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Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience
By John Lewis Gaddis
Reviewed by Daniel Hindes

This short and excellent book provides a 200 year overview of the history of national security policy in the United States, in context of the events of September 11, 2001. Gaddis examines how the United States has reacted to security threats in the past, and whether the current reaction is different from past reactions.

The first really traumatic security experience for the young United States after the end of the Revolution was the War of 1812. This war included the 1814 sack of Washington, complete with the burning of the Capitol building and the White House. The typical response of nations to threats to their security has been to withdraw to a more easily defended position. In contrast, the United States has historically responded to security threats by enlarging the sphere of its responsibilities, and this goes back all the way to the War of 1812. The reaction of the United States, as formulated by John Quincy Adams – “the most influential American grand strategist of the 19th century”- was to find security through expansion. The methods of this expansion, as defined by John Quincy Adams, were: preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony (and Gaddis notes that these terms were not as loaded in the early 1800s as they have come to be today).

Preemption was the strategy employed in securing areas that otherwise might be used, due to their instability, to attack the United States. The first example of this was the state of Florida, nominally under control of Spain, but not actually policed by her. The United States moved in to the territory to claim it, on the pretext that if Spain were not guaranteeing its security, then the United States would have to. This unfolded in 1818. This policy was again invoked to justify the annexation of Texas; if Texas did not belong to the United States, what other power might then take it over and threaten the US from our southern border? The Spanish-American war was yet another preemptive attack designed to secure American interests. The entire US involvement in the Second World War can also be seen that way (See Thomas Toughill’s A World to Gain: The Battle for Global Domination and Why America Entered WWII). And of course our most recent involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq also qualify. So preemption is not a new doctrine in the foreign policy of the United States of America.

John Quincy Adams’s policy of unilateralism was not new when Adams expounded it; George Washington formulated the same policy in his 1796 farewell address (although apparently under the influence of JQ Adams). The goal at that point was freedom from ‘foreign entanglements’, meaning the obligation to take sides in European power struggles. While the United States was still young country and weak, there could be no strategic advantage in being someone’s enemy as a result of being someone else’s friend. The famous Monroe Doctrine, actually authored by John Quincy Adams (him again) also expressed this unilateralism: the United States would follow its own interests in the Western Hemisphere independent of what any European nation might want. Where interests aligned, the United States would pursue its goals without a formal agreement, and where interests were no longer aligned, there was no formal agreement to worry about. This policy held up through the First World War, where the United States explicitly avoided aligning itself with one side by treaty, even when it fought on one side in combat. It was left to Franklin Roosevelt to deviate from this century-old policy in signing agreements with Great Britain and the Soviet Union to oppose Hirohito’s Japan and Hitler’s Germany. And with NATO and the United Nations, unilateralism was renounced for 50 years by the United States. When the second President Bush resorted to invading Iraq without formal treaty agreements, this was in many ways a return to an earlier policy.

As to hegemony, this was the principle expounded by John Quincy Adams that the United States should not coexist on equal terms with any other power in North America; the United States must be in the single most powerful country on this continent. At the time the policy was formulated, the United States was still a weak eastern-seaboard nation, and most of the continent was controlled by other European powers. However, the policy of hegemony allowed the United States to take the steps that did allow it eventually to dominate the North American continent. Many people could see back then where history was taking the country. As early as 1753 Benjamin Franklin observed that with enough expansion the Americas could come to dominate Europe. This also explains why the union fought so hard during the Civil War: there had to be just one the strong nation on the continent, otherwise two or more weak nations would be subject to outside control. With the Industrial Revolution and concomitant revolution in transportation, it was no longer sufficient for the US’s sphere of influence to extend only to the Western Hemisphere. But while it should have been evident earlier, the country only realized this with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Not that the leaders of the country, especially Woodrow Wilson, did not try to exert global influence after World War One. But the country was not ready, and Wilson suffered a crucial defeat in the Senate. World War Two brought up the issue again, and the outcome did settle things. At the conclusion of the war, the US’s sphere of influence extended all the way around the world. The post-war world order was then intentionally set up to perpetuate this, though hiding the extent to some degree.

Like Toughill, Gadis sees the war’s course and outcome as intentional, and carefully guided by FDR. The apparent move away from unilateralism after World War Two was not as dramatic as it seemed. Certainly the US set up networks of alliances, from NATO and the UN to the International Monetary Fund. But these were not partnerships of equals; they unequivocally served the interests of the United States first and foremost. That is, the US had unilateral freedom of movement under the appearance of international restraints. The US achieved hegemony, and the startling point to realize, was this was a hegemony by consent! It was possible to achieve this by clever maneuvering. In the struggle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world that was helpful but there was always an alternative to domination by the United States, namely domination by the Soviet Union. Stalin may have gotten more of Europe than Roosevelt intended, but he was carefully maneuvered into building the Iron Curtain himself, rather than being forced into it. Through the entire history of the Cold War the United States never seriously considered any option that would make it look like the aggressor in the eyes of the rest of the world. And so the world gratefully accepted US dominance rather than that of the Soviet Union. In 1991 this changed.

At the end of the Cold War the United States emerged as the world’s only superpower. The United States was able to maintain this position not by overwhelming might, but because American self-restraint reassured the rest of the world. And Quentin the United States was finally attacked, it was not by a nation, but a stateless organization. And so the United States in 2001 stood at a turning point.

The challenges of the 21st century include the overall weakening of the power of sovereign states, the emergence of non-state actors, and the vulnerability of infrastructure. In short, all the advantages of size and military suddenly meant nothing. So what if you can easily conquer any state in the world? The threats to the security of the United States do not come from states. How do you identify enemies? With literally millions of potential terrorists, how do you find the few dozen who are going to do something? Of course this is easy after-the-fact, but sorting the signal from the noise and advance is far trickier. The Bush administration resurrected the doctrine of preemption and of unilateralism, and is vigorously maintaining hegemony. Preemption showed up in the invasion of Afghanistan, preemption and unilateralism and that of Iraq. How well this will play out a long term remains to be seen. While Bush was hoping with shock and awe to make an example out of Iraq and get the rest of the Middle East into line, the strategy at this point appears to of backfired, causing the rest of the world’s to consider whether American hegemony is truly benign and desirable.

This is a delightful book, and a quick and pleasant read. It has an excellent way of placing current events in historical context, and broadening your views.

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