confirms Layne’s analysis, and draws the conclusion further. According to Martyanov, the American elites and their allies are about to experience a brutal awakening. Whereas, in the West, there is no shortage of literature about the Soviet, and now, Russian “threat” and agression (inclusive of “Russian military deception“), Martyanov explains that in the last decades, in parallel with the financialisation of western, particularly anglo-saxon, economies, real expertise in Russian real power has disappeared. In the present circumstances, and since WWII, the reference line is on military power. Martyanov blames the decay of the US education system, undermined by the fictitious, as opposed to real, economy, the disappearance of diplomacy in the classical sense, for delusions going back to a Hollywood interpretation of the victory over Nazi Germany in WWII by Pattonesque generals and politicians, as well as the so-called “victory” in the Cold War. He quotes distinguished US officers in the Navy and Intelligence who anticipated and deplored these developments: deluded elites relying on pseudo expertise by unqualified individuals without the prerequisite knowledge and understanding. As a result, political miscalculations – the Kiev putsch, the destruction of Libya, terrorism in Iraq and Syria, Iran sanctions etc. –  are a real threat to peace. The Russian economy is underestimated – for if GDP has been historically a measure of real power, its value in de-industrialised economies based on (particularly financial) services are of no relevance to a comparison of military power. Yet, policy decisions continue to be made in Washington, and elsewhere, based on a gross underestimate of Russian real military power. The evidence is there to be seen, beyond the veil of fake news and increasingly absurd claims, in the Ukraine, in the Middle-East, in the Pacific. Martyanov identifies long range and hypersonic missile technology, electronic countermeasures, submarine warfare and air-defences, among others, where it is claimed, Russia has now a lead over the US.

Some observers have for some time concluded that Russia, and China, are now preparing for war. On the day when more war-mongers have just been elected to the US Congress, I, for one, cannot blame them.

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“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