The Proud Tradition of American Hegemony

03.31.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | National Affairs | 2 Comments
Economics may be the dismal science, but history is the ugliest. More often than not it's a catalogue of betrayals and failures, a litany of human weaknesses. But its study moors us to the past, making the present less strange and alien. Consider the Bush doctrine of unilateral preemption in the service of hegemony in light of not only where we are as a nation but also where we're going, again.

Eminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis's new "Surprise, Security, and the American Experience," culled from a series of lectures delivered shortly after 9/11, places that singular ambush in the context of earlier surprise attacks on America. Both Pearl Harbor and the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812 led to an expansion of American interests and responsibilities predicated on ensuring the nation's safety.

Gaddis names the easy destruction of Washington on August 22nd, 1814, as the signal defeat that impressed upon the young republic the lesson that it could not depend solely on its geographic isolation from the European powers for its security. Instead the Monroe doctrine, formulated by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, took a far more aggressive stance toward security issues. The doctrine's core components -- preemption, unilateralism and hegemony -- are the same as in the Bush doctrine, which many critics have excoriated as un-American; in fact, Gaddis points out, these have been a priori principles of American strategic thinking for nearly two centuries.

The first of these principles, preemption, saw explicit realization with General Andrew Jackson's invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818, a reaction to the widespread banditry based in what had become a lawless failed state. Risking war with Spain and Great Britain (due to the summary execution of bandit chiefs who were also British citizens), Monroe's gamble paid off handsomely, as America both acquired a large new territory and undermined a European rival in the process.

The doctrine of preemption saw still greater realization in the reasoning that precipitated the Mexican-American War. Concerned that the newly independent Republic of Texas would not be able to sustain its sovereignty and would fall prey to the machinations of European colonizers, President Polk provoked a war against a weakened Mexico, usurping that nation's territory in Texas and California and absorbing it into the American fold.

Unilateralism, preemption's cousin, helped protect American sovereignty by discouraging unequal partnerships with more powerful states, even when interests happened to coincide. The most amusing example of this must be President Monroe's declaration that European influence would not be tolerated anywhere in the Western hemisphere, a bold position made possible by British warships but never explicitly avowed so as not to, in Adams's words, "come in as a cock-boat in the wake of the British man-of-war." This allergy to explicit longstanding alliances lasted into the dawn of the short Twentieth Century, when Woodrow Wilson fought alongside his European partners as an "associate," not an "allied" power.

The model of classic isolationism was to last until the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, after which Roosevelt realized, like his nineteenth-century predecessors, that furthering the cause of a secure United States required the expansion of responsibilities, not the contraction of national interests. Roosevelt, though, threw out the old script of strict unilateralism, replacing it with a pursuit of near-global hegemony. In forming what would become permanent alliances, Roosevelt set the stage for what would become domination by consent, not the raw force employed by his Fascist and Communist counterparts. Preemption too saw similar mutations; seeking to maneuver the Japanese into aggressing, Roosevelt cut off shipments of oil to Japan, causing its campaign in Manchuria to grind to a halt. To continue its assaults on China and Korea meant taking oil reserves by force from the Philippines, which in turn necessitated the destruction of the Pacific fleet docked at Pearl Harbor. While Pearl Harbor was an intelligence disaster on par with 9/11, it was also the result of Roosevelt's policies that ultimately gave the United States a moral (and political) mandate to mobilize for global conflict.

Following the surrender of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, Roosevelt and Churchill were left with the question of how best to handle Stalin, who made it no secret that he would extend his influence as far as his armies could take him. While Churchill desired an explicitly military response in keeping with his nineteenth-century colonial mindset, Roosevelt took a softer and more nuanced approach. Gaddis points out that Roosevelt understood that civilization simply could not stomach another large-scale conflict nor would initiating hostilities, "firing the first shot" as it were, be morally or politically acceptable. Offering the U.S.S.R. and its satellite states aid under the Marshall Plan, knowing full well it wouldn't be accepted, cast Stalin as the heavy and led him to begin building the walls behind which he could be contained.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the United States' emergence as the world's unopposed superpower led to a general complacency concerning the state system. Despite the seemingly endless fracturing brought on by nationalistic claims to self-determination on the part of rival ethnic groups, Fukyama's vision of "the end of history" and the global reign of peace, free markets and democracy was broadly embraced as an inevitability. This view held great sway in the Clinton White House, much to Gaddis's chagrin and derision. This overly optimistic perspective failed to consider non-state actors -- "gangs" Gaddis calls them -- who perpetrated the most recent surprise attack on America, leading to yet another sea-change in strategic thinking. Consistent with earlier pillars of security -- preemption, unilateralism, hegemony -- the National Security Strategy expands American responsibilities to the shaping of whole cultures, namely democratizing the Muslim Middle East in order to stifle the swamp pit of murderous impulses that breeded 9/11.

Gaddis is, to put it gently, skeptical of this new national calling. Cautiously bringing to the table Fareed Zakaria's concerns with democracy due to its attendant tyrannies of the majority, Gaddis suggests creating an "empire of liberty," based upon the American federal model where individual interests are paramount and in keeping with the West's tradition of liberalism.

This tradition eschews monolithic interests in favor of broad consensus and it seeks no end to history, be it Marx's or Fukiyama's. This distrust of visionary and apocalyptic politics demonstrates that Gaddis, at least, has learned at least as much from the tyrants of the last century as he has from the great men of our more distant past; our current president's advisers, eager as they may be to promote freedom and democracy abroad, would do well to strike such a balance themselves.


If O'Keeffe seriously thinks that democracy's "attendant tyrannies of the majority" are a serious concern when it comes to reforming the Middle East (which has never undergone Reannaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment) the man needs to pay more attention. How's first reforming an infantilized culture that celbrates death, where children cheer corpses, as in Fallujah today?
03.31.2004 | Seamus O'Connor
I've read and reread Mr. O'Connor's comment and am unable to discern where we differ. He aptly describes much of the culture of the Middle East as "infantilized" and bereft of the intellectual revolutions that the West undertook centuries ago, but these factors only highlight the concerns that majority rule raises.

How can societies so lacking in political maturity govern themselves in a way that will not endanger minorities, will promote transparency and attain levels of prosperity even remotely equal to their western counterparts? These questions have yet to be answered with a great deal of satisfaction.
04.6.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe

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