Book Review:

April 1, 2005

Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

By John Lewis Gaddis

Published By: Harvard University Press

On: October 31, 2005

Buy Here $14.35

Reviewed By: Sunil Vaswani

The September 11 attacks were a severe "security surprise" and provided ample proof that the United States faces a new security environment that bears no resemblance to the Soviet threat of the Cold War. But how new is the Bush grand strategy that addresses this new security environment? In his book, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, John Lewis Gaddis argues that the fundamental principles of the Bush doctrine - preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony - go back a long way. They were first developed by John Quincy Adams after the British marched into Washington and burned the Capitol and the White House on August 24, 1814 - the day America suffered its first surprise attack.

Gaddis, a leading historian and scholar of American foreign policy, has, in usual fashion, carefully worked his way through the archives to craft a cogent argument. He cites the fact that Adams (then Secretary of State to President Monroe) was the lone voice in defending General Jackson when he preemptively invaded Spanish Florida in 1818. The policy of preemption continued when James Polk annexed Texas in 1845 on the grounds that this fledgling state was unable to maintain its independence. Similarly, President McKinley took over all of the Philippines when Spanish rule showed signs of collapse in 1898. In short, the United States has preempted or prevented trouble long before Iraq.

Unilateralism was first articulated by George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 although Washington, as Gaddis reminds us, borrowed this concept from Adams' earliest writings. Unilateralism continued into the 20th century when the United States chose to enter World War I as an "associated" power rather than an "allied" power. After the war, the Senate rejected President Wilson's idea of collective security embodied in the League of Nations.

To maintain security unilaterally, the United States needed to be the dominant power on the North American continent. A balance of power in the region would limit American objectives and require complex alliances that could prove unstable as the European experience had repeatedly shown. Once again it was John Quincy Adams who best articulated the idea of American hegemony when he wrote that America is "destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact" (p.26).

Gaddis correctly notes that America's response to its second surprise attack - Pearl Harbor -was markedly different from Adams' response to the British attack on Washington. To begin with, preemption was less relevant because the threats had already manifested themselves - both Japan and Germany had declared war on the United States. Unilateralism gave way to the Grand Alliance because Roosevelt knew that America did not have the military capability to win this global war alone. All the while, Gaddis says, Roosevelt skillfully ensured that the United States had the upper hand in the Alliance that eventually set the stage for American hegemony in the post-war world.

According to Gaddis, America answers surprise attacks not by contracting its responsibilities and withdrawing behind defenses but "by taking the offensive, by becoming more conspicuous, by confronting, neutralizing, and if possible overwhelming the sources of danger rather than fleeing from them" (p.13). Expansion is the American answer to security threats. Why do Americans respond this way? Because Americans, Gaddis claims, place a high value on "free security" - the luxury of not having to exhaust one's resources to ensure one's safety. Free security is part of the American ideal, and when this prize possession is in jeopardy, Americans are quick to step up to retrieve it. Gaddis states, "If the benefits of mostly free security have shaped the character of American people, then the methods that secured those benefits [preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony] should be embedded within our national consciousness. They would be the default: when in doubt, fall back on these" (p.31). His conclusion: given the September 11 attacks, the Bush grand strategy is not out of the ordinary.

Gaddis presents strong evidence to support his case but his analysis has its weaknesses. Most problematic is his assumption that America had a choice between taking the offense and withdrawing behind defenses. The historical record has shown that it is difficult for major powers to remain behind the scenes for too long. They are an integral part of the global trade and financial system. Smaller powers are willing to make major concessions to have them as allies. Or they are provoked into taking sides in a war. Take the case of Russia in World War II. Despite Stalin's best efforts to avoid war with Germany (he signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939, avoided rebuilding the Red Army after his notorious purges, and continued shipments of fuel and raw materials until German soldiers crossed into Russia), the Russians faced Hitler's onslaught in 1941. Russia's size simply did not allow her to be neutral.

Similarly, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, American neutrality was not an option. A weak response would probably have resulted in a terrible domino effect: Japanese attacks would have continued, each time getting closer to the American homeland; Britain and (possibly) Russia would have fallen into German hands, and soon the Axis powers would have been conjuring up ways to carve up the American landscape. One could counter this argument by saying that the United States could have reached a separate settlement with Japan and Germany (instead of aligning itself with Britain and Russia) and avoided the policy of unconditional surrender. But Hitler was never open to compromise. He viewed settlements and agreements as a sign of weakness and a way to buy time to strengthen his military. It was precisely the policy of accommodation and appeasement that emboldened Hitler, allowing him to pursue his grand designs one step at a time. This is why unconditional surrender and total victory were the only options left.

The other major problem with Gaddis' argument is his claim that the Bush doctrine is a "default doctrine" that stems from America's national consciousness. For the doctrine to be embedded in the American psyche, the majority of its citizens must support it until the security threat is removed. Polls, however, show that a majority of Americans do not favor unilateralism. Instead, the public seeks extensive cooperation with other countries to prevent America from doing all the heavy lifting. The public has also developed the belief that going-it-alone can only go so far in today's interconnected and interdependent world. (Whether these opinions are correct is another matter altogether). To put it differently: what if Al Gore had become president? Would he have pursued unilateralism with respect to Iraq? "What ifs" are usually dangerous from an analytical standpoint, but given how close the 2000 election was, this is something worth thinking about. Given that the electorate is so evenly divided, is there such a thing as the "American" consciousness?

As for hegemonic aspirations, realists would argue that this is not unique to the United States. France and Great Britain have, at certain periods in their history, sought and succeeded in achieving hegemony. If given half a chance, these countries (and others) would seek to dominate again. The difference between most other nations and the United States is that the latter actually has the capability to achieve hegemony.

Despite these analytical shortcomings, Gaddis' book is worth a careful read. At the very least, it shows that the Bush doctrine is not new -a crucial fact that many foreign policy analysts seem to miss. The book is also sprinkled with sharp insights. For example, in discussing the short-term effects of the Iraq invasion, Gaddis writes that "the United States exchanged its long established reputation as the principal stabilizer of the international system for one as its chief destabilizer" (p.101). Whether the United States can reestablish its past reputation as a stabilizing power remains to be seen and Gaddis (unlike many foreign policy analysts) sensibly avoids making any predictions or conducting a thorough evaluation of the Bush foreign policy. It is simply too soon to tell how this policy will play out. When we are in a position to make a full evaluation, I hope Gaddis picks up his pen again. It is sure to be an interesting, thoughtful, and well-written book.