During World War I, the New Republic‘s Walter Lippmann temporarily put aside his career in journalism and joined the Wilson Administration, where he participated in the “Inquiry,” America’s ill-fated effort at postwar planning. He soon became disillusioned with liberal internationalism as it was reflected in the Treaty of Versailles. For the next two decades, Lippmann attempted to work out a consistent theory of American diplomacy based on what he understood to be the national interest. In 1943, from his platform as America’s most influential columnist and public philosopher, Lippmann penned U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic to fill what he regarded as an appalling gap in America’s understanding of the fundamentals of national security, and to address the failure of President Roosevelt to lay out publicly his plans for a postwar settlement.
U.S. Foreign Policy formulated what might be called the Lippmann equilibrium, which has become the standard for American strategic “realists:”
Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power…. I mean by a foreign commitment an obligation, outside the continental limits of the United States, which may in the last analysis have to be met by waging war. I mean by power the force which is necessary to prevent such a war or to win it if it cannot be prevented. In the term necessary power I include the military force which can be mobilized effectively within the domestic territory of the United States and also the reinforcements which can be obtained from dependable allies.
If such a strategic equilibrium could be brought into being, Lippmann argued, American foreign policy would command domestic support.
On the other hand, if American commitments exceeded American power, the resulting strategic insolvency—”the Lippmann gap”—would lead to deep political dissension. Lippmann wrote U.S. Foreign Policy to counteract the two likely policy alternatives in the postwar era—either a resumption of isolationism or (more likely) a hyper-Wilsonian One-Worldism. Either of these paths would lead to strategic insolvency and paralyzing domestic controversy. Lippmann rejected the idealists’ belief in world law and international parliaments and grounded his policy in national interest and alliances. “If there is to be peace in our time,” he maintained, “it will have to be peace among sovereign national states.”
Lippmann offered his readers a primer in the history of American foreign policy to demonstrate his theses. Although George Washington, in particular among the founders, understood the imperatives of power politics, Lippmann argued that the period between 1789 and 1823 was plagued by insolvency and inconstancy, with predictable internal dissension over foreign policy. The end of the great wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon permitted American foreign policy to become solvent: with the advent of the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. commitments were limited to the western hemisphere and underwritten by an informal “concert with Great Britain” and the British fleet. By that act of statesmanship, according to Lippmann, America’s foreign commitments were made to accord with its vital interests, while the means to sustain those commitments were more than adequate. Then, and only then, did foreign relations cease to be great domestic issues.
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Beginning in the late 19th century, however, the extension of American interests and commitments in the Pacific started to erode this solvency. The U.S. defeat of Spain and acquisition of the Philippines in 1898 ended it. The foreign policy that served the United States on the whole so well during most of the 19th century became dangerously inadequate after 1900. Because of the failure to readjust its foreign policy to this revolutionary change in the strategic situation, the nation had ever since been unprepared to wage war or to make peace, and remained divided within itself on the conduct of foreign relations. U.S. foreign policy during these years had been based on a foundation of sand: disarmament, no entangling alliances, and collective security. The result, as Lippmann penned SU.S. Foreign Policy ,was Hitler’s conquest of continental Europe and the Japanese conquest of East Asia. Americans had lost the art of shaping foreign policy, and could not craft a new policy because they no longer knew what they needed.
In 1943, the tide began to turn, however, and Lippmann argued that a strategic equilibrium in the post-World War II era could be established through what he called a “nuclear alliance” among the United States, Britain, and Russia, and to a lesser extent with China. (This term did not refer to nuclear weapons, which had yet to be invented.) “For more than a century, whenever our vital interests were at stake, American foreign relations have always been primarily our relations with Britain, with Russia, and with China,” Lippmann wrote.
Our relations with all other states have followed upon and have been governed by our relations with those three. In the conduct of American foreign policy our position has been solvent, our power adequate to our commitments, in so far as we were in essential agreement with these three states.
None of these powers was a European state, Lippmann noted:
I submit that while our concern has not been with European affairs, we have always been concerned with world affairs. Our primary relations have been, and are, with the extra-European powers, and with Europe itself only as someone inside of Europe threatens to disrupt the order of things outside of Europe…. Therefore our two natural and permanent allies have been and are Britain and Russia. For they have the same fundamental interest—to each of them a matter of life or death—in preventing the rise of such a conquering power in Europe.
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Lippmann recognized that the unconditional surrender of Germany and of Japan was bound to leave all the allies with an immediate sense of mortal peril averted; and that this fact would naturally reduce the compulsion that bound the wartime alliance together. These fissures would tend to become wider and deeper if any one of the great powers sought to aggrandize itself either at the expense of one of the other great powers, or at the expense of their smaller allies. For the nuclear alliance to succeed, the cooperating great powers would have to moderate their postwar ambitions, which Lippmann believed possible if they properly understood their own interests. For instance, Lippmann argued, the United States must realize that any attempt to break-up the British Empire to its own advantage would impair profoundly, if not destroy, the Atlantic Community. By the same token, if Britain refused to recognize the necessity of changing the colonial and imperial system that had developed during the 19th century, it would face insurgent forces in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Britain could not count on American support in that circumstance, and she could almost certainly expect Russian and Chinese encouragement of those forces.
Meanwhile, a Russian policy of aggrandizement in Europe—one that threatened the national liberties of her neighbors—would inexorably be regarded as such a threat to Britain and America that they would lend encouragement, if not outright support, to the nations which resisted Russia. On the other hand, an anti-Russian policy in which Britain, America, and the European states sought (as they had in 1919) to blockade and weaken Russia would provoke a countervailing response by Moscow to conquer its neighbors and overthrow governments in the name of communist revolution. This would be followed inevitably by competition among the former Allies to win over to their side the vanquished nations (Germany and Japan) by restoring their power.
“The nuclear alliance…cannot hold together if it does not operate within the limitations of an international order that preserves the national liberties of other peoples,” Lippmann concluded hopefully.
Nor could the nuclear allies divide the globe into spheres of influence which each was free to dominate and exploit separately. For no spheres of influence can be defined which do not overlap, which would not therefore bring the great powers into conflict. In no other way but by supporting a world-wide system of liberty under law can they win the consent, earn the confidence, and insure the support of the rest of the world in the continuation of their alliance.
Lippmann used his considerable journalistic talents to put the message in language that would appeal to the general reader. His prose was simple and direct. U.S. Foreign Policy quickly climbed to the top of best-seller lists and sold nearly half a million copies. The Reader’s Digest printed a condensation. The U.S. armed forces distributed a 25¢ paperback edition to the troops.
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Lippmann’s analysis of the American strategic situation—in many ways, a popularization of the argument previously advanced by Yale geographer Nicholas Spykman—helped shape American public opinion even when the nuclear alliance broke down after the end of the war. “American foreign policy did become solvent in the postwar years, although not exactly in the way Lippmann anticipated,” the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington explained.
That solvency was based on the overwhelming economic and military power of the United States compared to other countries, its continued close association with Great Britain and France, and the rapid recovery of Germany and Japan and eventually their equally close association with the United States. For almost a quarter-century after World War II, this combination provided what Lippmann would call a ‘comfortable surplus of power’ abroad and a general consensus on policy at home.
(To this we might add the overhang of power provided by the American nuclear deterrent.) According to Huntington, when a capabilities-commitments gap reemerged at the end of the 1960s, due to the loss of American nuclear and economic superiority and the Vietnam disaster, the United States sought with mixed success to deal with it by reducing commitments and by increasing the role of U.S. allies. Eventually President Reagan combined policies of rhetorical assertion, military build-up, strategic defense, insurgency support, coercive diplomacy, and arms control, to restore the strategic equilibrium (and then some) against an overextended Soviet empire.
Lippmann himself grew disillusioned with the U.S. response to the breakdown in the nuclear alliance when it occurred during the late 1940s, that of anti-Soviet containment based on a global system of Eurasian continental alliances. He criticized U.S. “globalism” and “missionary” interventionism in Eurasia proper. He believed that America’s primary areas of strategic responsibility were in the Atlantic Basin and the Pacific islands, linked together by a “blue-water” strategy of naval and air bases and fleets. Outside this perimeter he believed there should be no permanent political commitments or military facilities.
Lippmann’s Cold War dissent reminds us that his influential formula for foreign policy equilibrium does not provide a certain answer for defining its terms; but his aversion to the U.S. interventionism in the political-strategic affairs of Eurasia remains an enduring element of the realist approach to American strategy.