If you’ve been following White House briefings and mainstream US media over the past four years, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trump has radically rewritten US foreign policy. In fact, despite Trump’s pledges to extract American soldiers from foreign conflicts, troop numbers have barely fallen overall and have risen in the Persian Gulf. The administration has been presented as ‘isolationist’ yet has agreed bilateral trade deals around the world and strengthened ties with Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia – three traditional partners – while undertaking major war games against Russia and China. This year’s Defender Europe 20 would have been the US army’s largest exercise on the continent in 25 years if Covid-19 hadn’t limited its scope. It’s hard to detect any measurable change in approach. Even Trump’s attempt to pressure Beijing into abandoning industrial measures that allegedly give it an unfair advantage in international trade have ample precedent in Reagan’s 1980s trade war with Japan. If Trump can make any claim to uniqueness, it may be that, once his record on Covid-19 is factored in, he is the only postwar US president whose administration is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than foreigners. During this year’s presidential campaign, while the gap on domestic policy has widened, any hint of foreign policy differences between Trump and Biden has evaporated as they each homed in on the status quo. Both have promised to end America’s ‘endless wars’ even as they ratchet up their anti-China tirades and cling to the notion of America as leader of the free world.
The early years of US foreign policy were focused on dominating the North American landmass. Native populations were liquidated; vast territories were purchased from European states; border disputes were stitched up through legal manoeuvrings. The fledgling US state conducted a few experiments further afield. In 1821, a proto-NGO, the American Colonisation Society, annexed a large tract of West Africa (‘Liberia’) in an effort to relocate free blacks away from the American mainland. When US farmers developed a taste for bat excrement later in the century – as chronicled by Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) – the US navy acquired a series of ‘guano islands’ in the Pacific to fuel the domestic boom in agriculture. The Philippines and Puerto Rico, along with other smaller spoils from the Spanish-American War, became laboratories for medical experimentation, police training, sweatshops, napalm and nuclear trials. Closer to home, American forces twice failed to take Quebec (‘a mere matter of marching’, Jefferson said before the second attempt in 1812). The Aroostook skirmish with Britain might have extended the state of Maine to the north, and in the south Cuba hovered as a perpetual state in waiting, ‘indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself’, as John Quincy Adams described it in 1823. In imitation of British freelance imperialists such as James Brooke, the ‘white rajah’ who ruled the state of Sarawak on Borneo as a private fiefdom in the mid-19th century, America produced its own brand of freebooters, including William Walker, the Tennessee doctor who conquered and ruled Nicaragua for ten months and decimated the population of Costa Rica.
Until the end of the 19th century the US state was in no position to undertake imperial projects outside its region, and its projected sphere of interest was always vulnerable to European incursions. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared the Americas, from Tacoma to Tierra del Fuego, off limits to European meddling, but it was more an aspiration than a threat backed by credible force. Britain’s subsequent declaration of crown colonies in Honduras and the Falklands called America’s bluff. The first comprehensive plan for a US sphere of influence secured by military might was put forward by Southern senators in the lead-up to the Civil War. They believed the American future lay in alliances with the slave states of Cuba and Brazil. Only by ending the slave trade, thereby insulating themselves against British ambitions, could ideal slave societies flourish. These societies would reproduce slaves from the existing populations, avoiding the investment required for African ventures or the arrival of market-crippling immigrant wage-workers. (One South Carolina senator wondered about sending a US squadron to the Ganges to threaten Britain’s own supply of cheap labour.) A great irony of the Civil War, as the historian Matthew Karp has shown, is that the very senators who built up the military to provide a protected sphere for slavery had to fight a war against their own creation. Deep inside the state of São Paulo, one can still find traces of the confederados, the defeated Dixie soldiers who took refuge in Latin America after the war and started small slave colonies. Their Brazilian descendants honour them with fancy-dress pageants.
The first signs of a new American dispensation came with Woodrow Wilson, who considered Central America a field for democratic tutelage, with interventions between 1913 and 1916 in Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. ‘We have with armed force invaded, made war upon, and conquered the two small republics,’ Teddy Roosevelt wrote, ‘have upset their governments, have denied them the right of self-determination, and have made democracy within their limits not merely unsafe but non-existent.’ Wilson was, he thought, only making the world safe for hypocrisy. But despite Wilson’s readiness to treat the Americas as a privileged sphere for US interests, US global primacy was not on his imaginative horizon. His administration sent troops to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks, but Wilson himself had been disenchanted with regime change since 1915, when US military attempts to force Victoriano Huerta from power in Mexico led to a fierce backlash against American interference. He entered the US into the First World War not in order to spread democracy but simply to defeat Germany and to keep the empires of the white race from annihilating one another. The League of Nations was his preferred vehicle for three purposes: it would wrest the monopoly on ‘internationalism’ away from the Bolsheviks, steer European states away from the barbarism of ‘power politics’ and manage the spoils of the German and Ottoman empires.
The notion that the US might have to exercise more than hemispheric control became urgent during the Second World War, as Stephen Wertheim has recently shown in Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. After the Fall of France, US war planners began to consider the implications of living in a world of protected economic zones, with Europe under Hitler’s control and East Asia integrated into Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere – and the Soviet Union crushed between them. The problem wasn’t that the US economy was in jeopardy – foreign trade still made up only a small part of it – but that the future of capitalism in general would be undermined by large, regionally protected blocs. Roosevelt and those around him still believed that spheres of interest, which they now euphemised as ‘regionalism’, were inevitable. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt’s foreign policy adviser, wrote a textbook preparing American citizens for a world of ‘four policemen’: the US, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China. A new Eastern European Federation would prevent the Soviet Union from any place in Europe, and the creation of the United Nations would prepare the US public for a global role. The prominence afforded in this thinking to China – then suffering civil war and crippling poverty, its own future territorial integrity far from guaranteed – may seem surprising. Although Roosevelt was surrounded by people who believed that China might have a Christian future, Churchill was probably right to suspect that it had been given a seat on the UN Security Council as a ‘faggot vote’ for US interests.
In 1945, under Stalin, the Soviet Union was prepared to subscribe to a world of regionalisms. But in the Truman and Eisenhower years US policymakers made clear that they would not abide by any limits. American soldiers mutinied when they discovered that they wouldn’t be returning home and that new bases had to be built and fortified. The war had entered a new phase and would have to be fought everywhere. And there was a war against public opinion too: polls in both Britain and the US registered high levels of gratitude for the Soviet Union’s fight against Germany. The UN waged its first war in 1950 to prevent the communist Korean People’s Army from gaining power in the south, a conflict on which Stalin had hoped not to have to waste resources. The decision was taken without the agreement of Mao’s China and the Soviet Union: instead of four or more spheres of interest, there would now be only two. And two would come to suit America. ‘The United States cannot be secure until the total international environment is ideologically safe,’ Dean Rusk declared at the height of the Vietnam War, but the bipolar world of the Cold War was gradually naturalised, as the Nixon administration acquiesced to the prospect that the Soviet Union might last forever.
In recent years , the fiercest criticism of the seemingly unshakeable bipartisan commitment to US global hegemony has been produced by young US-based thinkers on the left, unshackled from Cold War groupthink: Asli Bâli, Aziz Rana, Jeanne Morefield, Nicholas Mulder, Christy Thornton, Daniel Bessner, Stephen Wertheim, Samuel Moyn et al. Their views share a sense of the incapacity of US force to achieve the lofty objectives invested in it, and their prescriptions range from an immediate moratorium on military interventions to a ‘grand strategy for the many’ that seeks to direct US power to eco-socialist ends. But another powerful set of critiques of ‘muscular liberal internationalism’ have come from an older cadre of conservatives. John Mearsheimer and David Hendrickson are both outcasts from the American right, both teach political science in the Midwest and both have opposed every US military intervention since the end of the Cold War. They believe that the US ought to have emerged from it as a chastened power – or (in Hendrickson’s case) a more regional one. As the American foreign policy establishment rejoiced at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Mearsheimer mourned the Cold War’s passing. ‘The West,’ he wrote in the Atlantic in 1990, ‘has an interest in maintaining the Cold War order, and hence has an interest in continuing the Cold War confrontation.’ He thought some Soviet-US tensions could be reduced, but predicted, correctly enough, that there would be more violence in Europe in the ten years following the Soviet withdrawal than in the ten years preceding it. His advice to Washington was to step up nuclear proliferation on the continent and force any newly unified Germany to adopt weapons of mass destruction. This would maintain peace on the cheap, since, as Mearsheimer expected, the withdrawal of US forces and the expiration of Nato were imminent. If the Russians could not be persuaded to prolong their hegemony in Eastern Europe, there needed to be a new force to prevent smaller countries – Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine – from trying to resolve their long-simmering border disputes. The ideal scenario would be a new cold war between Germany and Russia, monitored at a distance by Washington.
Mearsheimer is a maverick thinker in the world of academic Anglo-American international relations theory. He made his name with an attack on Basil Liddell Hart’s strategic thought. In Liddell Hart and the Weight of History (1988), not only did he show that Liddell Hart had falsified the historical record to make himself the strategic inspiration behind the Wehrmacht’s early victories – when in fact he believed that the Second World War, like the First, would be fought in the trenches – but that Liddell Hart had made himself out to be a revered teacher of the Israel Defence Forces. In the LRB of 23 March 2006, Mearsheimer published a forensic assessment of the Israel lobby (co-authored with Stephen Walt), which earned him permanent pariah status in Washington. He hadn’t expected his advice to be heeded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the course of American foreign policy nevertheless surprised him. Instead of rolling back Cold War deployments, the US expanded them well beyond anything that could be considered in the national interest. ‘The demise of the global threat powered by Soviet communism,’ Paul Wolfowitz wrote in the 1994 Defence Planning Guidance, ‘leaves America and its allies with an unprecedented opportunity to preserve with greater ease a security environment within which our democratic ideals can prosper.’ In the 1990s the US undertook more than twenty foreign military interventions, with little but anarchic carnage to show for them.
Mearsheimer’s response was The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), in which he subjected several of the liberal pieties of the previous decade to closer inspection. In the wake of the ‘no-fault’ aerial operations of the Persian Gulf War, and the unveiling of the B-2 ‘stealth’ bomber, US military planners believed that they could determine outcomes on the ground with minimal US casualties. The age of air power had been proclaimed many times before – by Giulio Douhet, Carl Schmitt, Arthur Harris, Norman Schwarzkopf – but Mearsheimer insisted that conventional armies would still form the basis of most conflicts in the 21st century. The ‘stopping power of water,’ as he called it, limited the capacity of a state to project power on another landmass for any great period of time. Insular landmasses protected by water boundaries – the US, Britain, Japan – would always be easier to defend than Germany and Russia. It’s possible that Mearsheimer had internalised the unique geographical conditions of US power, a country-continent flanked by two oceans, as the ideal situation of a great power. Even so, he believed that America’s global ambitions were logistically impossible to realise.
He also dismantled the neoconservative assumption that the way to preserve American hegemony was to create a world of liberal democracies, each with its allotted place. He argued that democratic peace theory, which holds that two democracies can’t go to war with one another, was empirically mistaken. In the First World War, a nominally representative democracy (Great Britain) had gone to war against another nominally representative democracy (Wilhelmine Germany). The decade he was examining offered the example of the Kargil War between India and Pakistan – two democracies that had been poised to destroy each other since Partition. There was no guarantee that a world of liberal democracies would be a world of peace. And, as he pointed out, ‘democracies are somewhat more likely than non-democracies to target civilians.’
Among post-Cold War treatises, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics remains unsurpassed in its command of the historical record. Mearsheimer’s most recent book, The Great Delusion, poses more urgent questions about the present. What drove America’s utopian policies in the post-Cold War years, and where was the effective resistance to them? The problem, as he sees it, is that the ‘laissez-faire liberalism’ of 19th-century American foreign policy was replaced by ‘progressive liberalism’ – a crisis of knowledge rather than a failure of policy. Whereas laissez-faire liberalism doesn’t presume to know what is best for other people, progressive liberalism does, and works to increase welfare, protect human rights, and pursue other worthy goals. Mearsheimer regards ‘progressive liberalism’ as the best domestic political system, but as a foreign policy ‘liberalism is a fool’s guide for powerful states operating on the world stage.’
The crusading impulse of delivering rights and political systems to distant peoples, he argues, also fatally underestimates the power of nationalism. Since the 19th century, nationalism has been the most enduring force in world politics. Mearsheimer imagines an alternative Cold War in which Washington had made a blanket policy of backing powerful national forces at every juncture, regardless of whether they tilted towards communism or capitalism. The result, he contends, would in each case have been a much shorter and more decisive conflict. If Truman had greeted Ho Chi Minh’s request for support with open arms, the Soviet Union would have faced a far more cunning adversary, a perfectly rational, realist player, who would have left the trouble of managing the Third World to the Kremlin, miring it in a series of Afghanistans.
The Great Delusion ends with a disappointing meditation on the necessity of the US countering the rise of China. Since the US has attained the status of the leading world power, Mearsheimer believes, it has no choice but to stop any other significant regional power from rising up. The fear is that a regional power such as China will quickly move to do what it can to displace the US, inevitably producing problems for America in its own hemisphere. But this argument makes little sense on Mearsheimer’s own terms. He argues for ‘restraint’ by the US, but in the same breath says ‘realism dictates that the United States should seek to remain the most powerful state on the planet’ and ‘must prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia’. He provides no grounds for these propositions, which are undermined in any case by his insistence in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics on the ‘stopping power of water’: there is no need, with the whole Pacific Ocean between them, for the US to fear the regional hegemony of China in Asia.
Mearsheimer’s preference for symmetrical bipolarity might lead one to expect him to approve of China’s ascendance. Chinese regional hegemony has existed for at least a decade: there are client states such as Cambodia, states reconsidering their options such as the Philippines – and, more strikingly, Chinese-speaking quasi-states within states, such as the Wa state in Myanmar. No South-East Asian state would think, as they once did, of scapegoating their Chinese-speaking minorities, and the rise of the Chinese navy – with six new aircraft carriers expected to arrive by 2030 – suggests that the days of US hegemony in East Asia are over. There is much discussion in the Western press about the Spratly and Senkaku Islands – contested between China and Japan – but less about people such as the Chinese businessman Cary Yan, who has proposed setting up a special economic zone in the US Marshall Islands, where he has bought hundreds of thousands of acres of former nuclear testing grounds.
For all his broadsides against establishment pieties, Mearsheimer still subscribes to the cardinal principle upheld throughout the Trump administration and by almost all of its Democratic challengers: that the United States must, and will, remain the leading global power. A heresy for the Founding Fathers has become a Beltway platitude. ‘America must always lead on the world stage,’ Obama said in 2014. ‘It is essential that we do everything we can to lead the world,’ Hillary Clinton declared on the campaign trail in 2016. ‘I think we’re the leader. I think we’re always going to be the leader. We have to be the leader,’ Trump said last year.
All this makes David Hendrickson’s Republic in Peril, which advocates a return to regional power projection, an outlier in international relations theory. An American conservative liberal who has written several books on the American founders, and might be called a foreign policy ‘originalist’, Hendrickson argues that US global hegemony is neither desired nor desirable. ‘Instead of “rule following”,’ he writes, ‘the neoliberal economic order of the last generation rested on a series of gambles by US elites whose unanticipated consequences came to look distinctly unattractive.’ The recent posture towards Iran is for Hendrickson a case in point. ‘The Iran sanctions,’ he writes, ‘are the clearest instance yet of the imperial process wherein the associates of empire are reduced to the condition of subjects, a road once followed by Ancient Athens and Ancient Rome.’ Welcomed by a faction of Wall Street, the aggressively enforced sanctions have severely damaged European and British competitors. Hendrickson is even more provocative about the Kremlin. ‘Russia actually performed a service to the world in coming to the aid of the Syrian government in 2015, fending off US-supported attacks that, if successful, would have produced the sack of Damascus by the Nusra Front.’
On China, Hendrickson dismisses years of propaganda produced by the US navy and State Department about China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea. ‘The US government contends that “freedom of navigation” is at risk,’ he writes, ‘but this minimalist claim obscures what is really at stake.’ Hendrickson is surely right to say that ‘China has an interest no less vital than the United States in ensuring freedom of navigation for commercial vessels.’ The problem for US navy commanders is China’s resistance to American fleets fitted out with the ‘AirSea Battle’ plan, which, in the event of a Chinese misstep, would allow the US to destroy critical positions in Beijing’s command and control network: missile storage sites, airstrips, domestic security apparatuses. A retired Chinese admiral has compared the US navy in the South China Sea to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home’. It’s hard to imagine the US tolerating an equivalent Chinese presence in the Caribbean. And Hendrickson doesn’t doubt that the US military presence in East Asia rests on a brittle foundation: few Texan families have such unswerving loyalty to Taiwan that they would send their children to die there. He counsels allowing China freer reign within the first island chain, preparing for a world of regional pluralism and forging a ‘new internationalism’ that would have the US focus on following the rules it set for the rest of the world in the ‘rule-based order’. He doesn’t want to jettison that order, just to legitimate it with genuine compliance.
Democrats and Republicans across the spectrum are increasingly united in an anti-China front, whether on grounds of trade or human rights or strategic balance. Hendrickson detects continuities of Cold War Manichaeism in the campaign platforms of Sanders, Warren and Biden. They are Democrats v. authoritarians, though at least they grant that totalitarianism is dead. ‘They fall in with the common tendency,’ he writes, ‘and accept the Warfare State’s major postulate, which is the demonisation of enemies, who are set in opposition to an idealised self.’ This is a reasonable concern. But Hendrickson’s and Mearsheimer’s books barely touch on the core foreign policy problem that should confront any left of centre Democratic administration. If the two chief global crises – climate change and capitalism – are regarded from the perspective of American power, the position towards China is anything but clear. A swift Armageddon between the two powers would be worth the ecological scars if it dealt a permanent blow to global consumption. Yet ecological co-operation with China in the present is not likely to be encouraged by fantasies of democratic encirclement or offshore balancing. The US and its allies can only blunt ecological catastrophe by embarking on massive green stimulus policies within their own economies. Such action could reinvigorate global demand and encourage China to invest more in renewable energy. The CPC has proved itself capable of switching gears much faster than its Western counterparts. When it comes to forging an ecological agenda beyond rhetoric, China’s authoritarianism has both drawbacks and advantages. But it is difficult to change the shape of Chinese growth without also shaking the main pillar of legitimacy of the Communist Party. The same CPC bureaucrat who coined the term ‘ecological civilisation’ in 1989 went on to promote the idea of the ‘Chinese Dream’.