I recently attended a conference where I was asked to speak on the subject of conservative internationalism. I confess that, before the invitation, I was unaware of this concept. Reflecting upon it made me question the utility of all these labels we assign to various foreign policies.
The urge to create these slogans is understandable. Our job as scholars is to provide order and structure to what, in real time, rarely seems coherent or unified. We attempt to identify key themes and principles that tie together what are often disparate, case by case, and highly context specific policy reactions. This exercise is fine, as far as it goes.
But such breezy labeling also has its dangers. Historians are familiar with the dangers of simplification — how Washington’s and Jefferson’s quotes on permanent or entangling alliances are mistaken for each other, or misunderstood. Or how John Quincy Adams has not been properly appreciated or correctly interpreted. Or how Woodrow Wilson is not, upon close inspection, actually a Wilsonian (if we actually knew what being a Wilsonian meant). Or how when we look at the documents, the John F. Kennedy in the archives is nothing like the Kennedy of soaring Ted Sorenson speeches.
I have to confess that I find Strategies of Containment — the most famous and admired book by the great historian John Lewis Gaddis — to be his least convincing. Why? It plays into the idea that each new administration has a relatively free hand to reshape American foreign policy and grand strategy according to its underlying political philosophy and worldview. While the rhetoric of change and renewal is powerful, the reality is that there are powerful political and structural constraints — both domestic and international — to great shifts in American policy. Both push back against individual efforts to make great change.
We obviously see this today with President Donald Trump as he tries to put “America First.” Yet when it comes to NATO, the East Asian alliances, or America’s relationship with China, simply abandoning or radically changing them is not that easy.
This is not to say that great change is impossible or does not sometimes happen. There are moments where shifts are possible or even necessary, when an older tradition or way of viewing the world has been found wanting. These changes, however, are rarely captured in neat slogans with smooth ideological underpinnings.
Let me give you an example of an utterly transformative U.S. policy that altered deep traditions and reoriented America’s trajectory in ways we still experience today: the Eisenhower administration’s strategy towards Europe. In particular, I’d like to draw your attention to the development of policies to deal with the tangled questions of European recovery and integration, the German problem, and the threat of the Soviet Union, all under the terrifying shadow of the thermonuclear revolution.
Bear in mind the situation in the late 1940s: At that point, the United States had never entered into any permanent peace-time alliance. It had never possessed a robust conventional Army during peacetime, and rare was the stationing of its troops abroad. The American way of war involved slow, steady, and massive mobilization before grinding down the enemy in long wars of attrition. And decisions about national security strategy were as much a provenance of Congress as the president.
In ten short years, all of this had had transformed. How did this come about? How were these deeply entrenched practices and traditions overthrown, replaced by a massive forwardly deployed military presence, part of what it is now clear is as close to a permanent alliance as one can find, armed with a pre-emptive military strategy that concentrated power in the hands of the president at the exclusion of Congress?
It is an important and underappreciated story that has little to do with ideology, partisanship, or retrospective slogans, and instead, highlights American flexibility and creativity in the face of powerful new challenges.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States faced a variety of interlocking challenges. First, it needed to help Western Europe recover, but to do so, it had to allow the traditional engine of Europe growth — Germany, or in this case, West Germany — to flourish. This was a hard pill for the rest of Europe, including the Soviet Union, to swallow, so soon after the horrors of World War II. European integration was one part of the answer, first through the Marshall plan and then support for the European Coal and Steel Community. This did not, however, take care of the security angle.
In the late 1940s, when the United States possessed a nuclear monopoly and the assumption was that the Soviet Union, recovering from horrific losses from World War II, was unlikely to invade, security was less of a problem. American defense spending fell rapidly after the war, and the United States implemented its traditional postwar demobilization. But a series of issues — the unexpectedly early loss of the atomic monopoly, the victory of Mao and the communists in China, the North Korean attack on the South, and especially China’s intervention against U.N. forces as they approached the Yalu river — challenged American assumptions.
American planners believed China would not have intervened on the Korean Peninsula without Soviet approval. The great worry was that the United States would find itself and its major forces pinned down fighting a war of little strategic consequence while Western Europe was completely exposed and vulnerable to a Soviet intervention.
The Truman administration responded with a three-pronged strategy: First, it carried out a massive military buildup that reached almost 15 percent of total GNP and focused, not on the Korean War, but on advanced technology, including expanding the nuclear stockpile and the means to deliver nuclear weapons. Second, by limiting the fighting in Korea, the war was not lost, but it did not escalate, an uncomfortable holding pattern at odds with American traditions but necessary for the nuclear age. Third, the Truman administration rapidly entered into treaties, alliances, and military arrangements around the world, even with former adversaries.
The Eisenhower administration inherited Truman’s policies and made changes. The emergency military spending of 1951 to 1953 had shifted the military balance of power in America’s favor, and cuts could be made. The Korean War was at a stalemate and it was critical to end it.
The real transformation, however, was seen in alliances and military arrangements, especially in Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949, but there was little actual military planning or coordinated strategy. Nor had the thorny question of how to both include West Germany and its impressive military assets in this alliance without provoking World War III been figured out. For many, perhaps most in Europe — and not just the Soviets — a remilitarized Germany was perhaps the greatest threat to European peace and security. Yet Western Europe could not be defended without exploiting West German economic, and yes, military capabilities.
This already difficult problem was made far more vexing by the nuclear question. It is easy to forget, but the assumption of the time was that there was little that could be done to prevent the spread of this new, fearsome technology, nor prevent its eventual use. When in human history had military technology ever been kept from sovereign states, especially a technology that arguably guaranteed their security and protection from invasion? And what state would ever have had a greater desire for this weapon than West Germany, facing hostility all around but especially from the Soviet behemoth and its Eastern European empire? Yet what action — the nuclearization of West Germany — would be more likely to threaten peace and stability in Central Europe? There was a German domestic element to this as well: You could only punish the Germans for so long. Ultimately, you needed policies that the West Germans saw as in their interest.
This was a lot to balance. Eisenhower needed to rehabilitate West Germany, but not let it dominate Europe or threaten its neighbors. He needed to defend West Germany, but not allow it access to the most advanced military technology. He needed to provide West German citizens with hope and some independence, while also constraining their freedom and sovereignty in important ways. And he had to do this with the dual shadow of the Soviet menace and the nuclear revolution.
This was only possible with active American engagement — a commitment that went against every long-held tradition the United States had followed for a year and a half. Hammered out in political agreements in Paris in 1954 and military arrangements in NATO through the document MC-48, the United States committed to a large forward military presence in West Germany to back a pre-emptive nuclear strategy where decisions about war and peace for a whole alliance would have to be made quickly by a super-empowered president.
To defeat the Soviets, the United States needed to use nuclear weapons. To win the Germans over to this strategy, the United States had to defend them at their border or they would want their own nuclear weapons. But the U.S. military couldn’t use nuclear weapons in West Germany. No German would sign on to that. So the United States had to develop a strategy that used them pre-emptively, i.e., as the Soviet Union and associated militaries were mobilizing.
Facing these conundrums, Eisenhower constructed a political policy that allowed for West German political and military rehabilitation under the protection and watchful eye of almost 300,000 American soldiers and deterred the Soviets with a military strategy that called for early and massive use of nuclear weapons. This was not, in any sense, Eisenhower’s preferred strategy. He wanted to see the Europeans defend themselves, he had decidedly mixed feelings about nuclear weapons, and he did not like the idea of a large peace-time American military force. But the challenges of the time required extraordinary actions, and he — building upon the foundation set by Truman — adapted with the extraordinary NATO system. Since that time, the system was embraced by presidents with political philosophies as distinct as Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, both Bushes, and Clinton.
And it worked quite well. West Germany recovered economically, rehabilitated politically, and contributed to the defense of the West without acquiring nuclear weapons. You know the rest of the story. It is hard to overemphasize how important and how out of the ordinary Eisenhower’s crafting of this political, economic, and military arrangement was, or what extraordinary departures it required from American traditions.
Was this conservative internationalism? I leave that to others to decide, but I think such labels — realist, liberal internationalist, wiccan — often obscure as much as they illuminate.
Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958-1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012).
Image: U.S. Archives