#Reviewing Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015. Melvyn P. Leffler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

“It is impossible to understand which way the world is moving,” Hal Brands argues, “without understanding how things came to be as they are, just as it is impossible to comprehend our own country’s position in the world without comprehending how we arrived at this point.”[1] Rich historical sensibility is all the more important for American policymakers because the United States has sought, through its grand strategy, one overriding objective for at least a century: an international environment conducive to the flourishing of democratic capitalism at home. In Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism, Melvyn Leffler, an eminent historian of American foreign relations, presents a collection of essays spanning a career of brilliant scholarship and analysis. For the strategist, this volume is perhaps the single best source for understanding how the U.S. engaged the world to defend and promote its core values. While this book is of obvious importance to diplomatic historians, this review will suggest salient lessons useful to practitioners of strategy at the highest level.[2] Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism is not, however, a work easily packaged; Leffler’s strategic guidance demands repeated interrogation and consideration.

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism can be divided into three substantive components, with the first focusing on Republican foreign policy in the 1920s. Why, Leffler asks, did the United States make precious few durable commitments to Europe in the first inter-war decade, despite the widespread recognition that European economic stability and growth benefited America? Serving as the Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations, and then as president in his own right, Herbert Hoover championed apolitical solutions, incremental initiatives, and voluntary international cooperation to achieve peace, arms limitation, and European financial stability in an economically interdependent world. A progressive who was managerial by conviction, Hoover considered global challenges too complex for universal solutions. Political considerations would, moreover, infect comprehensive solutions and lead to commitments to Europe he and his Republican colleagues were determined to avoid.

…officials sought to insulate the world economy from nefarious political and military influences, factors which would upend efficiencies in global markets and, in turn, harm the American national economy. This foreign policy approach failed spectacularly…

  Henry L. Stimson (Harris and Ewing Collection/Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Henry L. Stimson (Harris and Ewing Collection/Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Underlying Republican foreign policy at the time was a set of assumptions, powerfully conditioned by the experience of World War I, about international relations and America’s role in the world. Republican officials, businesspeople, and bankers understood security and stability “depended upon economic growth, business cooperation, and material prosperity” at home.[3] These economic variables, moreover, outweighed all others in moving the world toward peace—a belief also held by the American military establishment in the 1920s. Political and military approaches failed to prevent the First World War, and so the U.S. favored an approach that sought, in the words of Henry Stimson, “commercial and non-military stabilization of the world.”[4] This approach envisioned a global economy guided by bankers and business experts, all of whom were motivated by the principle of voluntary cooperation and collaboration. Republican officials sought to insulate the world economy from nefarious political and military influences, factors which would upend efficiencies in global markets and, in turn, harm the American national economy.

This foreign policy approach failed spectacularly, but not immediately. For a time in the early 1920s, Leffler argues, America used its considerable financial leverage (particularly its ability to regulate capital flows and set the terms of war debt settlement negotiations) to structure European economic and political conditions.

The Dawes Plan, the debt agreements, the currency stability programs, the Locarno treaty, and the related political accords that provided for the withdrawal of French troops from the Ruhr and eventually form the first occupied zone of the Rhineland altered the economic and political environment of Europe.[5]

That influence, however, was always limited and bound to wane. Republican officials were severely cross-pressured in the 1920s. No matter how important European economic growth and stability were for the U.S. economy as a whole, powerful economic interests and ideology precluded the tax increases necessary to substantially restructure European war debts. The onset of the Great Depression dramatically reduced U.S. financial-diplomatic leverage, resulting in a diminution of American influence in European security affairs. Notwithstanding U.S. participation in important multilateral disarmament efforts (e.g., the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the London Naval Conference), Republican officials were unable to devote sustained attention to European security affairs due to “more pressing domestic economic issues and international financial questions posed by the depression.”[6] In the end, Republican officials sought a prosperous and stable Europe without incurring political-military commitments, a Europe not primed for war and, thus, one good for the American economy. The inability to achieve this strategic objective, Leffler argues, resulted from the lessons of World War I and the perception that the international system was largely devoid of threat. For Republican officials, European economic stability was important, but political commitments to ensure it were not seen as necessary and would have cost them domestically.

French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, center standing, gives his address in the Palais D'Orsay, Paris, Aug. 27, 1928, before the signing of the Pact Of Peace by 15 nations. Seated at table, left to right; Paul Haymans, Belgian Foreign Minister; German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann; Briand; Frank B. Kellogg, U.S. Secretary of State; Lord Ronald Cushendun, Acting Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for Britain. (AP)

Leffler’s arguments on the origins of the Cold War, the second section of Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism, challenge those who blame either the United States or the Soviet Union for initiating that “long twilight struggle.”[7] The causes of the Cold War were numerous, and the United States played, in Leffler’s estimation, a catalytic role. American insecurity resulted in policies that, in turn, exacerbated Soviet insecurity. American officials’ sense of insecurity was peculiar, however, because fear gripped them precisely at the time when the “potential adversary had no strategic air force, no real navy, and no atomic bomb.”[8]

America’s early Cold War grand strategy, Leffler argues, was a product of technological developments, geostrategic experience, and, above all, U.S. defense officials’ conception of national security. The United States’ post-war inheritance was substantial, including strategic control of a network of bases around the world. From these bases, and through favorable agreements permitting the U.S. air transit rights, America’s security perimeter emerged. Defense officials always assumed the U.S. would enjoy outright hegemony of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an inviolate sphere of influence in Latin America, and overall power preponderance relative to any other great power. Two considerations colored U.S. strategic thinking about its security perimeter. The first was the imperative of defense-in-depth, or the ability to ensure that any future war would be waged far from America’s shores. The second was the ability to project power onto the Eurasian landmass against adversaries in the earliest phase of a future conflict. Encapsulating this strategic logic, Leffler maintains, was a Joint Chiefs of Staff report of March 1946 that held “experience in the recent war demonstrated conclusively that the defense of a nation, if it is to be effective, must begin beyond its frontiers. The advent of the atomic bomb reemphasizes this requirement.”[9] Finally, the American concept of national security both caused, and was caused by, the possession of its globe-spanning system of bases and air transit rights. Vital national interests could only be safeguarded if a balance of power was maintained on the Eurasian landmass. To allow an aspiring hegemon free rein, either in Europe or in Asia, would be to imperil America’s democratic and capitalist system. America, in short, possessed power preponderance in the years immediately following the Second World War and was determined to keep it.

Two views of containment and the relative positions of the U.S. and Soviet Union after World War II. (Pinterest)

This strategic stance makes sense only if a major war were anticipated in the short- to medium-term. As Leffler notes, however, no American defense official assessed in the mid-1940s that war was likely any time soon because the Soviet military and economic base required years of reconstruction and remobilization. American defense officials’ perception of Soviet threat stemmed, rather, from the economic and political destitution of other European and Asian states. Fearing democracy and capitalism would prove unattractive to millions suffering from World War II’s aftermath, U.S. officials anticipated Soviet gains through non-military means. “The prospects of famine, disease, anarchy, and revolution” in Europe drove U.S. assessments of the Soviet Union.[10] By late 1946, Leffler contends, American officials simply assumed Soviet aggressiveness and devoted their strategic attention instead to assessing Soviet military capabilities. Reports in 1947-48 of growing Soviet ideological fervor, and the inability of European and Asian states to achieve a modicum of social and economic stability, occasioned many of the most important American military, diplomatic, and economic initiatives of the twentieth century.

In this crucible, American officials took on an increasing number of political, economic, and military commitments abroad, all at a time of growing pressures to reduce the size of the military budget. Grand strategic discipline over means-ends alignment atrophied, spurring the U.S. to take on risks unaided by a careful weighing of all elements of statecraft. There is no better example of this than the Truman Doctrine, specifically as it was applied to Turkey. Despite President Harry Truman’s dire rhetoric, Leffler points out the Kremlin’s influence in Turkey was not significant, nor was it likely to grow. Driving America’s commitment to Turkey were military strategic imperatives. The Soviet army, military officials reasoned, would encounter few problems invading Europe, escorting American forces off the continent, and consolidating their position should war break out. The only recourse available to the U.S. would be an attack into the Soviet Union from the Cairo-Suez area, a position vulnerable to Soviet counterattack if Turkey were not already aligned militarily with the U.S. and West. In sum, military strategic considerations—not diplomatic, economic, or political factors—drove U.S. alliance commitments to Turkey. Europe was under threat, and the U.S. had to prevent at all cost dangerous imbalances of power abroad. In so doing, the U.S. exacerbated Soviet insecurity, pushing the world deeper into cold war.

For neither Bush nor Clinton, however, did American values dominate strategic interests in the prosecution of statecraft. Both administrations sought an international environment conducive to the expansion of U.S. values, but interests and ideals were carefully calibrated, with the former serving as the lodestar for the latter.

American grand strategy in the post-Cold War era, the third section of Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism, was the product of a complex set of relationships between memory, values, fear, and power. Despite substantial international structural changes, American foreign policy was not dramatically transformed during the 1990s. Many scholars have commented on the striking similarities between the foreign policies of presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.[11] In Leffler’s telling, the similarities are both substantive and temperamental. Bush’s grand strategy was based on an extrapolation of Cold War experience, specifically the objective “to prevent any aspiring regional hegemon from dominating any area deemed vital to U.S. security interests.” Those interests included “access to raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles; threats to US citizens from terrorism or regional or local conflict; and treats to US security from narcotics trafficking.”[12] Should those interests be threatened, American officials reasoned, core values—American democracy and capitalism—would be severely strained. The same strategic reasoning informed Clinton’s foreign policy. American interests and values were best protected through U.S. leadership, the steady enlargement of the zone of democratic peace, and engagement with the global economy to promote and expand international trade. For neither Bush nor Clinton, however, did American values dominate strategic interests in the prosecution of statecraft. Both administrations sought an international environment conducive to the expansion of U.S. values, but interests and ideals were carefully calibrated, with the former serving as the lodestar for the latter.

President Bush addresses a Joint Session of Congress, Sept. 20, 2001. (Win McNamee/AP)

This relationship between interests and values was upended in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, along with a heightened risk tolerance in the use of military force. Before 9/11, the gauzy concept of a “balance of power that favors freedom” featured prominently in candidate and then President George W. Bush’s speeches; afterward it took on concrete meaning.[13] American policymakers believed the U.S. faced existential threats to its values. A world destabilized by terrorist organizations and rogue states with easy access to weapons of mass destruction would be one of peril for American ideals. The U.S. would fight in Afghanistan and Iraq “for a just peace—a peace that favors liberty.”[14] By the time of Bush’s second inaugural, American objectives had expanded to spreading democracy “in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”[15]

Yet, for Leffler, America’s post-9/11 foreign policy change was largely tactical. Little in President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy was radically different from what his predecessors offered in their strategic statements. What made Bush’s grand strategy different was the willingness to take on risk in the service of American values; the United States was now willing to fight for democracy explicitly. The cause of this underlying change had everything to do with the extreme threat American officials perceived, as well as a potent combination of “guilt, outrage, and responsibility.”[16] In this new crucible, American core values were at stake in ways unknown since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. officials responded with a host of values-laden policies little disciplined by cold calculations of interest or realistic understandings of the limits of military force. It was the balance between interests and values, conditioned by threat and tempted by power, that drove U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. America’s excesses, Leffler explains, came when the perceived threats were extreme and core values usurped strategic interests in foreign policy formulation.

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism encapsulates decades of Leffler’s meticulous scholarship and shrewd analytical judgment. That it will be widely read and debated by historians of American foreign relations is beyond doubt. What can scholars and practitioners of strategy take from this volume? There are at least three themes that speak to the strategist’s craft. The first is Leffler’s disciplined embrace of complexity in statecraft. As detailed eloquently in the book’s introduction, Leffler’s approach is not one that falls neatly into prescribed intellectual silos. Numerous historical forces impinge upon agents who themselves are subject to complex emotions, values, and interests. Yet, it is possible to explain how these variables converge in particular contexts and how they affect particular actors as they formulate and implement policy. The conceptual device employed is “national security,” which “encompasses the decisions and actions deemed imperative to protect domestic core values from external threat.”[17] This sentence is far weightier than it appears at first blush because embedded in it are ambiguities that must be interrogated in each historical context. Whether external threats are real or imagined, which among a state’s objectives reflect domestic core values, and why certain actions—and not others—are selected by policymakers, must all be given serious consideration. The national security approach can guide strategists just as much as it can professional historians. Through a disciplined and clear-eyed examination of their own beliefs, motives, and interests, strategists can illuminate and probe the unspoken assumptions which, when proven wrong, so often lead to ruin.

Through a disciplined and clear-eyed examination of their own beliefs, motives, and interests, strategists can illuminate and probe the unspoken assumptions which, when proven wrong, so often lead to ruin.

Sound strategy emerges from the determination to align means and ends, but reconciling objectives, resources, and policies is devilishly hard to do. Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism illuminates two forms of means-ends misalignment, both of which relate to how policymakers perceived the threat environment. Despite recognizing the importance of European economic stability and growth, U.S. officials in the 1920s never drew the connection between Europe’s economic performance and America’s national security. Unwilling to trade-off domestic political retribution for commitments abroad, Republican officials under-resourced U.S. foreign economic and security policies, though they were largely unaware of this. Because the threat environment was benign, hard choices could be deferred. In contrast, policymakers after 9/11 adopted truly infinite objectives, despite possessing finite resources.[18] Core American values were at stake, and the Bush administration took to its War on Terror and Freedom Agenda with little strategic discipline. These two cases demonstrate how means-ends alignment can be adversely affected when policymakers perceive either low threats, or extreme threats, emanating from the international environment. When security is plentiful, the strategist must guard against parsimony which can hinder the necessary policies for favorably shaping the international system. When security is scarce, the strategist must hold fast to strategic interests lest they be jettisoned in a reckless pursuit of values. When values alone determine policy, temptations abound, hubris sets in, and actions become untethered to proportion and prudence.

Between the (perceived) extremes of low- and existential-threat, the strategist’s work is no easier. When settling in for the long-haul, as the U.S. did in the early years of the Cold War, the strategist must carefully calibrate the requirements of security: doing too little may tempt the adversary, while doing too much may unduly threaten it. As Leffler’s historical investigations demonstrate, and as security dilemma theorists have long argued, striking the right balance can be exceedingly difficult.[19] While officials in the 1940s avoided the excesses of their successors in the 2000s, they nevertheless failed to incorporate Soviet concepts of security into American grand strategy. In so doing, they demonstrated a lack of “strategic empathy,” which Zachary Shore describes as “the ability to think like their opponent… the skill of stepping out of our own heads and into the minds of others.”[20] The strategist must have a keen appreciation for how security is mutual in a given context. Policies based on worst-case assessments may alleviate short-run anxieties. Long-term security requires a willingness to explicitly consider, and act upon, the adversary’s concept of national security.

Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism is a masterful work of diplomatic history. Not only will Leffler’s volume be of long-standing interest to historians and international relations scholars, but it is of immense value to strategists and policymakers whose charge it is to ensure American national security.

Spencer Bakich is an associate professor of political science at the Virginia Military Institute and the author of Success and Failure in Limited War: Information and Strategy in the Korean, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Iraq Wars.

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Header Image: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945 to discuss their joint occupation of Germany and plans for postwar Europe. (U.S. Government Photograph/Wikimedia)


[1] Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 204.

[2] Two excellent roundtable assessments of Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism by diplomatic historians are: “Roundtable Review: Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015,” H-Diplo,vol. XIX, no. 40 (June 18, 2018), http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XIX-40; and “A Roundtable on Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015,” Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review (April 2018), 7-17, https://shafr.org/sites/default/files/passport-april_2018.pdf.

[3] Melvyn P. Leffler, Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism: U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security, 1920-2015 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 80.

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 108.

[7] Thomas Alan Schwartz, "Victories and Defeats in the Long Twilight Struggle: The United States and Western Europe in the 1960s," in Diane B. Kunz, ed. The Diplomacy of the Crucial Decade: American Foreign Relations During the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 115.

[8] Leffler, 117.                                                                      

[9] Ibid., 125.

[10] Ibid., 140.

[11] See Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Knopf, 2014), ch. 10; Hal Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2018), 4-6; Ionut Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), ch. 7; and Patrick Porter, "Why America's Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit, and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment," International Security, vol. 42, no. 4 (Spring 2018), 19-38.

[12] “Defense Policy Guidance, FY 1994-1992,” February 18, 1992, quoted in Leffler, 263-64.

[13] President George W. Bush, “First Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2001, quoted in ibid., 274-75.

[14] “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” September 17, 2002, quoted in ibid., 277.

[15] President George W. Bush, “Second Inaugural Address,” January 20, 2005, quoted in ibid., 278.

[16] Ibid., 295.

[17] Ibid., 318.

[18] The “infinite ends, finite means” formulation features prominently in John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, (New York: Penguin Press, 2018).

[19] Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics, vol. 30, no. 2 (January 1978); Jervis, “Was the Cold War a Security Dilemma?” Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter 2001).

[20] Zachary Shore, A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2