Gaddis Smith: Bush Is One of the 3 Presidents Who Have Shaped the Grand Strategy of U.S. Foreign Policy

Roundup: Historians' Take

Laura Secor, in the Boston Globe (Feb. 8, 2004):

EVERY PRESIDENT makes foreign policy. Only a select few, over the sweep of history, design what scholars term grand strategy.

Grand strategy is the blueprint from which policy follows. It envisions a country's mission, defines its interests, and sets its priorities. Part of grand strategy's grandeur lies in its durability: A single grand strategy can shape decades, even centuries, of policy.

Who, then, have been the great grand strategists among American statesmen? According to a slim forthcoming volume by John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian whom many describe as the dean of Cold War studies and one of the nation's most eminent diplomatic historians, they are John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush.

Gaddis knows the latter name may bring a number of his colleagues up short. Critics charge that President Bush is a lightweight, Gaddis laments, and they do so because the president is a generalist who prefers the big picture to its details. Over lunch at Mory's, Yale's tweedy private dining club, Gaddis suggests that academics underrate Bush because they overvalue specialized knowledge. In reality, as his new book asserts, after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush underwent"one of the most surprising transformations of an underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V."

The Bush doctrine is more serious and sophisticated than its critics acknowledge -- but it is also less novel, Gaddis maintains. Three of its core principles -- preemptive war, unilateralism, and American hegemony -- actually hark back to the early 19th century, to the time of John Quincy Adams. . . .

Gaddis begins"Surprise, Security, and the American Experience" (Harvard, March) with the observation that thanks to its geographical isolation, the United States has experienced only three surprise attacks on its soil: the British burning of Washington in 1814, Pearl Harbor in 1941, and the terrorist attacks in 2001. Each time, American leaders responded by rethinking grand strategy.

After the British attack on Washington, Gaddis recounts, John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state to James Monroe, perceived that weakly governed states along US borders invited dangers, whether from marauding bands of Native Americans, pirates, and escaped slaves in Florida (before General Andrew Jackson invaded it in 1817), or from European powers who might seize vulnerable territories such as California as staging grounds from which to threaten the United States. And so America achieved its security through territorial expansion -- by filling a perceived power vacuum before hostile powers could do so. Gaddis describes the invasions of such territories as"preemptive."

Adams's grand strategy remained in force throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. But its emphasis on preemption and unilateralism (the dictate that the United States had best avoid"entangling alliances") fell by the wayside after World War II. These were not doctrines fitting to the new position the United States occupied in the postwar world -- one where the European powers had been decimated, America possessed a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union, an erstwhile ally, had become a powerful new adversary.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's grand strategy for the postwar era was to secure the United States by securing the world. Free markets and self-determination would safeguard against future European wars. But FDR was also a hardheaded strategist who never intended to relinquish the United States' new hold on power. He imagined that the world's strongest states -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China -- would function as"four policemen" to maintain the peace. The United Nations Security Council made that arrangement, as Gaddis wrote in 1972,"less repugnant to internationalists."

The postwar United States extended its sphere of influence partly through generous economic aid, partly through the alliance system, and largely by the consent of the states in its orbit. So long as the Soviet Union was around, small states always knew that there was something worse than American domination.

The end of the Cold War changed all that -- and found the United States without a grand strategy. President Bill Clinton, says Gaddis, thought that"globalization and democratization were irreversible processes, therefore we didn't need a grand strategy. Clinton said as much at one point. I think that was shallow. I think they were asleep at the switch."

Enter Prince Hal. The Bush administration, marvels Gaddis, undertook a decisive and courageous reassessment of American grand strategy following the shock of the 9/11 attacks. At his doctrine's center, Bush placed the democratization of the Middle East and the urgent need to prevent terrorists and rogue states from getting nuclear weapons. Bush also boldly rejected the constraints of an outmoded international system that was really nothing more than a"snapshot of the configuration of power that existed in 1945," Gaddis says.

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Lorenz James Gude - 2/20/2004

Just to say that I've had the feeling for many months that Bush was going through a struggle that resembled FDRs in some ways. Both were despised by a substantial portion of
the population for changing American society in response to difficult times. Both faced strong and determined oposition to their war plans. Both had difficulties with the entrenched professionals at the State Department. Both responded to intelligence bureaucracies by creating new agencies. FDR the OSS, Bush the Office of Plans. Gaddis's article makes this impression make more sense to me.