The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2018

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America’s Vital Interests
Ted McAllister - 08/10/09
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“Fate has brought it about that America is at the center, no longer the edges, of Western civilization. In this fact resides the American destiny.”
—Walter Lippmann, U.S. War Aims, 1944

Near mid-century the most influential journalist of the age, Walter Lippmann, [1] appealed for a foreign policy rooted in American “vital interests” rather than a “fundamentalist” idealism. Even as he crafted a more realistic, less moralistic foreign policy, Lippmann was famously developing his controversial public philosophy grounded on a universal Natural Law. [2] At this intersection between a nation oriented around self-evident Truth and an international order ruled by naked power and interests, Walter Lippmann produced a hard-headed via media lamentably rare in an ideological age. We have much to learn from this great American stoic whose life’s work was to educate dispassionately a passionate public.

A review of Lippmann’s mature thinking about America’s role in the world, crafted in the midst of a world war and the subsequent and titanic shift in geopolitics, offers a useful primer on American foreign policy and vital interests that avoids the wild arrogance and self-deception of American idealism without succumbing to the simplistic positivism of the various realists. As we struggle to find a useful and politically viable strategy in a new global struggle for civilization, Lippmann’s work at mid-century supplies a much-neglected analysis from which we might critique contemporary foreign policy. To this end I want to offer a summary of Lippmann’s analysis of American strategic position and role before I offer an update for our own time.

The young Lippmann, enthralled by Theodore Roosevelt’s muscular internationalism, offered sustained but tepid support for Woodrow Wilson’s collective security, international law, and evangelical democratization. By the late 1930s the now hoary-headed dean of American journalism had rejected Wilsonianism along with his own long record of idealist internationalism. [3] In 1952 Lippmann characterized Wilsonianism with his usual candor:

The Wilsonian ideology was President Wilson’s attempt to reconcile these new and heretical imperatives [by which he meant German violations of Wilson’s understanding of international law] with the old, with his own deeply personal American orthodoxy. The Wilsonian thesis was, if I may put it this way, that since the world was no longer safe for the American democracy, the American people were called upon to conduct a crusade to make the world safe for American democracy. In order to do this the principles of the American democracy would have to be made universal throughout the world. The Wilsonian ideology is American fundamentalism made into a universal doctrine. [4]

This label, “American fundamentalism,” is a bit elusive in Lippmann’s works but nonetheless central to his analysis. A variant of American idealism, fundamentalism refers to a peculiar kind of provincialism—a tendency to take American political ideas and forms as expressions of universal truth. A more cosmopolitan grasp of the world and its history prevents the simple transformation of an American good to a human good. Lippmann’s critique of Wilson rests heavily on his assertion that Wilson’s “deeply personal American orthodoxy” prevented him from understanding the distinctions that matter and instead fostered a simple and declarative vision of America’s role in the world.

The underlying problem toward which Lippmann pointed is that Wilson (and American fundamentalists generally) was incapable of innovating, of adjusting to changed circumstances. [5] Wilson took America to war by calling upon a deeply felt, little understood, and altogether antiquated “American fundamentalism” that was ill-suited to the world as it was really. American experiences in the nineteenth century had created habits of mind that no longer worked in the more globalized economy and politics of the twentieth century. In reaction to the “heresy” of international politics, Wilson and the Americans transformed a long-established national idealism into “a crusading doctrine” and made all American wars “universal” wars “against criminal governments who rebel against the universal order.” [6]


As a young thinker, Lippmann was not disposed to rely heavily on history or historical imagination to shape his analysis of current events or needs. The failures or deficiencies in his own views and in American policies spurred Lippmann to examine history more closely, and in 1943, when he published U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, he surveyed American foreign policy history, without which most of his analysis would have been seemed capricious or unsupported. [7] One cannot understand or seek to correct American foreign policy without asking the question of the nature of the American republic and the kind of self-understanding that governs political choices. Is the nation constitutionally or “genetically” isolationist? Is it an imperialist nation? The two questions come bound together for Lippmann. The first generation of leaders—for whom Lippmann developed over time a grudging but deep admiration—focused their foreign policy attention on the vital interests of the new nation, which included the conquering of a continent and turning it into a great, self-governing republic. Their understanding of America’s vital interests and their “idealism” made the first generation anything but isolationists—they had a vast expanse to conquer. [8] To concentrate on this vast undertaking, they sought to avoid entanglements with European or Asian affairs on the ground that such involvement would distract them from securing their vital interests and would place upon them obligations for which they hadn’t the resources.

Meanwhile, they had an “empire” (of liberty, as Jefferson called it) to build, and to accomplish this they had often to engage seriously with European nations. But the imperialism of this enterprise was of a very specific variety. The object was to create a nation of self-governing people. The size of this conquest was determined not primarily by the presence of countervailing forces that would prevent U.S. expansion, but by the limits (probably unknown at the time) to producing states that were culturally and geographically capable of participating in a single republic. The empire of free, self-governing people, therefore, was not an abstract claim applied to all peoples everywhere, much less a political imperative of the United States. It presupposed limits (even if the exact nature of those limits was not clear yet) and it presumed that it was in the interest of the United States to become a great and hegemonic nation in the hemisphere.

In their wisdom, early American leaders identified clearly and prudently the “vital interests” of the nation and developed a foreign policy that secured those interests. They kept their commitments and their resources in balance. One of the great accomplishments in this balancing act was the Monroe Doctrine, which Lippmann asserted was the defining event in America’s nineteenth-century foreign policy. But the Monroe Doctrine was not about, as some have asserted, a weak United States asserting a claim to the western hemisphere that it could not defend. Rather, Lippmann emphasized the careful calculations that informed the proclamation. American leaders could not have, and would not have, asserted the obligation to protect the Americas from European incursions had it not had the support of Great Britain, along with the protection of the British navy. Indeed, for a time it seemed likely that what is known today as the Monroe Doctrine would come in the form of a joint declaration between the United States and Great Britain. At any rate, the salient fact is that American policy makers assessed well the strategic needs of the U.S. and Great Britain and declared a U.S. sphere of influence that was safeguarded by the British navy. The U.S. government determined America’s vital interests and through alliance (tacit though it was) it secured the necessary means of discharging its obligations.

The diplomatic success of 1823 provided the necessary conditions for the United States to establish its “empire of liberty” on the North American continent in splendid isolation from heavy European influence. It also produced such complete and unusual (even unnatural) security that these halcyon years of the nineteenth century shaped for the next century American beliefs and habits concerning diplomacy. The American people and U.S. policy makers lost contact with the basic truth that the nation must balance its commitments with resources just as they forgot that the great era of “isolation” depended on an alliance with Great Britain. “Because the informal alliance with British sea power was concealed,” Lippmann wrote in 1943, “and was displeasing to their self-esteem, the American people lost the prudence, so consistently practised by the Founding Fathers, of not underestimating the risks of their commitments and of not overestimating their own power.” [9]

The long diplomatic peace had warped the ability of American policy leaders to assess their vital interests and to create the conditions that would best meet the obligations they incurred. This habituated stupidity, along with a rapidly changing geopolitical environment, would lead to American diplomatic failures from 1898 until 1941, of which Wilsonianism was the deformed reaction of a growing giant, naïve in the ways of the world. This American fundamentalism was the problem with American foreign policy. [10]

The Spanish-American War provoked the problem that Lippmann thought not yet solved as America entered World War II. Had it not been for this “splendid little war,” the American government would nonetheless have faced geopolitical changes that would force upon it a new foreign policy. One way or another, the time of American isolation was ending, but the war with Spain exposed the tensions within a nation dedicated to the idea of national independence and a peculiar kind of empire—an empire of liberty. The victory bequeathed to the United States a new kind of empire in the Pacific for which it didn’t have the necessary resources to protect. The Philippines could not be incorporated into the American republic and so the American government promised quickly to move toward Philippine independence—there was a difference between an “empire of liberty” and a liberal imperialism. [11] Meanwhile, the vast Pacific obligations could not be vouchsafed by the British navy. America was now strategically overexposed: “From the day when Dewey sailed into Manila Bay until the day when General Wainwright surrendered Corregidor, the United States never made a sustained and prudent, or remotely adequate, effort to bring its obligations and its power into balance.” [12]

Theodore Roosevelt, in Lippmann’s estimation, had begun to formulate the rudiments of an American strategic plan for this new age, and had his insights become the foundation for an emerging American strategy for the twentieth century, we would have experienced a very different century. But Roosevelt was an aberration, a cosmopolitan among American provincials. It would fall to the provincial Wilson, who confronted the unavoidable questions about America’s way with the world, to formulate an American strategy for this new century of global conflict and deeply entangled global economy.

The real reason that the U.S. went to war with Germany in 1917, Lippmann argued, was not to make the world safe for democracy or to defend international law. These were the stated reasons, the moral justifications, the way that Wilson persuaded himself and his nation of the necessity for this conflict. The real reason was that the new German submarine offensive was “cutting . . . the Atlantic communication” and this would mean “the starvation of Britain and, therefore, the conquest of Western Europe by imperial Germany.” This victory would directly threaten American interests and make “the world unsafe for the American democracies from Canada to Argentina.” So American security rather than American idealism sent the United States into a European conflict, but the “legalistic and moralistic, and idealistic” justifications for American involvement obscured the compelling vital interests involved (the U.S. could not allow Germany mastery over the Atlantic) as well as distorted the kind of peace that would serve American security interests. [13]

Three-quarters of a century of blissful separation from European affairs had trained American policy makers to think that the object of foreign policy and of war is peace, and by emphasizing this erroneous objective, American leaders were distracted from the first object of a nation’s foreign engagement: security. Living for so long with an unearned peace and security, Americans were unwilling to think of the necessary defenses for their real needs and they were disposed to ignore their enemies. A distorted American idealism resulted in a pathetic effort to outlaw war following the Great War. Thinking that excessive armaments produced the recent conflict, they pushed to effectively disarm the major powers, seemingly unaware of the needs of nations to have the power to protect their vital interests. Giving nations commitments while taking away their capacity to fulfill their obligations produces more instability rather than less. Hating alliances as sources of conflict, the American fundamentalists undermined the means by which a nation might distinguish friend and foe and hampered the ability of a nation to use alliances to protect vital interests. To replace the decadently self-interested alliance system, the fundamentalist sought a more neutral system of collective security. In short, Lippmann stressed that the unusual experience of Americans in the nineteenth century produced a certain species of idealism and that they generalized from an atypical and unrepeatable set of circumstances which they universalized as moral principles for nations as such. [14]

The other side of this coin is that an emphasis on a neutral system of collective security, as well as efforts to produce an international environment that stresses idealism rather than self-interest, alters the proper focus of the American government. Stressing the importance of understanding and defining clearly the nation’s vital interests, Lippmann thought that the species of internationalism that emerged after the war not only clouded America’s understanding of its own interests but also made policy makers blind to the centrality of self-interest to all nations’ foreign policy. American policy makers were both incapable of developing a foreign policy that established the necessary resources to protect American vital interests and unable to understand the actions of other nations that did not operate with American fundamentalist notions.

This American idealism, this liberal fundamentalism, had made World War II possible. As Lippmann wrote in the middle of the war, thinking about what had caused this conflagration and what the nation should learn from this history, he sought to uncover the appropriate goals of American foreign policy as well as the immediate war aims. Clearly Lippmann wanted policy makers to eschew the fundamentalism that had brought them to this state of affairs. Recognizing the peculiar challenges of policy decisions in a democracy, Lippmann called for leadership that educates the public and that creates consensus by producing sound policy and then educating the public as to its merits. [15] But Lippmann also had to acknowledge a basic idealism as central to the American character and therefore to any foreign policy that the people would tolerate. Lippmann’s “realism” requires understanding the nature of the regime, especially for the person called to lead the nation in a ruthless international game of power politics, where power rather than ideals is the main currency.

Lippmann wrote often about American idealism, but rarely in any sustained fashion. What he did write emphasized a basic character, a living American tradition, but not a fixed position. American ideals, deeply held, are capable of many kinds of articulation and therefore they can change with public expressions of them, especially when attached to American fighting. Therefore, Lippmann thought it very important for American leaders to articulate the sources for our struggle, the ideals for our fight, in very careful ways because these public statements, when distilled through national sacrifice, will alter or shape the national character.

America’s long history fighting colonial imperialism has produced a core belief in national independence. Lippmann wrote: “The American antipathy to imperialism is not a humanitarian sentiment acquired in some casual way. It is organic in the American character, and is transmitted on American soil to all whose minds are molded by the American tradition.” [16] Americans are sufficiently evangelical about such matters to go to war in defense of their beliefs. As Lippmann understood American policy toward Japan in the years leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. pursued a policy designed to lead to war with Japan in the interest of Chinese independence. American policy toward China, beginning with the Open Door policy, was not a matter of American vital interest and it wasn’t focused on profits or economic gain. Once Japan’s intention to occupy much of China became clear and unchangeable, U.S. policy aimed at an equally unchanging course of defense of Chinese territorial integrity. While the timing of a war might be dicey (with the fate of Great Britain very much in doubt), American actions could only lead to war. Why? Was this an expression of American idealism controlling foreign policy?

Lippmann’s answer suggests the complexity of the issue. Americans are, indeed, deeply idealistic with regard to the wrongs of imperialism. But the American principles at stake are not quite the same as those claimed by Woodrow Wilson or by Franklin Roosevelt in the Atlantic Charter, and certainly not what Truman would declare later. As Lippmann put it, “it would be quixotic and almost certainly obnoxious, to go crusading in order to impose American institutions and the American ideas of liberty and equal rights.” Clearly the American character did not require, in its most basic form, that the world look like us. “We have come to realize,” he stressed, “how long and troubled is the road to freedom and self-government.” More like Burke than Paine in his defense of American ideals, Lippmann pointed out that this more restrained sentiment in favor of national independence had been a long-standing position of the American people. “Thus, the Monroe Doctrine is not a guarantee that all the people of the American republics would enjoy freedom; it is a policy which vetoes the attempt of any other power to prevent them from trying to be free. We have not undertaken to unite the Chinese and to make them free and self-governing. Only the Chinese can do that. What we have undertaken is to prevent Japan from conquering them.” [17]

So American foreign policy, because it is American, will always reflect American moral commitments. The challenge for the nation is to develop an enlightened leadership that can “adjust, transform, and convert traditional American ideas to the new necessities.” [18] Clearly Wilsonian fundamentalism (which is the universalizing of American moral principles) was inappropriate. In the emerging world of American hegemony, what blend of realism and idealism should guide this democratic nation?

Coming Wednesday: Part II

  1. Walter Lippmann was one of America’s most independent public intellectuals. He belonged to no camp. Courted by almost every great political figure in America during his career, Lippmann sustained his influence by protecting his singularity. This independence of mind and spirit cost him the virtue of consistency, but in return he gained the precious capacity to learn from all evidence, even that resulting from his own failures in judgment. By the time the Second World War loomed, Walter Lippmann had been commenting on foreign relations for nearly a quarter of a century. From the late 1930s through the early 1950s he articulated a philosophy to govern American foreign policy that differed significantly from his earlier positions and from the emerging schools of thought.
  2. Essays in the Public Philosophy. Boston, Little, Brown, 1944.
  3. Lippmann stressed that the new century had brought about “revolutionary change” and that because the U.S. had not adjusted to fit these new conditions it “has for forty years been unprepared to wage war or to make peace.” Moreover, about his own defense for Wilsonian ideas, including the Washington Disarmament Conference, Lippmann wrote that “of that episode in my life I am ashamed.” (U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943, pp. vii, x.)
  4. Isolation and Alliances: An American Speaks to the British. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952, p. 22.
  5. George Bush is the most recent, and the most bombastic, example of a liberal fundamentalism that affirms the moral superiority of democracy (liberal democracy) and therefore justifies “crusades” to make the world safe for democracy. But beyond a stronger than typical predilection to attach both divine assistance and a sense of providential purpose to American actions, Bush stands very much in the American tradition of presidential pronouncements about the American mission, more or less unchallenged since Franklin Roosevelt.
  6. Isolation and Alliances. pp. 22–23.
  7. “This nation cannot, as Lincoln said, escape history. It can, however, at fearful cost misread it own history.” U.S. Foreign Policy. p. 108.
  8. Lippmann warned that the label “isolationism” was prone to misinterpretation. The United States was never “neutral” and to the degree that the isolationist label has come to mean neutrality, it misrepresents American history. Isolation and Alliances. p. 14.
  9. U.S Foreign Policy. p. 22
  10. Lippmann words his claims in the strongest terms possible: “All American military commitments had been made by the end of the nineteenth century. The history of our foreign relations in the twentieth century is a story of failure. It is the story of our national failure to balance the commitments that were made in the nineteenth century. Because of that failure we have been compelled to fight two great unexpected wars for which we were unprepared.” U.S Foreign Policy, p. 26.
  11. “Americans have never wanted to rule over any territory which could not be admitted as a state into the union or to govern the peoples who could not be assimilated.” Isolation and Alliances, p. 19.
  12. U.S. Foreign Policy, p. 28
  13. Lippmann’s argument about the causes of American involvement in the war, however debatable, is not central to the issue here. For him the salient issue is that American liberal, fundamentalist habits of mind, American idealistic provincialism, controlled the way the American government settled the peace. The failure to identify America’s vital interests, the inability to recognize the singularity of the American republic, and the amazingly cavalier way that Wilson ignored the relationship between commitments and resources, produced a European catastrophe for which the United States bears considerable guilt.
  14. See chapter five of U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic.
  15. Lippmann assumed that there is no such thing as a serious public opinion until leaders present the people with options from which to choose. The obligation is then on leaders to educate rather than pander, to unite by the quality of their policies rather than the narrow self-interest of their constituencies. Probably, more than anyone else, Theodore Roosevelt remained his model for this kind of leader. But in his works on foreign policy, Lippmann seems to assert the importance of enlightened leadership rather than explaining what it might look like or how we might encourage it. With regard to the American founders he wrote that “they formulated a sound policy which the divided people came, because of its inherent virtue, to unite in supporting.” A bit later, in a rather desperate attempt to avoid making a detailed argument, he wrote that “the measure of a policy is its soundness; if it is sound, it will prove acceptable.” (Shield p. 85) However elusive one finds Lippmann’s efforts to explain the kind of leadership needed in a democracy, one cannot make sense of his views without recognizing his basic debt to Machiavelli on this subject, made much more important in a democracy.
  16. U.S. War Aims, Boston: Little, Brown, 1944, p. 35.
  17. U.S. War Aims, pp. 41–42.
  18. Isolation and Alliances, p. 20.
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