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Warfare State (Review Essay)

The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities 
by John J. Mearsheimer.
Yale, 320 pp., £20, November 2018, 978 0 300 23419 0

Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition 
by David Hendrickson.
Oxford, 304 pp., £25.49, December 2017, 978 0 19 066038 3

If​ you’ve been following White House briefings and mainstream US media over the past four years, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trump has radically rewritten US foreign policy. In fact, despite Trump’s pledges to extract American soldiers from foreign conflicts, troop numbers have barely fallen overall and have risen in the Persian Gulf. The administration has been presented as ‘isolationist’ yet has agreed bilateral trade deals around the world and strengthened ties with Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia – three traditional partners – while undertaking major war games against Russia and China. This year’s Defender Europe 20 would have been the US army’s largest exercise on the continent in 25 years if Covid-19 hadn’t limited its scope. It’s hard to detect any measurable change in approach. Even Trump’s attempt to pressure Beijing into abandoning industrial measures that allegedly give it an unfair advantage in international trade have ample precedent in Reagan’s 1980s trade war with Japan. If Trump can make any claim to uniqueness, it may be that, once his record on Covid-19 is factored in, he is the only postwar US president whose administration is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than foreigners. During this year’s presidential campaign, while the gap on domestic policy has widened, any hint of foreign policy differences between Trump and Biden has evaporated as they each homed in on the status quo. Both have promised to end America’s ‘endless wars’ even as they ratchet up their anti-China tirades and cling to the notion of America as leader of the free world.

The early years of US foreign policy were focused on dominating the North American landmass. Native populations were liquidated; vast territories were purchased from European states; border disputes were stitched up through legal manoeuvrings. The fledgling US state conducted a few experiments further afield. In 1821, a proto-NGO, the American Colonisation Society, annexed a large tract of West Africa (‘Liberia’) in an effort to relocate free blacks away from the American mainland. When US farmers developed a taste for bat excrement later in the century – as chronicled by Daniel Immerwahr in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) – the US navy acquired a series of ‘guano islands’ in the Pacific to fuel the domestic boom in agriculture. The Philippines and Puerto Rico, along with other smaller spoils from the Spanish-American War, became laboratories for medical experimentation, police training, sweatshops, napalm and nuclear trials. Closer to home, American forces twice failed to take Quebec (‘a mere matter of marching’, Jefferson said before the second attempt in 1812). The Aroostook skirmish with Britain might have extended the state of Maine to the north, and in the south Cuba hovered as a perpetual state in waiting, ‘indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself’, as John Quincy Adams described it in 1823. In imitation of British freelance imperialists such as James Brooke, the ‘white rajah’ who ruled the state of Sarawak on Borneo as a private fiefdom in the mid-19th century, America produced its own brand of freebooters, including William Walker, the Tennessee doctor who conquered and ruled Nicaragua for ten months and decimated the population of Costa Rica.

Until the end of the 19th century the US state was in no position to undertake imperial projects outside its region, and its projected sphere of interest was always vulnerable to European incursions. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared the Americas, from Tacoma to Tierra del Fuegooff limits to European meddling, but it was more an aspiration than a threat backed by credible force. Britain’s subsequent declaration of crown colonies in Honduras and the Falklands called America’s bluff. The first comprehensive plan for a US sphere of influence secured by military might was put forward by Southern senators in the lead-up to the Civil War. They believed the American future lay in alliances with the slave states of Cuba and Brazil. Only by ending the slave trade, thereby insulating themselves against British ambitions, could ideal slave societies flourish. These societies would reproduce slaves from the existing populations, avoiding the investment required for African ventures or the arrival of market-crippling immigrant wage-workers. (One South Carolina senator wondered about sending a US squadron to the Ganges to threaten Britain’s own supply of cheap labour.) A great irony of the Civil War, as the historian Matthew Karp has shown, is that the very senators who built up the military to provide a protected sphere for slavery had to fight a war against their own creation. Deep inside the state of São Paulo, one can still find traces of the confederados, the defeated Dixie soldiers who took refuge in Latin America after the war and started small slave colonies. Their Brazilian descendants honour them with fancy-dress pageants.

The first signs of a new American dispensation came with Woodrow Wilson, who considered Central America a field for democratic tutelage, with interventions between 1913 and 1916 in Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. ‘We have with armed force invaded, made war upon, and conquered the two small republics,’ Teddy Roosevelt wrote, ‘have upset their governments, have denied them the right of self-determination, and have made democracy within their limits not merely unsafe but non-existent.’ Wilson was, he thought, only making the world safe for hypocrisy. But despite Wilson’s readiness to treat the Americas as a privileged sphere for US interests, US global primacy was not on his imaginative horizon. His administration sent troops to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks, but Wilson himself had been disenchanted with regime change since 1915, when US military attempts to force Victoriano Huerta from power in Mexico led to a fierce backlash against American interference. He entered the US into the First World War not in order to spread democracy but simply to defeat Germany and to keep the empires of the white race from annihilating one another. The League of Nations was his preferred vehicle for three purposes: it would wrest the monopoly on ‘internationalism’ away from the Bolsheviks, steer European states away from the barbarism of ‘power politics’ and manage the spoils of the German and Ottoman empires.

The notion that the US might have to exercise more than hemispheric control became urgent during the Second World War, as Stephen Wertheim has recently shown in Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy. After the Fall of France, US war planners began to consider the implications of living in a world of protected economic zones, with Europe under Hitler’s control and East Asia integrated into Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere – and the Soviet Union crushed between them. The problem wasn’t that the US economy was in jeopardy – foreign trade still made up only a small part of it – but that the future of capitalism in general would be undermined by large, regionally protected blocs. Roosevelt and those around him still believed that spheres of interest, which they now euphemised as ‘regionalism’, were inevitable. Sumner Welles, Roosevelt’s foreign policy adviser, wrote a textbook preparing American citizens for a world of ‘four policemen’: the US, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China. A new Eastern European Federation would prevent the Soviet Union from any place in Europe, and the creation of the United Nations would prepare the US public for a global role. The prominence afforded in this thinking to China – then suffering civil war and crippling poverty, its own future territorial integrity far from guaranteed – may seem surprising. Although Roosevelt was surrounded by people who believed that China might have a Christian future, Churchill was probably right to suspect that it had been given a seat on the UN Security Council as a ‘faggot vote’ for US interests.

Read entire article at London Review of Books