Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

This paper was written in my “Introduction to American Politics” course during my sophomore year of college. It is a review of this book.

A Review and Debate

President George W. Bush’s new policies of preemption and unilateralism are not new — they are American traditions beginning early in the 19th century with roots in the Revolutionary War. This is the bold claim of John Lewis Gaddis’ book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. Throughout the book (adapted from a lecture series he gave in New York), Gaddis comments on the motivations and implementations of these policies in our nation’s history, explains how and why they were discarded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and discusses why President Bush has revived them and whether the choice was correct. The result is an intelligent and provocative work, which prompts you to rethink and refine your views of President Bush, the policies he advocates, and the reasoning, which leads many to discard or accept his plan for the War on Terror. This paper will review and debate the arguments and history Gaddis brings up.

I. The History of Preemption, Unilateralism, and Hegemony

Gaddis begins the book by explaining that Bush, in seeking security for America, is returning to a policy formed and formalized by John Quincy Adams: preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony. America began its life as a small independent state amidst myriad colonies of Great Powers; it lacked the resources to defend itself on all fronts and was troubled by pirates, Indians, and raiders, all based in the empty West or colonies which Spain could no longer control. Preemption emerged as a natural way to ensure security by removing potential threats before they could strike at unknown targets. Fears that a Great Power (at this Point Great Britain, France, and Russia) would build up power in the Americas and swallow the United States led to hegemony and Manifest Destiny; the plan was to expand American sovereignty as far as needed (eventually the entire continent) to ensure there was no place left for a Great Power to attack us from. Our geographical separation from Europe and Asia— that is, from all the nations rivaling the United States in strength — and a desire to avoid expensive wars, overseas commitments, and restricted use of force led to the isolationist, anti-treaty and anti-ally stance which Gaddis equates with unilateralism. All these ideas and policies emerged from a desire for “homeland security” and the need to protect the American state and its people as efficiently and cheaply as possible. They were not abandoned until after December 7th, 1941 when Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced the United States to fight as an ally in World War II.

The first use of preemption against a state actor was in the early 19th century, when raiders based in Florida — at that time a failed Spanish colony — were attacking the United States. It was motivated primarily by immediate concerns about the raiders, but later thinking proved it to be a good choice in terms of hegemony. Admittedly Spain was no longer a concern as a Great Power, but if Florida had been taken by France or Britain the consequences could have been disastrous. 25 years later, Texas was admitted to the Union. The reasons were many, but the motivation was partly out of fear that Texas would fail as a state and Mexico or one of the Great Powers could seize the territory first; we acted preemptively and yet again extended our sovereignty in a hegemonic fashion. This time it was quite deliberate: Polk’s administration cited exactly these reasons when it supported annexing Texas.

Soon after acquiring Texas, we began a war with Mexico, not because Mexico was a threat to us at the time but because we feared it might eventually be one — we acted preemptively to maintain hegemony. We then extended the war to taking over California (claimed by both Spain and Russia) which naturally led to claiming all the space between there and Texas. The United States had realized at this point that it couldn’t keep the Great Powers out by taking and maintaining sovereignty over both continents in the Americas, so it had devised a new plan: maintain sovereignty over the North American continent, and act however necessary to keep the Great Powers and other local actors too busy with each other to pose a serious threat. While the United States extended power to the West (over the area it occupies today), it would simultaneously maneuver the colonies and states to its south into a stalemate a la Europe, leaving them no time or materiel to threaten the USA with. Great Britain was a problem with its firm control over Canada, but this problem was solved through informal compromise: The United States would leave Canada to the British, and the British would leave the United States alone. Both groups had powerful incentives: the Americans couldn’t afford a war with Great Britain (whose navy could halt all imports and exports), and the United States was capable of taking over much of Canada. Gaddis leaves out the other compelling reason for Britain to stay out: the United States could keep the Spanish and French (and later the Germans) from becoming too strong in the Americas and gaining a dangerous advantage Great Britain throughout the rest of the world.

These principles continued to operate through World War I. When we believed that Spain had attacked our ship in Cuba, we started a war with them and took over the Philippines, not because we wanted them, but out of fears that Japan or Germany would take them first and use the islands as a launching point against the Pacific islands and us. Gaddis’ book doesn’t mention Hawaii, but its acquisition was at least partly in the same vein: we took over the only stopping point in the middle of the Pacific, not because we planned to launch attacks from it, but because we didn’t want somebody else to be able to. There was a thinning of our unilateralist nature when we joined World War I, but it was not a complete break: we were “associated” rather than allied. Woodrow Wilson tried to break us of that nature completely; he felt that in order to assure American security then American influence and responsibility needed to extend across the whole globe. He also thought that where democracy went, security would follow. Thus his League of Nations. But the rest of the country had yet to be convinced.

II. Why Franklin Delano Roosevelt Broke Ranks

According to Gaddis, during World War II Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke with tradition completely: the United States was actually an “ally,” it didn’t attack Japan until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it didn’t attack Germany until after Germany had already declared war on the United States. And if Roosevelt harbored any desire for hegemony, it was well hidden. In this, too, Gaddis’ argument is brilliant.

First, Gaddis argues that Roosevelt’s abandonment of unilateralism was sheer good sense. The war was already well underway, and we knew which nations were fighting on our side. To have fought unilaterally would have been counterproductive and required wasted effort. Not only that, to have fought unilaterally would have required actually fighting — Roosevelt masterfully entered the fight in such a way that his allies did most of the actual work.

Second, he says that Roosevelt did not really abandon preemption; he simply acted outside its bounds. The one time in prior US history that it acted preemptively outside the Western Hemisphere (in the Philippines), it was an unmitigated disaster. And Roosevelt had no opportunity to act preemptively during the War: Congress and the general population were opposed to any military actions until after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and after that point anybody worth attacking was already engaged in the fighting. And while Roosevelt did have an opportunity to preemptively attack the Soviet Union upon conclusion of the war, doing so would have harmed rather than helped American security and hegemony.

Make no mistake: Gaddis argues that, while Roosevelt kept it quiet, he did advance hegemony, and that entering the war as an actual Ally was key to this advancement. The United States’ position as savior of the world allowed it to be a leader in developing the peace settlements and designing groups like the United Nations; all this power meant that the United States could ensure an outcome which tilted influence towards the United States. While the USA was only one of seven nations to have a veto on the UN Security Council, it was one of the seven, and this power meant that Russia would never have the best measure of global consent in its actions. Declining to attack Russia after Germany had been defeated meant that the United States had a surplus of good will throughout the world, and good will translates into influence for a Great Power or superpower. The Marshall Plan, which offered help rebuilding to any state that desired it, only increased this power, and it helped to create the sharp divide between the Soviet states and the western world. The total of these plans meant that not only could the United States have hegemony over all the world outside the Soviet Union, but the hegemonic power was consensual. And this consent was critical: Roosevelt, like Woodrow Wilson, felt that ensuring security meant having influence and responsibility everywhere; unlike Wilson, he understood that the United States did not and never would have the power needed to exert worldwide hegemony through force; he “kept proclaimed interests from exceeding actual capabilities.”

III. These Policies & President George W. Bush

Until this point, Gaddis’ arguments have been brilliant. He has convincingly demonstrated that preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony were a focal point of American foreign policy for over a century. And he has shown why Roosevelt discarded preemption and unilateralism for multilateral systems and moral authority. So his partial breakdown in this third and final section of the book is particularly confusing.  Gaddis presents logic that could have led the Bush administration to follow the path it has chosen, and he is fairly negative in his analysis of the probable future. But he seems to not only accept but also agree with the argument Bush makes, and it is in agreeing with this argument that his reasoning skills break down (though to be fair, this is the only time throughout the book that I disagree with him).

President Bush has publicly proclaimed the necessity of preemption in fighting terrorism. After the terrorists have struck, they’ve completed their goal; in the case of suicide bombings then retaliation is completely impossible. Gaddis argues that, privately, the administration’s arguments go something like the following:

In order to preemptively engage terrorists throughout the world, you need global hegemony — which we luckily have. Our continued hegemony will be accepted by the other worldwide powers because we share certain common values and the United States is benign, and a single benign hegemony is preferable to competing hegemonies because it prevents military competition between lesser powers; internationals quarrels become about trade and other methods of dispute that are less costly in both money and moral standing than war is. All this reasoning is correct, except perhaps the assertion that all the world’s powers share enough values to keep them happy under a single hegemony.

So where Bush’s (and Gaddis’) argument finally breaks down is in the necessity of the Iraq War. Gaddis recounts well enough the reasons that the Iraq War was a failure from a strategic perspective, and acknowledges Fareed Zakaria’s rebuttal to Bush’s claim that democracy eliminates terrorism; Zakaria claims that it is not democracy but liberalism that eliminates terrorism, and that while liberalism breeds democracy, democracy does not breed liberalism. If the recent elections in Palestine and Lebanon are anything to go by, Zakaria is indeed correct. But even ignoring that point, the reason President Bush decided to invade Iraq was not to eliminate the terrorism there, but for two other reasons: One, as a preemptive measure against the terrorism that might eventually be there — preemption of the most extreme degree, for it is not preempting a state, or responding to an attack by a non-state actor without allowing a legitimate state actor to respond first, but actually ousting a functioning state in anticipation of the state’s harboring terrorists in the future. Two, Bush hoped that by toppling Hussein’s regime and installing democracy in Iraq, he could force other dictatorial regimes into toppling or liberalizing themselves.

Gaddis provides convincing evidence that Bush had not intended for the United States to invade Iraq without a Security Council resolution: that Hussein’s cooperation with weapon inspectors was a surprise and that a resolution authorizing invasion was expected. But he neglects the leaked documents (in particular the Downing Street memos) that argue to the contrary. Even more so, he ignores the possibility that a resolution would never have been forthcoming even if Hussein had refused to admit more inspectors.

Sadly, Gaddis surprisingly equates the unilateralism and preemption of our founding with the policies employed by Bush today. As the world has become more interconnected, moral authority has only increased in importance. Whereas most of the military actions undertaken by the United States prior to World War I were opposed only by the victim, today war is almost universally frowned on unless urgent need has been demonstrated. Whereas open preemption was once used only against state actors who had failed in their duties as a sovereign (as in Florida), or with willing subjects (Texas), or in response to what we claimed was an attack (the Philippines), today it is used against state actors who have not failed, show no evidence of failing, and have not provoked attack. Whereas unilateralism was once a norm, today unilateralism is considered the province only of rogue states and those which groups like NATO mercilessly engage, which the UN handclaps, and which the United States once railed against. Whereas we were once one small country trying to maintain security in a still-untamed continent, today we are a global hegemony who needs the support of other state actors to maintain our power. Once upon a time, our use of unilateralism and preemption would have been accepted, today those tactics make us a “something worse” that encourages nations around the world to look for a new hegemonic leader. And while Gaddis admits that this is happening because of the way Iraq turned out, he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that any use of preemption or unilateralism — or, even worse, unilateral preemption — will make our still-needed hegemony break down. So an otherwise brilliant (and still worthwile) book sadly ends on a somewhat sour note.