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Kicking open the door

February 24, 2011

Thomas Barnett has a new piece up contrasting the strategies of primacy and the the open door. He outlines the historical context of the foreign policy choice:

The pursuit of primacy as a grand strategy is completely un-American in both its conception and execution. In fact, the Bush-Cheney neocons brought us far closer to an ideological coup d’état than any previous foreign policy scandals of note, including the secret wars of Nixon and Reagan. America’s clear and succinct grand strategy, first enunciated by Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt when the U.S. was coming of age as a great power, has been the “open door.” Primacy was never its prize or its purpose.

Instead, the goal was to end Europe’s corrupt colonialism through the extension of our model of multinationalism based on states united, economies integrated and security provided for collectively. In this model, no one state is allowed primacy over the union’s other members. Conversely, no one state’s economic success is viewed as a zero-sum loss by the others, for all find ultimate benefit in the shared economic connectivity.

This is a blatantly whitewashed depiction of American grand strategy, particularly with reference to McKinley and Roosevelt. McKinley and Roosevelt were not pursuing American primacy, to be sure. But McKinley was not a Wilsonian seeking collective security, nor interested in creating an open door of multinational economic integration in the territories he conquered from Spain in 1898. He was interested in fulfilling America’s manifest destiny and bolstering American power, giving America its rightful place among the imperial, civilized great powers. Roosevelt was similarly inclined, and his opposition to European colonialism was not out of principle – he supported the US imperial mission in Latin America and the Philippines, and looked favorably on Japan’s own imperial ventures in China.

The Open Door policy was just one component of this strategy, and it was not about equality between all peoples, or collective security, or anything so fanciful. It was about ensuring the US had equal access to the massive amounts of territory and markets that Europe’s imperial great powers had appropriated for themselves. Far from seeking to abolish the imperial great power system in Asia, the US, until the Washington Treaty system, was trying to get its rightful share of recognition and resources. It was about wealth, yes, but power was still zero-sum. Those outdated theories of zero-sum power that modern American diplomats talk down about? This is the period where they were, without question, in effect.

Well, America did eventually get around to some of the principles Barnett was talking about. With Wilson and the advocates of peace, disarmament, and soft collective security which followed, the US did pursue (but often declined to participate in) a system of peaceful collective security and economic connectivity. Then we happily continued on this bumpy road with only the “Bush-Cheney neocons” advocating the pursuit of primacy at the dawn of the 21st century.

I admit to blaming neoconservatives for a lot of things, including mistaken perceptions of America’s historical role and the foreign policy it should pursue. However, blaming the pursuit of primacy on the neoconservatives is beyond ludicrous and a cheap scapegoat. When the vision of collective security, integrated economy and “flattened” global governance went up in smoke, American policymakers started thinking more about primacy. Lippmann and Roosevelt realized strong alliances with other great powers were necessary components of collective security during the Second World War. Perhaps, if history played out differently, the concert of powers enmeshed in collective security that Roosevelt advanced might not have been stillborn (though it was unlikely to last after a Republican president got elected). Instead, confronted with the smoldering ruins of Eurasia, Truman, Kennan, and a new generation of strategic thinkers realized America was not and could not be simply be a nation among nations. America was roughly half the world’s industrial output. Its Western allies, France and Britain, were hollow shells of their former power, with strategic and colonial obligations far outstripping their material capabilities and political willpower.

American presidents, starting, but hardly ending with Truman, did oppose colonialism and European domination, but hardly replaced it with a system of integrated equals. Former colonial outposts, such as Indochina, Taiwan and South Korea, became bulwarks against communism. The US built bases all over the world, and clearly saw global primacy as a prerequisite for American security and American values. As LFC explains:

A book I was looking at yesterday, John Kane’s Between Virtue and Power: The Persistent Moral Dilemma in U.S. Foreign Policy, contains a sentence to the effect that the decision to establish a global network of U.S. bases stems from the human and other costs of fighting the Japanese in the ‘island-hopping’ campaign of WW2. This may well be standard wisdom among historians. And yet — why should the war in the Pacific have convinced policy-makers that they needed a global network of bases to prevent another such war? Why wasn’t it enough to occupy Japan and reconstruct it under a new, non-militarist constitution? Perhaps it made sense to add a few permanent bases in the Pacific for insurance, so to speak, but the global U.S. base network as stemming from a purely preventive, defensive motive doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It was not, of course, a purely defensive motive, except insofar as the pursuit of global primacy is a defensive strategy. The US had to seek primacy and extra-regional hegemony in Europe and Asia to prevent those regions from descending into war. They were not equal partners in the fight against communism – indeed, the US wanted to prevent Europe’s emergence as a separate and equal pole of power. The Open Door has always been a byproduct of America’s great power strategy – economic openness and liberalization was first framed in the context of US desire to join the pluralist concert of great powers, and then as a system America would build with its undisputed military, economic, and political might.

Fears of US losing primacy to the Soviet Union and Japan persisted throughout the Cold War, and Americans were exulting in US primacy throughout the 1990s. The neoconservatives were hardly original in this aspect of their worldview. But Barnett wants to situate this grand strategy in America’s historical values, which leads to some bizarre passages:

America’s revolutionary impulse here is insidious: by empowering individuals through trade, we dis-intermediate the dictators. These United States are the original peer-to-peer ideology, with no false gods — as in, monarchs — required [emphasis mine]. Facebook and Twitter are simply its latest technological expressions, and they are exquisitely American in their deprimacizing impact — the plaintive voices of the many overwhelming the self-serving dictates of the one.

In an alternate universe where cyberpunk Anti-Federalists tweeted and Facebooked their way to victory in the Constitutional debates, the bolded sentence might make sense. However, I’m pretty sure Abraham Lincoln, if not Alexander Hamilton, settled the matter that the US did care about power, and wasn’t just a voluntary association of people looking to trade (although Barnett’s view of America in this light is remarkably similar to the dismissive remarks Hegel made about the United States). Anyway, enough historical quibbling.

No, wait, I forgot this part:

But we should not pretend that any of these choices, however skillfully or rashly they are made, mark us as imperialists. The American flag adds no stars against their will. [emphasis mine] If anything, we’ve abandoned our open-door mindset in its most crucial form, by pulling up the drawbridge on new members to our own union, at a time when the European Union continues to add members and China actively seeks to regain its lost colonial jewels. In other words, the American brand is sitting out a historically hot market.

Well, if you don’t count Spain, Mexico, the Native Americans, or the Confederates, this statement is accurate. Adding more states to the US is interesting, though, but it would not be anything like the EU. The EU is heterogeneous and pluralist enough that no single culture or state really dominates – that would hardly be the case with accessions to the United States. Nor should we compare ourselves with China, although the dominant relationship between China and its former possessions in Southeast Asia parallels more accurately with those of the US and its sphere of influence than does the EU. Recent disputes over the South China Sea and defense planning from Southeast and East Asian states demonstrate that while economic integration is fine, they would prefer the US to balance China militarily.

Barnett is right to point out fears of American decline are often overstated, but his contrast of primacy and the Open Door is so misleading as to be propagandistic. The fact is that historically, the extent of the Open Door and the liberal economic integration and collective security agreements (which really only exist with the US and Europe through NATO, we must note), have always been dependent on American power for their influence. For their extent to cover the entire globe, primacy is necessary.

Here, we have another commentator using the fallacious argument about being on the “right side of history.” To Barnett, America should not seek primacy, because its ideas are historically “right” and therefore they will succeed. America cannot be in decline because its system is working, and it is working because it has to work. Authoritarian regimes are not merely bad, but they cannot compete with us, and fretting about this only distracts us from our great historical mission to unite the world.

The fundamentals of the Open Door strategy Barnett describes are the products of deliberate strategies, and the combination of calculus and contingency which shape material power. If the US had decided not to seek primacy after WWII, and ignored the geopolitical considerations of primacy, the Open Door would not exist as he understands it today. Barnett even seems to acknowledge this at the close of the essay. Yet he speaks as if the US finished this job and no longer needed to worry about primacy. But our military still has an enormous global network of bases, we still worry about the re-emergence of rival great powers and the disruption of the current economic, institutional, and political order – in other words, we still pursue, in some form, the strategy of primacy we came out of WWII with. Barnett would tell us not to worry about these things, because the teleological forces of economics, technology, and American values will let us outstrip our rivals and elevate allies. So what came before was not mere historical quibbling, because if you’re really going to argue some transcendent force of history justifies your policy position and geopolitical projections, it matters to get history right. Yet the liberties Barnett takes in describing American history should remind us to question the happy and simple narrative he offers as proof of the country’s destined role.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 12:08 pm

    Unfortunately I don’t have time right now to engage with this fully and haven’t read the Barnett thing. I will confine myself to observing that there were different ideas among US policymakers about what American security post-1945 required. As I noted in a brief comment thread attached to my post that you (kindly) quote from, Kennan opposed the formation of NATO, favored rapid reunification of Germany, and complained about the ‘militarization’ of the idea of containment. In short, a different notion of what security required than the Acheson-Truman bases-all-over-the-world defense-in-depth-requires-primacy approach. I don’t know a whole lot about the history of the establishment of the US base network, but the idea that the US needed a base, say, in Diego Garcia to ensure security in Northeast Asia post-1945, when it was occupying a demilitarized and defeated Japan, seems a bit strange to me. (I could be wrong, of course, and I am not a military/strategic expert.)

    • February 25, 2011 5:02 pm

      Well, leaving aside the question of whether it was Kennan, Lippmann, Nitze, etc who had the correct plan for dealing with the Soviet Union, I think it’s fair to say that even dovish Kennan essentially believed in US primacy. From what I understand, Kennan wanted to keep the USSR from controlling other core economic centers and to keep them aligned to the US. So, while not militarized, I would say containment was more about preserving a degree of primacy than principled free trading as Barnett seems to imply…

  2. February 25, 2011 12:29 pm


    “Kennan’s opposition to NATO and his position on Germany — he urged a Lippmann-like formula of demilitarization and neutralization — reflected his basic unwillingness to accept a permanent division of Europe.”

    Michael J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, p.177.

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