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America Has No Duty to Rule the World

The story of the country’s rise to dominance shows how it can step back.

The United States is the world’s overwhelming military power, and it’s not even close. The country controls about 750 overseas bases (China, by comparison, has only one foreign base, in Djibouti). It spends around $730 billion on its military, which is more than China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, and Brazil combined. It has over 190,000 soldiers deployed in approximately 140 foreign countries—around 70 percent of the world’s total. To many Americans and foreigners alike, this power appears as a natural fact of international relations. Very few people alive today can remember a time when the United States did not have the ability to destroy much of the globe.

Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
by Stephen Wertheim
Belknap Press, 272 pp., $29.95

There are various ways to narrate why the United States, a nation-state founded in an anti-colonial revolution, became the most powerful empire in history. You may call it destiny, the fulfillment of the country’s millenarian promise to become, as the Puritan leader John Winthrop declared in a 1630 sermon, “a city upon a hill” for the world’s benighted. Or you may claim it was the United States’ vast material resources and its geographical luck, surrounded by two vast oceans and weak neighbors, that enabled it to develop its capacities to govern the world. Perhaps if you’re a Marxist, you’ll insist it was capitalism’s unquenchable appetite that drove U.S. elites to expand from sea to shining sea before turning their gaze abroad in search of more territory to exploit. And if you’re an apologist for U.S. power, you can affirm that dominance was forced upon the United States by Europe’s two world wars, which impelled the mantle of “Western civilization” to pass from the Old World to the New, or by the attack at Pearl Harbor, to which any reasonable nation would have replied with force.

In Tomorrow, the World, historian Stephen Wertheim highlights an overlooked cause of the United States’ ascendance: the fall of France in June 1940. When the French military collapsed in the face of Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg, a generation of American foreign policy elites worried that if the British Empire also fell, there would be no great power left to challenge Nazi dominance and ensure liberalism’s future. The United States, they concluded, needed to fill that role, and the only way to do so was for it to become a major military power dedicated to protecting the free exchange of ideas, people, and, especially, goods. At first, Americans mostly confined their vision of a U.S.-led order to the Western Hemisphere. But after the nation entered World War II in December 1941, and Nazi success seemed less assured, those visions expanded to encompass most of the globe. Peace, prosperity, and liberalism itself depended on world-spanning U.S. armed primacy.

This conviction became an essential component of the imperialist ideology that U.S. elites developed and institutionalized during the Cold War, and it remains widely held today. Because Americans identify stability with dominance, the United States spends an unconscionable amount on its military and pursues a series of endless wars that have little strategic benefit, do nothing to improve the lives of Americans or those suffering abroad, and, ironically, engender instability. Wertheim, one of the founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-militarist think tank backed by George Soros and Charles Koch, has devoted his career to challenging the shibboleths that surround U.S. primacy. Just as Americans once chose to rule, he argues, they can likewise choose not to.

The first centuries of U.S. history underline how strange the country’s bid for hegemony was. As Wertheim notes, before the mid-twentieth century Americans tended to claim that “their nation was exceptional because it did not covet armed supremacy over the rest of the world.” They recoiled from foreign entanglements—imbrication in the power politics of other countries, especially in Europe. This became such an important element of U.S. nationalism that even when Americans used their military for expressly political purposes—indigenous genocide, colonialism, resource extraction—they did so, Wertheim maintains, “in the name of ending power politics.”

Americans were some of the world’s most vocal advocates of “internationalism”—the idea that reason, rules, and discussion could enable nations to avoid or attenuate the scourge of war. At the turn of the century, Progressives including Vice President (later President) Theodore Roo­sevelt and Secretary of War (later State) Elihu Root promoted international conferences like the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which established the Permanent Court of Arbitration and created several laws of war. Soon thereafter, in the maelstrom of World War I, Progressive President Woodrow Wilson furthered the internationalist cause by developing the idea for the League of Nations, which, he averred, would be the mechanism for transcending power politics itself.

Unfortunately for Wilson and other internationalists, the United States never joined the League, rejecting the Treaty of Versailles because it threatened to impinge on U.S. sovereignty. But American internationalists continued to promote mechanisms and plans for geopolitical cooperation. In 1921, Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes called the Washington Naval Conference, which established a framework for great powers to discuss disagreements about the Pacific Ocean. In 1924 and 1929, U.S. bankers and industrialists spearheaded the Dawes and Young Plans to stabilize European economies, and in 1928 the nation signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact (named after Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand) to outlaw war. On the eve of the 1930s, Americans were at the forefront of internationalist efforts to replace geopolitical conflict with reason, arbitration, and law.

The 1930s was the decade that dashed the internationalist dream. Both Nazism and Soviet communism, valorizing strength and developing cults of personality around charismatic dictators, were plainly and avowedly irreconcilable with American ideas of liberalism. Because, as the title of a famous book from the era put it, “you can’t do business with Hitler” (or Stalin), internationalists began to doubt the potential of discussion to guarantee global peace. Furthermore, the internationalist institutions that had emerged were foundering. Most dramatically, the League of Nations failed to prevent or halt Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria and Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. To many contemporary internationalists, the successes of fascism, Stalinism, and Japanese imperialism suggested that force, not reason, ordered international politics. If this was true, they concluded, then military power was stability’s indispensable handmaiden, and sometimes the United States would need to use or abet force outside the traditional hemispheric bastion it had defined in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

This volte-face was a difficult one to make: How could someone who had argued that reason, law, and discussion could end war suddenly defend the use of force beyond the Western Hemisphere? To do so, pro-force internationalists created the category of “isolationism,” accusing anyone who opposed military power of rejecting all forms of international engagement outside the hemisphere. In this way, pro-force Americans claimed the mantle of internationalism even as they rejected its foundational assumption that the United States remain militarily apart from Europe and Asia. The historic struggle between internationalists and so-called isolationists was, in fact, a debate between two types of internationalists—those who defended coercive force across the globe and those who did not. Simply put, no group of Americans ever insisted that the United States remain aloof from the rest of the world; the question was how exactly the United States should engage.

Faced with the rise of Hitler, pro-force internationalists defeated their “isolationist” opponents relatively easily. By the late 1930s, isolationism had become a powerful term of opprobrium. Robert Sherwood, the playwright who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speechwriter (and who later became director of the Office of War Information’s Overseas Branch), lambasted “isolationists” for desiring to “keep us out of everything.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull worried that if “isolationist” dreams were realized, they would “carry the whole world back to the conditions of medieval chaos.” In internationalists’ opinion, force was needed to ensure progress both in the United States and abroad. Still, few American internationalists imagined that the United States itself would become the world’s dominant power anytime soon—Great Britain already occupied that position.

When World War II erupted in Europe in September 1939, members of the emergent foreign policy establishment—a loose agglomeration of East Coast lawyers, businessmen, and bureaucrats—recognized that the United States would come out of the war more powerful than ever before. And, if the nation wanted to wield this power effectively, it needed to develop plans for the postwar world. One week after Germany invaded Poland, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, a founder of the Council on Foreign Relations, made the State Department an offer: The CFR would plan for the postwar era while the government addressed itself to the exigencies of war. With official blessing, and $300,000 in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the CFR got to work.

The project’s membership list was like a roll call of the internationalists who would lay the intellectual foundations for American Empire: It included the economist Jacob Viner, the geographer Isaiah Bowman, and the lawyer (and later director of central intelligence) Allen Dulles. These men formed a “para” or “pseudo” state connected to the government but not officially a part of it, an early version of the “military-intellectual complex” that would shape U.S. foreign affairs in the Cold War and after. A crucial benefit of this arrangement was that it left the group free from public scrutiny: State Department officials worried that if postwar planning was carried out in the actual government, it might, Wertheim writes, “become public knowledge and raise suspicion that the Roosevelt administration was preparing for war.” From its beginnings, U.S. primacy was intimately linked with skepticism of democracy.

When they began their efforts, the CFR planners assumed the United States would not actually send troops to Europe and Asia. But everything changed in the summer of 1940. The Nazis’ swift defeat of the French military, which had halted the German advance in World War I, and which was considered among the world’s strongest, shocked American internationalists. With France’s collapse, Hitler dominated continental Europe. Now, if the Nazis invaded and conquered the United Kingdom (already forced to retreat at Dunkirk), then Germany would have defeated the world’s most powerful empires and would be on its way to global dominance.

The CFR planners considered this unacceptable. Though they didn’t believe Hitler endangered America’s physical security, Wertheim argues, “the specter of a Nazi-led world order” that “threatened to stop liberal intercourse from traversing the globe and the United States from driving world history” led them to define economic exchange and American destiny as “vital” interests worthy of armed defense. For the first time in their nation’s history, the CFR internationalists started to affirm that the United States needed to itself engage in power politics outside the Western Hemisphere. France’s collapse put a definitive end to the notion that the world was progressing toward a more peaceful and open state.

This story of the United States’ bid for global power undermines the importance of the “Pearl Harbor” myth to American history. After 1945, apologists for American Empire have often argued that the surprise Japanese destruction of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (and the simultaneous, if usually ignored, assaults on the U.S. territories of the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island) justified the U.S. presence abroad: Didn’t the attack, after all, demonstrate what happened if the United States restrained its military power? Yet Wertheim shows that more than a year earlier, prominent members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment were already arguing that their nation needed to take a leading role in world affairs. Put another way, the United States was not forced to build its global empire in reaction to a physical attack, but did so as the result of an intellectual revolution that jettisoned the liberal premises of traditional internationalism.

In late 1940, the CFR’s Economic and Financial Group, headed by Viner and the economist Alvin Hansen, concluded that the Nazis would retain their hold on Europe (and parts of North Africa and the Middle East) for the foreseeable future. This, they determined, meant that the United States could compete with Hitler only if it controlled a “Grand Area” that connected the Americas to the British Empire and Pacific Basin. Linking these regions would provide the material basis for the United States and its junior partner, the United Kingdom, to compete with the emergent German economic juggernaut and continue to direct world history. In effect, the CFR planners were arguing that to challenge the Nazi empire, the United States needed to become the prime power everywhere else on the globe. Conceptually, they were also claiming that liberal exchange needed to be underwritten by military force. Gone was any Enlightenment-based notion that humans could overcome their differences through discussion. Instead, the planners embraced a Hobbesian theory of human nature in which people were selfish, greedy, and prone to war, and could only be governed through violence and its threat.

The CFR planners and fellow travelers like Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, however, did not want to simply assert that the power of the American-Anglo alliance justified its rule. For this reason, they laid a liberal ideology over great power dominance, avowing that the Americans and British would create and defend an international order devoted to liberal norms. This argument not only assuaged internationalists’ consciences; it also allowed them to sell U.S. global supremacy to the American public. The primary mechanism of this “liberal international order,” as it would later be called, was the United Nations. “By working through a universal body, with every nation as a member,” Wertheim maintains, “the United States would seem to lead an enlightened world order, bound by rules of law and respecting the equality of others.” By promoting the U.N., U.S. elites made armed primacy palatable to a public that had long rejected it.

The eventual structure of the United Nations reflected internationalists’ interest in ensuring U.S. primacy. Most important, the Security Council, which consisted of the five great powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China, and France), was far more powerful than the General Assembly, to which all nations belonged. This structure, Wertheim observes, enabled the great powers to “enjoy full discretion to identify aggressors and decide whether and how to act.” In other words, the U.N. was not intended to end power politics, but to legitimate it. Several intellectuals and officials at the time, including Raymond Leslie Buell and the economic expert Milo Perkins (the executive director of the Board of Economic Warfare), even endorsed the idea that whenever the United States couldn’t receive U.N. sanction for a given action, it should act unilaterally. Or as Wertheim puts it: “multilateralism where possible, unilateralism if necessary.”

An early meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in October 1946

It’s not a surprise, then, that the United States has frequently ignored the Security Council, as it did when it led the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. The General Assembly, for its part, has been described by critics as “a pointless gabfest and an excuse for the wives of dictators to enjoy some 5th Avenue shopping.” In typically colorful language, President Richard Nixon once dismissed the U.N. as “a damn debating society.” Like the League of Nations before it, the U.N. has proved powerless to stop rampant violations of international law, from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. This doesn’t mean, however, that international organization is doomed; what it suggests is that no international organization can effectively function if great powers refuse to abandon their ability to make war unilaterally.

Acting with an unparalleled degree of influence since 1945, the United States has achieved one great accomplishment: It has ended major wars in Western and Central Europe. This is a world-historical success on a continent whose history was plagued by repeated and brutal conflicts. But this triumph at the heart of the “liberal international order” should not obscure the terrible effects U.S. primacy has had on those outside the North Atlantic core. For most of humanity, the liberal international order was not particularly liberal, and, as Wertheim shows, it was never intended to be.

Wertheim’s is the only recent book to explore U.S. elites’ decision to become the world’s primary power in the early 1940s—a profoundly important choice that has affected the lives of billions of people throughout the globe. This is partly because internationalists who oppose the use of force have since 1945 been largely excluded from the foreign policy debate. Indeed, pro-force internationalists were so successful in expelling noninterventionists from the public sphere that, as Wertheim writes, “the restraint of American power” is now considered “the height of introversion and selfishness.” For over 75 years, to criticize armed primacy in public has been to go beyond the pale.

Tomorrow, the World is also unique in its near-exclusive focus on domestic U.S. history. In the last three decades, diplomatic history has been transformed by two intellectual “turns” that have deemphasized how domestic politics and events shaped U.S. foreign policy. On one hand, “international” historians have examined the United States’ impact abroad and the influence that other countries and peoples have had on U.S. foreign affairs. On the other hand, “transnational” historians have analyzed how non-state actors, groups, and movements pushed U.S. foreign policy in particular directions. While these approaches have deepened historians’ understanding of several aspects of U.S. foreign relations—most important, its effects on foreign peoples, which were too often ignored by previous generations of intellectuals—they have forced scholars’ gaze from U.S. policy elites themselves.

Wertheim represents a new generation of foreign policy thinker—millennials for whom the invasion of Iraq was a seminal event that dispelled the notion, popular in the 1990s, that the United States was the world’s “indispensable nation.” Like many of his contemporaries— Megan Black, Daniel Immerwahr, and Jennifer M. Miller, to name a few—he has devoted his scholarship to exploring the origins and character of a U.S. hegemony that has done more harm than good. While Wertheim traces the rise of armed primacy, Black has explored the Interior Department’s drive for U.S. expansion, Immerwahr has examined the United States’ territorial empire, and Miller has analyzed how U.S. elites sought to create a democratic mind in the foreign populations that they governed. Together, these scholars desire to explain how, exactly, the United States came to rule the world.

With his work for the Quincy Institute (where I am a nonresident fellow), Wertheim has also attempted to transform U.S. foreign policy from inside the Beltway. In this way, he has something in common with Hamilton Fish Armstrong and the CFR planners that he writes about, who likewise wanted to have a direct effect on policy. To date, Quincy has released a number of road maps for a more “restraint”-oriented foreign policy. Its report, “A New U.S. Paradigm for the Middle East: Ending America’s Misguided Policy of Domination,” for example, argues that the nation should adopt a demilitarized approach to the region, defined by drawing down troops, avoiding disputes tangential to its interests, normalizing relations with Iran, using diplomacy to end the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and working with local partners to transfer security responsibilities. These are concrete proposals that give restraint a clear meaning and make the end of primacy easier to envision.

One of very few think tanks in Washington, D.C., that is avowedly anti-militarist, the Quincy Institute has its work cut out for it. Although Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the Iraq War during his campaign for president, his foreign policy team—a grab bag of militarists and malcontents ranging from Mike Pompeo to John Bolton—has shown little affinity for dismantling hegemony. A Joe Biden administration, meanwhile, will likely be staffed with interventionist stalwarts like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who has passionately argued that the United States has the moral duty to use force abroad if doing so saves innocent lives. There are also important disagreements within the “restrainer” community that are not easily papered over. While Soros and Koch (and the left and libertarian right) might agree on the desirability of avoiding war, they have wildly different visions of what an ideal world would look like. Whereas liberals like Soros favor a regulated global economy, libertarians like Koch embrace unrestrained free markets. Which should U.S. foreign policy pursue? Relatedly, does abandoning military primacy also mean abandoning economic primacy? It’s currently unclear how the Quincy Institute will answer these questions.

The institute has already drawn criticism from the right and left. The militarist Senator Tom Cotton, borrowing the language of the internationalists discussed in Tomorrow, the World, has labeled Quincy “an isolationist blame America first money pit for so-called ‘scholars.’” For their part, some on the left have worried that the organization’s “reformist perspective,” to quote a Jacobin article, is not sufficiently radical to offer a genuine alternative to American Empire. There are also many groups—such as defense contractors—that don’t want to see the United States restrain its military power. In 2019, the defense industry spent about $112,500,000 on lobbying, which likely encouraged Congress to recently vote against reducing the defense budget by a modest 10 percent. U.S. primacy in 2020 is much more than an ideal or assumption. It is the organizing principle for very influential and wealthy interests that will not be easily defeated.

Although a vast architecture provides material and ideological support for American primacy, there are signs that public support for it is attenuating. A Pew poll last year discovered that almost half of adults under 30 believe it would be acceptable for another country to develop military capabilities equal to those of the United States. That same poll also determined that 73 percent of Americans believe diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, while a poll funded by the Charles Koch Institute similarly found that around three-quarters of those surveyed want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. During his campaign for the presidency, Bernie Sanders promoted a restraint-oriented foreign policy that was enthusiastically embraced by his supporters. And with the Quincy Institute, heterodox analysts of foreign affairs finally have a home.

Wertheim’s book contributes to the effort to transform U.S. foreign policy by giving pro-restraint Americans a usable past. Though Tomorrow, the World is not a polemic, its implications are invigorating. Americans, Wertheim argues, are not forced to exert power, helpless to do anything but dominate. The popular notion that global “leadership” was foisted unwittingly upon a nation that wanted to remain aloof from foreign military affairs but, for the good of the world, decided otherwise is a fairy tale. By demolishing this convenient and flattering myth, Wertheim opens space for Americans to reexamine their own history and ask themselves whether primacy has ever really met their interests.

For decades, the political establishment refused to present Americans with the choice as to whether they should rule the world. There was simply no alternative to armed primacy. If the failures of post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy—the disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the illegal assassinations; the siphoning of resources from butter to guns—have revealed the devastating limits of power, they have finally made restraint thinkable.