In our own image: the sources of American conduct in world affairs.

Author:Hendrikson, David C.

In the long span of American history, two moments stand out for their creative refashioning of the political order. The first comprises the framing, ratification, and amendment of the Federal Constitution from 1787 to 1790; the second, the creation of the system linking the United States with the advanced industrial democracies after the Second World War. The first incarnation of the American system lasted from 1789 until 1861, when its tensions exploded in a great war that brought it to an end. The second incarnation still endures; indeed, we are now commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the institutions and programs - Bretton Woods, the Marshall Plan, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - most closely identified with it.

It may seem odd to consider these two political associations together, for there are crucial differences between them - in the character of their institutions, in the political loyalties held by the men and women within them, and in the equality (or inequality) of their members. But there are also remarkable affinities. Both creations aimed to establish something called "ordered liberty", substituting the rule of law for the "empire of force." Designed to find a via media between the anarchy of states and a consolidated empire (the two great poles along the spectrum of possibilities), both creations nevertheless sought to safeguard the two values with which each of these otherwise negative examples were closely identified: the liberty of states and the preservation of peace and order over an extended territory. This entailed the creation of a union or federative system of large extent that could preserve peace within its zone and ensure protection from aggression without. The golden grail of this search was an association that could combine the external force and order of a great empire with the internal freedoms of a small republic.

We are accustomed to thinking of the United States as a single political unit, and referring to it in the singular; before the Civil War, however, the United States were styled in the plural. This new order of the ages was far less centralized than historical imagination now allows. Provided with a general government by the Constitution, an institutional innovation which distinguished the United States from all previous federacies in world history, it nevertheless retained the purposes associated with the classic confederation. The powers delegated to the general government, as James Madison explained in Federalist No. 45, were "few and defined" and would be exercised "principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce." With standing military forces of very small size, military power was concentrated in the militia of the states and hence was radically decentralized. With no common currency (something that the framers did not anticipate but which nevertheless occurred), the monetary affairs of the Union were often in a condition of anarchy. Until a fairly late period in its development, inter-sectional trade was very slight. "Now", as Henry Clay observed in 1820, "our connection is merely political. . . . There is scarcely any of that beneficial intercourse, the best basis of political connection, which consists in the exchange of the produce of our labor."

The "Union of different republics" was described in a bewildering variety of ways. It could be denounced as "a league with death and a covenant with hell" and as "a most unequal alliance by which the south has always been the loser and the north always the gainer." More typically it was praised as "the last bulwark of our hope" that stood frailly before surging tides of "disunion, anarchy, and civil war." It was, as Madison insisted, a thing sui generis, "so unexampled in its origin, so complex in its structure, and so peculiar in some of its features, that in describing it the political vocabulary does not furnish terms sufficiently distinctive and appropriate, without a detailed resort to the facts of the case."

A similar observation may be made of the post-World War II American system. It, too, acquired many names - "the American empire", "the Free World", "the West", an "empire by invitation." At the core of the post-World War II American system were NATO and the economic institutions associated with the Bretton Woods regime. The fifty-odd states that were ultimately brought into its bilateral and multilateral security communities included colonial powers and colonies, allies and enemies from the Second World War, democracies and dictatorships. Over time, however, democratic norms and liberal values took firm root within this second American system. This led observers to grope again for a name that would capture its peculiar character and specify its membership and boundaries. Plausible candidates for the most apt description have included "the pacific union of liberal democracies", the "zone of peace, wealth, and democracy", a "civic union" embracing the United States, Western Europe, and Japan whose members "increasingly appear to be separate regions of the same political system rather than distinct ones."(1) Some observers give this community a restricted geographical scope, largely confining it to the nations of Western Europe and North America, while others speak more expansively of "the international community" or, yet more extravagantly, of "one world." As the current debates over NATO expansion, China policy, and the clash of civilizations attest, how big this community is or might become excites some of the most bitter controversies in the discussion of American foreign policy.

Though some have shared Woodrow Wilson's dream that the American system might become universal, it has never done so in fact. The American system since the Second World War, like the one inaugurated by the Constitution, has been a system of states within a larger system of states. Our political vocabulary, with its stark antinomies between "domestic" and "foreign", or "nation" and "world", fails to capture the mixed character of the post-1789 and post-1947 systems, both of which existed in a sort of twilight between the world of the civil state and the world of international relations. Equally unhelpful is the distinction drawn by political scientists between "the unit level" and "the systemic level", for these associations are not only systems of states within a larger system of states but units made up of other units. Confronted with associations that are both units and systems (and which, being both, are not exactly either one), we are like Pufendorf puzzling over the irregular constructions of Central Europe, wondering how a unum could be made out of such a pluribus. Neither "anarchy" on the one side nor "empire" on the other - the one with its image of hostility and unconditional rivalry, the other with its connotations of rule and dominance - expresses the character and logic of these associations. Nevertheless, one of the ways in which these two federative systems are alike is that throughout their respective histories they were described in both ways - by some as an overbearing imperium that exercised despotic sway over the political space in which it operated, and by others as an empty shell ever tending toward dissolution and collapse.

Not a Departure, A Return

There is no theme more common in writings on twentieth-century American foreign policy than that of fundamental transformations. As the conventional rendering has it, in the late 1940s and early 1950s a nation that for over a century took counsel from Washington's warnings against foreign alliances contracted an enduring case of pactomania. A nation once insular and isolationist became cosmopolitan and interventionist. A nation that once enjoyed a condition of "free security", surrounded by its oceanic moats and protected by the British navy, became highly conscious of - even obsessed by - mortal threats to its security. And a nation that once made a fetish of unilateral methods suddenly saw itself as the leader of multilateral coalitions and partnerships.

Most observers have looked approvingly on these "radical changes", insisting that they were a necessary adjustment to new circumstances; some have bemoaned them as entailing the passage from republic to empire. But either way, the fact of radical discontinuity is seldom questioned. Questioned it should be, however, for the characteristic ideas of twentieth-century American internationalism may more persuasively be seen as a return to, rather than a departure from, historic traditions - a sort of grand unfolding, in different circumstances and on a larger geographical scale, of aspirations that were central to the American experiment from 1776 onwards.

The first assumption that must be cast aside is the idea that eighteenth and nineteenth-century Americans had no experience of the security dilemmas that were second nature to Europeans after the emergence in the 1500s and 1600s of the modern state system. "The anguishing dilemmas of security. that tormented European nations", writes Henry Kissinger, summarizing this widely held view, "did not touch America for nearly 150 years."(2) The truth is otherwise: Both of the central elements in the early American credo - the "union" and "independence" of Washington's Farewell Address - responded directly to those anguishing dilemmas.

Given the ambitions of Britain, France, and Spain in North America, the desire to remain separate and distinct from the European system of alliances was just that - a desire and not an accomplished fact for at least half a century after 1776. But the view expressed by Kissinger is misleading for an even more basic reason. The great American fear from 1776 to 1861 was not so much that America would become ruinously entangled in the European system as that European precedents and practices would take firm root within America - that America, in other words, would become the...

To continue reading