Why Is America the World’s Police?
A new book tells the history of how U.S. political elites sold the United Nations to the public as a route to global peace, while all along wanting it as a cover for militarization.
October 19, 2020
Oct 19, 2020
20 Min read time
A new book tells the history of how U.S. political elites sold the United Nations to the public as a route to global peace, while all along wanting it as a cover for militarization.
Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
Harvard University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Most Americans never encounter the simple, brute fact of U.S. military supremacy. Bases are far away; wars in remote places are waged remotely; amid the general fragmentation of social life, those who serve in the military are lumped into particular demographic niches. But on the rare occasions when Americans do think about their military, they are remarkably supportive. The military routinely ranks as the most-trusted institution in polls; even after decades of cuts to all manner of other services, the ever-expanding defense budget remains sacrosanct. Amid general rancor and paranoia about their politics, Americans are overwhelmingly content not only that their military is the world’s most powerful, but also its most expensive: it costs more than the armed forces of the next ten countries combined.
For political elites, the appeal of the UN was that it provided the United States and Britain with a way to police the world while avoiding the appearance of empire-building.
In his new book, historian Stephen Wertheim seeks to explain the origins of this attitude. He zooms in on the pivotal years of World War II, focusing our attention on the frenzied and consequential planning for the postwar world order. Observing a tight network of policy-makers and intellectuals as they drafted the blueprints for what they increasingly thought of as an “American Century,” Wertheim shows that they decided to “attain armed primacy.” This was a significant shift: when the Nazis invaded France, the U.S. army was only the nineteenth largest in the world, ranking behind even the Dutch. In writing the history of the country’s decision to embrace a militarist vision of world order—and to do so, counterintuitively, through the creation of the United Nations—Wertheim provides an importantly revisionist account of U.S. foreign policy in the 1940s, one that helps us think anew about internationalism today.
• • •
Tomorrow, the World traces shifting ideas about world order by examining the internal deliberations of geopolitical planners, and thus pinpoints exactly how and when U.S. ideas about foreign policy began to evolve. The details are often surprising, running counter to conventional wisdom about how U.S. foreign policy developed in the postwar period.
A major focus of the book is the period immediately following the fall of France (June 1940), when the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank tried to map out the prospects for the United States if the Nazis dominated Europe. Well before Pearl Harbor, and at a time when the State Department had disbanded its postwar planning committee, CFR sought to define the geopolitical interests of the United States. At first, its members thought that the country might retreat to what they called the “quarter-sphere”—an easily defensible area extending from Canada to the northern portion of Latin America. But they soon worried that the U.S. economy might be locked into the quarter-sphere. If foreign geopolitical blocs dominated the rest of the globe, the United States would be cut off from trade. The quarter-sphere, they feared, would prove “too small an area for a satisfactory American standard of life.”
For a time, therefore, the planners expanded the quarter-sphere to the hemisphere, but this too seemed unsustainably small. It was not self-sufficient, because it needed to export both agricultural goods (from Latin America and the U.S. South) and commercial goods (from the U.S. North). It therefore couldn’t provide a truly independent economic base for competition with Nazi-dominated Europe. Including the Pacific would soak up manufactured exports, and provide valuable sources of jute, rubber, and tin—but it would only exacerbate the need to find export markets for agricultural products. And so the only solution was to bring Britain, a major importer of agricultural goods, into the fold as well. “After months of study,” Wertheim concludes, “the planners had discovered that if German domination of Europe endured, the United States had to dominate almost everywhere else.” Like an overgrown Goldilocks, the United States had tried various economies on for size, and found itself comfortable only in the world system that imperialism had built in the early twentieth century.
Roosevelt was convinced that joining the United Nations would not interfere with his preferred vision of the postwar order—one in which the Big Four would make all the more important decisions.
It was, as far as foreign policies go, fairly straightforward. Hanson Baldwin, New York Times journalist and member of the CFR, summed it up simply: “world domination by the United States and the British Empire acting in close and continuous collaboration.”
The problem was selling this foreign policy to Americans. It was imperialist, required close alliance with Britain, and asked the public to bear the costs of a globe-straddling military presence. “Given the temper of the American people,” observed one participant in the debates, “it may even prove impossible to organize Anglo-American cooperation . . . except under the more universal auspices of some league or association of powers.”
The real trick was to provide the United States and Britain with a way to police the world while avoiding the appearance of empire-building. The planners had initially been disinterested in creating an international institution—in their minds, the League of Nations had been ineffective because of its fuzzy idealism. But by 1942, when CFR planners began to move into the State Department’s revived postwar planning apparatus, a new sort of international organization was beginning to sound appealing. The solution to their PR problem, the planners realized, was the United Nations.
Unlike the earlier League of Nations, the UN would centralize the police power in a security council dominated by the Big Four—Britain and the United States, as well as China and the Soviet Union (France would join only later). True, the UN would have a General Assembly, but as President Roosevelt’s undersecretary of state, Sumner Welles, put it, this was “a sop for the smaller states.” In a two-hour meeting in January 1943, Welles convinced Roosevelt that joining the United Nations would not interfere with the president’s preferred vision of the postwar order—one in which the Big Four would make “all the more important decisions.” (Because the important work would happen between the great powers, FDR didn’t even think the UN would need a permanent headquarters. He thought that the General Assembly would meet perhaps once a year, to let smaller nations “blow off steam.”)
From there, it was relatively plain sailing, at least as far as the U.S. planners were concerned. In secret meetings at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944, details of the new organization were hammered out among the Big Four. In a public conference in San Francisco in 1945, the rest of the world was brought into the conversation. Delegates from the Global South and from nongovernmental organizations asked for important changes: they wanted a greater focus on economic and social issues; they queried the need for a Great Powers veto; they pushed for the adoption of a declaration on human rights.
If the United States wanted to deploy military force, then it might be able to turn to the UN to approve and legitimize its action. But there was no chance that the UN could meaningfully block unilateral U.S. military action.
But the Big Four had retained for themselves a right to veto any changes to the UN constitution that sprung up at San Francisco, and most of the important action took place in meetings of their foreign ministers that were held in Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr.’s penthouse. So while important concessions were made which laid the basis for the United Nation’s contemporary reputation as a liberal bastion, there was no chance that the new organization was going to interfere with the capacity of the Great Powers to act unilaterally to protect their geopolitical interests. If the United States wanted to deploy military force, then it might be able to turn to the United Nations to approve and legitimize its action. But there was no chance that the UN could meaningfully block unilateral U.S. military action. Wertheim dubs this a form of “instrumental internationalism,” and it understandably appealed even to conservative nationalists in Congress.
And it had a broader appeal, too. The State Department had orchestrated a massive public relations campaign—distributing millions of pamphlets, giving hundreds of speeches, briefing scores of journalists—which convinced Americans to embrace the new organization as the last, best hope for world peace. A new balance of power, in which the United States would act as a global policeman, had been successfully dressed up as a victory for liberal internationalism.
• • •
Simply by telling the story in its proper order, Wertheim offers a bracing corrective to standard accounts of the rise of the United Nations regime. Take, for instance, the issuance of the Atlantic Charter by Winston Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941, which is often treated as the first step on the road to a postwar order based on the UN, human rights, and liberal freedom. (Elizabeth Borgwardt’s 2005 history of international human rights, A New Deal for the World, for instance, begins, “Somewhere in the Atlantic, 1941.”) Wertheim shows it was nothing of the sort. Churchill’s draft of the charter had, in fact, mentioned the creation of an “effective international organization”—but Roosevelt insisted that it be cut because “nothing could be more futile than the reconstruction of a body such as the assembly of the League of Nations.” The Atlantic Charter was neither the resurrection of Wilsonian internationalism nor a foreshadowing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—it belongs, as Wertheim shows us, to the earlier phase of postwar planning, to the moment when Anglo-American domination was in vogue.
A new balance of power, in which the United States would act as a global policeman, had been successfully dressed up as a victory for liberal internationalism.
In such ways, Wertheim punctures the myth that the 1940s witnessed a simple shift from isolationism to internationalism. What was at stake in foreign policy debates of the 1940s was not a clash between a virtuous internationalism and a backward-looking isolationism, but rather a clash between competing versions of internationalism. Much of what was dismissed as isolationism during the war was, in fact, a form of restrained internationalism: it favored trade, and international organization, and international law; it wanted to limit the militarization of foreign affairs. When this noninterventionism was saddled with the label “isolationist,” when it was defined as selfish and introverted, it allowed advocates of military supremacy to claim the label “internationalist” for themselves. This was the great utility of the United Nations. Ever since, the debate has been stacked in favor of armed primacy: Would you prefer to be a “selfish” isolationist or an engaged internationalist?
The contemporary stakes of Wertheim’s work are plainly apparent. Post–Cold War certainties about the direction of history have been unsettled by decades of endless war, global financial calamity, renewed geopolitical tension and, now, global pandemic. As far-right nationalists decry globalists, as centrists seek restoration of “liberal internationalism,” and as the progressive left tries to end U.S. imperialism, the structure of the world order—and the United States’ role within it—are once again up for grabs. It is possible to imagine new visions of foreign policy, supported by new coalitions.
Wertheim’s scholarship in only one component of how he hopes to shape this moment: as Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a new think tank, he supports its mission to “move foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy.” The organization is funded by both the Koch Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, and aims to seize a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing.” Tomorrow, the World is a useful history for this project—a reminder of just how strange it is that Americans have come to see military supremacy as a form of selfless altruism, as a gift to the world.
• • •
Wertheim’s book offers a useful reminder of just how strange it is that Americans have come to see military supremacy as a form of selfless altruism, as a gift to the world.
The history of ideas can clarify the genealogy of contemporary foreign policy assumptions and help us imagine alternatives, but it is also important to think about how to make those alternatives politically effective. Wertheim’s book, after all, is a story of ideas in action—of how a certain vision of foreign policy became so legitimate that it turned into a form of common sense.
Wertheim’s book offers less guidance in this regard. The public was excluded from most of the key discussions in the 1940s. (The Republicans and Democrats reached a gentleman’s agreement to keep plans for the UN out of the 1944 election.) Think tanks had more direct access to the halls of power, but the UN was founded prior to a time when public opinion was dissected by hordes of data scientists. What mattered was what elites thought the public would stand for. By 1945 they had convinced themselves that the public would accept military build-up if it was dressed up as liberal internationalism.
Wertheim ends his story with a jump-cut to the present, drawing a straight line between the elite consensus of 1945 and the smug complacency of foreign policy elites in the 2000s (what is often referred to as the Blob.) It’s an understandable move because Wertheim is focused on the tectonics of U.S. political culture. For him, congressional haggling over the precise level of the Defense budget is insignificant given what the vast sums involved reveal about broader attitudes toward military supremacy. And what the public thought about Cold War adventurism mattered less than what political elites thought they could advocate publicly. In such ways did a deep consensus stifle genuine political debate about foreign policy.
There is clearly a great deal of truth to this depiction. (And starting a new think tank is a reasonable strategic lesson to take away from it.) But those seeking a more democratic foreign policy need, at some point, to engage closely with the attitudes of the public. What does it mean, for instance, that about three-quarters of Americans currently favor bringing troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq? In a recent article in the Guardian, Wertheim suggests that this is evidence of a growing opposition to U.S. warfare, a chink in the armor of official consensus, and hence a moment of opportunity for those seeking a more progressive foreign policy, focused on climate change and global inequality.
Perhaps the current fatigue with military adventurism is less an epochal break than the latest episode of a recurring tendency of the U.S. public to grow tired of failed wars only to rally to the flag again when a shiny new product rolls off the line.
I hope that he is right. But one can’t help but wonder if that number is primarily a reaction to the specific catastrophe of those two fruitless, endless wars. Perhaps the current fatigue with military adventurism is less an epochal break than the latest episode of a recurring tendency of the U.S. public to grow tired of failed wars—think Vietnam—only to rally to the flag again when a shiny new product rolls off the line—think the first Gulf War.
And even if it reflects a deeper rejection of militarism, it is far from clear that it opens the door to a more internationalist foreign policy. It is entirely plausible that it does represent a “selfish” rejection of the world—after all, the same poll found that 75 percent of Americans thought the “U.S. should prioritize domestic issues over foreign policy issues.” How you interpret that depends a lot on which “domestic issues” are prioritized, and in what forms. But it’s hard to see how that vision of restraint is going to help us much with genuinely global problems such as climate change.
One way to think about coalition-building in the present is to try to work out why Americans were ever willing to tolerate military supremacy in the past. However elitist its origins, however much military supremacy was sold to the U.S. public in a bait-and-switch in the 1940s, the public did not reject it. Wertheim argues suggestively that this was because planners tapped into some deep currents of Americans’ self-understanding. “Primacy,” he writes, “is an axiom about America’s role in the world, closer to the status of an identity than to that of a policy or a strategy.” It’s an astute insight, one that Wertheim’s book doesn’t have the space to develop.
In elite discourse in the 1940s, one could find at least three different justifications for U.S. military primacy, each with a different origin. Whether, and to what extent, each of these ideologies had wider purchase among the public remains unclear. But because each has very different policy implications, working out their relative weight in the political culture is important for those wondering if a more progressive foreign policy was possible in the 1940s—as well as for those hoping for the same today.
The first justification stemmed from a belief that the powerful had an obligation to help the less fortunate. The United States was clearly a superpower in the 1940s, which made it, in the minds of many, “responsible” for the world. Magazine magnate Henry Luce and Vice President Henry Wallace, for instance, agreed on very little about the postwar world—Wallace proposed a globalist People’s Century against Luce’s capitalist vision of an American Century. But they both thought that the United States was responsible for world order. “America is responsible,” said Luce, “to herself as well as to history, for the world environment in which she lives.” Added Wallace, “we of the U.S. can no more evade shouldering our responsibility than a boy of eighteen can avoid becoming a man by wearing short pants.”
It is telling that Americans thank their military for their “service”—a form of giving, obligation, altruism. For those hoping for a more progressive foreign policy today, it is necessary to unhitch this notion of responsibility from military power.
The real trick was hooking responsibility to military power, something aided by the lesson learned at Munich that one had to stand up to dictators. Archibald MacLeish, for instance, who was the assistant secretary of state responsible for selling the UN to the public, had built his political philosophy during the 1930s around the idea that liberalism had to be muscular, that it had a duty to confront evil—he had broken with his erstwhile literary colleagues when he denounced antiwar writers as Irresponsibles. In such ways did pacifism became weakness and action become all important, a lesson that smoothed the way for military supremacy. It is telling that Americans thank their military for their “service”—a form of giving, obligation, altruism. For those hoping for a more progressive foreign policy today, it is not necessary to reject this notion of responsibility. The challenge is to unhitch it from military power, and to make the case that responsibility requires more than restraint—it requires investment in the common good.
Doing so will require rejecting the second justification for military primacy that was circulating in the 1940s. This notion of responsibility was heir to paternalistic assumptions about the duties of “civilized” nations to their colonial wards, the latest iteration in a long era of expansion and domination that led first to settler-colonialism on the continental United States, and then to occupations in the Caribbean and Pacific. Wertheim is critical of historians who see the 1940s as part of a “narrative of untrammeled expansionism.” For him, the 1940s are a rupture, when the United States sought primacy not only over “colonies far from the centers of European rivalry” but also in the “world’s major rivalries and conflicts”—armed supremacy was not baked into the American DNA. It’s an understandable move, given Wertheim’s goals: it is helpful to be reminded that the global ambitions of U.S. military planners were in some respects new. Still, because Wertheim tells the story largely through the eyes of his Eurocentric geopolitical planners, he slights the importance of colonialism both to world history and to Americans’ assumptions about their place in the world. After all, as Wertheim shows, racist assumptions helped stitch together plans for Anglo-American domination in the 1940s, just as they had earlier encouraged the swapping of notes on the “white man’s burden.”
It’s not clear how far down the social hierarchy such attitudes extended, though one wonders if U.S. geopolitical supremacy in a racially hierarchical world order paid poor Americans a “psychological wage,” as W. E. B. Du Bois once theorized about the role of whiteness in Jim Crow America. Today, of course, white nationalists claim to upend the international order to enhance U.S. autonomy. This sometimes involves a critique of armed intervention, but it never involves a rejection of armed supremacy. And insofar as it seeks to assert white primacy, it is far from a rupture with earlier modes of world order.
Threading the needle between these differing notions of responsibility will require reexamining a final justification for military primacy: the idea that supremacy was good for the U.S. economy. For the planners, who thought in zero-sum terms, the math was straightforward. “We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population,” observed George Kennan (author of the “Long Telegram” that outlined so much of U.S. Cold War strategy). “Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.” One way to do so was by armed force; another was by a strategic program of foreign aid which was designed, just like corporate charity in the Gilded Age, to legitimize inequality and ward off more radical redistributions of wealth.
How many Americans shared, either consciously or unconsciously, this desire to preserve their economic status in the world is unclear. And precisely measuring how the economic status of everyday Americans was affected by U.S. military supremacy during postwar capitalism’s Golden Age is a difficult empirical question. But today, in an era of widening inequality and harsh poverty—8 million Americans have slipped into poverty since May alone thanks to COVID-19—it is clear that the economy is not working for the average American. The challenge for progressives is to make the case that the bloated defense budget is exacerbating the problem, as elites hoard resources (think here of U.S. arm sales to oil barons) that would be better repurposed as part of a broader economic reform.
Appeals to U.S. primacy could tap into any or all of these three beliefs. Wertheim’s book, which does not claim to be a social history of grassroots politics, can’t tell us much about these broader dynamics, which are devilishly difficult to reconstruct. The extent to which they intermingled in the minds of Americans, as well as their relative weight across the social fabric, remains unclear. Trying to imagine how these things have evolved over time is even harder.
In an era of widening inequality and harsh poverty, it is clear that the economy is not working for the average American. The challenge is to make the case that the bloated defense budget is exacerbating the problem.
But if a truly progressive foreign policy is to become legitimate today, it must find a way to win broad assent from the public. Simply denouncing military action in the wake of the latest unpopular wars will not provide a justification for necessary international action around climate change or inequality. And it risks leaving the door open to those seeking to hurl old accusations of isolationism in order to resurrect stale pieties about U.S. indispensability.
Reimagining the responsibilities of the United States may provide a way forward. “Leadership” is not required, nor is military primacy. A responsible foreign policy would allow for redistribution of resources to where they are truly needed—global poverty, climate change, world health. It would leave resources available domestically to help people confront the real threats to their livelihoods—poverty, precarity, disease. In both cases, opening the pool of stakeholders is essential. Responsibility can imply collective decision-making as well as noblesse oblige.
These are obviously ambitious goals. Luckily, that defense budget is big. So are the untaxed earnings of the U.S. ruling class. And to the extent that a responsible foreign policy will cost money and require some to make sacrifices—well, the public’s apolitical adoration for soldiers remind us that Americans are quite willing to support expensive programs that place their burdens unevenly on the population. It all depends, as Wertheim’s account of the 1940s reminds us, on how you sell it to the public.
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October 19, 2020
20 Min read time