When America decided to rule the world: An interview with historian Stephen Wertheim



But this wasn’t simply a matter of fateful circumstance. In his new book, “Tomorrow, the World,” historian Stephen Wertheim argues that U.S. primacy was a “conscious decision” made by Washington elites well before World War II.

The debates from that time are relevant now as growing numbers of Americans question whether the United States needs to “police” the world. Both President Trump and some of his opponents on the left at least claim to seek fewer entanglements abroad and to bring U.S. troops home.

Wertheim is deeply involved in that evolving conversation. He helped found the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new Washington think tank backed by both liberal financier George Soros and right-wing billionaire Charles Koch that advocates for U.S. restraint in geopolitics and a shift away from decades of militarized foreign policy.

Wertheim’s chat with Today’s WorldView has been edited for length and clarity.

What drove the “conscious decision,” as you put it, to make the United States a permanent enforcer on the world stage?

Because the American state was still quite small, and preoccupied with the immediate war crisis, I turned up a network of semiofficials and intellectuals who devoted their attention to postwar planning before Pearl Harbor. As soon as the war in Europe began, the Council on Foreign Relations assembled around 100 experts to conduct postwar planning on behalf of the State Department. Some recognizable figures like future CIA director Allen Dulles were involved. So were influential but often overlooked people like Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, and Whitney Shepardson, a businessman who dreamed of uniting the Anglophone world. Advocates of postwar dominance won out partly because of the unprecedented danger that totalitarian powers might rule Europe and Asia and partly because, with the support of President Roosevelt and his administration, they were able to portray a potentially hemispheric existence as unacceptable isolation. The concept of isolationism that they forged made it seem like intervention in the war and global military projection after the war were really two sides of the same coin, when in fact the two propositions might have been separated.

We have come to view the choice between isolationism and muscular internationalism as a defining geopolitical binary. What does it obscure?

That binary was how the victors of a political contest framed things, and it was useful for them precisely because it obscured more than it illuminated. There was no tradition of “isolationism” in the United States, full stop. The many Americans who opposed entry into World War II, before Pearl Harbor, insisted that the United States should defend by force the entire Western Hemisphere and hoped to engage in trade and other forms of interaction beyond the Western Hemisphere. Many of them considered themselves to be internationalists, because internationalists had long aspired to keep out of the system of power politics centered in Europe.

These Americans were branded “isolationists” by a new group, which decided in the wake of Nazi conquests that world order could be secured only through preeminent armed force. That group prevailed and anointed themselves as the “internationalists.” Against the new coinage of isolationism, advocates presented armed supremacy as simultaneously dominating power politics and transcending it. Trying to restrain American military power came to look like an act of selfishness.

Is there anything wrong with a great power pursuing hegemony for hegemony’s sake?

It’s the way of the world for a great power to be a great power. Far be it from me to object to the United States emerging in 1945 as the mightiest power on earth, having just forced the Axis powers to surrender unconditionally. That was our greatest triumph as a nation. But heroism and tragedy are often bound up together. What I would invite readers to consider is whether it is strategically sound or morally right for anyone to pursue power for power’s sake.

In my view, U.S. foreign policy should derive from a searching analysis of the interests of the American people. If U.S. interests truly do warrant the significant projection of military power, then policymakers should act accordingly. The trouble is that the United States now conflates its vital interests with its power position in the world. In effect, armed dominance has become an end unto itself. As many Americans once recognized, that is an imperialistic cast of mind. It also corrupts strategy, because rather than act to defend the United States and ensure the conditions of prosperity, U.S. leaders act first and foremost to preserve America’s globe-spanning dominance. America’s outsize world role will not last forever, and we should make prudent adjustments now.

You can argue that the Pax Americana over the Pacific helped the economic rise of a host of Asian countries in the U.S. orbit — so too, in Western Europe.

For Western Europe and Northeast Asia, U.S. military dominance was, I think, a net blessing, at least through the Cold War. But the record is more troubling when we turn away from the world’s Northern capitalist core and toward most of humanity.

As the original planners of armed dominance glimpsed in 1940 and 1941, armed globalism implied something like endless war. Millions of people died in the Global South in proxy wars in the name of anti-Communism. And for three decades now after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States has actually used armed force far more frequently than it did during the Cold War. We are left with vast power but little purpose for it. Some advocates of primacy object to the possibility of a power vacuum if America pulls back, but they fail to appreciate that excess power is also dangerous. It finds new purposes, generating unnecessary enemies and destruction for those on the receiving end of U.S. bombs, bullets and sanctions.

Are you heartened by what seems now to be an emerging bipartisan consensus against “endless wars” and in favor of investment at home?

I do think the tectonic plates of public opinion are shifting, and political leaders are taking note. This year’s election was the first in which both major-party candidates recognized the United States was engaging in an “endless” or “forever” war and vowed to change this reality. It’s a remarkable development. I’m often surprised by how much the American public, despite the hawkish cues it receives from elites, seems ready for a more peaceful foreign policy.

That said, there is much work to do. The military-industrial complex is not insurmountable, but real, so the contest cannot be won simply on the strength of ideas. And the country is just emerging, I think, from a historic period of depoliticization surrounding its role in the world.



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