How America Chose Supremacy

History’s importance lies not only in the past events it describes, but in the way its narrative frames present-day choices and the underlying assumptions justifying them. American foreign policy offers a case in point. Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously called the United States “the indispensable nation” during a 1998 interview on the grounds that “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.” Her justification of post-Cold War primacy evoked language from the protracted struggle with the Soviet Union before 1989, but it broke with a much older tradition that saw America having, in President Benjamin Harrison’s words, “no commission from God to police the world.” What changed and why?

Stephen Wertheim finds answers to those pivotal questions in America’s responses to the challenge Germany posed in the early 1940s. Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy traces decisions that reshaped both foreign policy and public debate on America’s place in the world. Rather than accept a balance of power within a multi-power world, maintain a British-led system, or work though international organizations not beholden to any single country, key figures chose to make the United States the dominant global power, Wertheim argues. A larger paradigm shift redefined internationalism as an American-dominated liberal order. Subsequently writing anyone who took a different view out of mainstream accounts gave that system a sense of inevitability that persists today.

Equating internationalism with armed interventionism and casting restraint as the abdication of responsibility for global order, in Wertheim’s phrase, “stifled political debate from 1945 onward.” Politicians “may disagree over discrete episodes—whether to intervene in one place or another,” but they largely take global primacy for granted and present choices in those terms. Wertheim, a Columbia University-trained historian with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is part of an effort to rethink American foreign policy that spans the ideological spectrum and has a centrist grounding. A key part of that task, he maintains, consists of tracing the steps behind the choice for primacy to show both its costs and the paths not taken.

Wertheim accordingly presents the before-and-after picture of American thinking without taking concepts generated by the winning side as neutral guideposts. Presenting the story as it unfolded instead of retrospectively brings key decisions into focus and reveals subsequently neglected views that carried weight at the time. It also confronts why the same figures who resisted commitments beyond the Western Hemisphere before 1940 turned to pursuing them globally and, further, why officials and intellectuals alike decided economic and cultural openness required an American led system backed by military force. Even readers who question Wertheim’s premises or differ from him on current policy will find much to learn in a concise, jargon-free study grounded on careful research.

American Restraint

Wertheim’s picture of American engagement with the world highlights a tension he perceives in practice between an exceptionalism that set the United States apart as a model of republican liberty and an internationalism promising a global order shaped by reason and rules instead of force and whim: Exceptionalism, he insists, marks the country as unique while internationalism makes it one nation among many. But standing apart from Europe’s system of power politics offered an alternative to it much as America’s republican liberty did on matters of internal government. His view fits the legalistic approach of the founders and later generations with their emphasis on reciprocity as the basis for international relations along with George Washington’s encouragement for “liberal intercourse with all nations” in the Farewell Address drafted by Alexander Hamilton. It leaves out, however, parts of the story that underline an ongoing commitment to restraint.

Although foreign allies had been pivotal to securing independence, Washington and others saw dangers. Besides risking dominance by a more powerful patron, alliances could be transmission mechanisms for conflicts and draw partners into wars that offered them little to gain but much to lose. Americans rarely hesitated to defend perceived interests unilaterally with hard power. The so-called “Quasi War” with France during John Adams administration and clashes with Barbary Pirates under Jefferson protected American trade from disruption in the belief that anything less than force invited further pressure. Reciprocity, understood as equal terms of access and mutual recognition, was a guiding principle in foreign policy, springing from an awareness of vulnerabilities and a prickly sense of national honor along with a commitment to principles of international law. Unilateral action in all but exceptional circumstances—and even then for a limited time—put the principle into practice. Independence required force to back claims while minimizing exposure to war. American diplomacy struck that balance, staying out of European rivalries while securing the expansion of a continental republic.

The fall of France and the prospect that Britain would face defeat next shocked Americans at least as much as Pearl Harbor.

Wertheim links internationalism, a term that became prominent during the 1860s and 70s, with efforts by older peace societies to promote a rule-based system that would resolve disputes peacefully, but these programs did not operate in tension with the conservative post-Napoleonic balance of power, as he suggests. Both sought to limit conflict, with the latter having far more practical success. The United States joined efforts to promote arbitration as “international society” extended beyond Europe and its overseas diaspora. Lawyers in the United States, notably Elihu Root, Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, took a leading part in setting the tone for American diplomacy in the early 20th century. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for mediating between Russia and Japan. ”Involvement, however, did not mean armed intervention or an unlimited American commitment, but reforming the system to avoid or at least contain conflicts.

World War I exposed the limits to those hopes. American intervention as an associated rather than allied power marked a turning point—but not one toward supremacy or prolonged direct engagement in Europe. Congress refused to join the League of Nations, but the United States remained involved with financial diplomacy to stabilize Europe and other initiatives that promoted collective security. Those efforts failed in the 1930s, however, as German attempts to revise the post-World War I settlement forced an unwelcome choice between concession and confrontation. Internationalists shifted toward the latter, but without public support. Americans would let others enforce world order unless the country faced a direct threat with strong majorities favoring impartial neutrality in late 1939 as a new war began. So long as a British-led system protected its interests, the United States had no incentive or need to join a struggle outside the Western Hemisphere.

Emergence of the Planners

Before World War II, the United States lacked the framework for long term strategic planning. Private groups, notably the Council on Foreign Relations, stepped into the gap by providing knowledge and experienced personnel. As Wertheim notes, they had been formed earlier as much to build foreign ties as to influence policy at home. Financiers and lawyers with internationalist leanings had long taken an unofficial role, while universities housed specialists in geopolitics and history. Bringing them together as advisors created a “proto-national security state” outside government that bolstered it. But instead of being a conspiracy (as was sometimes alleged), they filled an institutional gap with materials at hand. Such planners thought the war would likely raise America’s relative standing and perhaps make it the leading power, but what the public would accept set the parameters for their early thinking. Global supremacy, Wertheim notes, was not among the options they entertained.

Instead, they looked to the same rule-bound approach, working through multilateral organizations to promote collective security, that defined internationalism between the wars. Isolationism, coined in the mid-1930s as an antonym to internationalism, implied by contrast stepping back from both the outside world and modernity. Besides aiming to discredit those opposed to intervention, it framed an opposite position upholding an open world order, by force if necessary, without reference to particular American interests. That approach lacked substantive content, as the likely course of events remained unclear. Planners who abhorred fascism no less than communism still accepted neutrality in 1940, and Franklin Roosevelt looked to broker a post-war order through negotiations following an anticipated European stalemate.

The fall of France and the prospect that Britain would face defeat next shocked Americans at least as much as Pearl Harbor. No longer an unlikely prospect Americans had considered an abstract problem, a Nazi-dominated Europe was now a reality that shattered hopes of a compromise peace and brought the largest American mobilization outside wartime. Germany became the defining threat to security. Planners deemed the area from Canada to Northern Brazil as necessary for essential defense, but still not sufficient to uphold American living standards. Even with the whole Western Hemisphere, the United States faced a far-from-splendid isolation, and policy elites feared a closed world dominated by totalitarian powers. Western Europe and Northeast Asia now became vital interests for America.

Planning reflected assessments by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Economic and Financial Group that Wertheim describes. It urged the United States to use military power to secure its superiority of economic power by defending the maximum area of the non-German world. What became known as the grand area joined the Western Hemisphere with the British Empire in a US-led sphere providing an integrated economy. British resilience pointed to the limits of German power. While some, including the America First Committee, used it to argue for hemispheric defense, others sought a partnership to secure larger interests. Recommendations spoke of the United States holding unquestioned power, but through a collaboration in which Washington held the upper hand.

Anglo-American cooperation offered a foundation for what Henry Luce proclaimed in February 1941 to be the American Century by making US policy global rather than hemispheric. Planners had recommended giving the British “every assistance, except by expeditionary force” to keep sea lanes open. Congressional approval of Lend-Lease brought the policy into the open while inflicting a public defeat on non-interventionists. Partnership with Britain provided vital footholds in areas where the United States lacked a presence. Cultural compatibility and presumptions of British dependency on American support made the idea plausible. Global supremacy “in tandem with Great Britain, but without a wider world organization” became a new goal from early 1941. Abandoning the old commitment to acting unilaterally, however, changed the means rather than the ends of promoting American interests.

Power Politics

Events overtook these plans despite the integration of Anglo-American operations and strategy. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union brought Moscow onto the allied side and changed American thinking, which now had to accommodate the Soviets’ role. An exclusively Anglo-American settlement might create enemies, but combining it with an international organization avoided that trap. The idealist Quincy Wright also realized that working through international organizations structured world politics around principles beyond mere power. While many in the American foreign policy elite sought to participate in and dominate power politics rather than transcend it, they faced resistance from an older school of internationalists committed to a rule-based order that gave no country special standing.

Instead of prompting a rethinking of primacy’s assumptions, victory in the Cold War empowered liberal internationalists who sought to make the world anew in what Charles Krauthammer called “the Unipolar Moment.”

Wertheim deftly sketches the influence of academics like Edward Mead Earle and Nicholas Spykman who “used power politics not only as a framework of analysis but also as a language of legitimation.” But the latter cut against deep-seated assumptions to put them out of step with planners and public intellectuals more attuned to liberal assumptions. Despite the contribution grand strategists made to framing policy, their thinking faced resistance. Hence Wright’s suggestion to work through an international organization and pursue realist ends by Wilsonian means. Otherwise, an Anglo-American dominated internationalism seemed too much like imperialism.

Wartime imperatives accustomed Americans to accept power politics, but observers feared support would fade in peace. Isolationism may have been banished after Pearl Harbor, but rallying the public around commitment to an international organization would block its return. Persuasion had to be entrenched to deny critics any foothold with the American public and generate a lasting will to lead. Wertheim describes proposals for the United Nations less as a debate than as a campaign to legitimate a point of view to the exclusion of all others. Working through an international organization dominated by the United States helped manage domestic opinion while providing a vehicle to project military power. Common participation never meant shared control when securing American primacy became the aim.

Tomorrow, the World

Although the United States enjoyed a preponderance of power after World War II, its leaders and public alike remained cautious about exercising leadership abroad. Concerns about a return to conditions of the depression years remained a check. Managing the aftermath of war, especially in Europe, was challenging enough. American policy reacted to events as much as it sought to shape them, and Wertheim emphasizes how the figures he discusses felt their way through problems in a rapidly changing environment. The dynamic persisted following 1945. Americans understood Western and Central Europe, and the United States had long been engaged in East Asia with a considerable lobby supporting a role there. Primacy did not mean taking direct control, especially in distant regions where Washington lacked knowledge or an established foothold. Deferring to allies and working through experienced partners better upheld interests there.

The real turning point came later with a more forward role from the mid-1950s. By then, an established narrative upheld American primacy as essential to keeping the Soviet Union at bay. Here the paradigm shift Wertheim notes really took hold. Cold War imperatives made reaching for armed supremacy hard to challenge, even after Vietnam. Primacy enabled ambitious programs to ameliorate local conditions and promote democracy alongside the strategy of containment. Instead of prompting a rethinking of the assumptions whose emergence Wertheim describes, victory in the Cold War empowered liberal internationalists who sought to make the world anew in what Charles Krauthammer called “the Unipolar Moment.” They lacked significant checks on their ambitions either abroad or at home. Disappointment and a consequent backlash ensued.

Perhaps it is now time to think again. Supremacy backed by military intervention and so-called isolationism that abdicates any role beyond America’s borders are not the only possibilities, and presenting options in those terms offers a false choice. Wertheim makes a valuable contribution by showing how an earlier generation framed that false choice to create a reigning paradigm. Instead of accepting this “all-in” or “all-out” binary as the ground rules for deliberations on policy, however, we ought to treat both engagement and the use of force as a continuum determined by circumstance and context. What, why, and how should be the key questions for an approach that accepts limits and balances ends with means. Revisiting the history of United States foreign policy to consider how national interests can be maintained by cooperating with other countries and resisting overstretch might be a good start on that path of reassessment.