As U.S. policymakers grapple with the China problem, the role of ideology in American foreign policy has once again become an important subject of discussion. On one side of the debate are intellectuals who argue that ideology is inseparable from the China challenge. Aaron Friedberg has argued that because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is Leninist, it believes “the United States was fundamentally hostile to them, not because of what they did but because of who they are and was determined to bring about the transformation of their regime and to coax them or force them or lure them into a transformation to liberal democracy.” Hal Brands concurs, noting “the problem, from the CCP’s view, is not simply that the United States is a very powerful country, but a very powerful democracy. Chinese leaders worry, not without reason, that U.S. leaders will never view them as fully legitimate.” On the other side, realists such as Elbridge Colby and Robert Kaplan counter that “ideology does not lie at the root of the matter between the United States and China—even if elements in China’s Marxist-Leninist elite think it does” and that “seeing this competition as primarily ideological will misconstrue its nature—with potentially catastrophic results.”
This debate rests on an important assumption: that the United States can, over an extended period of time, pursue a non-ideological strategy in a competition that will have tremendous consequences for the country and will be followed closely by the American public. This paper tests the assumption by examining how the United States has conducted each of its prior strategic competitions, against the British Empire, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Americans have followed a relatively consistent pattern in each of its previous strategic competitions. At the onset of each competition, there was a robust debate about the nature of the threat each competitor posed and how the United States should counter it. In each case, Americans perceived these competitions as contests to determine what kind of international order would predominate, and they endeavored to change the international environment to reflect aspects of the American domestic order. The balance of power defined the limits of what the United States could achieve, but American values strongly influenced the sorts of international systems the United States attempted to construct. This history suggests that the confrontation with China will become a contest between different forms of global order. To prevail, the United States will need to define an order that attracts enough domestic support to be sustainable at home and enough partners and allies to be defensible abroad.
A Point of Order
Order building is inherently an ideological project, although prudent leaders limit their ambitions to projects that their countries have the power to accomplish. This is a tremendously challenging endeavor. Henry Kissinger notes in A World Restored that, “a nation will evaluate a policy in terms of its domestic legitimization, because it has no other standard of judgment.” With a few exceptions, such as in purely revolutionary or status-quo oriented nations, national leaders must create a system that is close enough not only to their own country’s concepts of legitimacy to be acceptable, but also to those of the other major participants in the order as well. For many Americans, the core goal of each prior competition was not merely to defeat a specific rival, but to defend and, where possible, extend aspects of the American system abroad: Americans tried to undermine Britain’s colonial ambitions, to defend democracy against the Second and Third Reichs, and to protect democratic capitalism from Soviet communism.
As long as Americans are consistent with their history, they will define the rivalry with China as a contest between competing systems for global leadership. A policymaker who ignores this reality runs the risk of, like King Canute a millennium ago, setting his throne on the shore and futilely ordering the tides to stop where he pleases. On the other hand, an overly doctrinaire foreign policy will conflict with the values of key partners and exhaust U.S. resources in fruitless endeavors. Rather than attempt to fight against this trend in American politics, it is better to emulate the legendary Yu the Great, the Chinese engineer who tamed the Yellow River’s devastating floods by building canals that irrigated his country’s heartland and created great prosperity. This disposition toward order building is like a tide that cannot be stemmed, but it can be channeled beneficially.
Britain and an Anticolonial World
Although the “special relationship” rhetoric and legacy of World War Two have effectively erased this history from popular American memory, the United States spent most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth attempting to undermine British colonialism. For most of the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, Americans debated what kind of economic and social model the United States should adopt and what kind of world Americans wanted to inhabit, and the relationship with Britain was a key part of this discussion. Although there were frequent and heated disagreements about specific policies toward Britain, Americans generally saw the British empire as a threat and opposed British imperialism. At first, the United States could do little more than develop internally, but as the country grew more powerful, Americans pursued opportunities to check British imperial ambitions and, eventually, decolonize the British empire.
U.S. policy toward its former imperial overlord varied because the relationship with Britain was part of a set of issues that divided Americans politically. Soon after the Constitution’s ratification, Americans began sorting into two political parties. Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists advocated a centralized government that would be funded through trade with Britain. The other was led by Thomas Jefferson, who preferred a decentralized power structure and retaliation against Britain’s trade restrictions. Because Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians disagreed about what kind of country the United States ought to be, they fought constantly over policy toward Britain. The Jeffersonians eventually accepted some features of the Hamiltonian system, but the Federalists’ conciliatory policies toward Britain contributed to the party’s collapse after the War of 1812.
Although Americans disagreed about how to handle Britain in the short term, they generally thought that Britain’s colonial order should be opposed and eventually replaced. If there was one thing they despised, it was colonialism. During John Quincy Adams’ tenure in the Department of State, the British minister asked if Adams thought the British were greedy enough to claim a piece of the moon. Adams replied, “I have not heard that you claim exclusively any part of the moon; but there is not a spot on this habitable globe that I could affirm you do not claim.” His successor James Buchanan complained “it has been [Britain’s] uniform policy… to seize upon every valuable commercial point throughout the world whenever circumstances have placed this in her power.”
During its first century after independence the United States had little ability to challenge Britain, so it fostered relationships with independent countries in Latin America and Asia in the hopes of checking British advances. After Spain’s colonies in the Western Hemisphere declared independence, British diplomats sought to persuade the new countries to establish constitutional monarchies or preserve their aristocracies, while their American counterparts encouraged the spread of republicanism in Latin America. American diplomats also courted free countries such as Siam, China, and Japan to counter British influence in Asia.
Woodrow Wilson attempted to limit British colonialism after World War One, but he bungled his attempt to do so. Although the United States fought the Central Powers alongside France and Great Britain, it did not ally with the other allied powers because Wilson disapproved of their imperialism. After the war, Wilson hoped that American financial leverage would force Britain into concessions about the empire, but he discovered that economic power was insufficient: American bondholders learned a decade after the war that in extremis, London would stop fully paying its debts rather than give up its empire. Wilson managed to designate the new imperial acquisitions as League of Nations “mandates,” but that was a fig leaf for British and French rule. The first American attempt at replacing the colonial order ended in failure.
During World War Two, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration used its power more effectively to wind down the British Empire. The first step came when he insisted that the Atlantic Charter include a line to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” stating “I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy.” Department of Treasury officials structured the Lend-Lease program so that Britain would emerge from the war too dependent on American financing to maintain the empire without American approval. The Department of State, which worried that British weakness would undermine the United Nations, eventually forced a crisis that made Roosevelt partly overrule the Treasury. American diplomats also negotiated a series of agreements during and after the war that changed the global reserve currency from the pound sterling to the dollar. The German and Japanese militaries had severely wounded the British empire, and the Americans ensured that the recovery would not be complete.
Americans finally had enough power to topple the British empire in the first decade of the Cold War, and they did. American strategists concluded that the remaining European colonies would be independent soon and that aligning the United States too closely with Britain and France would earn the enmity of the anticolonial nationalists. Dwight Eisenhower accordingly sided with Egypt against Britain, France, and Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis. It was only in his second term that Eisenhower realized that, instead of strengthening the American position in the Middle East, he had inadvertently protected Soviet partners, and he reversed course. After Suez, it was clear that Britain could no longer oppose the United States successfully, and London developed the closest possible relationship with Washington to avoid further friction. The Americans had succeeded; at long last, colonialism was a spent force in global politics.
Germany and a Democratic World
When Germany made its bids for global preeminence, Americans defined the contest as a battle between autocracy and democracy. Late in the nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s attempts to expand German power in areas such as the Pacific and Caribbean stoked American fears about this new rival. After an internal debate about the nature of the German threat, Wilson concluded that Germany was a threat not because of its size, but because of its government, and that the American policy should be to protect democracy internationally rather than to simply constrain German power. In both world wars, Americans sought to democratize Germany and create a safe international environment for democracies. During periods when Germany accepted that order, the United States treated Germany favorably.
Some Americans thought that German power was the major threat to international peace. As Wilhelm II searched for colonies abroad, American and German warships faced off in the Samoa Islands and the Philippines, and the American press criticized German policies harshly. American policymakers noticed the threat: after he had left the White House, Theodore Roosevelt told a German diplomat that if Britain lost control of the balance of power in Europe during his presidency, he would have intervened to reinstate it. Once World War One started, Roosevelt argued for immediate rearmament to prevent Germany from defeating Britain and encroaching into Latin America.
When the United States entered the war, Wilson decided that the American goal was not to defeat Germany and restore the balance of power, but rather to make the balance of power obsolete. While asking Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, he stated that in a world filled with regimes like the Prussian monarchy:
“[T]here can be no assured security for the democratic governments of the world. We are now about to accept gauge of battle with this natural foe to liberty and shall, if necessary, spend the whole force of the nation to check and nullify its pretensions and its power. We are glad… to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.”
Later in the war, Wilson publicly questioned if the Kaiser’s government truly spoke for the German people. He designated the Kaiser as his foe, not Germany as a whole.
Wilson attempted to create a democratic order but neglected to develop its defenses, so he failed utterly. As he had seen, the United States could not indefinitely stand aside during a major conflict in Europe, so taking steps to reduce the chance of war was as much an American interest a century ago as it is today. However, his plan was too radical for his allies and for the American people, and the League of Nations could not function well without substantial American backing, which was lacking. Wilson aimed for the ultimate peace of the world and instead produced an order that was just coherent enough to let democracies grow complacent and believe their international laws, arms control treaties, and sanctions regimes would ward off challengers. This order failed, and tens of millions died as a result.
During the interwar period, American officials supported Germany’s economic and diplomatic recovery as long as there was a prospect for a liberal, democratic Germany that could contribute to the Wilsonian order. Speaking at a New York event in 1927, American ambassador Jacob Gould Schurman said “Never in our history have the political institutions and international ideas of Germany and the United States been as much in agreement as they are today. Both nations believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Although the Americans who created the Dawes Plan and Young Plan were acting as private citizens, their attempts to aid Germany and thus stabilize Europe’s economy were clearly backed by the United States government. American diplomats also approved other German successes, hoping that they would legitimate the Weimar government and set back Bolshevism in Germany.
Adolf Hitler’s violations of American principles provoked outrage and his foreign policy gradually pushed the United States into a new war to eradicate totalitarianism. Persecution of Jews fueled widespread protests, and Americans loathed Nazi oppression and propaganda. One of Hitler’s closest advisors was shocked by the depth of anti-German attitudes when he visited the United States in 1937. Even before the United States entered the war, it was clear to American policymakers that the Nazi regime could not be allowed to endure. Before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt stated:
“We will not accept a Hitler-dominated world. And we will not accept a world, like the postwar world of the 1920’s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow. We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom of speech and expression—freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—freedom from want—and freedom from terror.”
As in 1917, the American president endeavored to inject American values into the international system rather than simply eliminate a rival.
Even before they had won the war, Americans attempted to construct a new international order that would protect democracies more effectively than the League of Nations had. American diplomats created the United Nations, which they hoped would resolve future international disputes peacefully, and encouraged the Soviets to participate in and strengthen the system. They also created a range of economic institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, to speed postwar economic recovery. As for Germany itself, Americans wanted Germany to be a pillar of the international system more than they wanted to destroy German power. After the war, Americans supported democratic West Germany’s rehabilitation as a normal nation more than their European allies did.
The Soviet Union and a Free World
This Rooseveltian order failed even more quickly than the Wilsonian one had, and the Soviet threat forced Americans to engage in yet another strategic competition and defend democratic capitalism against communism. After a period of confusion, the United States decided to strengthen the countries of the non-communist “free world” while containing the spread of communism. The country was now powerful enough to significantly alter the international order unilaterally, but a period of relative decline in the middle of the Cold War convinced the Nixon administration that the international order was becoming multipolar, so the United States had to shed international commitments and adopt a more restrained approach to the Soviet Union. This approach proved to be too unpopular to be sustainable domestically, and subsequent administrations dramatically increased their focus on human rights. This development on its own did not alter the course of the Cold War, but along with increased American power it contributed to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the triumph of the American order. During the Cold War, the United States countered Soviet communism and championed liberal democracy and free market capitalism worldwide.
As in earlier instances, Americans debated vigorously whether and how to defend against their new rival. Some New Dealers thought that partnering with the Soviets against British and French imperialism would create a brighter future in the decolonizing world. Other powerful factions within the Democratic Party worried that, unless the United States made the United Nations succeed, a new world war would come soon—and this one would be fought with nuclear weapons. Among the isolationists, some assumed that Britain could checkmate Soviet advances in Europe unaided, while others wished a pox on both houses. Public opinion changed rapidly and radically. The popular backlash against Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in early 1946 was so strong that Harry Truman had to distance himself from it, but by 1947 many Americans were willing to stop the spread of communism in Europe, and when the communists overran China, Americans condemned the Truman administration for its perceived softness toward the Soviet Union.
Truman’s administration made clear that the contest was between two different ways of life, not just two different countries. In his March 1947 address to Congress announcing the Truman Doctrine, Truman said “one of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.” As the Soviet Union forced its puppet governments onto the people of Eastern Europe, “the free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world.” Three years later, a National Security Council strategy review concluded “the implacable purpose of the slave state [the Soviet Union] to eliminate the challenge of freedom has placed the two great powers at opposite poles.” Once again, Americans would be forced into a long struggle with a hostile regime; once again, the fate of the world depended on their success.
Two decades into the Cold War, Richard Nixon thought that the bipolar world was becoming multipolar, and he attempted to scale back U.S. commitments abroad and reduce tensions by downplaying the ideological struggle with the Soviets. By the time he was elected, the United States appeared overextended not only in Vietnam, but elsewhere. Western Europe’s and Japan’s economic reconstruction was stretching the Bretton Woods currency arrangement beyond what the U.S. economy could bear, the Soviet Union was approaching nuclear parity, the Vietnam war was destroying military morale, and domestic turmoil was devastating American cities. To Nixon, it was clear that the international order itself was changing: as he told media executives in Missouri, “when we see the world in which we are about to move, the United States no longer is in the position of complete preeminence or predominance.” Unlike in recent years, “now we face a situation where four other potential economic powers” can “challenge us on every front.” Accordingly, Nixon and Kissinger endeavored to offload some U.S. security responsibilities onto allies and partners and to make relations with the Soviet Union less fraught.
Nixon and Kissinger placed the United States in a firmer geopolitical position, but their policies were politically unsustainable because too many Americans thought their values were being flaunted. The pair did not entirely ignore human rights, but their soft-pedalling approach to Soviet repression infuriated members of Congress, such as Henry Jackson, who pushed through legislation tying trade concessions to freedom for Soviet Jews to emigrate. After Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford’s campaign managers realized that Kissinger’s policies were so unpopular that he was hurting their electoral chances. The voters replaced Ford and Kissinger with Jimmy Carter, whose approach was the exact opposite. He doubled down on human rights diplomacy while trying to further reduce the American footprint abroad, but his preferred strategy did not lead to better Soviet behavior toward either the United States or the Soviet citizenry.
By the time of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, it was the Soviet Union that was overextended, and he initiated a wide-ranging pressure campaign that solidified the American order and hastened the Soviet implosion. Ideological competition was a crucial part of Reagan’s campaign, just as it had been for Truman. In addition to calling the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire” and rebuking the Soviets for their human rights violations, he supported dissidents in Eastern Europe and funded radio broadcasts to Soviet citizens. Unlike Carter though, Reagan paired his words with deeds by expanding the defense buildup from the late Carter years, introducing American intermediate range ballistic missiles and missile defense to the nuclear balance, increasing aid to anti-communist guerilla fighters, and collaborating with the Saudis to drive down the price of oil and thus Soviet sources of foreign currency. This was a very confrontational approach, and it elicited massive protests, such as the 1982 Central Park disarmament rally. It was also more politically sustainable than Nixon’s détente policy, largely because it conformed to American values. Even the fall of friendly dictators in the Philippines and South Korea benefited Americans. Because the United States and its order were so strong, the Soviets could not exploit those openings and both countries became friendly democracies. Soviet leaders made increasingly desperate attempts to regain lost ground, but they failed and made the Soviet Union collapse. For a time, the American global order had triumphed.
China and a New World
When Americans have faced off against a rival power, they have also endeavored to build a global order that conformed in some respects to American values. During the confrontation with Great Britain, Americans sought to end the colonial order; against Germany and the Soviet Union, Americans attempted to abolish hostile regime types or, failing that, consign them to the backwaters of global affairs. Unless the fourth strategic competition differs greatly from the previous three, it will be about global order and therefore be strongly affected by the values Americans want to see reflected in the world around them.
The CCP certainly perceives American values as a threat. Document 9 warns party cadres that “some people” wish “to use Western constitutional democracy to undermine the Party’s leadership, abolish the People’s Democracy, negate our country’s constitution as well as our established system and principles.” Other threats include “the West’s value system,” “Western-style theories of governance,” and “the West’s idea of journalism.” More recently, Wang Jisi wrote about Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power: “while China sees such changes as beneficial to its position of power and to world peace and development, the United States sees such changes as detrimental to it… This is actually a collision of two values.”
The confrontation with China will involve a clash of values unless the United States departs sharply from its historical pattern and the Chinese Communist Party fundamentally reassesses its opposition to Western values. The question now is not whether to pursue a values-based approach, but which values to champion. Defining the desired new order will be challenging because many important potential allies and partners share only some American values. Allowing some flexibility will be important and is in some ways part of the American tradition: Filipinos may question how sincere the American anticolonial policy really was, and various unsavory and undemocratic actors received generous treatment from the United States during the world wars and the Cold War. Nevertheless, some overarching vision will be important for sustaining popular and foreign support through this confrontation.
There are some aspects of earlier American orders that the American public and foreign partners are likely to embrace. The first half of the twentieth century is particularly worth examining because it was the last moment of global multipolarity and the last time that America’s rivals were approximately as strong as the United States. Then, as now, Americans could set a global agenda that other states had to respond to but not necessarily follow. National self-determination was one of the key planks of the proposed American order: it was popular at home and abroad, and it provided a framework for opposing attempts by rivals to gain power by controlling smaller states. Today, it would carry the same advantages and be especially attractive in areas the United States will contest with China, such as South and Southeast Asia. Increasing trade with friendly countries was the most successful part of the Rooseveltian order; today, it would reinforce the American belief in open and fair economic competition and strengthen the American-led order. If Asian countries become too wealthy and powerful for China to hope to dominate, the threat posed by the CCP would diminish greatly. Each of these pillars will involve wrenching tradeoffs: respecting national self-determination would entail less humanitarian intervention and prioritizing economic development would create some environmental costs. Confronting China will involve many other costs, and wise policymakers will make those burdens as sustainable as possible. The tide washed away all traces of Canute, but Yu’s works outlasted him by many generations.
Mike Watson helped found the University of Virginia’s AHS chapter and is an alumnus of the Iran and China Security and Strategy Seminars. He is the associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society, and his written work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Tablet, National Interest, National Review, The Hill, American Purpose, Providence, and National Affairs. His research focuses on America’s competitive advantages against foreign adversaries and the historical roots of American foreign policy and strategic thought.
Image: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 23 February 1945, from medina-gazette.com. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Raising_the_Flag_on_Iwo_Jima,_larger.jpeg, used under Wikimedia Commons.
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