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Brands's 5th law
Sooner or later, countries get the foreign policies they can afford (pt. 1 of 3)
The revolution in American foreign policy of December 1941—the reversal from the cautious nationalism of George Washington to the ambitious internationalism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt— had been long in coming. Since the beginning of the twentieth century the United States had possessed the economic potential to pursue an assertive foreign policy. The American economy by then was the largest in the world, providing Americans the wherewithal to throw their weight around on the international stage. They did so incrementally in Central America and the Caribbean, and briefly in Europe during World War I. But in the 1920s and 1930s the United States reverted to the nineteenth century model of standoffishness, not to make full use of its material might until after Pearl Harbor.
The retreat wasn’t surprising, human nature being what it is. American leaders in the early part of the twentieth century had been born and educated during the nineteenth. Their expectations of America’s role in the world had taken shape in the era before America became an economic superpower. George Washington’s counsel about staying out of the affairs of other countries had been based on the fact that in his day the United States was a small, weak country compared with the likes of Britain and France. The United States grew larger and stronger during the decades that followed, but America’s industrial revolution came later than that of the leading countries of Europe, and until the 1890s the United States remained a laggard. Under the circumstances, a modest foreign policy was the only prudent course.
Modesty might have been shed in the early twentieth century. America could have built a navy to match Britain’s and an army to match France’s or Germany’s. But modesty lingered in the minds of Americans educated in that earlier time. Until they—or their children—saw a pressing need for a more ambitious policy, they were content to leave the world to its own devices.
The need became apparent at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt had seen it sooner than most Americans, but his political caution held him back. After the Japanese attack in Hawaii, he was able to shed his caution and seize the opportunity for American leadership of the anti-Axis alliance.
Foreign policy is, in many ways, a country’s insurance policy. People buy insurance to protect themselves against the hazards of life: injury, illness, fire, storms, loss of employment. Poor people can’t afford much insurance; unprotected, they deal as best they can with whatever life throws at them. Poor countries are similarly placed. They have to deal with the world as it exists and hope for the best. Rich countries, like rich people, are different. They can buy more insurance. The armies, navies and air forces of rich countries defend those countries’ borders and project their power abroad. Their soldiers, assisted by their diplomats, covert operatives and money, bolster friendly foreign governments and undermine or topple unfriendly ones. All these resources ensure that if trouble develops, it happens far from the home country; if war breaks out, it is fought on foreign soil. Where poor countries take the world as it exists, rich countries try to change the world, to suit their preferences.
For millennia these world-changing efforts assumed the form of imperialism. Julius Caesar led his legions into Gaul not so much to win territory as to secure Rome’s frontiers. But once Gaul was brought into the empire, then its frontiers had to be secured, and so Caesar went to Britain. In time the Romans found themselves having to defend much of Europe, North Africa and the modern Middle East. The insurance policy produced the Pax Romana, and it lasted as long as Rome could afford to pay the premiums. But eventually the productive energies flagged, the policy lapsed and the empire fell apart.
Other empires wrote similar stories. British merchants opened trade with port cities of India; to defend that trade British soldiers and diplomats conquered and coopted the hinterlands behind the cities. Defending the Indian hinterland eventually suggested securing the whole subcontinent and crossing the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The approaches to India had to be protected; hence the creation of colonies and protectorates in the Middle East, including Egypt, whose defense demanded securing the Sudan and the Nile headwaters.
The mechanism was typical of empires; the larger the territory acquired, the more expensive the insurance premiums. Britain, like Rome before it, tried to make the empire pay for itself, in terms of generating revenues to cover the premiums. And like Rome it succeeded, but not forever. By the early twentieth century the cost of imperial defense strained the British imperial budget; the unexpected outlay for World War I rendered the burden that much heavier. World War II broke the back of the empire, which fell to pieces in a tenth the time required to construct it.
But it didn’t go gracefully. The British clung to their empire for decades past the time they could really afford it. Habits of foreign policy are as slow to change on the decline as on the rise. The moment of truth for Britain—the inverse for Britain of Pearl Harbor for America—was the Suez crisis of 1956. Angered by the decision of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to nationalize the Suez Canal Company, British leaders conspired with France and Israel to swat him aside, as they had swatted aside pesky locals around the empire for more than a century. But this time they lacked the clout. When Dwight Eisenhower refused to stem a run on Britain’s currency, the British had to call off the nascent war. Prime minister Anthony Eden resigned in disgrace; a whole generation of British imperialists were compelled to acknowledge that their pretensions to power had become unsustainable.
(End of part 1)