Coping With the Lippmann Gap

Courtesy Reuters

Foreign policy," wrote Walter Lippmann in 1943 in an oft-quoted phrase, "consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power." If this balance exists, the foreign policy will command domestic support. If commitments exceed power, insolvency results which generates deep political dissension.

American foreign policy, Lippmann argued, had evolved through three phases. Insolvency and inconstancy in foreign policy coupled with dissension over foreign policy existed between 1789 and 1823. American foreign policy then became solvent; U.S. commitments were limited to the western hemisphere and underwritten by the "concert with Great Britain" and the British fleet.

In the late nineteenth century the extension of American interests and commitments in the Pacific began to erode this solvency. The U.S. defeat of Spain and acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 ended it. In Lippmann’s view, a period of foreign policy "bankruptcy" then ensued in which the United States refused to recognize and accept the consequences of its new interests. American policy during these years was based on a series of mirages: peace, disarmament, no entangling alliances, collective security. The results were Hitler’s conquest of continental Europe and the Japanese conquest of East Asia. To reverse both required a world war.

Writing in the midst of that war, Lippmann was, of course, concerned whether a new foreign policy balance could be constructed for the postwar world. American foreign policy did become solvent in the postwar years, although not exactly in the way Lippmann anticipated. That solvency was based on the overwhelming economic and military power of the United States compared to other countries, its continued close association with Great Britain and France, and the rapid recovery of Germany and Japan and eventually their equally close association with the United States. For almost a quarter-century after World War II, this combination provided what Lippmann would call a "comfortable surplus of power" abroad and a general consensus on policy at home.


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