Courtesy Reuters

A Matter of Historical Debate

By Christopher Layne

To the Editor:

Jack Snyder's review of my book The Peace of Illusions ("The Crusade of Illusions," July/August 2006) flatly asserts that "Layne is wrong on many key issues," even though the ones he mentions are all the subject of ongoing scholarly debate. If my reading of these cases is "wrong," I at least have a lot of company among distinguished diplomatic historians. Snyder would have better served readers by describing and analyzing the rival schools of historical interpretation and giving a reasoned argument in favor of the positions he favors.

Snyder states that I ignore the fact that U.S. withdrawal from "balancing power in Eurasia in the 1930s was a disaster." In fact, however, rather than withdrawing, the United States actively resisted Japan's expansion in East Asia in the late 1930s, a policy that culminated in Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. And he responds to my argument that the United States consciously set out to impose its hegemony on Western Europe after 1945 by stating that "NATO was created because the Europeans pushed for it." But the "empire by invitation" and "imposed hegemony" theses are not mutually exclusive. The archival record is quite clear: even before World War II ended, Washington had determined that the United States needed to impose its hegemony on Western Europe.

This leads to Snyder's claim that "most states balanced against the weaker but more threatening Soviet Union, rather than against the stronger but more attractive United States." Yet, as Melvyn Leffler has noted, "although the 'empire by invitation' thesis contains important insights, it should not be understood to mean that those soliciting or accepting American assistance had the same motives or concerns as did the United States." For example, after World War II, France was indifferent to the external Soviet threat but very concerned with the internal communist threat. Far from balancing against the Soviet Union, Paris bandwagoned with the United States because French elites needed U.S. aid to recover economically, reform socially, and gain the domestic political stability required to keep the French Communists out of power.

Snyder asserts that "the U.S. victory in the Cold War came cheap," but Korea and Vietnam were not cheap. Defending Western Europe after 1960 was not cheap -- and it was dangerous because it committed the United States to risking nuclear war on Western Europe's behalf. The Cold War imposed huge opportunity costs on the United States, such as the trillions of dollars expended in the global crusade against communism (and the pursuit of U.S. global hegemony) that could have been spent in more productive and socially useful ways. And there were other costs as well, including the expansion of federal government power, the rise of the imperial presidency, the erosion of civil liberties, and the long-term weakening of the U.S. economy.

Although the United States rightly contained the Soviet Union in Europe immediately after World War II, it is important to ask whether Washington missed opportunities that may have existed to extricate the United States from the Cold War and its attendant costs -- for example, by striking a deal to reunify Germany (as George Kennan advocated in 1948). Whether Stalin would have made such a deal between 1946 and 1949 and whether Moscow's 1952 and 1953 German reunification overtures were sincere are subjects that historians still debate. It is also worth asking why, following the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States expanded its strategic commitments and its ideological ambitions instead of contracting them. The continuity between Washington's post-World War II and post-Cold War policies raises the question of what motives and ambitions really have driven U.S. grand strategy since 1945.

Measured by traditional metrics of geography, military capabilities, and the distribution of power in the international system, since 1900 the United States has been, and remains, the most secure great power in history. Yet for most of the last century, Washington has consistently followed an expansionist and interventionist grand strategy. But why? The answer is that liberal ideology -- Wilsonianism in its foreign policy guise -- is the U.S. "myth of empire."

Wilsonianism defines security in ideological terms, positing that the United States can be secure only in a world composed of democracies, and thus inevitably injects a crusader mentality into U.S. foreign policy. Snyder maintains that the drive to crusade is not an inherent defect of this liberal ideology and claims that the United States can strike a judicious balance between Wilsonianism and prudent realism. But the country's track record in foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson's time provides scant support for such a view. The current struggle in Iraq and the Bush administration's goal of "transforming" the Middle East are merely the most recent demonstrations of the fact that liberal ideology is the motor of U.S. imperial expansion.

Christopher Layne

Associate Professor, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.

Continue