The political thinkers of the Enlightenment, on whose ideas the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution are based, believed that no authority except force ultimately restrains nations, just as civil society’s implicit force restrains individuals. The superior power of a single state or a balance among great powers is as close as humankind can come to peace. If a beneficent state is dominant, the region or the world benefits. But in the contrary circumstance, a region or the world suffers, as Europe did for most of the centuries from Rome’s fall until Allied victory in World War II.
The United States has been the superior global power since 1945, challenged until recently only by the Soviet Union, which possessed military but not economic strength. But China’s large and growing economic power allows it to build armed forces that aim to surpass America’s. This tests not only the United States’ unsought position as the world’s great power, but also the liberal international order that has been the principal U.S. foreign policy and security objective for a century.
If China succeeds, the consequences will be immense: The rules-based international order of human rights, free enterprise, protections for territorial sovereignty, and freedom of navigation would be supplanted by a boundless tyranny enabled by surveillance, military power, and, in the end, global servitude.
A Brief History of Political Authority
The telling of history, in the modern sense, began around 2,500 years ago, with Thucydides’ account of the war between Athens and Sparta. Herodotus’ history of the war between Greece and Persia antedates Thucydides, but Herodotus’ work is part myth and part sociological survey. Thucydides, by contrast, wrote an explicitly political work. His objective was to provide the reader a sense of contingency. By detailing the multiple forces at play and describing the specific events and debates that drove decisions throughout the war, Thucydides conveyed actual strategic experiences. But he offered few explicit lessons, instead using questions and alternatives to cultivate the sort of practical wisdom necessary in a statesman.
It is a curious coincidence that this first history emerged from the first recorded great power conflict in the Western world. The war between Athens and Sparta was a conflict of multiple coalitions competing for power. Its savagery made Herodotus’ emphasis on culture and tradition seem distant from political reality. Political history emerged from myth with this conflict. And Thucydides’ insights offer a valuable lesson: When the structure of power unravels, cultural and legal restraints dissolve as well.
The Roman state—both the early republic and the later empire—dominates our idea of political order. Though Rome was the first Western empire, its imperial practices did not differ so drastically from those of Persia or China as to be unrecognizable to those cultures. Like all durable multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual political systems, the Roman state allowed significant diversity among its subjects. Any manner of polytheistic cult was accepted, and non-Roman tribes often maintained their native traditions. But Latin was the universal tongue, and all the empire’s subjects were equal before Roman law, even if only Latins—and, later, Italians—were full citizens. Rome’s strength was its impartiality. Roman justice may not have been blind, but it was predictable and relatively fair.
The collapse of the western Roman Empire was disastrous for human life in Western and Northern Europe. As the tribes that overthrew the empire settled and established concrete territorial and material interests, over many centuries they laid the foundations of the feudal system, in which protection and obedience were inextricably linked. Feudalism at least offered a measure of social stability, albeit a fragile one. But feudalism’s political structure derived from a strictly hierarchical worldview, a metaphysics of authority that subordinated temporal to spiritual power, serf to lord, and secular polity to Papal-Imperial Christendom. In practice, though, hierarchical subordination often took second place to violent ambition.
This imperfect feudal stability began to unravel in the 16th century, because stability requires more than hierarchy. It requires a single power, or group of powers, who wish to maintain the system and are willing to use force to do so. They must control specific levers of power, especially the power to punish those who violate a system’s rules and reward those who abide by them. In the early 19th century, Britain became the first power to control the levers internationally without absolute conquest.
Britain, of course, did conquer. At its peak, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the world’s landmass and population. But its control often was indirect, exercised through quasi-independent entities such as the East India Company or local partners, particularly over its most important possessions, India and post-1882 Egypt. Britain leveraged its wealth to construct a robust diplomatic network in the 18th century, allowing it to remain at the center of multiple European coalitions as it expanded its power throughout the 19th, despite a standing army that was small compared with its continental competitors. This wealth, in turn, stemmed from its naval power. Britain controlled a variety of international chokepoints—Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the Suez Canal, Aden, and the Straits of Malacca—connecting these far-flung bases with a navy larger than those of its two most likely competitors.
This marriage of diplomacy and force allowed Britain to wage two decades of war against the first modern Eurasian hegemonic aspirant, Napoleonic France. British statesmen guided a polyglot coalition that included Prussia and Austria to final victory over the Bonapartist revolution. They then led the continental powers to a peace that made central not punishment or vengeance, but instead a system in which every major power—including defeated France—was invested in the peace. Indeed, the post-Napoleonic system played off the fear of every major power, each of which (apart from Britain) was ruled by a conservative absolute monarch, using the fear to restrain the competitive impulses that would assert themselves so viciously a century later.
It is remarkable how long the post-Napoleonic system lasted. This was due in part to the prudence with which European statesmen acted, foremost among them Prince Metternich, Austrian chancellor from 1821 to 1848, and Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor who united Germany. But Metternich’s conservatism ultimately brought about the liberal revolutionary wave of 1848 that undermined the entente among Europe’s traditional powers, while Bismarck’s expansion spawned a culture in German soldiers and statesmen that encouraged a sanguinary unraveling of international order and the world’s descent into barbarism.
Trading Splendid Isolation for War
World War I was not inevitable. It stemmed from specific political choices, especially Britain’s critical decisions to retreat into splendid isolation in the later 19th century and rely solely on its naval power to safeguard its interests. The United Kingdom abandoned its role as an active hegemon that could balance the competing interests of Austria, Russia, France, and Prussia, burning the diplomatic bridges British statesmen had built over the previous 150 years. It left continental Europe to face the political machinations of a myriad of actors, both those in power and the revolutionaries who justly clamored for reform.
For a time, however, Britain’s naval power still acted as the restraining element. Even absent active political engagement, the Royal Navy served as the gatekeeper between Europe and the world. While some British colonial ventures stemmed from the empire’s desire for power and status, its critical acquisitions—especially the maritime chokepoints—were derived from sound strategic thinking. In return for acceptance of British global primacy, the empire facilitated European access to overseas goods and resources with limited to no trade barriers or tariffs. Over time, this allowed potential competitors—specifically France, Germany, and the United States—to enrich themselves at Britain’s expense. But the fact of global British sea control kept these potential competitors in check until the 1880s and allowed Britain to rebuild, albeit in shoddier form, the alliance network that had led it to victory over Bonaparte.
Historical accident and good policy, not structure, explain the United States’ ability to reconstruct international order after it collapsed with World War I. The United States persisted with its traditional high-tariff trade policy in the 1920s and refrained from joining the League of Nations. But U.S. banks, coordinating with the Treasury and Congress, maintained low interest rates and easy credit lines, even as the United States demanded European loan repayments. By maintaining a large enough money supply, the U.S. hoped to paper over Europe’s political challenges and satisfy all parties with stable economic conditions. And facilitating German economic stabilization alleviated French security fears, at least temporarily.
This fell apart quickly. The first postwar international order dissolved in the 1930s. Power became the only restraint on avarice, and restraint was in short supply. The unraveling of the 1930s accelerated as Hitler consolidated power, culminating in global catastrophe. The deep irony is that Britain and France declared war to protect Poland, having abandoned the far more strategically defensible Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s predation scarcely 11 months earlier.
The twin levers of power—punishment and reward—come into clear focus through this succession of cataclysms. The only actor capable of preventing catastrophe, Imperial Britain, abdicated its capability, only realizing the danger of disintegration less than a decade before World War I. Timely action saves blood and treasure; delinquency ensures disaster.
Dragged onto the Stage
The American Republic should learn from the U.K.’s pre–World War I experience. It is far more relevant to the current situation than U.S. policy after the war.
The roots of the idea that the safety of the United States and the advancement of democratic ideals lie in the nation’s geography harken back to disputes in George Washington’s cabinet. They are the baseless fabric of a profoundly flawed vision. The United States was dragged against its will—or, more accurately, against the will of its people and the majority of its political leaders—into political importance. The best U.S. statesmen, however, have always understood the intrinsic connection between virtue and power, and the inextricable link between international conditions and national survival.
The United States’ founders were such statesmen. The republic’s fate has been linked to international action since the Constitutional Convention. The practical core of the Constitution can be summarized simply: It is a defensive moat that protects individual liberty through elegantly crafted counterweights that include an implicit collective-defense agreement among multiple independent states, in which each surrenders some power to control their own political destinies in return for protection. Debt was nationalized, and military forces were subordinated to the federal government—although legislators feared the existence of a powerful standing army and resisted as much as possible throughout the 19th century creating one.
Even during the high point of American imperialism, the U.S. Army relied on volunteers and short-term contracts far more than regulars, with one unit of volunteers, Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders,” immortalized in U.S. military history. U.S. statesmen consolidated the republic’s power in the years leading up to the Civil War and after, eliminating Mexico as a potential rival, displacing the European powers in North America, and defeating secession, in part, to prevent France or Britain from exploiting a divided continent. The U.S. Navy, moreover, ranged far abroad, fighting alongside Britain to ensure free trade, and before the Civil War even conducted antislavery patrols off the African coastline alongside the Royal Navy.
But the United States’ greatest contribution to global order before its emergence as an active international power at the turn of the 20th century was symbolic. The U.S. republic demonstrated that an alternative existed to both enlightened despotism and revolutionary liberalism. Popular sovereignty could be mediated through multiple layers of governance, a strong executive could defend the nation’s interests, and individual rights could be preserved through a political culture that cherished responsible liberty over license.
U.S. influence transformed when it combined these ideas with military power and diplomatic discernment. Theodore Roosevelt understood this connection better than any other President. He wielded power accordingly, using it to restrain avarice and secure U.S. interests. Woodrow Wilson injected a different intellectual strain into U.S. foreign policy, driven by a combination of Christian moralism, long-standing Southern suspicion of industrial power and international assertiveness, and a commitment to political and individual liberty—a paradox, considering his explicitly antebellum belief that black Americans did not deserve the blessings of liberty.
The U.S. rise to world power, however, occurred not by intent, but as a result of a series of mistakes. The United States refused to engage in World War I, deeming it unseemly to fight alongside traditional colonial powers. But once it was drawn in and victorious, its leaders created a system of law to regulate international action, not a political system that restrained man’s natural desire for power and reasonable fear of violence. Despite those leaders’ personal failings and, it must be stated, racial prejudices, the crop of U.S. statesmen that emerged in the 1930s prepared the nation for war. But they struggled against the traditional Jeffersonian isolationist tilt in U.S. foreign policy (an approach Jefferson himself abandoned on contact with executive responsibility). President Franklin D. Roosevelt guided the nation to war. Georgia Representative Carl Vinson was almost singlehandedly responsible for the pre-1941 growth of U.S. naval power. Without similarly enlightened leadership in the executive and legislative branches now and in the future, the United States can count on being unprepared for an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.
Even with these successes, there were serious mistakes. Roosevelt never understood the threat the Soviet Union would pose to any ordered international system. His personal relationship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill notwithstanding, Roosevelt viewed the Soviet Union as a likely postwar ally, a member of his “Big Four” alongside Britain, France, and the disorganized, politically fragmented, and militarily incompetent Nationalist China. Although Roosevelt may have guided the United States to victory over fascism, he undeniably enabled Stalinist depredations and allowed the Soviet Union to lay the foundation for its own bid for world power.
As President, Dwight D. Eisenhower—despite his military effectiveness and keen understanding of the role arcana imperii played in the exercise of state power—never truly grasped the link between political power and strategic positioning, best shown by his insistence on substituting nuclear for conventional weapons and his misunderstanding of the European political situation in 1945. Had U.S., British, and French troops pushed farther into Germany, or—better yet—had the United States and Britain made a drive for Berlin, the Cold War would have taken a very different course.
U.S. naval power undergirded its postwar international policy. Indeed, even at its post-Vietnam nadir, during the ill-conceived detente with the Soviet Union (long after the strategic and political reasons for such a policy had evaporated), the Navy remained powerful enough to deter the Soviet Union from its expansionist goals and keep the Warsaw Pact contained.
What Comes Next?
The need today for U.S. overseas engagement is clear. We must not mistake the Chinese party-state’s economic and political ruthlessness for a lack of ideological commitment. China is building a comprehensive alternative to U.S. power. It has co-opted and created parallel international economic and financial institutions, convinced national elites in Africa and Latin America that Chinese money will sustain their domestic position, and it is now building a military force capable of confronting the United States. A China-led world will not mirror its U.S. counterpart—China cannot be expected to act as the United States did between 1945 and 1990, nor as the Soviet Union would have if Stalinist expansionism had engulfed the world. It can, however, be expected to snuff out any threat to the Communist Party’s power, international or domestic, because freedom of thought poses a more potent threat to the regime than any rifle, warship, or nuclear weapon.
For the first time in world history, liberalism and international order are functionally equivalent. The United States should not rule out diplomatic ententes with unsavory powers when they suit its interest. But the core of U.S. strategy should be leveraging extant alliances with liberal powers in Europe (through NATO) and elsewhere. However, the United States can no longer trust in the logic of structure to secure its interests and preserve its way of life. The worst result—the objective that U.S. statesmen must avoid—is a complete, rapid descent into international chaos that unleashes avarice and does nothing to assuage fear. There are very few nations or individuals who will not choose a side based on pay and plunder; we must not forget the seductiveness of violence. The knife is man’s most creative instrument, and, once it is unsheathed, misfortune is certain. At international levels, this is called disaster. A powerful and self-confident United States stands in the way of disaster—for itself, for the inextricably linked success of like-minded democracies, and for any nation that seeks to determine its own fate.