Cold War, foreign policy establishment, geopolitics, grand strategy, Great Britain, interventionism, nuclear weapons, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, U.S. foreign policy, Walter Lippmann, World War II
As winter, 2014-15 approaches, the United States finds itself
>struggling to avert another 9-11-type attack by fighting a half-hearted campaign in the Middle East that even hawks fear could last decades;
>slowly getting drawn into a potentially terrifying game of chicken in the skies over Europe with a nuclear-armed Russia:
>tying itself up in knots over protecting the public from an Africa-born disease;
>trapped in a strategy of fighting nuclear wars to defend protectionist Asian powers that have decimated its productive economy; and
>heavily reliant on foreign powers – friendly and otherwise – for everything from energy to industrial machinery to credit itself.
Nor are these predicaments at all exceptional over a period spanning decades. Both Democratic and Republican presidents have plunged the nation into military ventures in countries as far-flung and as poor and weak as Vietnam, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia, and fought proxy wars in equally peripheral Cental America and Angola. The United States has been so completely addicted to foreign, and therefore Middle East, oil for so long that it has preferred military intervention in this distant, politically dysfunctional, and deeply anti-American region rather than developing home-grown alternatives. Meanwhile, domestic and international deficits, along with debt-led growth, have been economic constants for the immensely wealthy American economy since the early 1970s.
Yet despite these vulnerabilities and dependencies, this same United States remains located thousands of miles from its greatest potential adversaries. As a result, it remains fully capable of deterring any form of attack on its own territory and of controlling its borders, and is still endowed with nearly all the human and material resources to prosper through its own efforts and devices.
Of course, any strategic disconnect this massive, costly, dangerous, and long-lasting owes to numerous culprits. But I’d like to add a name that’s probably found on few, if any lists: Walter Lippmann. I know that I’ve probably startled anyone who’s just read that sentence and knows a thing or two about modern U.S. foreign policy. The great journalist, philosopher, and advisor to presidents and numerous other leading politicians from the 1910s through his death in 1974 is usually regarded as a founding father of realist thinking in American diplomacy.
In so many ways Lippmann deserves this reputation. His main contribution to the cause of sound foreign policymaking was his observation that the indispensable ingredient for preserving security and other vital goals was bringing a nation’s power into a sustainable balance with its commitments, and maintaining this balance.
All the same, I also hold Lippmann uniquely responsible for the conviction held by of all wings of the nation’s foreign policy establishment that, despite the clearest lessons of geography and history, America is exquisitely sensitive to all manner of events all over the world. In his seminal 1943 book, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, Lippmann told his countrymen that they were tragically and dangerously mistaken in viewing the United States as a continent-sized nation with game-changing advantages like multi-thousand mile wide ocean barriers and a treasure trove of minerals.
Instead, according to this supposedly quintessential diplomatic pragmatist, the United States is an island. And not just the United States. The entire Western Hemisphere is an island. It floats in “an immense oceanic lake of which the other great powers control the shores.” As a result, both North and South America are as totally at the mercy of potential aggressors from the rest of the world as other islands like the Philippines and Australia.
Lippmann argued that America’s potential enemies on the world lake shore enjoy an unbeatable combination of geographic advantage, boast combined military potential far greater than America’s, and in an age of long-range air power, are located much closer in strategic terms than his complacent countrymen realized.
Two related policy imperatives flowed from Lippmann’s analysis. First, Americans can not achieve adequate levels of security simply through a strategy of “passive defense” of the Western Hemisphere. In the new age of intercontinental air power in particular, they need to prevent the control by hostile or possibly hostile forces of “all the trans-oceanic lands from which an attack by sea or by air can be launched.” (Emphasis added.) Second, because the global power balance would always be so unfavorable, the nation needs “dependable” allies and must actively cooperate with them in creating and maintaining strategic parity or superiority.
In fairness to Lippmann, he did not portray America’s choice as either active global engagement or military defeat. The likeliest consequence of relying on passive defense, he seemed to believe, would be “remaining in an advanced stage of mobilization” similar to that toward which the nation was moving in the early post-Pearl Harbor years when he was writing. At the same time, the author made clear his grave doubts both on economic and military grounds that this approach could succeed for any significant stretch of time.
In fairness also, Lippmann can not be faulted for failing to foresee the creation of nuclear weapons and especially platforms with intercontinental range – which in sufficient numbers simply take off the table the threat of conventional attack on America. After all, how many minutes would an enemy invasion fleet be at sea – assuming it could even set sail – before it would be wiped out by U.S. nuclear-tipped missiles? And even before the atomic age, an airborne invasion force would have required enemies to control a hopelessly huge amount of airspace.
Nonetheless, there’s no sign that the advent of nuclear weapons changed Lippmann’s thinking significantly. Much more important, his fundamental island analysis not only survived, but unmistakably contained the seeds of the global containment strategy eventually adopted following World War II.
Why did the island analysis not only remain in favor, but become hugely more popular once the nuclear age arrived? My sense is that it’s for much the same reason that it occurred to Lippmann in the first place: the almost complete extent to which the overlapping American political, economic and social establishments in the first half of the 20th century – and the national foreign policy establishment it spawned – identified with Britain.
It’s widely accepted that the perceived affinity with Britain – which in turn reflected numerous actual family ties as well as broader shared English heritage – was so intensely felt that it produced not only common political, cultural, and social values, but common views on foreign policy goals and global missions. But I suspect this affinity also shaped perceptions of America’s strategic circumstances.
That is, in those decisive early Cold War years, America’s foreign policy mandarins so closely identified with Britain that they considered their own gargantuan, naturally wealthy, remote country to be comparable geopolitically with a small, resource-poor nation located 20 miles from countries that had historically been deadly enemies. They were incapable of recognizing that if, in some technical sense, the Western Hemisphere is an island, it’s one that extends from pole to pole – and that, combined with the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, it enjoys what some international relations scholars call existential security.
More recently, of course, the foreign policy establishment has become far more diverse in every conceivable way. Yet its members remain as instinctively interventionist as ever, differing at best on specific modes and tactics, not on the more fundamental need to engage and on the alleged impossibility of qualitative alternatives. These views, moreover, are wholeheartedly accepted by the media organizations that tightly control the nation’s foreign policy debate, and thus at least implicitly decide which ideas are acceptable and which are taboo. As a result, the only reasonable forecast for U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future is more needless cost, danger, and dependence, and zero fresh thought from practitioners and even America’s most prominent strategists.
Good narrative.. connecting the dots well
Alan Tonelson said:
Thanks so much! The Lippmann book really is worth reading. He’s a terrific writer and logical thinker. But everyone has their blindspots and his was massive and, I believe, as influential as it was damaging.
Where would you weave the other monstrously influential pair Kissinger/Nixon
Alan Tonelson said:
Thanks for the excellent question! In so many ways, Nixon and Kissinger were among those who most faithfully reflected Lippmann’s views. On the one hand, they styled themselves hard-headed realists who fully understood the role played by power and geopolitics in international relations — as opposed to their liberal critics, in particular, who they believed understood none of this. On the other hand, like Lippmann, they had no apparent appreciation of America’s inherent strengths and incredibly favorable geopolitical position. In addition, it’s quite possible that Nixon and Kissinger knew well of Lippmann’s views — since the latter was still extremely influential in the late-1960s, and indeed endorsed Nixon in 1968 in the belief that he could end the Vietnam War quickest.