The Long View: A Republic not an Empire

I don't think I have a one-word summary for John's foreign policy preferences. Maybe someone who disliked him could come up with something pejorative, but I don't feel the need. I do know that John didn't have any time for isolationists of any stripe. American foreign policy [and public opinion for that matter] has always had an isolationist element. This was enshrined in our national imagination by George Washington's Farewell Address. John had none of it. He argued that foreign policy always needed to take into account the state of the world, and the contemporary world required us to be far more active [dare I say interventional] than the nineteenth century did in order to secure even domestic peace and prosperity.

Later, John would make the argument that post-Cold War America served as the security utility of the world, in the same way AT&T served as the telephone utility in America for most of the twentieth century. No matter how much people complain about American hegemony, they [mostly] still expect us to maintain the stability of the global political order. I've sometimes wondered about the price America extracts for being the world's policeman. In a sense, we really do this out of a sense of justice and obligation. On the other hand, US Treasury bonds are purchased by much of the world, and we use the money to spend almost as much for defense than the rest of the world combined. The full faith and credit of the United States government means something much more than just our willingness to service our monetary debt.

A Republic, Not an Empire:
Reclaiming America's Destiny
by Patrick J. Buchanan
Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1999
437 pages, $29.95 US
ISBN 0-89526-272-X

Patrick J. Buchanan, noted political commentator and perennial candidate for president, here explains his plan for restructuring the international system in the 21st century. The scale of the proposal puts it among the most radical ever propounded by an American engaged in serious electoral politics on a national level. Essentially, the book envisions the deliberate reconstruction of a multipolar world. Though the author does not note the fact, this world would be like that of about 1900, with a slightly different cast of major actors. For instance, Japan and Germany would be remilitarized and returned to their "traditional" roles as "guardians" of East Asia and Eastern Europe, respectively. The Middle East would be left to settle its own affairs, while the rest of the world broadened its energy resource-base in such a way as to end the dependence of the developed countries on petroleum from that region. Most of the multilateral institutions created during the Cold War would be either abolished or greatly diminished. The security commitments of the United States would be loosened to consultative relationships, except perhaps for a few countries in North America itself. The most substantial differences that Buchanan proposes from the world of 1900 are the militarization of the US-Mexican border and the annexation of Greenland and anglophone Canada.

Why anyone would want to set up the world for a replay of the 20th century will probably seem mysterious to most people, but it is clear enough why Patrick Buchanan would want to do so. In his opinion, the US flubbed the 20th century, while it handled the 19th century almost exactly right. Even the Cold War, of which the author approves, was made necessary only by the departure of the US from its traditional principles by intervening in the First and Second World Wars. The implication seems to be that, having done the last century wrong, we should do it again, but this time do it right.

The bulk of the book is a polemical history of US foreign affairs, preceded by a somewhat fanciful description of current US treaty commitments, and capped by a section of policy recommendations. The fine-structure of the book may well derive from the author's experience as a speech-writer, most notably in the Nixon White House. Readers looking for extended analyses of the issues raised will find very few of them. Such argument as the book has is contained in scattered paragraphs, suitable for television-news sound-bites, that make freestanding points that have never been introduced to each other.

For instance, in a paragraph asserting the fundamental irrelevance of the state of the world to US prosperity, we are told that: "During the Napoleonic Wars, America, cut off by its own embargoes, became a more self-sufficient nation. World War I brought us out of the recession of 1913-1914. World War II brought an end to the Depression. In every great European war, a neutral America prospered." There are several things wrong with those sentences, but let us deal with just one item. A hundred pages later, in the course of his revival of the argument that US entry into World War I was engineered by bankers and industrialists, the author says: "During those years of neutrality [before 1917], America moved from a debtor nation to become the world's greatest creditor. But it was doubtful these loans would ever be repaid without an Allied victory and the imposition of heavy reparations on Germany." One may take issue with the substance of that remark, but in any case, it does not fit with the idea that the well-being of the US economy was independent of the outcome of the war.

Even Buchanan's imaginary horribles are incompatible. He asks, "Will we be forever ensnared in entangling alliances that will involve us and bleed us in every new war on the Eurasian land mass until we are as diminished as the other powers of the 20th century?" Then he asks a few paragraphs later, "Will America endure a free independent republic, or become the North American province of a new world order as the globalists ardently desire?" So what is the danger? Attrition of the US to a regional power in a world of regional powers, or a universal empire? Both things cannot happen at once. This method is known as "arguing in the alternative." Incompatible arguments are perfectly acceptable in a legal brief, but when the arguments are supposed to be drawn from the same historical precedents, they amount to shooting yourself in the foot.

Readers of this book may sometimes get the impression that Mr. Buchanan realizes that he should be using a strategic theory against which to measure the performance of US foreign policy, but that he does not know how to make one. The standard he purports to use is the "vital interest": the US should not go to war, or commit itself to do so, unless one of its "vital interests" is at stake. The problem is that this standard, as it is applied in the book, is singularly contentless. Thus, for instance, the German occupation of France in 1940 did not threaten a US vital interest, since the US could not be threatened from France's Atlantic ports. (Regarding the Second World War as a whole, the sentences most cited by reviewers are the astonishing statement: "If there had been a point of maximum peril for America in the war in Europe, it was the summer of 1940, after France had been overrun and England seemed about to be invaded, with the possible scuttling or loss of the British fleet. But after the Royal Air Force won the Battle of Britain, the German invasion threat was history.") On the other hand, he says that the Vietnam War was a reasonable part of a containment strategy that was indeed in the service of a vital interest. One can argue that the Vietnam War was justified, but it is very difficult to see how the issues at stake there were more immediate than those at stake in Europe in 1940.

Buchanan does make one attempt to define "vital interests." Walter Lippmann, it seems, once called them "those interests which the people of the nation are agreed they must defend at the risk of their lives," a formula the book seems to endorse. This "definition" suggests that the standard is a matter of cultural psychology rather than, say, geography or military potential. For myself, I would suggest that a "vital interest" is something such that, if you lose it, you are dead. They are literally the last thing a nation should fight for, since when they come into play a nation is fighting for its life. Wars should be fought to prevent vital interests from ever coming into question.

There is in fact a conceptual standard that runs through the book, but it is mythological rather than strategic. According to Mircea Eliade, a myth is a story that occurs outside normal time. "In illo tempore," "in that time," "once upon a time," that is when the stories are set in which nations are founded, rituals are instituted, and even the universe is created. There is nothing irrational about myths in this sense. The acts they describe, particularly the stories of how a community was founded, may be largely or wholly historical. The function of the myth is to provide a model for how people who live in ordinary time should act. The creation text to which Buchanan adverts throughout the book is Washington's Farewell Address.

The "Address" was actually a written statement, prepared by Washington and his advisers, in which he announced he would not run for a third term as president. It was distributed to the press in the fall of 1796. Washington took the opportunity to briefly review the state of the nation and to give some advice. At the end of the Address are several paragraphs dealing with foreign affairs, which at that time consisted largely of the attempt by the US to avoid involvement in the wars resulting from the French Revolution. The president suggested that the US would do best to stay out of the whole business. The US government should not enter into permanent alliances, though of course it might enter into temporary alliances as occasion warranted, and it should honor any agreements it reached. Even more important, considering the degree to which foreign policy had become an element of factional domestic politics, Washington enjoined the people themselves not to pick favorites among the participants in foreign wars. Rather, the US should take advantage of the great asset of geographical isolation to remain at peace while conducting business as usual. This was sound advice, and it is too bad the US did not stick with it throughout the whole civilizational crisis of the Revolutionary-Napoleonic period. (Oddly, Buchanan approves of the War of 1812 with Great Britain, though it was the single stupidest thing the US ever did, not excluding the establishment of the Strategic Helium Reserve.)

As Buchanan correctly observes, the US has at no time been isolationist. Rather, through most of the 19th century, its "foreign policy" consisted primarily of measures to promote westward expansion. Aside from trade issues, the US government dealt with other nations almost exclusively in support of that goal. The policy was not imperialist, in Buchanan's reckoning, because it did not involve the annexation of territories with large, culturally alien populations. According to Buchanan, the process of nation-building essentially ended in 1867, when the US bought Alaska from the Russians. The US was then a "completed nation," and he attributes the completion to following Washington's advice.

It is hard to see how this could be the case. In the 19th century, the US did not have the ability to be a factor in European affairs, even if it had wanted to. Even allowing that the Farewell Address was the best foreign-policy charter for the age of expansion, it is impossible to see what relevance it could have after the expansion was complete and the significance of geography was vastly diminished. To make the Farewell Address the perpetual constitution of US foreign policy is to turn statecraft into superstition.

The fall from grace for the US, in the view of Buchanan and others, was the Spanish-American War of 1898. This was a consciously imperialist enterprise. It occurred in an age when imperialism was generally considered to be a good thing, but it did sit poorly with the traditions of a country that had come into being by declaring its natural right to secede from an empire. Nevertheless, Buchanan does a poor critique of the policy that led to the war. As is the case throughout the book, he favors dramatic theories that have long-since been abandoned by serious historians, and usually does not mention that there may be alternative explanations. Despite what Buchanan says, it is not at all clear that the clamor of the sensationalist press was a fundamental cause of the war. For that matter, although it is not certain that a Spanish mine destroyed the US battleship Maine while it was anchored at Havana harbor, the last round of investigations with which I am familiar concluded that a mine probably was responsible.

All of this is only prologue to Buchanan's discussion of US foreign policy in the 20th century, particularly the first half of the period. Buchanan is chiefly concerned to explain, as we have seen, why US participation in both world wars was unnecessary. You can do this only by being very selective in the historians you quote. Regarding the First World War, Buchanan seems never to have heard of Fritz Fisher and the debate he started 40 years ago on the scope of the ambitions of Wilhelmine Germany. Regarding the Second, Buchanan has heard of A.J.P. Taylor, and he takes care to quote Taylor's silliest speculations about how the world would have been a better place, if only Hitler had been encouraged to direct his energies eastward, leaving Western Europe alone.

There is in fact an argument to made that the US should have kept out of the First World War, even if that meant tolerating precocious German hegemony in Europe. Buchanan does not cite Niall Ferguson's "The Pity of War," but he makes a similar argument. Buchanan says that, had the Germans won the First World War, most of the bad things that have happened in the 20th century would never have occurred. There would have been no Treaty of Versailles, no Nazi Party, and no Holocaust. There would also have been no Soviet Union, because the victorious German government would not long have tolerated a radical Communist state to the east of the Brest-Litovsk line. (This is, by the way, another instance of one of Buchanan's assertions being a perfect stranger to another: he says that the entry of Poland into NATO is an intolerable affront to Russian pride, but he sees nothing wrong with turning the Ukraine into a German colony.) This is a wonderful subject for counterfactual speculation, but here let me raise just one point to which Buchanan should have been sensitive.

Whatever else would have happened had Germany won the First World War, one thing that would surely have happened is that America would have become an anachronism. The Great Republic, which Buchanan is so eager to preserve, would have been merely the chief specimen of a class of political society that had been tried and found wanting. That was certainly how the elite circles in Germany saw the war, as a contest between the liberal democracies of the West and the Hegelian state as embodied in Germany. That was also how people in France and England saw it.

Doubtless, had the British fleet ceased to be the most powerful European force in the Atlantic, the US could have built the super-navy necessary to contest with Germany for the allegiance of the Latin American republics. (That there would have been such a contest is a very good bet, considering the state of opinion in Latin America and the history of German interest in the area.) However, the super-navy would have been defending a country that was part of a civilization substantially different from the one we know. The ideas that came, not just from Berlin, but from London and Paris, would have changed the way that Americans saw their own society, just as European ideas had affected American culture since the first settlers got off the boat. In many ways, the 20th century we know was very terrible, but the United States at least had a substantial role in defining how it developed, probably for the better. Certainly it has coaxed the world into adopting many of the ideas of the American founding. In the world Buchanan describes, an entity called the United States might have still existed by the end of the 20th century, but the coaxing would have gone the other way.

As for the Second World War and the debates about US participation in it, Buchanan's arguments seem to be so much a mere pastiche of debater's points that there is no central thesis to engage. This book has been much criticized for defending the America First movement, which was an important force in American politics until the very morning Pearl Harbor was bombed. Traditional historiography dismisses it as nativist, antisemitic and crypto-fascist, and for all I know Buchanan is right in saying that its reputation has been undeservedly blackened. I have not read the literature. In any case, the matter is irrelevant to what the United States should have done in the 1930s and 40s. The real question, in this context, is what the United States would have had to do, and to have endured, to have stayed at peace during the wars of conquest by Germany and Japan.

The war in the Pacific was always more popular in the US than was the war in the European theater, perhaps in part for racial reasons, but certainly because the Japanese struck first. Buchanan does not say that the Roosevelt Administration deliberately invited an attack on Pearl Harbor, but he does suggest that the Administration deliberately placed Japan in a position where it had to choose between a dishonorable retreat to the home islands and a desperate advance to the strategic resources of the southeast. Yet again, we are presented with an instance where one section of the book seems to be wholly disconnected from another. In the discussion of the acquisition of the Philippines, Buchanan notes, correctly, that the islands were never properly fortified against the possibility of a war with Japan. He suggests US participation in the Pacific war was therefore fundamentally caused by the improvident imperialism of the McKinley Administration. On the other hand, he also complains that the proximate cause of the war was the oil embargo imposed on Japan by the Roosevelt Administration in 1941.

The way to peace in the Pacific between the United States and Japan in the 1940s was clear enough, according to Buchanan. All the US had to do was continue to supply Japan with oil for the occupation of northern and coastal China. Japan, for its part, would then have forborne to attack the possessions and dependencies of the United States. This comes from a man who also says that the honor of the United States was impugned by its failure to assert its rights as a neutral against Great Britain between 1914 and 1917.

Regarding the war in Europe, it is possible to imagine worlds in which Russia and Germany fought each other to the death over the corpse of Poland. Maybe Hitler really had no "vital interest" in Western Europe, and would have proceeded east without securing his rear. Maybe, having conquered France and starved Britain into vassalage, the Nazi empire would have contented itself with dominion over western Eurasia and north Africa. It is a weariness to the soul to consider what Hitler and his hypothetical successors might have intended, just as it is to imagine what Stalin's plans for the future might have been when he arrived in Paris, having defeated the Germans single-handed. It is a sure bet, however, that any of these scenarios would have produced a world substantially worse than the one the United States faced in 1945.

Why does Buchanan wish to turn the clock back to the beginning of the perilous 20th century? By his own account, it is to "recapture our freedom of action and to restore a traditional foreign policy." The problem here is that the author is implicitly accepting the negative notion of freedom, the idea that we are most free when each of our acts is not constrained by our prior acts. This model of freedom works very well in those games, such as poker, in which each transaction starts afresh, without having been modified by the decisions the players have made before.

History does not work like that. It is more like a chess game, or a boxing match. The players are changed by the decisions they make, as is the game itself. A decision that makes good sense at one point in the game is madness at another. In the phenomenological tradition, these constraints imposed by the past do not diminish our freedom. Rather, they are the embodiment of its exercise.

The application to geopolitics is obvious. It was through the exercise of their freedom that the nations of the international system produced the shaky monopolar world that we see today. Many of the key choices were made by the United States itself, and they cannot be taken back. If the United States were to attempt to act as if those choices had never been made, it would not be regaining its freedom of action. Such a policy would be the indulgence of a fantasy that, in the real world, would mean impotence.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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