(Part 4 of 4) I argue that American behaviour on the world stage defies any rational explanation. I also question whether the United States has derived much economic benefit from its activist and interventionist approach in the world.
American behaviour in the world hasn’t made much sense on any rational, self-interested grounds. Neither economic self-interest, how ever narrowly or broadly defined, nor a coldly realistic strategic vision, can explain the behaviour of the United States on the international stage from 1898 to the present.
Every single war prosecuted by the United States since 1898 grossly exceeded any reasonable assessment of the national self-interest, whether defined in terms of strategic security or economic/commercial concerns. What ever might have been their initial, parochial motivations at the time, the Americans almost always transformed their interventions into grand projects.
Let’s start with the Philippines, which were officially annexed in open emulation of European colonial empires by the United States in 1899 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Filipino nationalists who had been fighting Spain continued the fight against the Americans in the northern islands, but they surrendered within about a year. Then the Muslim Moros revolted when in 1903 the Americans decided on direct rule in the southern islands. The Moros had been, at best, loosely governed by the Spaniards who basically stuck to the northern coastal cities anyway. They occasionally dispatched punitive expeditions against them, but they quickly went away. The Moros had therefore barely experienced Spanish administration.
So how did the United States respond to the Moro Rebellion ? Why, it conducted a 12-year counterinsurgency campaign against Muslim guerrilla insurgents in the tropical-montane landscape, almost a forerunner of a combination of Vietnam and Afghanistan. Not for the Americans, the piecemeal, almost accidental approach the British had taken in possessing India. That began in Bengal and proceeded bit by bit over 130 years through short and easy wars on the plains against decadent rajas and sultans, wars which involved very few Britons to begin with. Still less was the American approach like that of the unromantic Portuguese, who made a pragmatic habit of taking peninsulas and coastal strips on behalf of their maritime trading empire. No, the United States just had to take administrative control of the entire 87 quadrillion islands of the Philippine archipelago and would spend a dozen years completing the southern conquest. In the process, the US administration built schools, roads, clinics, etc. ; and, oh, the United States also abolished slavery and the Sharia-based Moro legal code.
Compare this with the Dutch acquisiton of their East Indian archipelago-empire, which began with an outpost in the spice-dense Java in 1602 and a gradual satellisation of local potentates — an “Anglo-Portuguese” approach, one might say. The Dutch finally took direct possession of Sumatra only in 1907 ! They did fight three wars of insurgent pacification in Aceh in the late 19th century (and it’s still a pesky, irritating place to this very day), but at least the Dutch could rationalise they had a valuable colonial possession in Java and environs to protect from European competition.
I don’t know what purpose the Philippines served, which also required the United States to physically control the entire archipelago in short order. If the Philippines were an entrée into the potentially lucrative Asia trade, as many at the time openly argued (in addition to the various “mission civilisatrice” type motives), the green bits below would have conduced just fine to that objective :
Actually just the northern island of Luzon would been the fit staging post for the early version of the “open door policy” in Asia. I can’t think of any European colonial war that was quite like the US counterinsurgency campaign against the Moros. There was no obvious lucre in it. There was no obvious preexisting interest to protect. There was no obvious strategic reason.
The alleged “pro-investment” orientation of US foreign policy often seems like a misguided extrapolation to the whole world from traditional American behaviour in its immediate backyard, Central America and the Caribbean. Even in that case there’s cause to doubt the US application of the Monroe Doctrine was intended to create an American economic sphere of influence. European capital operated freely throughout the Western Hemisphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, Britain was the largest foreign investor in the Western Hemisphere, bar none. Most of the export-led economic growth in the Southern Cone in 1870-1914 was made possible by European capital investment.
If anything, it was the fear of European intervention to protect its investments in the Western Hemisphere that T. Roosevelt promulgated his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. Just as European governments would dispatch war ships to bombard the Khedive’s palace to enforce debt obligations and even take over the customs house for the revenues, so they might do the same in the Western Hemisphere in several countries suffering from political instability and fiscal collapse.
Yet, regardless of whether the USA was motivated by economic imperialism or strategic realism or both in complementary fashion, US interventions in the Western Hemisphere are still anomalous. The United States occupied Haiti for 19 years, the Dominican Republic for 8 years, and Nicaragua for 24 years. Cuba was occupied and administered for several years on at least 3 separate occasions.
And in all those instances, the United States did engage in what amounted to nation-building, regardless of whether it was successful or not, and regardless of the original reasons for the interventions. Now, nation-building in a colony is not inconsistent with making things safe for business, but with the exception of Cuba, where American investments were quite large, US commercial interests elsewhere just weren’t substantial to warrant so much attention. 19 years in Haiti and 24 years in Nicaragua ?
Of course none of the preceeding compares with the extravagance of the US commitment to the two world wars.
I fail to see why the United States had to enter the Great War at all, in terms of its own interests. For what had the USA to lose 100,000+ men in a mere year’s worth of fighting as front-line trench fodder for the Anglo-French forces ? The economic rationale seems the least compelling. In 1914 there was barely any US investment to speak of in Europe, and US spending on the Great War was roughly 10 times the value of its exports to the entire world. A German victory would probably not have reduced American trade, since most exports went to the UK anyway and German ambitions did not include British enslavement.
The Second World War makes even less sense than the first, again, whether from a geoeconomic or geopolitical perspective.
Let’s say the United States did engage the Pacific theatre of the Second World War as an attempt to tear down Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and maintain the Open Door Policy. Why would such an objective require the United States to fight the Japanese inch by inch, take shitty islet by shitty islet, in that entire bloody slog of island hopping all the way to Okinawa, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives ? If the atomic bombs hadn’t been ready in the summer of 1945, the US forces would have staged Okinawa as a base for landing on the Japanese main islands, in order to seize and occupy the whole country.
Why was all that necessary, given any rational motivation, economic or defensive or strategic ? The Pacific theatre could have been fought with much less cost to the United States if the apparent war aim had not been as totalising and maximal as “eject Japan from every damned rock in the Pacific and tear out the Japanese state by its very roots”. It seems almost unhinged.
Revenge is a normal human motive, of course, and punitive expeditions are simply traditional. But in order to avenge Pearl Harbor, the United States could have built a great navy ; destroyed the Japanese counterpart on the open seas ; dropped a million tonnes of ordnance on the home islands ; simply abandoned the scatterplot of islands including the Philippines ; and let the Japanese get mired in the vastness of Asia and slowly bleed away. (By 1939 the Japanese were already bogged down and could not advance into the Chinese interior. The same was happening in Burma as they advanced toward India.) In the meanwhile, a more realpolitical United States might have simply declared a no-cross boundary in the middle of the Pacific at the international dateline.
On the western front, why was it necessary to save Britain and France from the Germans ? France was not being exterminated. Britain probably wouldn’t have been, either, if the Germans were even really interested in taking Britain after the winter of 1940-41. Why not, as Truman suggested, let the Russians and the Germans duke it out to the death ?
Even if, for geopolitical reasons, saving Britain and France was deemed utterly necessary, why was it further necessary to go the whole distance and fight every inch of the way to Berlin ? Roosevelt declared a policy of unconditional surrender in Casablanca in 1943, promising vengeance and retribution on the Germans. What had the Germans ever done to the Americans ?
The gargantuan, maximal efforts by the United States in the two world wars were not necessary, and wildly incommensurate with any reasonable assessment of selfish interests, economic or defensive. The United States was basically self-sufficient, it was flanked by two great oceans which it had the resources to police, and it could have easily sat out the two world wars in serene isolation from the Old World as the overlord of the New. And even if the participation in those wars were conceded as necessary for rational self-interested reasons, nonethless the conduct and conclusion of those wars was well in excess of satisfying those reasons.
And there’s the Cold War. Suppose, as a baseline for comparison, that the United States withdrew back into isolation at the end of 1945 or early 1946. Instead of endeavouring to save the world from communism, it reverted to a new Monroe Doctrine : a Fortress Americas Policy, do what ever you want out in the Old World, but don’t fuck with the New. The United States would by then already possess nuclear weapons, rocket technology, the beginnings of jet engines, advanced naval power, German scientists, valuable European refugee brains, etc. The United States would still be safe from behind the defensive perimeter of the Western Hemisphere, without lifting a finger for the Koreans or the Greeks or anybody else under threat from communism. The United States could have engaged in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union without a policy of containment or rollback or a network of strategic alliances and bases around the world. I think that would have been perfectly feasible. It certainly would have been much much much cheaper — $30-40 trillion cheaper.
George Kennan, the original author of the containment policy, had observed there were “only five centres of industrial and military power in the world which are important to us from the standpoint of national security”, and the object of containment was to keep the Soviets from taking them over. Other areas of the world, Kennan did not regard as crucial. The United States would protect the four essential industrial-military regions of the world not in Soviet hands at the time, and care not a whit about the rest of the world. My point is not the specific number of regions that the United States might have protected, but the finiteness of the US security umbrella.
But instead of practising Kennan’s minimalist geopolitics, what did the United States actually do ? The United States waged a global Cold War, on every front, tit for tat everywhere, whether the communist threat was obvious or not. Dulles busily created alliances around the periphery of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, on the model of NATO — Seato, Cento, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the whole works. Why did Truman and Eisenhower help out the French in Vietnam and the British in Malaya ?
The Korean War comes closest amongst all the military engagements of 1898-1989 to being consistent with realpolitik, given the assumption that it was in the interest of the United States to engage in the Cold War in Asia in the first place. Once you were committed to the defence of Japan, then the Korean War might have been logical. But certainly the Vietnam War — at least in the lavish, improvident lengths to which the United States went to maintain its commitment to the project — made no sense any from realist, geopolitical or geoeconomic perspective. I’m pretty sure I am preaching to the choir as far as most people are concerned (though probably not Matt), so I won’t bother with an elaboration.
The point is, the United States isn’t one to do things by half-measures. The United States doesn’t go to wars or engage in mere action; rather, it undertakes extravagant projects which only incidentally contain fighting and killing on a large scale.
In individual cases, economic and/or strategic self-interest is creditable as a motivation. It’s plausible that the USA thought owning the Philippines would be the gateway to Asian trade, even if it never became that. It’s plausible that the United States feared Imperial Germany might control Europe and close off its market to future penetration by the United States, even though Europe hadn’t been such a big market for American exports or investments. It’s plausible that Japan had to be not just defeated in 1941-45, but also deracinated and extirpated, to permanently lower the coffin on Japanese nationalism. It’s plausible that the United States believed the domination of Europe by the Nazis might eventually haunt them in the Western Hemisphere. It’s plausible that the United States believed if you just let Vietnam go, others might follow and having already put in so much effort and treasure it became captive to the sunk cost fallacy. It’s plausible that the Bush administration actually believed in the potential of Iraqi democracy or that the United States could get its hands on Iraqi oil.
[ I don’t want to restate what most people already think about Iraq and Afghanistan as particularly extravagant projects, so I don’t even bother mentioning them. ]
Each ex ante motivation is plausible and even reasonable in its own historical context. And of course countries do make mistakes, do get trapped in a vicious cycle of trying to recoup wasted investment, and do waste a lot of resources in accomplishing even rational objectives. I’m a fan of irrationality, short-sightedness, error, overestimation, exaggeration, overreaction, overoptimism and blindness to unintended consequences as an explanation of policy. But the disproportion between the scale of power projected by the USA in nearly every war since 1898 and its objective national interests (*), is too great, too consistent, and too systematic to just say shit happens. Enough ex post shit puts ex ante reasonableness into doubt. Given all the US foreign adventures which turned “extravagant” over such a long time and in diverse contexts, you must begin to think, maybe it’s not a series of one-off overkills, but some national character trait.
[ (*) Gulf War 1 is the only anomaly. It’s the only war prosecuted by the United States in a manner reminiscent of the old school realism of the Metternich-Castlereagh-Bismarck-Kennan-Kissinger variety. ]
In the final analysis, what did all that global power, all that prodigal spending, and all that effort get the United States that it could not have gotten without it all ?
The traditional discourse of diplomatic history and international relations assumes that great powers are always players in the anarchy of the international system. Germany, situated between France and Russia, never had a choice about playing power politics. In fact, no country in the world with neighbours has ever had a choice in the matter.
The only major exception that I can think of is the United States. By dint of its geographical isolation, its continental size, the poverty and weakness of its neighbours, the extraordinary fecundity of the land, the technological prowess and staggering productivity of a fairly large population, the United States is far more capable of aloofness from the world than any other country I can think of.
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Yet the USA has been deeply involved in the world. I’ve already argued its motivations don’t have a rational explanation. But what has it actually gained from the world ? I don’t mean gains in the narrow sense of receiving returns accruing from a “favourable investment climate”, which I’ve already argued are a joke. Rather, is the USA as a whole more prosperous on account of empire ? Did empire even contribute to American prosperity ?
To the last question, I can’t think of any plausible ways the answer could be a very big yes. What are some advantages of empire that would be missing, if the United States acted like Canada ?
It’s possible without American global hegemony, you would not have the multilateral trading regime of the postwar world. Certainly if Western Europe and Japan had fallen into Soviet hands there would have been much less trade in the whole world !
If international trade has had a substantial benefit for the United States, it would not be via the demand effects of exports and imports. The USA has had a trade deficit since about 1980, and before that its overall trade balances were quite small. So the impact of trade is via the supply-side effects of import competition affecting prices and exports causing increased specialisation in the economy.
But has international trade had an impact on the efficiency of the US economy that’s even comparable with technological progress ? Historically, the latter has not been really trade-dependent. Before the war, a lot of technology transfer happened without too much trade. And after the war, the United States itself was the source of most technology transfer, enabled by a combination of native talent and smart European and Asian immigrants. Then there is market size : the US economy has been so big and productive all on its own, one wonders whether import competition really mattered all that much. Competition from Japanese auto manufacturers had an effect only with the oil crises of the 1970s.
Suppose trading with other rich countries is conceded as important. What if the United States had simply taken the limited Kennan approach to containment, and protected the “industrial-military centres” of Western Europe and East Asia, and let the rest of the world rot ? No Vietnam, no Cuba, no Central America, no Chile, no School of the Americas, no Afghan mujahiddin, no proxy wars in Africa, no Iran, no Israel-Palestine, no Gulf Wars, no entanglements other than Western Europe and East Asia.
I can’t think of much difference between such a counterfactual world and the actual world we live in today, at least in terms of affecting the material prosperity of the United States or other rich countries. Maybe oil prices could be higher because fewer states might control the petroleum deposits, but I doubt that too. And, besides, the rich economies would have adjusted to the higher prices and Detroit might have been more efficient, earlier.
But hasn’t the dominance of the US dollar as a global reserve currency required the maintenance of American empire ? Certainly not ; besides, the benefits of the dollar as a reserve currency are grossly overstated. (I can’t explain it any better than this.)
How about the fact that the United States has consistently and persistently had current account deficits over the course of thirty years ? (External deficit = shortfall of domestic savings = need to import foreign savings.) That amount is exactly equal to what American households, businesses, and governments at all levels have been able to spend on consumption and capital investment, in excess of domestic income. The Americans have had a higher standard of living than implied by GDP alone, because they could borrow the huge savings surpluses of the Europeans and the Asians.
Did that require American Empire ? It would have certainly required that Western Europe and East Asia had been kept from communism. But beyond that ? No, not really. The United States could, and still can, borrow those surplus savings because its internal economy, its relatively laissez-approach, its political stability, and the taxing capacity of the state inspire investor confidence, not because it can conquer Iraq and hold it for 10 years. Japan, which has always had external surpluses until 2012, still borrows heavily to finance large government budget deficits and has accumulated a national debt that’s laughably bigger (relative to GDP) than the USA’s. Yet it has absolutely no problem attracting bond investors from all over the world.
Besides, would it have been so terrible if those 3-4-5% of GDP worth of foreign savings hadn’t been available to the United States because the Red Army was in Calais and Osaka ? You might have had fewer Americans owning their own houses, fewer people living on credit cards, and fewer students going to university in debt, and perhaps smaller budget deficits (or the same budget deficits and higher interest rates). But I don’t see a very big difference.
So, particularly since the end of the Cold War, what has the American empire been good for ?