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From Colony to Superpower XI: Prelude to Hegemony

[ 0 ] February 14, 2009 |

Read Erik’s contribution first; for some reason he seems to think that Calvin Coolidge was a boring guy. He also talks a bit about US policy towards Latin America and the infant Soviet Union. I think that I found this chapter quite a bit more interesting than he did.

One of the strengths of Herring’s account is that he focuses on the behavior of private actors as much as the government itself. Private actors, from missionaries to bankers to investors, made an enormous contribution to US foreign policy during this decade. Such actors always play a role, of course, but the relative disinterest of Coolidge and Harding to foreign policy made the phenomenon particularly visible during their tenure. Indeed, two of the most important foreign policy programs pursued by these administrations, famine assistance to the Soviet Union and European debt relief, consisted substantially of government coordination of private assistance. The former may have saved the Soviet Union, while the latter preserved, for a while, the European peace. Reparations-driven financial collapse threatened the continent on more than one occasion, and the combination of public and private US diplomacy helped broker continued peace and stability. This accomplishment could not head off either the onset of the Great Depression or the collapse of the post-Great War political settlement, but it did serve to delay continental financial disaster. This pretty much represented the extent of US willingness to engage in a leadership role in European affairs; whether such limited engagement should be seen as admirable restraint or abdication of responsibility is a question for another day…

I had worried a bit about how Herring was going to treat the naval disarmament treaties, given his lack of attention to military affairs in previous chapters. Herring doesn’t disappoint, however; he makes clear the novelty of the treaties, the role that the US played in bringing them about, and the impact they had on Great Power relations in the 1920s. The treaties secured a balance of power between the five major naval players in the international system, and in so doing saved the budgets of Japan and the United Kingdom. That the US played such a pivotal role is notable given that its economy and productive capacity exceeded the other two competitors; it’s not quite right to say that the United States gave up a clear advantage (Japan and the UK had a fraying alliance), but neither is it quite wrong. The treaties placed limits on the number of capital ships allowed to the UK, the US, Japan, France, and Italy, and compelled the scrapping or demilitarization of many warships. In most cases, these warships were less than fifteen years old. It shouldn’t be surprise readers of this site that I think the interwar naval limitation treaties have been understudied in political science.

Herring pays a fair amount of attention to the Peace Progressives, a group of mostly Midwestern, mostly Republican lawmakers. The Peace Progressives believed in both world peace and fiscal responsibility; in so doing they made the (almost heretical in the current political climate) connection that weapons cost money, and that the interest of small government is best served by tight limitations on the size of military forces. The pursuit of international routes to peace (Kellogg-Briand Pact, for example) abetted the interest in fiscal responsibility by reducing the need for large military establishments. I think it’s odd that this combination (preference for low tax, low domestic expenditure, low defense expenditure) seems to occur so rarely in the American political context; perhaps the development of the military-industrial complex served to capture pro-business (such that the term has any meaning…) legislators, or the perceived threat of communism helped purge Republican party doves?

Finally, since I’m so late in producing my contribution, and as blogging time will be short while I’m in NYC, we’ll be pushing back chapter XII until next week.


From Colony to Superpower X: Wilson Epic Fail

[ 0 ] February 1, 2009 |

Chapter X of From Colony to Superpower covers the Wilson administration. There’s a lot here; much of the chapter deals with US relations with Mexico, which Erik is probably a bit more qualified to discuss, and which I’ll accordingly return to in the second round. To start with, I’ll concentrate on Herring’s treatment of the Road to the Great War.

The presence of the United States on the world stage had been steadily increasing since the Revolution. During the Roosevelt administration, the United States became a more or less conventional great power, building and consolidating a colonial empire and evening the field economically and militarily with the most powerful European state. Accompanying this rise to conventionality, such that it was, the idea of American exceptionalism developed and matured. Under the Wilson administration, these strands came together in the construction of a theory that could explain and guide the behavior of the United States in the international sphere; liberal internationalism. It’s not quite right to say that the ideals of liberal internationalism (pursuit of a particular vision of democracy, free trade, international organizations, United States as first among equals) emerged solely from the United States during this period, but it is remarkable the degree to which coherent vision of American foreign policy and the international system was in place by 1916. This vision crossed party boundaries (both Roosevelt and Taft shared general principles with Wilson, although they disagreed on specific points), and offered a narrative of US participation in the First World War. For a variety of reasons, the first US experiment with liberal internationalism was a qualified failure.

Herring capably describes the development of liberal internationalist sentiment (which was structured, in many ways, by the Great War), and the eventual collapse of Wilson’s efforts in Europe and the United States. Abroad, Wilson failed to create what he understood to be an equitable peace with Germany (on his own terms; I think there’s a good argument to be made that Germany should have been punished much more harshly, but Wilson didn’t believe so), to save a reformed Austria-Hungary, to structure new European borders safely and fairly, and most notably to challenge the foundations of European imperialism. At home, he was unable to make the case necessary to enrolling the United States in the central multilateral institution of the period. I don’t think it’s too harsh to suggest that Wilson’s foreign policy, while ambitious, resulted in utter failure on its own terms.

Herring briefly discusses the Lusitania incident. I have long believed that the sinking of the Lusitania rivals the sinking of the Titanic in the extent to which its significance has been overblown; for all the heat, the actual sinking seems to have had very little impact. The US did not enter the war or substantially change its policy towards Germany as a result of the sinking. The outrage surrounding the loss of Lusitania was one of several reasons why the Germans moderated their submarine policy, but German U-boats were not numerous enough in 1915 to decide the war in any case. Moreover, German behavior of 1917 provided ample causus belli independent of the sinking of Lusitania; this is not to say that the US decision for war was a good one, but rather that the Germans furnished reasons for war (Zimmerman Telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare) that would have held in the absence of Lusitania’s destruction. Thus, while the destruction of Lusitania was certainly tragic (and was incidentally not solely the fault of the Germans, as the ship was being used to smuggle arms to the UK), I do not understand why it has earned such a place of priority in accounts of US participation in World War I.

This brings me to a related question. It’s commonplace to argue that US participation in World War I was a tragic and avoidable error. Indeed, I’ve argued so myself. However, I think that while the “tragic” part is sound, the “avoidable” is in much greater question. The United States could have avoided entanglement by observing an embargo against all belligerents, but it’s fair to say that this is not something that an American President could have advocated in 1914. William Jennings Bryan made, as Secretary of State, some effort to limit US trade, which was met by howls of protest from, well, pretty much everyone. It was also inevitable, I think, that American trade would heavily favor the Allies. Without ordering the US Atlantic Fleet to escort convoys to Germany, there was no way to break the British blockade. As such, it’s very difficult to imagine how the United States could have gotten to 1917 without being intricately bound up in the war, formally neutral or not. After that, it’s not easy to construct a scenario under which an American president, even one opposed to the war (and Wilson certainly lacked enthusiasm for it) could have navigated public outrage generated by German diplomatic clumsiness and the renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare. I suppose that the very best that could have been hoped for would be a replay of 1940-41, in which the US engaged in more or less active maritime hostilities against Germany without a declaration of war, or direct intervention on the continent. I do think that this would have represented a better choice in 1917; however, I suspect it would have been very difficult to pull off politically.

Finally, as I’ve argued before, I would liked to have seen more about US military policy; if in the next chapter we don’t get some account of the importance of the Washington Naval Treaty, I’ll be quite put out.

From Colony to Superpower IX: Teddy

[ 0 ] January 30, 2009 |

Some kind, anonymous soul picked up my bag off the street and delivered it to my office, meaning that I didn’t have to buy another copy of Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. Thank you! And so we return to the series at chapter 9, which covers the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, the Great White Fleet, the Roosevelt Corollary, and so forth. See Erik’s commentary first.

Imperial consolidation is the motivating concept of the chapter; the United States consolidated control over both its formal empire (Philippines, Caribbean, South Pacific), and its informal imperial interests in Latin America and Asia. The United States also undertook the modernization and professionalization of its diplomatic corps. This helped the United States achieve a number of notable diplomatic successes, including Roosevelt’s brokering of the Russo-Japanese War. I think it could be argued that the United States achieved full membership in the European Great Power system under Roosevelt, completing a process that had been initiated nearly a century before.

Herring continues to give short shrift to the independent influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan. I think I would have preferred this account to pay greater attention to the intersections between a foreign policy history of the United States and a military history of the United States. By this I don’t mean more detailed attention to the wars that the United States has undertaken, but rather closer scrutiny on the history of the military organizations, and there relationships both foreign and domestic. They are key foreign policy organs, after all, and the popularity of Mahan (and other figures like him) is important, I think, to analysis of US foreign relations during the Roosevelt period. But then the book is still only half over, and I’ll be particularly curious to see how Herring treats the “globalization” of US military power after 1945.

US intervention in the Russo-Japanese War is interesting for several reasons. As discussed earlier, the United States and Imperial Russia maintained unusually cordial relations in the nineteenth century. These relations began to deteriorate as US foreign policy took a more overtly ideological tint, and as American Jews became increasingly concerned with the plight of Eastern European Jews living under Russian governance. While it would be wrong to suggest that Roosevelt and the larger elite foreign policy establishment were unmoved by the plight of Russian Jewry, the primary concerns weren’t precisely altruistic; Americans worried that continued repression of Russian Jews would lead to mass emigration to the United States. Nevertheless, it’s kind of interesting that, given the hysteria that greeted the possibility of Japanese Pacific expansion, US policy on the war was relatively even-handed. Herring suggests that Roosevelt may have been more personally impressed by the Japanese than by the Russians.

More soon….

Herring Mishap

[ 0 ] January 5, 2009 |

This week’s Herring installment will be delayed due to the fact that I apparently left my copy of From Colony to Superpower on the trunk of my car shortly before driving from Lexington to Cincinnati. And it was a signed copy. Damn.

From Colony to Superpower VIII: American Century

[ 0 ] December 29, 2008 |

Chapter VIII of From Colony to Superpower deals with the second Cleveland and first McKinley administrations, covering the Spanish-American War and the beginning of serious US involvement with China.

Herring touches on the influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but I think he gives insufficient attention to the US military buildup between 1893 and 1898. As we discussed last time, the USN in 1890 was demonstrably inferior to even second tier European navies. By 1898 it was capable of crushing the Spanish Navy (really at the bottom of the second tier) and was competitive with any force not named the Royal Navy. The development of the Army was somewhat slower. Herring goes pretty easy on the performance of the Army in the Philippines, although (unsurprisingly, given his thesis) he doesn’t waste time implying that the Spanish-American War was anything but an imperial project. I think a fair argument could be made that an independent Philippine Republic would have fallen victim to either German or Japanese imperialism, but of course this didn’t require a long term occupation by the United States; a defensive treaty allowing for some military cooperation would have sufficed.

Herring briefly mentions the issue of post-war military reconciliation. He suggests that the Spanish-American War provided military professionals from the North and South with an opportunity to heal the rift, so to speak. This is an issue that I’m quite interested in, but unfortunately know almost nothing about. The timeline doesn’t seem quite right to me; some very senior officers in the Spanish-American War must have served in the Civil War, but the numbers would be quite small. I would imagine also that the Indian Wars would have served as the cauldron in which the US Army was, so to speak, reforged. But maybe not; I’ll be tracking down some of the cites that Herring gives on this point.

Herring also gets into US involvement with China, including participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. American missionaries and merchants had already extensively visited China, but the late McKinley administration made the first serious efforts at military and political involvement. US concern was motivated mainly by the need to maintain access to China, and thus to prevent its direct partition by Japan, Russia, and the European powers. Although Americans tended to interpret this as altruistic, this belief was not shared by the Chinese. The acquisition of the Philippines and the increased involvement of China were not, of course, coincidental.

More later on the Venezuela Crisis and the promotion of US ministers to ambassadorial rank…

Charlton Heston? Really?

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

I have never pictured Jack Aubrey as looking even vaguely like Charlton Heston, but apparently Patrick O’Brian did. I suppose that I might be more open minded about that possibility if I hadn’t seen Master and Commander before reading the first Aubrey-Maturin novel; the film obviously has its failings, but in general they concern the Maturin character (which is a completely and utterly different animal in the film than in the books), and the related issue of Aubrey being just a trifle too clever. Physically and in mannerism, though, I thought Crowe captured Aubrey almost perfectly. Even Crowe’s performance in Gladiator isn’t particularly Heston-esque, and his turn as Jack Aubrey just didn’t remind me at all of Heston.

From Colony to Superpower 7.2

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

Paul reminds me of one of the most interesting parts of Chapter VII; the 1891 war crisis between Italy and the United States. The good people of New Orleans saw fit to lynch eleven Italians for roughly the same reasons that the good people of New Orleans ever see fit to lynch people, and the Italian government took offense. There was concern about the possibility of war, and someone noticed that the Italian Navy was actually larger and more capable than its US equivalent. An apology ensued.

Erik brings a second image argument to the table re: the military capabilities question. Heh; it’s so like an American historian to think that the development of ideas and institutions within the United States have a lasting effect on its foreign policy. So reductionist… Anyway, the argument is that a general skepticism towards the Federal government and preference for private actors permeated nineteenth century American politics, minimizing the interest in a large standing military. This isn’t quite the same as blaming the institutions; the US federal government maintained the capacity to mobilize behind big projects, but simply chose not to.

From Colony to Superpower VII: Pacific Dreams

[ 0 ] December 22, 2008 |

Chapter VII of From Colony to Superpower covers the period between 1877 and 1893. Erik talks about missionaries, trade wars, and the generally expansionary US policy in the Pacific. I wish that Herring had dealt in more depth with the tremendous military gap between the United States and the European powers during this period. The United States had a larger population than any European state other than Russia in 1877, and experienced higher population and economic growth than anywhere in Europe between then and 1893. The US industrial base was competitive with that of the UK, and larger than any other European country. Yet US military power was comparatively miniscule. To give a sense of the gap, check this out (average 1877-1893, COW):

Country Military Expenditure/Person % in Uniform
UK $ 0.76 0.73
France $ 0.93 1.47
Spain $ 0.40 0.85
Germany $ 1.02 0.53
Italy $ 0.43 0.72
United States $ 0.22 0.07

That’s a pretty substantial gap, especially given that US GDP, total population, and steel production were all at or near the top of the list during this period. Some of this can be explained by the geographic situation of the United States; France needed more troops because it was next to Germany, for example. This only takes us so far; territorial threat can’t explain why the US retained huge standing military forces post-1945, and in any case the US was certainly developing global interests during this period. Rather, I think there was simply a different understanding of the utility of military force in Europe than in the United States. It would be wrong to say that the US was a pacifist country (as witnessed by the ongoing conquest of the West), but Americans certainly don’t seem to have seen the point of large standing military establishments. To put it another way, the US was economically and demographically capable, even at this early date, of competing for hegemony with Britain and Germany. Americans chose not to. The US didn’t even build a world class Navy, as it would during the 1920s and 1930s.

Apart from the post-war experiences of Germany and Japan (which are obviously dependent on much different factors) I’m not sure there’s another example of a potential hegemon that simply chose not to compete. There are various unsatisfactory explanations for this (Fareed Zakaria’s terrible book comes to mind) but Herring, unfortunately, does not venture much of an effort. In part, this may be because the book’s central thesis is that the United States has never been an isolationist power; this argument is certainly correct to some extent, but there has to be some explanation for the tiny US military profile in the late nineteenth century.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom Bleg

[ 0 ] December 22, 2008 |

Anybody read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom? I haven’t, but I’m assigning it next term; if you have any thoughts re: boiling down the 700 or so pages down to a digestible chunk for a graduate strategy course, leave them in comments…

…recommendations on editions will also be entertained.

Colony to Superpower: 6.2

[ 0 ] December 20, 2008 |

Erik writes a bit more about the utility of including the Civil War among the 19th century wars of national unification:

Herring argues that the Civil War was part of the nation-building conflicts around the world during the mid-19th century. It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure that I agree exactly. Had the North actively tried to limit slavery during the 1840s and 1850s, I think this would be a stronger argument. But the South wasn’t responding to increasingly northern pressure on their peculiar institution. Rather, the North caved on nearly every issue in the 1850s and yet the South still wasn’t satisfied.

However, the result of the Civil War was a much stronger and more centralized United States. Increased control over the west, a more centralized currency system, and a much greater industrial capacity all resulted from the war, and the United States certainly left the war much stronger than it began it. The late nineteenth century is a story of amazing growth in the nation. While this is a story mostly for next week’s discussion of the Gilded Age, there’s no question that the Civil War spurred this amazing period.

I think that this is right. I’m reluctant to concede American exceptionalism, but while the outcome of the Civil War bears some resemblance to the other wars of unification, its cause really didn’t stem from differences of opinion about the strength of central institutions. The South was happy to strengthen the central government, when it believed that a more powerful center was to its advantage. Also, while geographic differences were more pronounced then than today, similarity in language, culture, and institutions was greater in the case of the United States than in Italy or Germany.

Paul goes into a bit more depth on the inadequacy of Confederate diplomacy:

The most striking part of this, for me, is the sketch of the boorish incompetence of the Confederate diplomatic mission. Granted they had a difficult mission (it was an offense to the United States for responsible ministers even to talk to Confederate emissaries), but their greatest success was not even of their doing: Capt. Wilkes, USN, took two of them off the British steamer Trent without any of the appropriate formalities; the British dusted off the American objections to this sort of high-handedness from the War of 1812, and the resulting quarrel might actually have led to British recognition of the Confederacy.

But when Mason was released, and got to Britain, his speeches in favor of slavery and his bad aim with tobacco juice got him nowhere; Slidell did not understand how the French Government operated, or what the ministers wanted; the Confederate emissary to Saint Petersburgh never got there; and the star of the show, John Pickett of Kentucky, sent to Juarez in Mexico, managed to get arrested for brawling on the streets of Mexico City, offended and insulted the Mexican ministers, and eventually had Juarez intercepting his messages home and passing them on to Washington.

Herring describes this as provincialism and extreme cultural insensitivity…

Herring notes, but doesn’t really develop, the idea that because the professional diplomatic corps was tiny, the real diplomatic expertise lay in the backbench of the national political parties. The US had no ambassadors, and chief representatives were invariably political appointees, meaning that most foreign diplomatic representation revolved as the Presidency changed hands between parties. The Republicans largely inherited the Whig diplomatic corps, but apparently the Democratic corps was concentrated among Northern Democrats, who largely remained loyal to the Union. Thus, the Confederacy was forced to learn diplomacy very quickly, and the technological limitations of the time (slow communications, no wikipedia) made getting up to speed very difficult. Thus, I’m willing to excuse just a bit of the Confederate provincialism, although Paul also notes that Cassius Clay had little diplomatic experience but performed fabulously in Russia.

Tomorrow to chapter seven…

From Colony to Superpower VI: Nation Building

[ 0 ] December 16, 2008 |

On to chapter VI of From Colony to Superpower, but first make sure to read Paul’s final thoughts on chapter V (here and here). He takes issue (as several others have) with my effort to ferret out a causal relationship between slavery and the debate over expansion in the 1840s, and discusses James K. Polk at some length. I suppose that I’d argue in response that expansion per se was never really the issue, and thus didn’t furnish the meat of partisan disagreement; it was how slavery could take advantage of that expansion that produced the dispute. Fittingly enough, Herring’s next chapter takes us through the Civil War.

Herring places the Civil War within the context of the various wars of unification in Europe and elsewhere as the nation-state solidified its hold as the primary unit of political organization. I think that there’s something productive in thinking about the war in this way; as Scott has often said, the war was in part about State’s Rights, and State’s Rights lost. That said, I think that the dynamics of national unification were much different in settler societies than in the Old World. In particular, I remain unconvinced that, had slavery not been at issue, the war would have occurred. That said, slavery may have had the effect of transforming local consolidation operations into a grand, regional conflict.

The Confederacy was generally inept in its diplomatic efforts. Faulty assumptions that had guided the early Republic, such as the notion that the world was dependent upon trade with America and would endure economic collapse in its absence, dominated Confederate diplomatic strategy. Although the Confederate cotton embargo hurt France and Great Britain, they were able to make do with stores, alternative suppliers, and cotton that either slipped through the embargo or was exported by the North. With the exception of Russia, the European powers generally preferred the idea of a divided North America, but were unprepared to do anything useful to make it happen. European investment in the North, especially on the part of Great Britain, also made the Europeans reluctant to intervene. These realities were not well understood in the South, leading to a combination of arrogance and cultural insensitivity that made earlier US diplomacy look positively competent. Jefferson Davis in particular didn’t seem to see much value in devoting a lot of attention to the diplomatic corps, believing instead that economic realities would force the European hand.

I would have liked to hear a little bit more about the impact of the war on military planning and doctrine in Europe. The nineteenth century combined fast technological and social development with relative peace, meaning that the art of warfare developed in fits and starts. Most military professionals (to the extent that the term was becoming useful) understood that the next war would be conducted in a considerably different manner than the last, but didn’t have a grasp on quite what the differences would be. Actual wars, therefore, came under considerable scrutiny. Americans such as George B. McClellan served as observers in the Crimean War, while many European observers served alongside both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. Unfortunately, Herring doesn’t talk much about this cross-polination, except in that it affected other relationships. For example, Herring notes that relative friendship between the United States and Russia developed out of the experience of American observers in the Crimean War, and that this cordiality led to the good relationship between the Union and the Russian Empire.

On this point, Herring’s discussion of relations between the Union and the Russian Empire is remarkably interesting. He mentions the deployment of a Russian naval squadron to New York in the middle of the war, ostensibly intended to facilitate the study ironclad warfare, but also meant as a message of Russian support for the Union and, as always, to convey Russian military prestige. The squadron, including the frigate Alexander Nevsky, remained in American waters for seven months. The visit was partially the product of the diplomacy of Cassius Clay, abolitionist and cousin of Henry Clay, and who had been dispatched by Lincoln as Minister to Russia. The solid relations developed between Russia and the Union eventually led to the Russian sale of Alaska to the United States. As always, there were costs; Lincoln and Seward notably tamped down traditional American support for Polish independence during the 1863 Uprising.

Colony to Superpower: 4.3

[ 0 ] December 15, 2008 |

Due to annoying illness and extended work commitments, part 5 of From Colony to Superpower will be delayed until tomorrow afternoon. Until then, see Paul from Subnumine:

Herring does have a thesis: he doesn’t believe that there was ever a real isolationist period in American history; his America has normally been willing to expand, and always to intervene. One of the commentators has come away with the impression that there is no real difference between Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, on one hand, and Reagan and Bush on the other; I think this over-simplifies Herring’s position somewhat.

On the question of extended Texas independence, Josh Trevino writes:

I think it’s fair to say that the prospects of a permanently independent Texas ended in an 18-month window in 1841-1842. In brief, 1841 saw the failure of Mirabeau Lamar’s Santa Fe expedition, which showed that the pro-independence movement was unable to make good its territorial ambitions, and would bankrupt the republic besides; and 1842 saw the Mexicans mount a successful invasion of Texas that withdrew for what can only be described as lack of interest. (Interestingly and irrelevantly, the Mexicans took San Antonio on 9/11!) The Texan riposte to that invasion, the Mier expedition, was a thoroughgoing disaster that was conceived and led mostly by Lamar’s pro-independence compatriots.

So, at the end of that 18-month period, it was fairly clear that an independent Texas would probably be an impoverished wedge of territory squeezed between the Sabine, the Nueces, and the Comanches, without prospects of developing major trade routes, and under permanent threat of “foreign” domination. The choice of that foreign dominator was between Mexico, the United States, and Britain as a distant third. No surprise that a settler population of expansionist Southerners chose the US.

This pretty much accords with what Erik suggests in his latest.

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