by Francis P. Sempa
In the 227 years since Washington’s Farewell Address, U.S. national security doctrines have evolved from a distant and detached armed neutrality to a policy permitting preemptive, unilateral military action anywhere in the world. Professor Sempa explores how the eight major national security doctrines promulgated during this 227-year span were developed and implemented. He believes these doctrines helped the United States react to national security threats and challenges with far-sighted, long term, but pragmatic policies, and hopes the Bush administration will prove to be as pragmatic, prudent, and far-sighted as its predecessors . — Assoc. Ed.
A country’s national security policy is determined by many factors, including external threats, geography, political culture, military capabilities, economic needs, elite opinion, popular opinion (in democracies) and its leaders’ perceptions of the country’s interests. This last factor frequently manifests itself in what has been called a foreign policy or national security “doctrine.” A national security doctrine serves as a guide by which leaders conduct the foreign policy of a country. At its most effective, a national security doctrine is the organizing principle that helps statesmen identify and prioritize their country’s geopolitical interests.
In our country’s 227-year history, we have had eight major national security doctrines: Washington’s Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, the Open Door, Off-shore Balancer, Containment, Liberation, and the current doctrine of Preemption. Although throughout our nation’s history specific policies toward other nations or regions of the world have been called “doctrines,” in reality those specific policies were part of, and subordinated to, the nation’s larger national security doctrines.
A review of those doctrines reveals that while each was formulated and adopted by our leaders in reaction to immediate foreign policy concerns, each doctrine also addressed certain fundamental aspects of U.S. national security that led future statesmen to follow its broad policy objectives and prescriptions. Moreover, each successive national security doctrine built upon the foundations of the preceding doctrines, resulting in a continuity of policy that has served America well.
George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation in 1796 was largely the work of Washington and his former military aide and Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. It was Washington’s final contribution to the nation he helped found and led through its war of independence and early years as a vulnerable republic. Its policy prescriptions became so ingrained among America’s leaders and the public, that one hundred years later the great proponent of American expansion, Alfred Thayer Mahan, decried its continuing influence over U.S. foreign policy.
The Farewell Address was one of three complementary national security doctrines that guided U.S. foreign policy for nearly a century; the other two were the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. Because these doctrines existed simultaneously and reinforced each other during a significant time period in our nation’s history, they will be treated here together.
Washington issued his Farewell Address at a time when the United States occupied a sliver of territory on the east central coast of the North American continent and the young republic shared the continent with Great Britain, Spain and the Indian tribes. Washington and Hamilton both recognized that U.S. independence and its immediate future security depended in part upon the continuing rivalry among the great powers of Europe. The Anglo-French struggles that gave birth to the United States continued after the War of Independence. Despite pro-French sentiment in the United States and the 1778 alliance with France, Washington steered a course of neutrality between the two European antagonists. He realized that the young nation was too weak to involve itself in Europe’s quarrels, and that the U.S. was more secure when the European great powers were distracted by continental concerns.
It was Washington’s experience navigating the ship-of-state through these troubled diplomatic waters that informed the latter part of the Farewell Address. Those who have read about the Farewell Address, without actually reading it, often falsely believe that Washington advised against “entangling alliances,” which is in fact a later, rather ideological, Jeffersonian phrase. Washington’s advice was far more subtle and sophisticated than is popularly imagined.
“[N]othing is more essential,” he wrote in response to pro-French and pro-British attitudes that had vexed his administration, “than that permanent inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated.” The nation’s “interests,” rather than sympathy or resentment, should determine the direction of our foreign policy. Policy towards other nations that was based on sentiment, Washington warned, would result in “facilitating the illusion of … imaginary common interests, where no real common interest exist.”
Washington advocated a policy of “extending our commercial relations” to all foreign nations, but having with those nations “as little political connection as possible.” “Europe,” he wrote, “has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation.” Europe will be engaged, he continued, “in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.” We should not, therefore”, “implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of [Europe’s] friendships or enmities.” “Why,” he asked rhetorically, “by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?”
“It is our true policy,” Washington concluded, “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world…” He recognized, however, that in some situations “temporary alliances” with foreign nations might be necessary to protect our interests.
Geography (“our detached and distant situation”), unity, efficient government and a “respectable defensive posture,” Washington believed, would enable the United States to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.” The national security goal expressed in the Farewell Address was “to gain time [for] our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it…the command of its own fortunes.”
Felix Gilbert has written that the Farewell Address “was the first statement, comprehensive and authoritative at the same time, of the principles of American foreign policy,” and it “served as a guide to American foreign policy for over a century.” Washington’s successors as president throughout most of the nineteenth century repeatedly invoked the Farewell Address when discussing the nation’s foreign policy. Eugene Rostow, in his masterful study of the history of American national security policy, described the doctrine proposed in the Farewell Address as “active (and armed) neutrality,” which was “altogether prudent and realistic for a world in which the United States was first a small and then a medium-sized power living within a state system dominated by the jostle and bustle of the European balance of power…”
The Farewell Address envisioned an expanding United States. Washington warned against “permanent alliances” because he knew that the new nation needed breathing space to strengthen its institutions and grow geographically. In order for the United States to be able to expand on the North American continent and achieve security from European intervention in U.S. affairs, however, the European powers had to leave. When the United States achieved its independence, Britain and Spain still held sizable territories on the continent. An immediate goal of U.S. foreign policy, therefore, was to prevent the expansion of European territory on the continent, and, ultimately, to remove the Europeans from North America altogether and limit their presence in the entire Western Hemisphere. This was the first step toward two other U.S. national security doctrines: the “Monroe Doctrine” and “Manifest Destiny.”
President James Monroe announced the doctrine that bears his name in 1823, at a time when Russia sought to strengthen its hold on the Pacific coast of North America and it seemed likely that reactionary European powers might help Spain regain its New World colonies, which had established their independence during the Napoleonic Wars. President Monroe declared that the United States would “consider any attempt” by European powers “to extend their [political] system to any portion of [the Western] hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The United States in the 1820s did not have the wherewithal (i.e., a sufficiently strong navy) to independently enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Fortunately for Monroe and his immediate successors, the British Navy, in support of purely selfish British interests, provided de facto enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine.
Once the United States attained great power status, it could and did exert its power and influence throughout the Western Hemisphere. In the twentieth century, the Caribbean Sea became an American lake. U.S. military forces frequently intervened south of the border in Mexico and Central America. U.S. presidents invoked the Monroe Doctrine during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s, during the submarine dispute at Cienfuegos in the early 1970s, and during the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s. Today, 180 years after it was announced, the Monroe Doctrine remains an important component of U.S. foreign policy.
The Monroe Doctrine nicely complemented and reinforced the Farewell Address and a new and third national security doctrine, Manifest Destiny. The term “Manifest Destiny” was coined by John L. O’Sullivan in 1839 to explain and to justify the westward expansion of the United States. The policy of expansion, however, had been part of United States national security policy since the founding of the country. Diplomacy and war, both in North America and in Europe, combined to effectuate the U.S. policy of continental expansion. First, Jay’s Treaty, and later the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, largely confined British territorial possessions to Canada. Next, the resumption of the Anglo-French war in Europe in the early 1800s made possible the Louisiana Purchase from France, which more than doubled the size of the United States and gave the U.S. full use of the Mississippi River for the exports of Transappalachian farmers. In 1819, the United States gained Florida from Spain under the terms of the Transcontinental Treaty, skillfully negotiated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in the wake of General Andrew Jackson’s military exploits. The U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s added a huge swath of territory to the American realm, including land that became the states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. In 1867, Alaska was acquired from Russia. During the rest of the nineteenth century, U.S. forces relocated to reservations any Indian tribes that resisted the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. By 1900, the United States had largely fulfilled the geopolitical vision of controlling the middle of the North American continent “from sea to shining sea.”
The greatest threat to the pursuit of the Manifest Destiny doctrine came not from abroad, but from within. The American Civil War threatened to permanently divide the United States into two competing powers. A Confederate victory in that war would have stopped Manifest Destiny dead in its tracks. The European great powers understood this, and so did Lincoln. Several times during the war, Great Britain and France hinted at intervening on the side of the Confederacy, and during the war France gave its support to a puppet regime in Mexico led by Archduke Maximilian. But the combination of key Union military victories and skillful diplomacy by the Lincoln administration persuaded the Europeans to remain neutral, and in 1867 France abandoned Maximilian and its hopes for a New World empire. The most important geopolitical consequence of the Union victory in the Civil War was the ability of the United States to continue its policy of continental expansion.
The overriding common goal of these three doctrines was for the United States to attain effective political control of the broad middle of the North American continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1898, when the next U.S. national security doctrine emerged, a nation that began as a sliver of territory on the eastern seaboard of North America had become a continental-sized giant. It was time, wrote the brilliant naval historian, strategist and proponent of American Empire, Alfred Thayer Mahan, for the United States to “look outward,” across the seas and oceans and take its rightful place on the world stage.
American sympathy for Spain’s rebellious subjects in Cuba and a more aggressive application of the Monroe Doctrine resulted in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. victory in that war, both in Cuba, but more importantly in the Far East, resulted in the emergence of a new U.S. national security doctrine, the “Open Door.” The immediate object of the Open Door was to create a Far Eastern balance of power that would promote and protect U.S. commercial and economic interests in Asia, particularly in China, which at the time was the scene of great power economic and political rivalry. Quite suddenly, in the late 1890s, the United States became a Pacific and Asian power, annexing Hawaii, and acquiring Guam, Wake Island and the Philippines. Mahan had written in 1890 that the United States needed to abandon the spirit of the Farewell Address. The balance of power in Europe and Asia, he argued, affected U.S. national security. This was not a novel insight of Mahan’s. American statesmen since the founding of the country had recognized that European rivalries and ambitions could impact American security interests. The Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny were all based, in part, on an appreciation of the relationship between U.S. security and the European balance of power. Mahan, however, understood that in the world of the 1890s and early 1900s, the United States could not rely on a passive, hemispheric defensive posture to protect its expanding interests abroad. The oceans that separated the United States from Europe and Asia were not moats behind which America could hide for its security. Mahan, instead, viewed the oceans as a great highway of “communications” which would either be used by America’s enemies to threaten our security or controlled by America to promote and protect its’ overseas possessions and interests.
The Open Door policy was, in effect, a doctrine of overseas commercial and political expansion. To be effective, the Open Door required strong U.S. naval power. Mahan’s intellectual call to action in this regard was taken up by his friend and admirer, Theodore Roosevelt.
Theodore Roosevelt was among that rare breed of men (Winston Churchill was another) who combined prolific intellectual output with military heroics and distinguished statesmanship. Before becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt had written several books, including a naval history of the War of 1812. He had also served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy prior to, and at the start of, the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt resigned that position to help organize and lead the “Rough Riders” in the ground war in Cuba.
Roosevelt, like Mahan, believed that the United States had to play a larger role on the world stage. To that end, he vigorously pursued the Open Door in Asia, and greatly expanded U.S. naval power. He hosted and presided over the peace negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), not simply to end a destructive and bloody conflict, but also to maintain the balance of power in East Asia, a region where the U.S. now had important commercial and strategic interests.
He also announced in 1904, in what came to be known as the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, that the U.S. would intervene in other nations in the Western Hemisphere to correct “chronic” and “flagrant” wrongdoings committed by governments against their own citizens.
In 1907, in a dramatic gesture of U.S. global power, Roosevelt sent the American fleet around the world! He also secured for the United States control of the Central American isthmus and began construction of the Panama Canal, which, when completed, consolidated the United States’ dominant role in the Caribbean Sea region, and made it much easier for U.S. naval power to be transferred from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice-versa.
Roosevelt, wrote the diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey, “understood the role of the United States in the world of power politics more clearly than any of his predecessors and most of his successors.” “He did more than any previous President,” continued Bailey, “to swing the United States out of its purely continental orbit.”
Just as the United States was entering this period of overseas expansion, the European great powers lurched ever so slowly toward the catastrophe of the First World War. In 1871, after three short, successful wars, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck grouped many states of the former Holy Roman Empire into the German Empire. Suddenly, the center of the continent was occupied by a populous, growing, industrial power. The Concert of Europe that had been crafted by the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna was coming undone.
For the next twenty years, Bismarck pursued a skillful diplomacy that promoted German interests within a relatively stable European balance of power. In the early 1890s, however, the new German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, removed Bismarck from office and eagerly launched a naval program that directly threatened British supremacy at sea. Gradually, the great powers of Europe formed alliances and armed themselves at an ever accelerating pace. A new threat to the continental balance of power had emerged, and Great Britain, as before, assumed the role of Offshore Balancer by throwing its weight, to paraphrase Sir Eyre Crowe, on the side opposed to the strongest power or alliance of powers on the continent.
The First World War was the last global conflict in which Britain acted as the principal Offshore Balancer to uphold or restore the European balance of power. Toward the end of that war, the United States emerged as Britain’s partner as an Offshore Balancer. The decision of President Wilson and the U.S. Congress to go to war in Europe in 1917 marked the beginning of a new U.S. national security doctrine that lasted until the end of the Second World War. Between 1917 and 1945, the United States became the Offshore Balancer of Europe and Asia because its statesmen gradually recognized the potentially lethal threat to U.S. security posed by a hostile power or alliance of powers that gained control of the major power centers of Eurasia.
Mahan, as early as 1900, sensed that the United States was emerging as a geopolitical partner, and eventual successor, to the British Empire. In his books and articles, Mahan noted that Britain had since the sixteenth century supported, anchored, funded then led grand coalitions of lesser powers to defeat successive attempts at European hegemony by the Hapsburgs, Louis XIV’s France, and Napoleon’s France. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Britain acted to restrain Russian expansion in Central Asia, a rivalry that became known as “the great game.” In The Interest of America in International Conditions, originally written in 1910, Mahan foresaw that the United States would ally itself to Britain, France and Russia to oppose German attempts at continental hegemony. That is precisely what the United States did twice during the next thirty years.
As the name Offshore Balancer implies, the United States during this time period did not continuously participate in the global balance of power. Instead, it intervened only as a last resort; only when it became unmistakably clear that its weight was needed to uphold or restore the balance of power in Europe or Asia. In the First World War, the U.S. entered the conflict three years after it began. Following the war, American forces returned home and the United States refused to participate in newly created collective security arrangements, even when it became apparent in the thirties that Germany threatened to dominate Europe.
In the Second World War, the United States waited to enter the war until Germany had conquered almost all of Europe, and Japan had occupied key parts of China and attacked U.S. possessions in the Pacific. Only after being attacked by the Japanese and a subsequent German declaration of war, did the U.S. intervene in Europe, Asia and Africa on a massive scale to defeat the Axis powers and attempt to restore the balance of power in Europe and East Asia. In so doing, it became the dominant power in both regions and soon focused its attention on maintaining global rather than simply regional balances.
In the larger geopolitical sense, the Second World War did not end the threat to the global balance of power; it merely replaced one potential Eurasian hegemon (Hitler’s Germany allied with Imperial Japan) with another (the Soviet Union). The security threat that caused the United States to enter the Second World War still existed after the war. Indeed, Winston Churchill, who did so much to alert America and the rest of the world to the strategic threat posed by Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, wrote after the war that “we find ourselves still confronted with problems and perils not less but far more formidable than those through which we have so narrowly made our way.”
When the Second World War ended, it was by no means inevitable that the United States would remain in Europe and Asia. President Franklin Roosevelt had informed Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that U.S. troops would return home within two years after the war’s end. FDR, it seems, like Wilson before him, was willing to entrust the world’s future security to an international organization, the United Nations. FDR’s successor as President, Harry Truman, gradually came to the realization that the U.S., not the UN, would have to take the lead role in organizing post-war security.
Even before the war had ended, there were some U.S. observers who understood that this time the United States could not again withdraw across the oceans to its insular position and let events in Europe and Asia take their course without U.S. involvement. William Bullitt, who had been the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and France during the 1930s, presciently warned President Roosevelt in 1943 that our Soviet ally would likely become a threatening adversary after the war. In 1944, James Burnham, then working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), wrote a prophetic analysis of Soviet post-war intentions. In 1942, and again in 1944, Yale political scientist Nicholas Spykman wrote brilliant book-length treatises on the need for the United States to remain an active participant in the European and Asian balances of power. “It will be cheaper in the long run,” Spykman wrote in 1942, “to remain a working member of the Eur[asian] power zone than to withdraw for short intermissions to our insular domain only to be forced to apply later the whole of our national strength to redress a balance that might have needed but a slight weight at the beginning.” The popular journalist Walter Lippmann, in his 1943 classic, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, explained that “the strategic defenses of the United States…extend across both oceans and to all transoceanic lands from which an attack by sea or by air can be launched.” America’s security, argued Lippmann, “has always…extended to the coastline of Europe, Africa and Asia.”
It was not until after the war, however, that the Truman administration, reacting to Soviet threats to Iran, Greece, Turkey, West Berlin and elsewhere, adopted the policy of Containment, which remained the principal U.S. national security doctrine until the 1980s. Containment’s leading theorist at the time was the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, George F. Kennan, whose article in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (written anonymously as “X” in 1947), had a dramatic and lasting impact on official Washington.
If Kennan was the intellectual “father” of Containment, the doctrine’s intellectual “grandfather” was the British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder. Beginning in 1904, and continuing until 1943, Mackinder developed and refined a geopolitical theory that identified the northern-central core area of Eurasia as the potential seat of a world empire. In 1943, in an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Round World and the Winning of the Peace,” Mackinder envisioned a North Atlantic security alliance (he called it the Midland Ocean) that would balance Soviet power in Eurasia. Mackinder’s ideas and concepts were extensively discussed on both sides of the Atlantic in the immediate post-war period.Containment manifested itself in resistance to Soviet probes in northern Iran and the Straits, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO committed the United States to the military defense of Western Europe. United States military forces would be stationed in Europe to bolster European defenses against possible Soviet attack, and to symbolically and practically link the security destinies of Western Europe and America. Later, the United States signed a treaty committing it to the defense of Japan, and organized security alliances, such as SEATO and CENTO to contain Soviet expansion in other areas of Eurasia.
The Containment doctrine, however, did not go unchallenged in the United States. Walter Lippmann argued that the doctrine was too broad, committing the United States to spread its resources too thinly around the periphery of Eurasia. Not every region along the periphery of the Soviet Union, Lippmann contended, was equally worthy of U.S. protection. Lippmann urged a more selective version of Containment, resisting Soviet encroachments only in those areas vital to U.S. security interests. Kennan soon made it clear that he had not argued for containment’s worldwide application. He sought only to deny the Soviet Union’s domination of any other of the centers of military and industrial power, variously defined as Western Europe, Britain, Japan, and the Middle East.
James Burnham, on the other hand, argued that Containment did not go far enough. In three books written between 1947 and 1951, Burnham urged U.S. policymakers to adopt a more offensive-oriented strategy that he labeled “Liberation.” The goal of U.S. foreign policy, Burnham argued, should be to undermine Soviet rule in Eastern and Central Europe, and ultimately within Russia itself. This theme was picked-up by the Eisenhower administration which in its early years paid lip service to a policy of “rolling-back” communism as an alternative to Containment. When it came to reacting to actual events, however, such as the Korean War stalemate of the early 1950s and the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Eisenhower settled for Containment. The Korean War was the first and most important test of whether Containment would give way to Liberation or “rollback.” General Douglas MacArthur’s brilliantly conceived and executed amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950, provided the United States with its first real opportunity to liberate a territory (North Korea) from communist rule. At first, the liberation of North Korea was the official policy of the Truman administration, and U.S. and allied forces crossed the 38th Parallel in a drive to the Yalu River. When Chinese communist forces massively intervened in the war in October 1950, however, Truman effectively reinstated the doctrine of Containment, and both he and Eisenhower sought a return to the status quo ante.Although Kennan’s “X” article provided the public rationale for Containment, the classified intellectual rationale for the doctrine was contained in NSC-68, perhaps the most important national security document in the early Cold War years. NSC-68 was drafted by a committee of State Department and Pentagon staffers headed by Paul Nitze, who succeeded Kennan as State’s Director of Policy and Planning. The document defined the policy of Containment as, “one which seeks by all means short of war to (1) block further expansion of Soviet Power, (2) expose the falsities of Soviet pretensions, (3) induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence and (4) in general, so foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system that the Kremlin is brought to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards.” The Soviet Union, according to the report, sought world domination, and its immediate efforts were “directed toward the domination of the Eurasian land mass.”
NSC-68 repeatedly stressed the central importance of preventing the Soviet Union from gaining effective political control of Eurasia. This emphasis on the importance of Eurasia to U.S. security was directly traceable to Mackinder’s geopolitical theories. Thus, Containment’s immediate focus were the geographical regions of Eurasia that were not subject to Moscow’s political control, but that could fall to Soviet or Soviet allies without U.S. support. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, the regions of Western Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia were the crucial battlegrounds.
To effectively contain Soviet Russia, NSC-68 recommended a build-up of conventional and atomic forces, as well as political, economic and psychological warfare against the Soviet Empire. It was not NSC-68, however, that produced the massive military build-up of the United States during the early 1950s; the war in Korea did that. The Korean War was the first of two “limited wars” in Asia (Vietnam was the other) that severely tested the staying power of the Containment doctrine. The Korean War also established a precedent in favor of a more passive approach to Containment than was discussed in NSC-68.
During the next thirty years, the United States for the most part hewed to an approach to Containment that attempted to counter Soviet or Soviet-directed thrusts around the world, but did not attempt aggressively to weaken or undermine the Soviet Empire. One main reason for the United States’ passive approach to Containment was the nuclear stalemate. The fact that each superpower possessed increasingly destructive arsenals of nuclear weapons acted to limit the risks that both superpowers were willing to run to achieve their geopolitical aims. Cold War crises that might otherwise have led to a global hot war, such as the Hungarian uprising and Suez crisis of 1956, the Berlin crises of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the war in Southeast Asia, the Czech uprising of 1968, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, and the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, were resolved, settled or ended without a direct U.S.-Soviet clash.
Another reason for America’s passive approach to Containment was the hope, first expressed by Kennan in the “X” article, and repeated in NSC-68, that successful resistance to aggressive Soviet moves would cause, in Kennan’s words, a “gradual mellowing” of the Soviet system. Indeed, to some, the events of the 1980s that led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire confirmed Kennan’s prescience. In this interpretation, more than forty years of “firm and vigilant” Containment produced the dramatic events of 1989-1991 that ended Soviet rule in Eastern and Central Europe, and within Russia itself.
It has become increasingly evident, however, that the U.S. national security doctrine changed in the 1980s from passive Containment to a more aggressive policy of Liberation. A close scrutiny of President Reagan’s speeches, interviews with national security officials, and, most important, declassified national security memoranda demonstrate that the Reagan administration pursued policies designed to bring down the Soviet Empire. For example, in January 1983, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 75 (NSDD-75) which stated that U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union was “[t]o contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism…,[t]o promote…the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced.” NSDD-75 further stated that the U.S. “should exploit” a number of “vulnerabilities within the Soviet empire…,” and attempt to “loosen Moscow’s hold” on Eastern Europe.
As Peter Schweizer, among others, has persuasively argued, Reagan’s policies, including aid to anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere, support for dissident groups and movements in Eastern Europe, the toppling of a communist government in Grenada, the denial to the Soviets of militarily useful technology, SDI, the military build-up, and efforts to exploit Soviet economic vulnerabilities, should be viewed in the context of this overall strategy. As I have argued elsewhere, Reagan’s approach to national security bore a remarkable resemblance to the approach recommended by James Burnham in the late 1940s-early 1950s.
The end of the Cold War produced a search for a new doctrine to meet the changed national security needs of the United States. With no peer competitor to counter, the Clinton administration promoted trade, expanding economic relations with other countries, counter-proliferation efforts, nation-building, humanitarian intervention, and assertive multilateralism. This decade of relative peace and prosperity for the United States produced no overall national security doctrine that dominated policymaking.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed all that. In response to those attacks and to intelligence information concerning North Korean, Iraqi and Iranian efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, the George W. Bush administration adopted a new national security doctrine, popularly called “Preemption.” Bush set forth the new doctrine one year after the September 11 attacks in a document entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States.”
The new strategy envisions a long, complex struggle against global terrorists and the states that support or harbor them. Of special concern are those “rogue” states that have or are attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction. As Bush explained, “We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few.” The United States, according to the new doctrine, will “prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies, and our friends, with weapons of mass destruction.”
In the past, the United States could rely on its insular location and industrial capacity to marshal its resources to respond to attacks by its enemies. But in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the ability of rogue states to acquire weapons of mass destruction, “the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past….We cannot let our enemies strike first.” To prevent or forestall nuclear, chemical or biological weapons attacks by terrorists “of global reach” and/or rogue states, “the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”
The U.S. war against Islamic terrorists and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was not waged as part of the new strategy. That war was undertaken in reaction to the September 11 attacks. The U.S. and coalition attack on, and invasion of, Iraq in 2003 was the first manifestation of the Preemption doctrine. The Bush administration, in justifying its attack on Iraq, pointed to Saddam Hussein’s connection to and support of terrorism, and his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, Bush did not claim that Iraq’s threat to use or transfer such weapons to terrorists was “imminent.” In fact, the rationale behind the Preemption doctrine is that the United States can no longer afford to wait until such threats are imminent. The U.S., the new doctrine states, will defend its “interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders.” And again, “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.”
The new doctrine of Preemption also makes clear that, though the United States prefers to act with its allies, it will act alone, if necessary, to prevent more September 11th type attacks. “[W]e will not hesitate to act alone…,” states the new document, “to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.”
Thus, in the span of 227 years, United States national security doctrine has evolved from a policy of distant, and detached, and a sometimes not so well armed neutrality to unilaterally taking preemptive military action anywhere in the world. This evolution in policy is a reflection of both the growth, in size and power, of the United States (in absolute and relative terms), the gradual geopolitical shrinking of the globe, and the nature of the threats the U.S. now faces.
Only time will tell whether the new doctrine of Preemption will survive the increasingly controversial war against Iraq. The Bush administration is under fire for allegedly exaggerating the threat that Iraq posed to U.S. national security before the war, and for failing to anticipate and plan for the difficulties of post-war occupation and administration of Iraq. Moreover, the specter of applying Preemption to North Korea and Iran, countries that have acquired or are attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction and that provide support for terrorist groups, is especially worrisome to some observers. Preemption, it is argued, clashes with the prudent counsel of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that America should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Those who support Preemption contend, however, that the monsters abroad have demonstrated the ability to inflict great harm on the United States, and could do even greater harm if armed with weapons of mass destruction. Preemption’s supporters admit that the new doctrine is a significant departure from previous national security policies, but they argue that such a departure is justified by the nature and magnitude of the threat.
Stationing large numbers of American troops in Europe and Asia during peacetime during the Cold War to effectuate Containment, the supporters of Preemption point out, also was a radical departure from previous national security policies, but that departure, too, was justified by the nature and magnitude of the (Soviet) threat.
The evolution of American national security doctrines demonstrates that U.S. policymakers repeatedly have reacted to immediate national security threats or challenges with far-sighted, long-term but pragmatic doctrines that have helped them steer the ship- of-state through the troubled and uncertain waters of international politics. We can only hope that in fashioning the new national security doctrine, the Bush administration proves to be as pragmatic, prudent and far-sighted as its predecessors.
A review of his book is available here.