American Grand Strategy During the Cold War and After Marc Trachtenberg

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American Grand Strategy During the Cold War and After

Marc Trachtenberg

University of Pennsylvania
This session is concerned with “American grand strategy in Europe from 1945 to the present”—that is, with an historical issue. But I have the feeling that our real concern here is not with the past, but with the future—not with what American policy was, but rather with what it should be. And the subtitle of the session suggests what the essential choice now facing us is: should we try to hold on to the current system, a system still dominated by the American power, or should a fundamentally different sort of system be brought into being, a system in which the American role is far more limited—a system in which the United States is transformed from “hegemon” to “off-shore balancer”?
What I want to do here today is to review very briefly the history of America’s policy toward Europe from 1945 on with the goal of seeing what bearing that story has on the problem we face today—or to be more honest about it, I want to lay out my own views about the basic issue we face today, but in a way, I think, that is informed by some understanding of what U.S. policy was in the period since the end of World War II.
What are the principal points to be made about America’s European policy during that period? In the Cold War system, much of which is still intact, the United States obviously played a central role; within the western bloc, the U.S. clearly was the dominant power; within the western world, America was a kind of “hegemon.” The interesting question is not whether this was the case: the interesting question has to do with why this situation developed. Was it because the United States wanted to extend its power to whatever extent it could—that it wanted to construct a kind of American empire in the western half of Europe? Does the fact that America ended up playing that kind of role simply be taken as self-explanatory—is it to be assumed that the emergence of this system does not really need to be explained through a detailed historical analysis, because this is simply the way international politics works, that that is simply what great powers do? Such assumptions are very common—de Gaulle, for example, often explained American policy in such terms—but I think that kind of interpretation cannot stand up to close historical analysis.
The Americans were simply not intent, from the very outset, in setting up a U.S.-dominated system in western Europe. In the late 1940s, the Americans were not quite sure what sort of system they wanted to see take shape in Europe. They knew they wanted to keep the Soviets from dominating the entire continent, and that this meant there had to be a counterweight to Soviet power in Europe, but it was by no means clear that that counterweight had to be based permanently on American military power. To be sure, as people saw the problem in the late 1940s and 1950s, a certain American troop presence on the continent was certainly necessary for the time being, but it was unclear whether the Americans would have to stay in Europe indefinitely. It was unclear, that is, whether a European counterweight to Soviet power could ever actually come into being. Indeed, that possibility was taken quite seriously—more seriously by the Americans than by the Europeans themselves—and this explains incidentally why the Americans were so interested in (I am tempted to say “obsessed with”) European unification: they wanted the Europeans to come together, because they themselves were looking for a way to get out.
To be sure, the Truman administration, rather late in the game (in July 1951), reached the conclusion that there was no way to get out—no viable alternative to the U.S.-dominated system. But, like a cancer that goes into remission, only to return with much greater virulence a couple of years later, the idea that the Europeans ultimately had to provide for their own defense, and that the United States could not carry the defense burden forever was placed at the absolute center of American policy by the new Eisenhower administration in 1953. Eisenhower was intent on making Europe into what he called a “third great power bloc” in world affairs; he wanted the Europeans in the final analysis to be able to balance Soviet power on their own, without direct American support; he understood that this meant that the Europeans would have to be armed with nuclear weapons, including long-range strategic nuclear weapons, and he wanted to help them develop forces of that sort. And all this was necessary, because he wanted America to be able to withdraw from Europe—to “sit back and relax somewhat,” as he put it.
But this was not to be. Eisenhower’s policies were resisted for all sorts of reasons, and by the time he left office in 1961, he had not been able to bring a system of this sort into being. And the next administration, the Kennedy administration, had no interest in continuing the Eisenhower policy (which in fact it scarcely even understood). The Eisenhower policy implied that the Europeans would have nuclear capabilities under their own control; this meant in particular that West Germany would have a nuclear force under its own control. And that made a lot of people uneasy, in large part because of the presumed Soviet reaction if it ever became clear that the Germans were developing nuclear forces of their own. In particular, the Kennedy administration from the very start was dead set against the idea of a “German finger on the nuclear trigger.” But it understood that if the Germans were to be kept non-nuclear, the Americans could not withdraw from central Europe: Germany had to be defended, and if they were not going to provide for their own defense, the United States would have to do it for them: only American power, in such a case, could serve as an effective counterweight to Soviet power in central Europe. There was no way out: America was stuck in Europe. But if this was the case, it followed, from the Kennedy administration point of view, that the Americans had the run to call the tune and essentially set policy for the West as a whole. “We are bound to pay the price of leadership,” Kennedy’s national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, wrote in 1962. “We may as well have some of the advantages.” European security was being underwritten by the United States; the Americans were putting their own cities at risk for the sake of Europe; in exchange, the Americans felt that they could not be expected to defer to the Europeans on key political matters (relating above all to relations with the Soviet bloc), but instead had to control at least the western side of the political process that might culminate in war with the USSR.
The Americans were not reaching for empire. For them, empire was a burden. But they had to deal with the problems that presented themselves. The only viable solution to those problems was to construct a system based on American power, and that inevitably meant a U.S.-dominated system. Sometimes when people talk about American imperialism, and about how the Americans from the started wanted to make NATO Europe into a kind of American empire, I think to myself: “I wish! I wish the Americans had understood from the start that there presence in Europe was essential, and that it hadn’t taken them so long to reach the conclusion that America was in Europe for good.” The world would have been spared a whole lot of trouble—by that I mean the two great periods of crisis, 1950-51 and 1958-62—if the Americans had realized at the outset that the U.S. presence was an essential element of the only really viable solution to the stability problem.
It is not that the alternative—the Eisenhower policy—did not in principle make sense in power political terms. Empire is a burden, and it is always easier to balance between two rival powers (or blocs of powers) than to hold one half of the balance oneself. “Balancing between” is a more effective policy, more efficient in its use of power, than “balancing against.” I think the whole Waltz argument [in Theory of International Politics, pp. 201-203] that an independent west European superstate that became a “third great power” would not have been in America’s interest is fundamentally mistaken: in pure power political terms, the Americans would have profited from a situation that allowed them to “relax somewhat” and hold the balance in world politics, just as America profited from the emergence of China as a counterweight to Soviet power in another part of Eurasia. The problem was that superstates of that sort cannot be just brought into being by fiat; nations cannot just be melted down and poured into new structures like molten steel; and, given political realities during that whole period, any purely European security system would have to be based on the nation-states as they were. A purely European defense system thus meant nuclear forces under the ultimate control of the European states, no matter what cooperative arrangements were worked out for knitting those forces together; it meant in particular nuclear forces under German control, with all the instability that was associated with—for reasons, I should note, having nothing to do with the “German national character” or anything like that. The presumed instability instead had to do with a situation where the Communists still controlled half of prewar German territory—and with a situation where the Germans, no longer dependent on America for protection, would no longer be locked into a status quo policy in Europe.
Now, what does all this mean for us today? On the one hand, if the NATO system, the system based on American power and dominated by the United States, was the product not of some primordial drive for power and empire, but rather was constructed to deal with some fairly specific problems, rooted in particular historical situations, some of which no longer exist, then it is fair to ask whether the system that came into being as a way of solving those problems still makes sense. Would a German nuclear force still be a problem for the world? Probably not: Germany today is a very different country from the Germany of 1939, or of 1914, or even of 1950. (To my mind, the vastly different demographic situation is the main factor here, but to go into this would take me too far off the track of the present argument.)
As for America, perhaps the key point to note was that during the Cold War the Soviet counterweight served as a source of discipline—that is, it served to constrain American policy in important and valuable ways—and the disappearance of that counterweight has created a certain disequilibrium—that America has become too powerful for the world’s good, and probably for its own good as well. As Waltz wrote in 1979: “one may fear the arrogance of the global burden-bearers more than the selfishness of those who tend to their own narrowly defined interests” (TIP, p. 205). How right he was! In his view—and this point somewhat cuts against his well-known argument about the superiority of bipolarity over multipolarity—there was value in a system in which no state enjoyed too great a margin of power of its rivals. “Close competition,” he pointed out, “subordinates ideology to interest; states that enjoy a margin of power over their closest competitors are led to pay undue attention to minor dangers and to pursue fancies abroad that reach beyond the fulfillment of interests narrowly defined in terms of security.” (ibid.) And U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War—NATO expansion, the new interventionism, “moral imperialism” in general—is a very good case in point. The Americans, I imagine most of us would agree, are not very well-suited for the imperial role—they are not particularly good at it (in large part because of their domestic political culture) and a strong argument could be made for moving toward a system in which they play a more limited role.
On the other hand, we’re all familiar with that wonderful piece of American folk wisdom: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The NATO system is something people have learned to live with—something they feel comfortable with. If the Europeans wanted to move to something different, that would be one thing. The Americans in that case would have to pay a big price to maintain the NATO system; but if the Europeans are willing to go on with things as they are, then the price would be fairly limited, and it would probably be worth paying.
In grappling with this issue, it seems to me that the key thing is to strike the right balance. That probably means for now going along with the system, but pushing for a more modest American policy within that system—for a certain drawing in of the horns, but not at this point for a radical transformation of the current regime. It also means not becoming so attached to the system that it becomes a kind of end in itself. An American withdrawal from Europe should not be viewed as inconceivable: a purely European system would not be the end of the world, and if the Europeans want to construct something of that sort, it is hard to see why the Americans should object. Indeed, a relatively undogmatic stance, a relatively flexible attitude, would enhance American leverage—it would increase America’s ability to pursue a more effective, albeit more modest, policy. Even during the Cold War, it was a mistake to give the allies the impression that they were doing us the biggest favor in the world by allowing us to defend them; today, it’s a big mistake to give them the impression that we think it’s very important that they accept American leadership and follow the American lead. If they want to pursue a more “European”policy, if they want to take the initiative, for example, in dealing with problems in the Balkans, then that it something that the Americans, to my mind, should be more than happy to live with.
In general, I think the United States can be relatively relaxed about European efforts to assert themselves and to develop a political and strategic identity of their own. And as an historian I should stress the point that this is no sudden insight: it is not a product of post-Cold War attempts to rethink these issues from the ground up. It’s important to remember that this kind of thinking has a respectable pedigree. We should remember, for example, what Dulles said in 1957 about the U.S.-European relationship: “we do not ourselves want to be in a position,” he said, “where our allies are wholly dependent on us. We don’t think that is a healthy relationship” (quoted in Constructed Peace, p. 154). There was a lot of wisdom in that kind of thinking. As my old teacher, Raymond Sontag, said about Dulles: “you don’t get to be just about the best-paid lawyer on Wall Street by being stupid.” And I wish that some of that wisdom—that traditional American wisdom—played more of a role in shaping American policy today.

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