Empires and Roles
Dean Acheson was known for his pithy, sometimes cruel, but usually accurate observations on unpleasant realities. One of the most famous was his 1962 comment that Great Britain had lost an empire but had not yet found a role. The implication was that the United States, in contrast, had found both—an empire and a role—not least as a result of his own efforts. Anyone immodest enough to title his memoir Present at the Creation could not help but suggest for himself a certain involvement in that event, for who else apart from a Creator could have been present at the moment Creation was occurring?
Whatever one thinks of Acheson’s claim in this respect, few historians now doubt that the United States during the Cold War had both an empire and a role: it knew what it wanted, and it found a way—eventually—to get it. I would sum up that purpose as follows: that the Americans sought to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism by building coalitions that would contain fascism and communism and that they hoped to accomplish this without allowing the means employed to destroy the end envisaged, as well as everything else along the way.
"To paraphrase Dean Acheson, the United States retains an empire but seems to have lost a role."
Despite a good many diversions and some disasters, the United States on the whole succeeded in what it set out to do, and the world is a better place for its having done so. Certainly Washington’s record in matching up accomplishments with objectives was much better than that of the competition during the Cold War, a point even my fellow American diplomatic historians—who so often approach that subject as self-flagellating penitents—are coming around to see.
I wonder, though, what Acheson would have said about American foreign policy since the Cold War ended? Several Achesonian barbs come to mind, not all of which would bear repetition in public. One of the milder ones, though, might be this: that the United States retains an empire but has in recent years lost a role.
Clinton administration officials came close to acknowledging this when they told us that in the post–Cold War world, where dangers were vague and distant rather than clear and present, we should not expect a grand strategy as coherent and precisely targeted as we now remember containment to have been. Foreign policy, they insisted, could not be made to fit on bumper stickers. Perhaps they were right.
But on September 11, 2001, the post–Cold War era came to an abrupt and violent end. Dangers are indisputably present—if not completely clear—in the new era we have so suddenly entered. We have no choice now but to regain a role, and as we do so there are several things we would do well to remember from our Cold War experience.
Wilsonian and Rooseveltian Legacies
I would define empire as a situation in which a single state is able to influence the behavior of others, whether directly or indirectly, partially or completely, by means that can range from the outright use of force through intimidation, dependency, inducements, and even inspiration. Woodrow Wilson set the long-term priorities for the American empire—a world safe for democracy and capitalism—during World War I, but he failed in his immediate task, which was to have the United States reconstruct and then run the postwar international system.
The principal reason for this failure, most historians have argued, was Wilson’s unilateralism: his tendency to instruct rather than to listen. This made him insensitive to the interests of others, which in turn made it difficult for him to sustain coalitions. These tend to work when the members of the coalition voluntarily align their own interests with those of its leader. But that requires a leader who can not only lead but listen, who can not only persuade but compromise. Wilson never mastered this art, either with his wartime allies or with the United States Senate. As a consequence, the unilateralism with which he tried to establish an American empire wound up delaying it for a generation.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mastery of balancing—his skill, as he himself put it, as a juggler—that succeeded where Wilson had failed. FDR’s objectives were those of his predecessor, but his methods of getting there were very different. For him flexibility was a virtue, not a sin; compromise was a necessity, not a sellout; principles were attainable but only through pragmatism. Above all else he would do whatever it took to sustain coalitions, whether within the American domestic political system or the World War II Grand Alliance.
"Can a twentieth-century strategy for fighting the Cold War–successful though it certainly was–carry over into a twenty-first century whose geopolitical configuration is clear in only one respect: that it will not resemble the Cold War?"
Roosevelt fully intended for the United States to run the postwar world, but he meant for it to do so in a multilateral manner. By this I mean that he viewed security as a common good to which all nations—or at least all great powers—were entitled, not a selective good to be allowed to some and withheld from others. To put it in theoretical terms, a jargon FDR would have ridiculed, the international system was to be a "non-zero-sum" game. The United Nations, therefore, included the Soviet Union as a founding member, and the Bretton Woods system would have also if Roosevelt had had his way.
Of course American influence within these institutions would be disproportionate. It would not, however, be unchallenged: each of them was to operate according to a constitutional framework that constrained power within agreed-upon procedures; each of them required consultation and negotiation in order to function; each of them was meant, as a consequence, to represent a pragmatic alignment of American interests with those of the other major actors in the postwar world. It was an approach quite different from Wilson’s too highly principled "all or nothing," "take it or leave it" stance.
Cold War Empires
It was precisely this multilateralism that most clearly distinguished the American empire from the other one that emerged from the ruins of World War II: that of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s unilateralism manifested itself in the brutalities the Red Army inflicted on civilian populations as it moved into Eastern and Central Europe, especially Germany; in the thinly disguised puppet regimes Moscow imposed on that region, none of which dared risk free elections; in the contempt Stalin showed for world opinion when he sought to take over northern Iran, orchestrated the coup in Czechoslovakia, devised the Berlin blockade, and authorized the North Koreans to invade South Korea. In none of these actions was there the slightest sensitivity to the security interests of anyone other than the USSR, which removed any prospect of a Soviet empire that might operate by any means other than imposition.
It also brought about an invitation to the United States, on the part of those Europeans not yet within the Soviet sphere of influence, to create its own and to include them within it. One sees this in the British request that the Americans take over their responsibilities in Greece and Turkey in 1947, in the eagerness with which the Europeans embraced the Marshall Plan later that year, and especially in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was from the very beginning a European initiative. What all of this amounted to, then, was a group of states offering to subordinate their sovereignty to that of a more powerful state in the short run as a means of preserving their sovereignty in the long run.
The United States could have responded to this invitation by imposing an empire that served its own unilateral interests. It did not, however; instead, it retained Roosevelt’s multilateral conception of security even as it adjusted itself to the unexpected demands of a bipolar world. The American empire in Europe, therefore, differed from that of the Soviet Union in several important ways.
"U.S. policymakers must understand that the first obligation of those who have power is to respect the interests of those who lack it. That, in turn, suggests that the only way to maintain an empire these days is to run it democratically, in such a way as to combine leadership with listening."
It was, first of all, rehabilitative, not punitive. The leaders of the defeated enemy states were to be punished but not the people; in this sense it contrasted with the harshness of Soviet occupation policies in eastern Germany and elsewhere. It was also integrative: the idea was to build lines of interdependence among the postwar European states, not lines of dependence converging on Washington; the Soviet sphere of influence worked in just the opposite way. Finally, the American system was democratic: although there were occasional efforts, as in Italy, to manipulate domestic politics, Washington officials really did encourage political structures in these countries that reflected the will of the people—hence the frequency of free elections within the American sphere, as compared to their total absence in the Soviet bloc.
The whole idea, as State Department official John Hickerson once put it, was to construct "not merely an extension of US influence but a real European organization strong enough to say ‘no’ to both the Soviet Union and the United States, if our actions should seem so to require." Only this, Hickerson and his colleagues believed, would accomplish the ultimate objective, which was the containment of Soviet influence in Europe and elsewhere. For the last thing the Americans were prepared to do was to try to accomplish that task alone.
Cold War Compromises
By the end of the 1950s the Common Market was firmly in place—the predecessor of today’s European Union—an economic third force increasingly independent of American control but consistently supported by the Americans, nonetheless. The United States had opted for a devolutionary model of empire, and in the economic sphere, it largely attained this.
What is not so widely realized is that Washington originally wanted the same thing in the military sphere. "[T]here is no defense for Western Europe that depends exclusively or even materially upon the existence, in Europe, of strong American units," General Dwight Eisenhower, the first NATO commander, observed in 1951. "We cannot be a modern Rome guarding the far frontiers with our legions if for no other reason than that these are not, politically, our frontiers. What we must do is to assist these people [to] regain their confidence and get on their own military feet."
But the Americans did not, in this respect, get their way, for in the military sphere deferring to European wishes produced a dependent rather than an independent relationship. It was the Europeans who themselves resisted the "third force" concept, through their demands for direct American military protection. The multiple tails, in this relationship, wagged the dominant dog.
There were several reasons the Americans failed to build the militarily independent Western Europe they wanted: fear on the part of the Europeans that they could never become sufficiently strong to resist the Russians on their own; the fact that American leadership overcame differences among the Europeans that they themselves might not have been able to overcome; and the prospect that if the Americans withdrew, they might leave behind a disproportionately powerful and nuclear armed West Germany, something the other Europeans—and a good many Germans as well—worried about almost as much as they did about the Soviet Union. Despite the greater costs and responsibilities this dependent relationship entailed for them, the Americans, having touted the virtues of self-determination, were hardly in a position to deny the Europeans their wishes. And it was the Europeans’ wish to arrange a permanent United States commitment to the defense of Europe.
The post–World War II European settlement, then, was one that reflected both design and improvisation, both leadership and listening. It combined European economic independence, which the Americans wanted, with military dependence, which they did not want. That pattern has persisted well into the post–Cold War era, to such an extent, indeed, that most people on both sides of the ocean assume now that it was the American—and European—grand design all along.
But is this system sustainable for the indefinite future? Can a twentieth-century strategy for fighting the Cold War—successful though it certainly was—carry over into a twenty-first century whose geopolitical configuration is clear in only one respect: that it will not resemble the Cold War? I think it can, provided we ask ourselves certain fundamental principles that Acheson and his generation would have found familiar. For example:
Distrust the unconditional pursuit of principles. Surely the national interest is, as it has long been, to make the world safe for democracy and capitalism. But during the 1990s we fell into the habit seeking political self-determination and economic integration at all times and in all places, regardless of context and circumstances—and we thereby endangered democracy and capitalism. Events in former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict show what happens when people who hate each other are given the freedom to determine their own future. Meanwhile, the growing backlash against globalization confirms Karl Marx’s insight from over a century and a half ago: that the unregulated workings of market capitalism generate economic inequalities that lead to social alienation. Principles, during the Cold War, were never divorced from the world that surrounded them. That was not always true during the post–Cold War era.
"With the disappearance of the USSR, the United States seems to have shifted back to a Wilsonian didacticism: we consult our allies less and instruct them more."
Cultivate alliances. No hegemon that I know of has ever sustained its position indefinitely. Resistance sooner or later arises, even in enlightened and reasonably benign empires. The United States managed to keep that from happening during the Cold War because of the latitude it allowed its allies and because they feared the Soviet alternative. With the disappearance of the USSR, however, we shifted back to a Wilsonian didacticism: we consulted our allies less and instructed them more. And when it came to former adversaries, like Russia and China, we hardly noticed that our policies were beginning to drive them back together in opposition to ourselves, thus reversing what Nixon and Kissinger achieved during the early 1970s. The attacks on New York and Washington have raised the specter of a new and deeply feared alternative to American hegemony and with it the possibility of collaborative action, not just with familiar allies but also with former adversaries. It is a rare, though dearly bought, opportunity. It ought not to be squandered.
Finally, use words well. Winston Churchill’s role in 1940–41 is as powerful a testimony as one will ever find of the extent to which words themselves can become instruments of power. Wilson also knew this, as did Franklin Roosevelt, as did John F. Kennedy, and certainly Ronald Reagan. Any strategy, to be sustainable in a democracy, has got to win public support, which requires not simply clarity as to what the strategy is but eloquence in expressing it. The Clinton administration did not distinguish itself in this regard. The Bush administration will now have to.
"The attacks on New York and Washington have raised the specter of a new and deeply feared alternative to American hegemony. The United States now has the opportunity to work collaboratively, not just with familiar allies but also with former adversaries. It is a rare, though dearly bought, opportunity. It ought not to be squandered."
So we’re back to my paraphrase of Dean Acheson: the United States retains an empire, has lost a role, but must find one again. It needs to do so by means that are truly conservative, by which I mean sustainable over a long period of time. That, in turn, will require proceeding within the traditions of federalism: the recognition that disparities of power do not necessarily correlate with disparities in wisdom; that the first obligation of those who have disproportionate power is to respect the interests of those who lack it. That, in turn, suggests that the only way to maintain an empire these days is to run it democratically, in such a way as to combine leadership with listening.
Even Americans do not normally associate that latter quality with themselves. And yet the ability to listen turned out to be one of our most effective weapons in winning the Cold War. The single greatest threat to the preservation of American hegemony in the twenty-first century, it seems to me, comes not from our external adversaries, whoever they may turn out to be, but rather from our own loss of proficiency in a skill that ought to seem familiar enough to us. It is that of maintaining a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind."