Immigrant Intellectuals and American Grand Strategy
Is 19th-century European thinking shaping 21st-century U.S. foreign policy?
April 4, 2003
From the Napoleonic Era until World War I, the United States had its own distinctive mainstream foreign policy tradition. Call it the "American School" of foreign policy.
This American School reflected the values of the United States as the world's first large-scale democratic republic — and its global interests as a civilian, commercial power.
From Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Americans hoped for the replacement of a world based on a few empires by a world of many nation-states with republican governments. The underlying idea was that all nations would cooperate voluntarily with one another to promote the international rule of law.
Many famous incidents from U.S. history illustrate how important this goal was. The Monroe Doctrine was the first great U.S. declaration of principle in the international arena. It required the exclusion of European empires from Latin America. That would prevent (so the U.S. hoped) the arbitrary recolonization of the region by European empires.
Over 50 years later, the "Open Door" policy was the unique U.S. response to China's 19th century weakness. Europe's powers raced to carve China into spheres of influence. But the United States declared its preference for a China that treated all foreign firms and countries equally — according to the same rules.
Most impressively, the Atlantic Charter — the key document setting out Allied war aims in World War II — emphasized the importance of rules-based methods to resolve international conflict. Such rules would apply to all countries. And the United States actively supported the charter at a time when its power was at a zenith.
In the traditional U.S. vision, empires would be replaced by nation-states. And that would be paralleled by the replacement of imperial trading blocks by a single integrated global economy.
It might be a global free market (that is what 19th century Americans would have expected). Or it might be a managed global New Deal, the vision behind the institutions the United States created after World War II.
In either of these visions, however, the liberal great powers would have the responsibility to enforce international norms. But they would not have the right to create their own empires.
The American School was the mainstream grand strategy of the United States. Within the United States, it was challenged only by a minority tradition of racist imperialism.
In the 1840s and 1850s, many Southern leaders, rejecting the ideals of 1776, preached racial hierarchy as a rationale for the planned conversion of Cuba, Haiti, parts of Mexico and Central America into new slaves states.
The victory of the North in the Civil War put an end to that plan. America’s imperial concepts revived briefly around 1900. But after the Spanish-American war, public opinion turned against it. The civilian, commerce-minded American establishment preferred "dollar diplomacy" to territorial conquest.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, a new school of foreign policy took root in the United States. It was a transplant from 19th century Europe.
Its founders were émigré intellectuals like Nicholas Spykman, Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger (in his early days as a professor), all of whom had fled Europe in the 1930s.
These Central European academics contemptuously swept aside the old field of "diplomatic history," which had kept the memory of the historic U.S. foreign policy tradition alive.
Diplomatic history was replaced by the new field of "international relations" — which itself represented an updated version of 19th-century continental European Realpolitik.
As a result, several generations of U.S. students of international relations — I was one — were taught to admire the strategic wisdom of Central European autocrats.
It was only natural that, as policymakers, these Central European realists like Kissinger and Brzezinski would interpret the world through the lenses of Bismarckian and Metternichian Realpolitik.
Because 19th-century Europe had been multipolar, Henry Kissinger identified the world of the 1970s as multipolar. Like others in the Central European tradition, he dismissed concepts rooted in competing international law and morality as sentimental.
Foreign policy had to be based on what Bismarck called "Eisen und Blut," iron and blood.
Brzezinski, for his part, was given to elaborate geopolitical theories, identifying an "arc of crisis" in the Middle East and a "grand chessboard."
This kind of geographic determinism — like Kissinger's multipolar, balance-of-power realism — was part of the Central European intellectual tradition.
The influence of the Central European émigré professors and policymakers on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy took off rapidly in the 1960s — and came to a close only in the late 1980s.
While their pessimistic Realpolitik seemed well-suited to the second half of the Cold War era, it simply became anachronistic after 1989. The influence of the Central European diaspora also declined as its leading thinkers lost their government posts, retired — or died.
In the 1990s, though, a new intellectual diaspora replaced the previously prominent Central European realist school in interpreting — and guiding — U.S. foreign policy.
While many native-born Americans support this approach, many of the most ardent proponents of a new American "empire" first in the Middle East — and then the world — are émigrés from the former British Commonwealth and Empire.
They include present and former Canadians (such as the journalists Charles Krauthammer and Michael Ignatieff), and Britons such as Paul Johnson — and the editors of The Economist, a magazine which is based in London — but is focused on its large U.S. audience.
There are important differences between this generation of immigrants and their predecessors. After all, the institutional base of the Central European realists was the university: Messrs. Morgenthau, Kissinger and Brzezinski were all professors. The institutional base of the new British Commonwealth Imperialists is the media.
Two media empires — those of the Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox TV and the Weekly Standard, and that of Conrad Black, publisher of the Canadian Post, the Jerusalem Post and the U.S. quarterly The National Interest — are busy pumping out articles.
The goal of the new British Commonwealth Imperialists is to showcase pundits praising the old British empire — and call on the United States to emulate the Pax Britannica in the Middle East and the world.
True, not all of the neo-British imperialists in the United States are from British Dominions or former colonies. But they are all Anglophiles who see Imperial Britain in the 1900s as the model for Imperial America in the 2000s.
Max Boot, a Russian émigré and former Wall Street Journal Editor who has emerged as a leading neo-imperialist ideologue, entitled his book "The Savage Wars of Peace." It is a polemic in favor of American neo-colonialism, modeled after Rupert Kipling's poem praising white racist imperialism, "The White Man's Burden."
Evidently, both groups of immigrants also have their heroes — but quite different ones. The heroes of the Central European diaspora intellectuals shaping U.S. foreign policy in recent decades were stern, but rational autocrats like Metternich and Bismarck. Metternich, in fact, is the hero of Kissinger's historical treatise about 19th-century Europe, The World Restored.
The hero of the contemporary wave of neo-British U.S. imperialists is Winston Churchill. Mind you, not the old Churchill who resisted Hitler. But rather, the young Churchill who wrote ecstatically about people machine-gunning Africans in service of the British empire.
Exhibiting an enthusiasm for British imperialism that would have disgusted American critics of British imperialism like Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, Max Boot has written:
"Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets."
The tone of the Central European realists was somber, rational — and academic. In contrast, the neo-British imperialists in the United States prefer purple prose, much like their hero — the young Churchill.
Quite frequently, though, they strike a chest-thumping, heroic Churchillian pose. It is at those moments that they lapse into absurdity — as did the father-son team of Donald and Frederick W. Kagan in their 2000 book "While America Sleeps."
In that tome, they compared the contemporary United States to Britain in 1939 — with the role of Nazi Germany played today by China, which is alleged to be on the verge of conquering the world.
In my view, the Central Europeans' attempt to apply the rules of the 19th-century central European balance of power to U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s was a failure.
Yes, the United States won the Cold War. But that happened in spite of the theories of Kissinger and Brzezinski — not because of them.
And today's anachronistic revival of British imperial statecraft by U.S. immigrants from Britain and the British dominions and colonies, along with their American-born allies, will prove to be an even more embarrassing flop.
We live in an age in which American principles — democratic government, national self-determination and industrial capitalism — are eagerly adopted, even by people who dislike American policies. Given that trend, it is folly for the United States to ignore its own successful 200-year foreign policy tradition — and to model its strategy on that of the Habsburg Empire or Imperial Britain.
Instead of sneering at notions like human rights and national self-determination as na
Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program, New America Foundation Michael Lind is Policy Director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program. He co-founded the New America Foundation with Ted Halstead and Sherle Schwenninger, and was the first New America fellow. Mr. Lind has taught at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University and writes […]
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