The rationality and utility of the concept informing American strategy or grand strategy since World War II, in some sense merely an elaboration of simple practical wisdom in relation to geographical facts of life, as much a result as an intention, or as much objective as subjective, have been taken to have been confirmed repeatedly, painfully, and incontrovertibly by historical experience. American opinion, as expressed via accountable democratic processes, has accepted and ratified this strategy or strategic premise – or, less pretentiously, this general approach to America’s peculiar position in the world – as on balance both materially successful and morally defensible. Both the American strategy and the popular acceptance of it by Americans have defined the status quo as well as a durable center of gravity in international relations and global affairs for three generations.
We can therefore re-frame the argument made previously in relation to “conventional wisdom” and electoral politics: Those prejudicially applying the terms “militarist” and “interventionist” to that strategy and its realization in American policy are implicitly seeking to alter both, to impeach them morally, and to overturn them. The desire for an alternative has influenced major elections and nominating processes, and to have undercut major political initiatives.
Thus, for example, the compromise that finally ended debt limit and related budget brinksmanship apparently turned on miscalculations regarding the sacrosanctity of defense budgets to Republicans. In another signal moment for the Obama Administration, its reversal on Syria policy – a moment when, apparently to the President’s surprise, the command “never again!” received no resounding echo from the American populace – was likewise a discovery by praxis of the same alteration in the substructure of American policy. This change or possible change has, of course, been nowhere more evident than in the recently concluded 2016 election campaigns, won by the “America First” nominee and his sometimes reluctant party against a representative of the liberal-internationalist status quo, literally the former Secretary of State, seemingly the very incarnation of globalism under American leadership at this moment.
The Syria reversal and the 2016 electoral campaigns are two of the clearest indicators or realizations of a long-developing loss of American foreign policy coherence, even if the inherited “militarist” and “interventionist” policy may remain the default position, or revivable, for a long time yet to come. That opponents of President Obama’s proposed and withdrawn punitive strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad would have included many of the same people, including many who count or counted themselves Obama supporters, who were thrilled by Donald Trump’s attacks on George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, underlines the uncertainties of this moment: Members of that virtual coalition will be found dissatisfied or appalled by each other’s preferred alternatives to the two-sided neo-conservative and liberal-internationalist consensus, since those alternatives, ranging from left or right neo-isolationism and pacifism to one or another so-called Jacksonian, bloody-minded version of “more rubble, less trouble,” “Let Allah sort it out,” or “Build the Wall – Kill ‘Em All,” could not be more contradictory in spirit.
At the very obvious very least, the memory of the World Wars, along with those who observed them firsthand, is disappearing, and, if members of the present younger generation in particular seem unable to articulate or comprehend the basis of a still operative policy consensus, they can hardly be faulted if their elders, even those running for the highest office in the land, can no longer do so either. We seem to be preparing and in effect demanding – perhaps cannot help but to require – a repetition, or at least a reinforcement, of the very old lesson. Yet the ancient adage on wanting peace merely deploys irony on behalf of practical wisdom in general, or mastery by indirection of a rule of unintended consequence: An adage is not a policy prescription. The adage does not tell us what level of investment would be adequately “para bellum” to get us the desired “pacem.” Nor does it tell us whom we should count as primary enemies, nor what to do when we suspect the enemies are among us, or suspect that we ourselves are indeed the ones we were really waiting for.
Nor in all likelihood, if possibly for us or anyone, would we be or remain able to apply the ancient wisdom unless collectively responding to a fear felt deeply, down to the roots, as inescapable experience rather than abstraction, or the inexorable replacement of “never again” by “again and again,” or even their convergence.
“The World around the United States” map was originally created for The National Atlas of the United States of America (1970), a U.S. Government publication.
The famous animated musical sequence, based on the popular song by Dick Robertson and the American Four, is from the cartoon “Fifth Column Mouse” (1943) – an expression, almost a recapitulation, of Americanism at its zenith.