How the U.S. decided to lead the world. Wertheim on the transformation of American internationalism

RevDem Editor Ferenc Laczó spoke to Stephen Wertheim, Director of Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and Visiting Faculty Fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School, about his new book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Diplomacy. The book explores the moment in which the US decided to lead the post-war world and become the global hegemon – a pivotal decision in the origins of our time. 

Ferenc Laczó: Tomorrow, the World explores a highly consequential and surprisingly little understood moment in history: the United States’ turn to global supremacy. Before we discuss your key arguments and their implications more directly, could I ask what motivated you to focus on the historical moment of World War II? How would you describe the intellectual context of your scholarship? What were the stories that Americans told themselves about their rise to global ascendance that you wished to re-examine?

Stephen Wertheim: I didn’t really set out to write a book about World War II but came to that period because I sensed that it was the most consequential and pivotal event to understand America’s place in the world. The more I read the literature about it, the more frustrated I became, because it is suffused with the premise that World War II was “the good war”. After reading a very interesting set of debates about the early Cold War, in which scholars questioned why the Cold War began and why future wars like Vietnam became all but inevitable as a result of US strategy, I realized that World War II seemed to have eluded this kind of critical analysis due to this idea that it was such a righteous war. 

The basic narrative I received in school, from American culture more broadly, and even from scholarship, is that an isolationist US reluctantly entered World War II after a surprise attack from Japan on the US military base of Pearl Harbor forced it to do so. Having learned its lesson, the US then resolved never to let such an event repeat itself. It embraced internationalism and rules-based leadership on a global scale. As I got into the research, I realized that the story I have just described was either wrong or badly incomplete. 

Your book focuses on how concepts were generated, how they were wielded in political battle and then suffused in national consciousness. Let us examine the conceptual level more closely. You offer a new history of ideas of internationalism and discuss how they changed as part of the coinage of the term “isolationism” starting in the 1930s. Would you care to elaborate upon the history of US internationalisms and how this new opposition to “isolationism” has come to shape it?

For a historian of US foreign relations, I have a somewhat unusual proclivity for conceptual history. This means that I want to understand what concepts meant to the actors in real time, and how the use of these concepts changed over time. The standard narrative of the US role in World War II holds that in 1945 the US embraced internationalism and finally abandoned isolationism. This basic dualism immediately raised a set of questions: where did it come from and why were so many actors deploying it at the time? Why did the internationalism/isolationism dualism shape future historiography and popular consciousness? 

My first finding was that internationalism as a category arose in the 19th century and was closely associated in its usage with concepts of peace and the transcendence of power politics. For most Americans who used the term internationalism before the 1930s – including some prominent Presidents of the United States – its main antonym was nationalism. Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, wanted to strike a balance between “sound nationalism and sound internationalism”. A few radicals even wanted internationalism to overtake nationalism. 

What is interesting is that, at a time when the concept of isolationism had not yet entered the picture, the meaning of internationalism was not about the US projecting military power, but rather about finding ways to avoid war or even transcend the system that produces it. 

My second main finding was that isolationism as a concept was essentially invented in the 1930s; it started being widely used only at that time. For example, it was first used in Congress in 1935. It was used as an epithet and was renounced by the people it was meant to describe. The people termed “isolationists” wanted the US to stay out of war, or any commitment to go to war, outside of the Western hemisphere. It was this desire to dominate only this part of the globe that led their opponents to call them “isolationists”. 

The real importance of the term isolationism, therefore, is not in telling us something about the people it described. Rather, it transformed the concept of internationalism. It allowed global military dominance – a new program that emerged only in World War II – to become defined as the essential quality of internationalism. By positioning itself against isolationism, the US could now claim to dominate the world and cooperate with it at the same time.

The transformation of the concept of pacifism is telling. Pacifism was positively associated with the concept of internationalism before the 1930s, to the extent that when he called himself an internationalist, Theodore Roosevelt had to actively disassociate himself from pacifists. In the 1930s and during World War II, however, pacifism switched sides conceptually; a pacifist came to be classified as an isolationist and thus as the opposite of an internationalist. 

You highlight in your book that the United States’ decision to attain armed primacy and global dominance involved a choice that was made in response to the fall of France in 1940 and the threat of a Nazi-dominated Europe, and a choice that might thus also be unmade. At the same time, you discuss trends leading up to this moment of decision. How large was the expansion in the way US interests and responsibilities were defined during World War II? To what extent was the US decision to make extra-hemispheric political-military commitments a turning point that went against previous traditions? Conversely, in what sense might this decision be viewed as an integral part of the rise of the US to global pre-eminence in the 19th and 20th centuries? 

My view is that what happened during World War II – specifically during the 18 months between the fall of France in 1940 and the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941 – was a massive redefinition of US interests and responsibilities in the world. I believe that the extent of this redefinition was greater than at any other moment in US history, although I realize that some may reasonably disagree. It was a greater redefinition than what occurred at the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, which has received so much historiographical attention. 

Now, you could narrate this history in a familiar way that contradicts my view of a pivotal moment of redefinition. This narrative would focus on the expansion of the US from 13 colonies to its incorporation of the territory across North America into the federal Union. Then the country rose to become a colonial power in 1898 with the takeover of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. You would then say that America entered World War I and was propelled to engage with the rest of the world by Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Ignoring the 1920s and 1930s, you would conclude the narrative by saying that these developments inexorably led the United States to expand its political-military role globally during World War II. 

While all these facts are true, they form a very partial history. First, the narrative leaves out the fact that, prior to World War II, even the strongest advocates of global intervention – such as Woodrow Wilson – sought to avoid US involvement in so-called political-military entanglements in Europe and Asia. For Wilson, the main aim of the League of Nations was to create a “disentangling alliance,” in his phrase, that would prevent the US from routinely having to go to war. This is why so many pacifists supported the League of Nations, and why support for it collapsed once it came to look like a vehicle for sanctions and war in the 1930s.  

Second, this narrative ignores the fact that support for non-entanglement was growing in the 1920s and 1930s and remained dominant into the beginning of World War II. Post-war planners, early in 1940, agreed that the US would confine itself to its own hemispheric sphere of dominance once the war ended; it was almost unimaginable that the US would cast off hemispheric restrictions on its projection of military power. 

It was only the contingency of the fall of France that forced an unprecedented choice upon the US: now the United States could either seek to create an American-style liberal world order, enjoying its own terms of interaction with regard to commerce, law, and the like, or it could maintain a hemispheric definition of its vital interests, retaining its traditional non-entanglement posture towards Europe and Asia. 

Prominent Americans involved in the America First Committee advocated maintaining the non-entanglement stance, hoping that great powers in Europe and Asia would reach a balance and avoid Axis domination. Most American officials and intellectuals, however, preferred to pursue a favorable world order at the expense of abandoning the non-entanglement principle, thus accepting a US responsibility to maintain this favorable order across the globe. It is therefore perfectly plausible that the non-entanglement tradition might have continued if another President had been in power or if events had followed a different sequence – for example, if the threat of Axis domination had been less realistic. 

Your detailed exploration of the years of World War II focuses primarily on the US foreign policy elite and policymakers. You describe how US elites saw themselves as members of a small cohort of people who governed the world and that they could think of themselves as American, Anglophone, white, Western, or civilized. How would you characterize this foreign policy elite, its world of institutions and key activities? What difference did the various identity options I have just mentioned make? 

One of the unusual aspects of my book is that I pay attention to foreign policy elites who were not formally part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, whereas diplomatic histories tend to focus on President Roosevelt and his top lieutenants. I considered it important to explore the views of this wider foreign policy elite because they were the ones who played the greatest role in reimagining America’s post-war role even before the war broke out. The State Department at that time was very small and did not have enough staff to engage in long-term planning. For this reason, members of the Council of Foreign Relations went down to Washington soon after the war broke out and suggested that they could take over post-war planning, taking guidance from the State Department and funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Their suggestion was accepted. Attempts to imagine the post-war world took place in several other institutions as well, including universities such as Yale and Princeton. 

For this reason, it is important to understand the landscape of the foreign policy elite at that time. There were some think tanks that are still with us today, but sociologically it was a very different world. The actors were much more homogeneous in composition – predominantly white, Protestant males, although some women were involved. Foreign policy elites were also less specialized in international affairs. Foreign policy was often something they engaged with on the side while pursuing careers in business, politics or law, whereas nowadays it is a highly specialized career. A unique part of this story is that the State Department was so small that it created an opportunity for these “semi-officials” to have a lot of influence, whereas the US government today is not short of bureaucrats across many different departments to engage in strategic planning. 

In terms of how elites identified themselves – be it as white, Anglophone, Western or part of universal civilization – my book suggests that on one level it all amounted to the same thing: by 1940, they all converged around the position that the US should exert political-military leadership on a global scale. 

However, there were some interesting variations. The intellectual Walter Lippmann, for example, was an enthusiast of Anglo-American solidarity specifically, making him more skeptical of universally oriented institutions such as the United Nations. My book really highlights this Anglophone identity, which came to the fore in 1941 as America and Britain stood together in opposing the Axis. Some post-war planners had an openly racist affiliation with Anglo-Saxons, casting them as much more sympathetic than Latin Americans, who had been part of the traditional unit that the US was supposed to identify with since the Monroe Doctrine. 

In 1941 planners devised the first conception of US post-war leadership, an “American-British” scheme whereby both countries would police the post-war world. This conception ultimately broadened to include the Soviet Union and then the rest of the United Nations. However, it is interesting to note that in 1941 even some relative Anglophobes, such as Vice-President Henry Wallace, supported the American-British plan. There was no direct, unchanging correspondence between the policy elites’ international identities and the policies they espoused. 

You show that the rise of totalitarian regimes and their imperial conquests caused US elites to lose faith in the project of overcoming the reign of force through international law and organization. They now argued that a global environment open to liberal intercourse was a vital US interest and required defending by force. When I look back at the history you reconstruct from today’s perspective, from the perspective of our post-Cold War era, what appears to me in need of special explanation is that limitations on the use of force have continued to be presented as “isolationist” disengagement even after the Soviet collapse. How would you account for the fact that the US did not really rethink key axioms of its global role after 1991 and continued to overinvest in its military?

This is a question worthy of another book. There is one aspect of the answer that I could draw from my book: the US lost any kind of sympathetic memory of its earlier tradition which warned of the dangers of military entanglement in conflicts in which the US did not have direct interests. That entire tradition has been labelled as “isolationist” and consigned to the dustbin. Policymakers after the end of the Cold War had a very clear idea that the US had been wrong in espousing “isolationism” after WWI and right in embracing “internationalism” after World War II. They therefore believed that they had to stick to the latter path, even though the threat of totalitarian conquest had disappeared.

I’m not enough of an idealist to believe that this is the only explanation. After all, if American policymakers had been motivated to dig deeper into their past and understand it better, they could have done so. So, part of the explanation is certainly what President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex”, which had vested interests in the US being highly active militarily on a global scale. 

In addition, it is crucial to note that the 1990s were unique in that the US cut defense spending throughout the decade and still emerged as perhaps more powerful than ever due to the situation of its competitors. Russia was in the middle of a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful transition to liberal-capitalist democracy, while China was still very poor. 

The cost for the US to pursue global dominance seemed low, especially given Francis Fukuyama’s end of history narrative, which seemed to imply that the US would not have to follow through on its military commitments as all countries became peaceful, liberal democracies. Critics of interventionism thus had trouble criticizing the risks of security commitments. Now, however, we are coming out of that “unipolar moment,” which is why alternatives are gaining steam. 

Some advocate that the US should engage in great power competition against a rising China, while others advocate military restraint centered on national defense, without far-flung military alliances and deployments. 

When I read your book, I had the distinct sense that I was reading about the origins of our time, and that you have written a deeply researched historical monograph which also makes a timely intervention; I had the sense that your book is an attempt to reopen a desperately needed debate. Would you say that such a debate is finally taking place these days? How do you view the chances of a serious rethinking of US foreign policy and its axioms?

There is a public debate taking place on these issues to an extent I would not have expected a decade ago. One symptom is the rise of “endless war” as a widespread complaint, beginning at a grassroots level and subsequently adopted by the last Republican president and the current Democratic president. I think it is remarkable for so many Americans to say that America’s own war-making lacks a sense of limits and is one of the main problems of foreign policy today. 

At the same time that military restraint is being advocated, there is also increasing concern about the rise of China and what it means for the US. If only due to the reality of the power shifts in the world away from the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s, there will be significant rethinking and policy change. Indeed, it is happening already. The question is what kind of change will prevail. 

If I had to make a wager, I would expect that what will prevail are the changes that are most compatible with the status quo. That would mean a focus on competition with China. Opposing China could justify just about any action the US wants to undertake, including expanding military budgets and maintaining alliances around the world. The narrative of “great power competition” is already being used to justify US military intervention in Africa. If the current moment bears any similarities to the Cold War, we need only look at the original version, where a conflict that could have confined itself to Europe ended up magnifying an array of global conflicts and crises. 

Nevertheless, my book does show that change can happen quickly and in a way that contemporaries do not expect. Americans need only look a little into their past to recover insightful warnings against becoming entangled militarily in conflicts. I would be one of the least surprised people in Washington if the US does end up significantly reducing its military role in the world in the next decade or two. 

I fear this might happen if the US is confronted with the choice of backing down from a commitment or facing conflict with a great power and potentially unleashing World War III. In a moment like that, the costs of a large US role in the world will become apparent: alliances will no longer look like forms of cooperation, but rather like burdens that risk great power war. I do not want such a crisis to occur. 

That is why it would be better for the US to make prudent pullbacks before a crisis arises. However, if US leaders continue to treat US military dominance as permanent, moralizing about the “indispensable nation” and “sacred alliances”, then I fear we might face a terrible crisis in the future. 

The transcript has been slightly modified.

In collaboration with Virginia Crespi de Valldaura and Oliver Garner.

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