‘What Rome was to the ancient world, what Great Britain has been to the modern world, America is to be to the world of tomorrow.”
This bit of inspired prognostication came from the pen of Walter Lippmann in a June 1939 essay titled “The American Destiny.” It was written at the end of the “low, dishonest decade” in which Western nations had watched as fascism consolidated and expanded its control at the heart of Europe, and while a vicious despotism achieved a dominant position in the Far East. With the totalitarian powers on the march, American officials and intellectuals were already beginning to envision a postwar order in which the United States would stand alone—as Churchill would later put it before the House of Commons—at the summit of the world.
The world of tomorrow has well and truly arrived, with America ensconced as the “controlling power in Western civilization,” just as Lippmann foresaw. The American order has been far from perfect or peaceful, especially in its opening four decades, when the standoff between democratic capitalism and authoritarian Communism led to gruesome battles across the postcolonial world. But American stewardship of the international system has provided a vital buffer between civilization and barbarism. The wisest observers of U.S. global leadership have understood it to be a “flawed masterpiece.” The United States brought into being an order characterized by the absence of great-power conflict, the ascent of democracy, and the spread of market economics. Few of the glories of modernity would have been conceivable without American leadership and American strength—its liberal values defining the norm of international conduct and its legions defending the overarching order by patrolling distant frontiers.
But nowhere is it written that the American order will long endure. There is abundant evidence that the U.S.’s global primacy is no longer as firmly established as it was after World War II, when the country was at both the start and the height of its supremacy. In 1945, while vast tracts of the earth lay smoldering, the United States emerged from the worst war in human history largely unscathed. Requiring no postwar reconstruction, its factories served up as much manufacturing output as the rest of the world. The United States also possessed a network of far-flung military bases by which it could project its power unto the ends of the earth. It supplied the world’s reserve currency and established a globe-spanning market that saw the free exchange of goods, services, and people. Another core element of this liberal order was that America’s political philosophy of individual rights and representative governance enjoyed pride of place in the world’s consciousness.
The stupendous but largely unsung achievements of the postwar era are the result of American leadership and will be put at risk as America’s commitment to the international order becomes more tenuous. And in certain quarters, the U.S.’s relative decline, combined with the designs of revisionist foreign powers, has even called into doubt the capacity of the American hegemon to defend and perpetuate this order.
Stephen Wertheim, a historian of American foreign policy, takes a different tack. Wertheim’s concerns about American primacy, rendered in a provocatively revisionist but ultimately dismal new book, Tomorrow, the World, go far deeper than contemporary doubts and criticisms of a world order founded on American power. Tomorrow, the World—and the work of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where he is a senior director—presents a root-and-branch opposition to the leadership role that the United States has played for more than three-quarters of a century.
WERTHEIM’S historical scholarship is tendentious but not fruitless. Sifting through the archives, he unearths a trove of material that proves, against the prevailing wisdom, that the United States did not acquire its predominant position by mere circumstance. It was a conscious choice made by a high-minded elite bent on establishing a Pax Americana. Digging up old blueprints for global supremacy issued by the Council on Foreign Relations, which helped conduct postwar planning for the short-staffed State Department, Wertheim shows that those urging American hegemony boasted an impressive infrastructure, including ample funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, for shaping public attitudes and government policy. In league with its British counterpart, Chatham House, CFR argued passionately that American interests encompassed so much of the world that American responsibilities had to swell accordingly. These muscular internationalists advocated that defending American interests in the modern world meant defending liberal civilization itself. This camp implored Americans accustomed to the quiet life to forgo “normalcy” in favor of “world responsibility.”
Foremost among these internationalists was Henry Luce, whose bracing 1941 manifesto on behalf of “The American Century” was pivotal in situating the debate about America’s role in the world between isolationism and internationalism. Wertheim notes that Luce sought to turn U.S. global leadership into an “unanswerable position” in American politics, insulated from popular passions and fickle public opinion. In the pages of Life, Luce warned readers that an internationalism without the power to enforce its principles was doomed to failure. The totalitarian powers of the day would not understand any language but force. “The United States could enjoy liberal trade and common norms of conduct no further than its military force would permit,” as Wertheim characterizes this view. “The world would remain prone to war, ordered only by an armed superior,” imposing what Luce called its own “philosophy of life.”
The deep roots of America’s military dominance of the global commons is Wertheim’s central theme. His book’s originality is in its conceptual framework of two discrepant forms of internationalism that once contended for American hearts and minds.
The first set of internationalists comprised legalists and quasi-pacifists who advocated a world organization to promote the cause of disarmament and to arbitrate disputes between states in the international system. Instead of assuming political and military leadership of world affairs (as the term “internationalism” has come to signify in mainstream political discourse today), this camp sought to keep American arms at home, or at least strictly limited to the Western hemisphere. This soft internationalism was intent on regulating national sovereignty by codifying legal codes to which all states would be harmoniously bound.
A harder form of internationalism eventually materialized that discarded many of these blithe assumptions. It articulated a vision of superior power that would be marshalled to underwrite a decent world order. Contrary to the Enlightenment faith that the expansion of material progress inexorably brings moral progress in its wake, it held a grim view of human nature and was skeptical about claims that history was a progressive upward march toward right and reason. It believed that in order to prevent the international realm from descending into chaos and conflict, a benign hegemon must act as the world’s staunch friend and defender. This tragic sensibility was paired with a certain idealism about the possibilities of a freer world that might blossom under American auspices. In time, this realist-idealist hybrid bred what the Bush administration called a “distinctly American internationalism.” This international activism was, as Robert Kagan has written, an “act of defiance against both history and human nature.” And only the United States was—and is—fit for the purpose of carrying forth this world-historical task.
For many years, the first brand of internationalists ruled the roost in the making of U.S. foreign policy. “One world war did not convince the country to join its president’s league for peace, let alone to vie for supreme power in Europe and Asia,” Wertheim writes, and “not even ardent interventionists of the day sought the latter.” This was a time when America remained aloof from traditional considerations of the balance of power, and its activism on the world stage was marked by the “people diplomacy” of free trade and open congresses devoted to resolving disputes through the instrument of world organization.
However, as Wertheim notes, “the aspiration to tame power politics through the pacific settlement of disputes and the disarmament of nations” eventually gave way under the pressures of history. By the time imperial Japan had conquered Manchuria and was on course to subordinating much of Southeast Asia, and Hitler rearmed and sent Germany’s armed forces crashing into Poland and Western Europe, it was clear that moral suasion and soft internationalism were a dead letter. Internationalism, if it was going to matter, had to shoulder an unusual burden to assure the survival and success of freedom in the world.
Wertheim lays particular emphasis on denouncing the term “isolationism” as a red herring. He is certainly right that “isolation” is a poor description for America’s position in the world, before and during its status as the world’s predominant power. Isolationism, after all, is an odd way to characterize a set of colonies that grew to subdue a continent and expel foreign meddling in an entire hemisphere. The United States never practiced a pure form of isolationism, and given Americans’ defining characteristics, was never going to do so. But for this reason, it’s overwrought to suggest, as Wertheim does, that America’s elite in the 1930s and 1940s embarked on “a veritable reconceputalization of their nation’s world role.” In truth, the pursuit of global supremacy was merely a logical extension of its long rise to prestige and power, a subtle but significant shift to preserve and defend its exceptional national identity and interests in a hostile world.
Wertheim laments the fact that in taking up the mantle of global leadership, the United States abandoned its old wariness of “permanent alliances.” He bemoans America’s permanent war footing, especially Truman’s 1945 declaration that “we must relentlessly preserve our superiority on land and sea and in the air.” For Wertheim, this marked the transformation of internationalism from what was recognizably a mere pose to a defining posture of American statecraft: “Once opposed to nationalism and defined by the transcendence of power politics,” he writes, “internationalism came to denote U.S. world leadership above all.”
Tomorrow, the World bristles with annoyance that American presidents are no longer averse to playing the old “European” game of power politics. But its author never pauses to consider that it was precisely such an aversion that generated twin catastrophes in the form of world wars. Despite his argument that Axis dominance of Europe and Asia presented no great threat to “the United States proper,” such a constrained vision of the national interest would not have been feasible if Americans or American principles were to survive, much less thrive. The record of the first half of the 20th century gives scant basis for confidence in the view that Europeans can keep the peace without the forward engagement of the United States.
THIS BOOK makes a compelling case that U.S. global supremacy was the desired objective of much of the American elite, within government and without, well before the nation’s entry into World War II. But it offers little reason to doubt the moral and strategic soundness of that judgment. Wertheim makes much of the fact that Americans understand their global ascendance as having been “thrust” upon them rather than being ambitiously chosen. These conditions are hardly mutually exclusive. Before American primacy became an established fact, it must have been easy to imagine a postwar order that would be an “order” in name only, vulnerable to the kind of breakdown that had already been endured twice before in the century. This sad history could not be repeated, and America’s special position and national character not only equipped it to prevent such a repetition, but were the only factors that could.
Professor Quincy Wright, a tireless advocate of international organization in the first half of the 20th century and a hero of Tomorrow, the World, argued near the end of his life that “the trouble with the American people” was in failing to grasp the difference between imperialism and internationalism. In reality, this was always a distinction without much difference. In a time of civilizational collapse, the architects of the American order drew a very Roman lesson about the nature of world order: Without supreme power and a readiness to use it, the underlying order would perish at the first weighty challenge. Is this internationalism? Imperialism? One could simply call it responsible statecraft.
Wertheim’s lingering faith in a soft internationalism is evidence of the ascendant unrealism in elite American circles. He contends that the internationalism of American primacy seeks to “project armed power far and wide” rather than cooperate with foreign states to “end the scourge of war.” In this way, Wertheim argues, “martial greatness now seemed the ultimate proof of American greatness.” The argument would have dismayed those present at the creation of the American order, who had fresh memories of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war only a few years before the Nazis unleashed their blitzkrieg. The suggestion that war could be prevented only by preparing for peace was a proposition that had been manifestly tested and found wanting.
This unfortunate approach to the exigencies of power is also revealed by a particular tic that crops up regularly in the book. Seldom does Wertheim speak of American primacy and preeminence without a qualifier: the armed superpower, armed primacy, armed dominance—as if temporal power was ever anything other than what Thucydides said it was four centuries ago: an imposition by the strong on the weak. What kind of dominance would it be if it was not armed? A short-lived dominance, one suspects.
And yet, is the distinguishing characteristic of American hegemony really its penchant for meting out violence? In a world where the demand for order greatly exceeds the supply, American hegemony has been broadly accepted by democratic allies who, in spite of criticizing American “hyperpower,” have never instigated the kind of counterbalancing that has felled empires past. This is not an accident. As a leading member of the governing German Social Democratic Party explained in 2003, after the Iraq war: “There are a lot of people who don’t like the American policeman, but they are happy there is one.”
What is the problem, then, with dominance in the service of high ideals? Wertheim does not quite say, but his assumption seems to be that all power is inherently illegitimate if it is not evenly distributed. This must give the book a certain appeal to utopians everywhere, but it leaves it diminished in the minds of those who realize that nations, even hegemonic ones, are run by human beings rather than angels or devils.
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