America’s Long Road to Global Power

america’s-long-road-to-global-power

In The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, Michael Mandelbaum traces the long arc of U.S. statecraft from the country’s founding through the presidency of Barack Obama. Drawing on his keen understanding of both the sources of U.S. foreign policy and the inescapable dynamics of international power competition, Mandelbaum weaves a compelling, paced, and colorful narrative. The book has remarkable reach and scope—covering more than two centuries of U.S. foreign policy in an insightful, synthetic, and jargon-free way.

Building on a distinguished career as one of the foremost scholars of U.S. statecraft, Mandelbaum chronicles the main geopolitical events in the nation’s history, describes the role played by the relevant political leaders and diplomats, and unpacks the domestic and international environments in which decision-makers were operating at the time.

The author—a professor emeritus of U.S. foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies—digresses as needed to explain pivotal developments and elucidate why and how U.S. leaders made the choices they did. Throughout, Mandelbaum’s elegant prose manages to keep the historical narrative accessible and to the point. For example, his discussion of the competing political impulses of the country’s founding era is concise yet enlightening: The Jeffersonians, who envisioned the United States as an agrarian society that would steer clear of “entangling alliances,” took on the Hamiltonians, who urged economic modernization and the accretion of national power.

In The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, Michael Mandelbaum traces the long arc of U.S. statecraft from the country’s founding through the presidency of Barack Obama. Drawing on his keen understanding of both the sources of U.S. foreign policy and the inescapable dynamics of international power competition, Mandelbaum weaves a compelling, paced, and colorful narrative. The book has remarkable reach and scope—covering more than two centuries of U.S. foreign policy in an insightful, synthetic, and jargon-free way.

The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, Michael Mandelbaum, Oxford University Press, 624 pages

The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, Michael Mandelbaum, Oxford University Press, 624 pages

The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, Michael Mandelbaum, Oxford University Press, 624 pages

Building on a distinguished career as one of the foremost scholars of U.S. statecraft, Mandelbaum chronicles the main geopolitical events in the nation’s history, describes the role played by the relevant political leaders and diplomats, and unpacks the domestic and international environments in which decision-makers were operating at the time.

The author—a professor emeritus of U.S. foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies—digresses as needed to explain pivotal developments and elucidate why and how U.S. leaders made the choices they did. Throughout, Mandelbaum’s elegant prose manages to keep the historical narrative accessible and to the point. For example, his discussion of the competing political impulses of the country’s founding era is concise yet enlightening: The Jeffersonians, who envisioned the United States as an agrarian society that would steer clear of “entangling alliances,” took on the Hamiltonians, who urged economic modernization and the accretion of national power.

Similarly pithy and illuminating are Mandelbaum’s discussions of other defining moments of U.S. foreign policy, including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s role in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, the dawn of the nuclear era and the logic of nuclear deterrence, and the developments in Eastern Europe that brought the Cold War to a close. Mandelbaum keeps it simple without oversimplifying. The book also showcases Mandelbaum’s impressive ability to ground historical narrative in an analytical framework that adds conceptual value—without the heavy-handed theorizing that often gets in the way of letting history speak for itself.

As a realist, Mandelbaum views changes in the nation’s relative power to be the main driver of the evolution of U.S. statecraft. Thus, he argues that the United States was a “weak power” until the end of the U.S. Civil War, a “great power” from 1865 until 1945, a “superpower” during the Cold War, and finally a “hyperpower” after the implosion of the Soviet Union. In broad terms, the United States’ role in the world has followed naturally from each of these power positions. In Mandelbaum’s own words, “The most important condition that determines a country’s foreign policy is the power—economic and especially military power—that it can deploy.”

But that doesn’t mean he’s narrowly focused on global power politics. Even as he identifies relative power as the main factor shaping national options and choices, Mandelbaum also points to three additional aspects of the American experience that wield considerable influence over U.S. statecraft: the nation’s ideological commitment to liberty and popular sovereignty, its economic stakes in international commerce, and the impacts of public opinion and messy democracy on U.S. foreign policy. Again, Mandelbaum shuns grand theorizing on any of these fronts, instead interspersing his historical narrative with insights into the prominent role that ideology, international trade and finance, and democratic politics play in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

This framework contributes to the considerable intellectual heft of the book. The problem, however, is that Mandelbaum’s conceptual packaging of the trajectory of U.S. statecraft does not always fit the empirical record. Mandelbaum is right that the United States was a relatively weak power during its early decades, an inescapable reality that shaped policy decisions. Even as Americans aggressively expanded westward, taking on Native American tribes against which they enjoyed a military advantage, they pursued a relatively cautious and modest brand of statecraft farther afield. Analysts often portray the founders’ repeated paeans to non-entanglement with European imperial powers as an ideological principle, but Mandelbaum reminds us that non-entanglement was also prudent aversion to war against stronger rivals.

Nonetheless, the War of 1812 does not sit easily with Mandelbaum’s schema. In response to British interference with U.S. seaborne commerce, President James Madison launched a war against a materially superior Britain. Mandelbaum acknowledges that the conflict poses problems for his claim that power position governs strategy, but he goes on to argue that the United States declared war despite its strategic inferiority because its sovereignty and independence were at stake: “The need to preserve its independence is the circumstance in which a weak state, which ordinarily, prudently, indeed logically seeks to avoid conflict with a stronger one, may nevertheless go to war against such a power.” But claiming that the fight against Britain represented the nation’s “second war for independence” is little more than threat inflation, deployed by the war’s supporters to disarm its opponents. The independence of the nation was not at stake; instead, a weaker United States launched a war of choice against a stronger Britain primarily to defend its maritime rights. The War of 1812 substantiates Mandelbaum’s claim that the nation’s commercial interests help shape statecraft, but undermines his broader argument about power position determining grand strategy.

Relying on relative power as the key driver of U.S. foreign policy becomes even more problematic during Mandelbaum’s treatment of his second era—the phase of great-power status that stretches from 1865 to 1945. For starters, the United States was hardly a world-class power at the close of the Civil War, and it took several more decades of robust economic growth for the nation to move up the international pecking order. As Mandelbaum argues, “By the second half of the century … Americans came to regard the Monroe Doctrine as a central pillar of their foreign policy.” That is a stretch: It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that the nation was ready to enforce a claim to hemispheric hegemony.

Indeed, the Civil War was followed by several decades of strategic restraint amid economic ascent. Even if the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, continental expansion generally came to a halt. Proposals to expand into the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific regularly emerged but were consistently shot down either by Congress or the executive branch. Amid congressional debate in 1869 over U.S. designs on Haiti and Santo Domingo, Rep. Samuel Shellabarger from Ohio spoke for many when he asserted: “In departing from the inculcations of the fathers of the Republic, when they told us to let foreign wars alone, we embark on new seas—seas you and I have not explored. I pause; I fear; I refuse to go.”

It would not be until the 1890s that the United States started translating its growing prosperity into geopolitical ambition—and building the blue-water navy needed to pursue it. The nation soon put its first battleships to good use when it picked a fight with Spain in 1898. During that conflict, the United States not only expelled the Spanish from Cuba and took over the island but went on to assert control over Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and part of Samoa as well. A nation that had previously focused on continental expansion ended up with a host of territorial possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific—the birth of the United States as a power with global ambition and geopolitical reach. Statecraft did finally follow from power position, but it had taken quite some time for Americans to seek a level of geopolitical heft commensurate with their mounting economic strength.

Furthermore, this newfound ambition did not last long; during the interwar era, the United States punched well below its weight. The country was a power of the first rank but effectively reverted to hemispheric isolation, standing aloof as militarism and fascism swept Europe and East Asia. Mandelbaum does examine the United States’ inward turn during the 1930s, recognizing this discontinuity in his story equating rising power with rising geopolitical ambition. But he attributes the U.S. pullback largely to public opinion and does not pay sufficient attention to the strategic backlash produced by U.S. involvement in World War I, the economic and geopolitical retreat spawned by the Great Depression, or the political and ideological allure of isolationism. Yes, Americans believed in the exceptional nature of their democratic experiment. But during the interwar era, as during much of the 19th century, protecting that experiment meant cordoning the nation off from a corrupt and dangerous world, not taking on that world.

Mandelbaum is right that the illusory retreat of the 1930s was promptly followed by the opposite impulse and the onset of an unprecedented era of U.S leadership around the globe. But he errs in dating the United States’ rise as a superpower to 1945. That’s too late; the real turning point came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. That’s when the isolationists finally went quiet and a bipartisan compact began to form behind what came to be called liberal internationalism and Pax Americana. As Stephen Wertheim has ably chronicled in Tomorrow, the World, it was during the early 1940s, not after the close of World War II, that the key ideas informing Pax Americana took shape.

If there is an era that best fits Mandelbaum’s equation of power position with grand strategy, it is his final one—the age of hyperpower that followed the end of the Cold War. He is correct that U.S. power was unchecked and uncontested, leading to a run of strategic excesses. “The American government made errors of policy,” he writes, “in part because of the absence of restraints on what it could do in the world.” Globalization went too far—and then stalled. After the 9/11 attacks, the nation embarked on what came to be called the “forever wars.” America’s noble ideological ambitions were tainted by hubris and overreach. The nation backed the universal spread of democracy, a goal that “lay beyond its power, or indeed that of any country no matter how mighty.”

Curiously, Mandelbaum concludes his historical narrative in 2015, making for an abrupt ending and missing an opportunity to bookend his analysis with the political ascent of Donald Trump. An epilogue on the America First statecraft of the Trump era would have made for a fitting coda to his discussion of the excessive ambitions that came to mar the first two post-Cold War decades.

A final critique of Mandelbaum’s impressive work is that it is a tad conventional and safe. He tends to shy away from—or at least pull his punches on—some of the more controversial aspects of U.S. statecraft. He might, for example, have devoted more attention to the impact of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment on U.S. policy. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) was an unabashed land grab by Washington, leading to U.S. annexation of more than half of Mexico’s territory. Mandelbaum does admit that the conflict constitutes a “war of territorial expansion” and that the “morality of the war on the American side remains contested,” but that is putting it far too mildly. In similar fashion, Mandelbaum attributes to President Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberate efforts to guide the nation into World War II, but in so doing, he effectively sidesteps heated scholarly disputes. Historians continue to debate whether FDR was flowing arms to the adversaries of the Axis powers in order to enter the war through the back door or in hopes of keeping the United States out of the war by helping Britain, the Soviet Union, and other victims of aggression defend themselves.  Roosevelt himself was unambiguous about his intentions. In one of his signature fireside chats, broadcast on Dec. 29, 1940, he made the case for sending arms to nations battling the Axis powers “so that we and our children will be saved the agony and suffering of war which others have had to endure.” Americans can, he reassured his audience, “nail any talk about sending armies to Europe as deliberate untruth.”

These critiques aside, Mandelbaum has written a masterful interpretation of the twists and turns of U.S. foreign policy, offering keen insights into U.S. politics and the nature of global affairs along the way. The book will take its place alongside other seminal studies of the history of U.S. statecraft.

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