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In Search of Monsters?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
May 2004


Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

by John Lewis Gaddis

Harvard. 150 pp. $18.95

Reviewed by

Max Boot

A great many books analyzing the recent shifts in American foreign policy have appeared since September 11, 2001. Most are harshly critical of President Bush and all his works. Their tenor can be judged by some of their titles: Rogue Nation, The Bubble of American Supremacy, The Sorrows of Empire, Superpower Syndrome. The more scabrous among them do not hesitate to compare George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler and America to Nazi Germany. And that is to say nothing of the books, which have become bestsellers in Europe, claiming that the CIA (or was it the Mossad?) was actually behind the 9/11 attacks. In response, some on the Right have produced equally histrionic screeds, like Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism and Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism— books that, in essence, accuse Bush’s critics of being fifth columnists.

It is a relief, therefore, to pick up Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, a sober attempt to analyze Bush’s foreign policy in historical context and without partisan rancor. Its author is John Lewis Gaddis, our most eminent historian of the cold war, who taught for many years at Ohio University and now holds the Robert A. Lovett chair in military and naval history at Yale.

Gaddis first rose to prominence with the publication in 1972 of The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, which rejected revisionist attempts to pin the blame for that conflict on the U.S. To Gaddis, the Soviet Union was at least equally responsible. Then, following the release in the 1990’s of new documents from the Soviet archives, Gaddis revised this position, concluding that Stalin was solely responsible for the post-World War II break with the West. He also disavowed his earlier view that the cold war was largely governed by geopolitical rivalries. His 1997 book We Now Know argued that Communist ideology had played a bigger role than realpolitik in motivating Soviet conduct.

Though he has long outraged New Left historians, Gaddis is hardly known as a conservative. His reputation is that of a moderately liberal scholar— which makes the assessment of Bush’s foreign policy that he offers in this slender volume all the more interesting and all the more likely to discomfit the administration’s critics.

In Gaddis’s view, there have been three big shifts in the long history of U.S. foreign policy, each one occasioned by a surprise attack on American soil. The first, he argues, happened after the British sacked Washington on August 24, 1814. This sudden exposure of American vulnerability led John Quincy Adams, first as Secretary of State, then as President, to redefine the U.S. approach to the world.

In Gaddis’s telling, the themes invoked by Adams sound strikingly modern: "preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony." He was "keenly aware of the fact that the United States had vast borders to defend," Gaddis writes, "but only limited means with which to defend them." Adams therefore decided that the U.S. had to gobble up as much border territory as possible to ensure against attack by neighboring states or marauding Indians.

This justification for preemptive annexation was eagerly taken up by Adams’s successors. James Polk added Texas and the southwestern territories to the United States. William McKinley went even further afield by grabbing the Philippines, for fear that if the U.S. did not seize the islands, either Germany or Japan would. Similar motives led a succession of Presidents to send armed forces to the Caribbean and Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In all these interventions, the U.S. was acting unilaterally, wanting to avoid entanglements in Europe’s alliance system. The U.S. was also attempting to establish its hegemony not only in North America but in the whole Western hemisphere— a policy codified in the Monroe Doctrine (developed by John Quincy Adams), which told European imperialists to keep out of the New World. During much of the 19th century, the U.S. did not have the power to back up its words, but by 1895 Secretary of State James Olney could proclaim with some justification, "Today, the United States is practically sovereign on this continent."

Gaddis believes that, aside from a brief burst of Wilsonianism, Adams’s vision dominated U.S. foreign policy until the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Adams had been able to limit the U.S. pursuit of hegemony to the Western hemisphere because of the security buffer provided by the Pacific and the Atlantic. He declared that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." But what if those monsters came here?

The attack on Pearl Harbor revealed that Americans no longer had the luxury of (as Gaddis puts it) "geographical separation from everyone else who might threaten them." FDR decided that, in order to ensure its security, America now had to be predominant in the whole world. But he did not think the U.S. could achieve this ambitious goal through the old policies of preemption and unilateralism.

Roosevelt sought global hegemony with the consent of other nations. He pledged the U.S. to work through the United Nations in the postwar world. His successors erected NATO, the Bretton Woods system, and similar institutions to bring other states into an American-led world order. An important corollary of this policy, Gaddis writes, was to avoid using preemptive force under most circumstances, because this could shatter the unity of the Western alliance and cost the U.S. the moral high ground. Instead of preempting the USSR, the U.S. deterred it.

Gaddis argues that this multilateral system won the cold war, but that 9/11 exposed its inadequacies. It is unlikely, he writes, "that diplomacy or deterrence could have prevented the September 11th attacks." Realizing this, President Bush has initiated the third major shift in U.S. foreign policy by returning to the hallmarks of John Quincy Adams: preemption, hegemony, and unilateralism.

Gaddis offers a good deal of praise for the National Security Strategy released in September 2002 and for the President who produced it. September 11, he writes, provoked "one of the most surprising transformations of an underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V." He credits the National Security Strategy for being "more forceful, more carefully crafted, and— unexpectedly— more multilateral" than its Clinton-era predecessor.

Gaddis is fairly scathing about the Clinton administration in general. He compares Bill Clinton with Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, "for those Presidents of the 1920’s had also allowed an illusion of safety to produce a laissez-faire foreign and national-security policy." He argues that Bush has come up with an alternative approach— essentially, preemptive attacks against terrorists and states that harbor them, combined with a determination to spread democracy— that is more attuned to the threats we face today.

But Gaddis is hardly a publicist for the White House. At the same time that he displays broad sympathy with the President’s grand strategy, he expresses disquiet about how it has been implemented. Citing Fareed Zakaria’s book, Illiberal Democracy, he worries that spreading democracy might not be a magic elixir for America’s problems in all cases. Moreover, he frets that the administration has alarmed too many people around the world with its talk of preemption and the "axis of evil," and its willingness to invade Iraq without the blessing of the UN. He closes this book with a plea for what is essentially a "kinder, gentler" Bush Doctrine— one that, like the "American system of cold-war alliances," would allow "the United States to wield power while minimizing arrogance."

Gaddis is a graceful writer, and he has sprinkled provocative insights throughout the 150 pages of this inelegantly titled book, which grew out of a series of lectures at the New York Public Library. Its brevity is both an advantage and a disadvantage— an advantage because it makes for an easy read, a disadvantage because it does not allow him to flesh out and defend his ideas.

Reading Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, I often wanted to ask Gaddis: "But what about . . . ?" For instance, did not the policies he attributes to John Quincy Adams— preemption, unilateralism, hegemony— predate the British attack on Washington? Thomas Jefferson, after all, completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. If that was not an example of a preemptive action designed to expand American hegemony, it is hard to know what is. And the doctrine of unilateralism was first enunciated not by Adams but by Washington and Jefferson— a fact that Gaddis acknowledges, though he thinks that Washington may have been influenced by an essay Adams wrote in 1793. Even if that is the case, it suggests that the burning of the Capitol and the White House in 1814 was not quite as pivotal as Gaddis makes it out to be.

I also found myself wishing for more explanation in his closing chapters. Sure, it would be nice to have multilateral consent for an aggressive, American-led policy of fighting terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. But how do we get it? Gaddis offers scant guidance beyond an injunction to avoid "the sin of pride." This begs all of the really difficult questions: Is the United Nations capable of upholding international order? Can we keep together cold-war alliances to tackle post-cold-war threats? Do we need to forge new alliances for new challenges? Under what circumstances, if any, is unilateral or preemptive action justified?

These are only quibbles, however, with a fine book. Leaving aside the validity of this or that detail, Gaddis’s major contribution is to treat the Bush Doctrine as a set of ideas worthy of scholarly examination rather than as a subject for ritualistic denunciation. He does not denigrate the President as a cowboy or a neo-Nazi, a simpleton or a dupe. Instead, Gaddis suggests that Bush is honestly grappling with the challenges that we confront today and, if he does not always get it right, he is nevertheless coming up with more interesting and ambitious responses than most of his critics.

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.