The American Way of Empire:
How America Won a World—But Lost Her Way
by james kurth
washington books, 464 pages, $30
The Cold War ended with a historical irony: The communists who were convinced they had history on their side ended up losing. The U.S. and its E.U. and Pacific allies emerged from the Cold War with unrivaled diplomatic, cultural, and economic power, while the American military enjoyed combat primacy in all domains. Liberal democracy and American-style capitalism, undergirded by multilateral institutions, seemed the way of the future. Confident in what they imagined their limitless success, the Baby Boomers who dominated American foreign policy after 1992 invented their own philosophy of history. It is less explicit than Marxism’s dialectical materialism but often tends toward the same dogmatic confidence: America’s liberal democratic project has history on its side.
Alas, thirty years after our moment of victory, America seems strategically adrift. Authoritarian adversaries are ascendant, while many Americans feel we have squandered our victory. How did America’s Boomer elites manage to fritter away their Cold War triumph?
In The American Way of Empire, James Kurth gathers reflections that, taken together, provide an answer. His central insight is political. The health of the American social contract is ultimately the wellspring of American power and the foundation for our grand strategy.
Facing first the fascist and then the communist challenge, America was fortunate to have political elites who recognized that American power rested on the commitment of its citizens. As Kurth explains, those who crafted postwar foreign policy recognized the need to buttress the “free world.” The Marshall Plan was the first of many initiatives that linked America’s prosperity to that of its allies abroad. But our elites calculated that the sacrifice of American resources and lives would generate returns to Americans over the long haul. Global security and its economic architecture were ultimately anchored on American prosperity and cultural unity, and the resulting empire was beneficial to the U.S. in the long run.
Unlike the Soviets, who created satellites out of allies and subjects out of allied citizens, America created alliance systems, emphasizing strategic pragmatism over ideological purity. NATO and SEATO (NATO's counterpart in Asia) were pillars of this system. Our grand strategy during the Cold War gave weaker allies a remarkable degree of autonomy. This won us loyalty as America bore the military costs of sustaining security. As Kurth documents, an important carrot that kept allies in the American-led system was access to the U.S. economy. This is the unique institutional arrangement—economic as much as military—that defined what Kurth calls the American way of empire that won the Cold War.
But now America seems to have depleted its diplomatic, cultural, and economic capital. As Kurth observes, the Cold War ended with the image of the U.S. Army as “an efficient, effective, and even invincible force.” After twenty years of continuous warfare in the Middle East, that image has been replaced by one of “an incompetent, feckless, and even mindless bureaucracy that could do almost nothing right.” In perhaps the greatest indictment of post-Cold War policy elites, the descendants of the Greatest Generation voted for a candidate who swore to dismantle the global strategic architecture that their predecessors had sacrificed so much to build and sustain. How did this come about?
The end of the Cold War in America (and Europe) marked the crossing of a generational and ideological boundary. The last of the presidents of the Greatest Generation, whose lives were defined by the West’s fight against fascists and communists, handed the reins of power to a generation that had come of age looking askance at America’s role in the Cold War, inveighing against the moral cost of strategic compromise, and questioning the utility of military power.
Instead of seeing national destiny as an outcome of contingent decisions, Boomer elites believed in historical inevitability and assumed that history belonged to democracy and capitalism (an ironic echo of the defeated Marxists). They believed that the twenty-first century would be shaped by multilateral institutions and globalization. It was an expression of hope, not sober reason.
At the same time, the economic foundations of American prosperity were transformed. As Kurth observes, the Reagan-era response to the stagflation crisis of the 1970s may have buttressed the self-respect of working-class Americans, but it undermined their economic self-interest. After the end of the Cold War, the trend established after 1945 accelerated as economic elites “earned their income and made their wealth much more in the international economy than in the national economy.” Manufacturing was transferred to East Asia, so much so that “the U.S. defense industrial base is now in East Asia.”
By the 2010s, “the U.S. economic elite had repeatedly demonstrated during the past thirty years, and especially during the past ten years, that it cared nothing about the economic condition of the majority of Americans and of America itself. Rather, it had come to think about citizens in the United States in a way similar to how it has always thought about residents of Latin American countries.” By Kurth’s reckoning, the American social contract is in tatters.
This has decisive strategic consequences. Misreading the wellsprings of American strategic capacity and power in recent decades, foreign policy elites have taken the support of ordinary citizens for granted. Political elites refuse to play an arbitrating role between ordinary citizens and economic elites who push selective advantages at the cost of many. The sense of nationalism that animated civic obligations is seen as an outdated commitment to be replaced with ideals of global citizenship.
Kurth argues that after the Cold War, American resources and lives were deployed in pursuit of objectives that benefited a selective group of elites. These elites became, in turn, ardent cheerleaders for globalization, while the American military became a discount global security shop. Political elites no longer saw the need to restrain the appetites of economic elites. In fact, they became surrogates for economic elites who benefited from globalization. The pinnacle of human existence in the globalized world became a trip to Davos for the powerful and a trip to Walmart for the average American.
2016 saw an election in which tens of millions voted for someone who openly called into question the global institutions that his predecessors had sacrificed so much to build and sustain. Having been hoodwinked repeatedly in the last thirty years, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Greatest Generation found solace in their only alternative, and made common cause with a strategic nihilist. The American Way of Empire explains why we must see this populist upsurge as a democratic indictment of our policy elites; they inherited the world on a string and lost it spectacularly, and along the way they also failed the American people.
Today, America's diplomatic, cultural, and economic power is vastly diminished. Our military barely holds onto its combat primacy. And America’s citizens—the elemental source of American power—are deeply skeptical of our continued strategic profligacy.
The gravamen of The American Way of Empire is that American power depends upon a strong social contract between economic elites and the general population. We will be unable to meet the strategic challenges of the twenty-first century—China foremost among them—unless we repair that social contract and reunite the economic interests of elites with the interests of the rest of the country, as well as blunt the cultural hostility of our leadership class toward the majority of their fellow citizens. Kurth is unsparing: “The most crucial of all fractures of today is the fractured relationship between the U.S. economic elite and everyone else. And that fracture will not be repaired until that elite is removed.”
Buddhika Jayamaha is assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the United States Air Force Academy, USAF, or the DOD.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.