Empire of Liberty: The Historical Underpinnings of the Bush Doctrine (Thomas Donnelly, June 24, 2005, AEI Online)
Far from constituting a radical break from American foreign policy, the basic impulses of the Bush Doctrine can be traced throughout much of our history. […]
Above all, American strategic culture is notable for the disproportionate role played in it by American political principles, or, to use the modern term, by ideology. We have sought to make an empire for liberty, to wield power not for its own sake but for the sake of securing the natural political rights “inalienable” to all mankind and which, alone in the American imagination, legitimize power.
This is not to say that the United States has pursued an entirely altruistic course or been unconstrained by the realities of statecraft and the limits of power throughout its history. Rather, it is to assert that American strategy-making and war-making have been informed by a belief that long-term security can be achieved, and only achieved, by the spread of liberal governance, and that American liberal governance is in turn impossible absent the exercise of American military power. In the case of the Revolutionary War, Americans understood themselves as Englishmen in America, and they would have preferred to remain within the British Empire had the price of security been accompanied by the liberties that were their rights as citizens of the empire. But what Americans wanted, London would not give. Increasingly, the colonists understood that only their own power could guarantee their natural political rights.
From the willingness of the revolutionaries to shed blood on behalf of what they held to be “self-evident” truths about human political equality to Lincoln’s declaration at Gettysburg that the Civil War, more than a struggle over states’ rights, would result in “a new birth of freedom,” America’s wars have consistently been shaped by the desire to create a balance of power that favors freedom. As American power and the empire of liberty–now including Europe, maritime East Asia, and new footholds in Afghanistan and Iraq–have grown, so the definition of an acceptable balance of power has shifted. The Bush administration’s focus on the greater Middle East is a natural step in this evolution.
The second source of American strategic conduct has been a belief that we stand at the center-point of international politics; the United States regards itself as a kind of “Middle Kingdom.” American strategic horizons have always extended in many directions: east, west, north, and south. Far from being natural “isolationists,” Americans have always felt themselves exposed to threats and dangers, with little strategic “depth.” When the United States reached its supposed natural frontier with the settlement of the American West, the American strategic imagination leaped over the oceans, first in the Pacific and then the Atlantic, believing that the homeland was only as safe as the farthest frontier. As the “rimlands” of Europe and the western Pacific were secured, the American security perimeter has moved forward into central and eastern Europe, the Middle East, central and south Asia.
The third theme of American strategy is the habit of expansionism. Believing ourselves to be safest not only when our outer perimeter is secure but also free, Americans have felt a necessity to project power unto the farthest reaches of the globe. In the period from the Monroe Doctrine to the Spanish-American War, the habits of expansion and preemption became more than rhetoric, and the commitment to individual liberty, wrenched from the fire of the Civil War, became an ingrained reality. In sum, American strategic culture came of age during this period, and, at century’s end, was no longer content to simply stand behind its ocean walls. Increasingly, a North American empire of liberty could not be separated from the larger world of empires abroad.
A brief taste of European-style imperialism in the late nineteenth century sufficed to sour Washington on direct conquest and rule, yet U.S. leaders have insisted for more than a half-century on exercising a de facto hegemony over defeated foes even well after they become formal allies. The United States cannot be said to “rule” Germans or Japanese, yet America asserts its desire to make the rules by which the international system operates and in which these nations are embedded; the phenomenon of economic globalization rests on a phenomenon of political and strategic Americanization. By incorporating past enemies into the ever-growing empire of liberty, the New World fundamentally changed the Old, and American strategic culture not only proved its enduring strength, but its fundamental flexibility and adaptability. At times, as during the late-Cold War period of détente, that flexibility proved so great as to call into question the basic tenets of American strategic culture. Yet though they bent, these tenets did not break.
Finally, as observed by Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis and others, Americans have long had a predilection for preemption, prevention, and for what has lately been called “regime change.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, the concept of the “failed state” is one Washington policymakers have recognized throughout history; moreover, Americans have often moved rapidly to address these perceived dangers when the balance of forces appeared to be in our favor. Thus, as American colonists grew in strength vis-à-vis neighboring Indian tribes, their approach became strategically preemptive, preventive, and decisive–likewise with Spanish and Mexican competitors for the North American continent. When, during the twentieth century, the cost of preempting European great powers or preventing their wars seemed too great, the United States initially settled for a return to the status quo even while–in the voice of Woodrow Wilson–preaching revolution and regime change. Further involvement in Europe hardened American attitudes. Now, as the guarantor of a global order, the old habit is hard to break: acting to prevent weak, corrupt, and illegitimate governments from making mischief is central to American strategic thought and practice. And we most often regard wars as successfully concluded when failed states have been replaced with stable ones constructed on an American model.
In sum, there has been a more or less consistent purpose to American power and a strategic culture that remains a source of American conduct. It is at once “realistic,” in the sense of being a keen calculation of power, especially military power, and at the same time “idealistic,” in the sense of being motivated by a set of transcendental claims about the nature of the good society. The quest for the good society, as Gerald Stourzh observes in his study of Alexander Hamilton, has confined itself “within the walls of the city. Principles of political obligation and organization have been sought within the confines of a given society.” The growth of American power has raised our understanding of where our walls are, of the outer limits on the good society; our peculiar strategic culture has driven us onward.