Atlanticism and Pax Americana 1989-2004

By Hodge, Carl C. | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Atlanticism and Pax Americana 1989-2004

Hodge, Carl C., International Journal


AN INDISPENSABLE PREREQUISITE in assessing the foreign policy performance of any administration in Washington is the measure of the continuity and coherence of grand strategy. Subjected to this measure, the foreign policy of the Bush administration, before and after the events of 11 September 2001, is demonstrably not a radical departure from the American grand strategic response to the crises of the 20th century. Indeed, it is less a radical than a reasonable departure from diplomacy of the Clinton administration, informed above all by the demonstrated realities of world order since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Such changes as it has wrought-in combination with the challenges imposed upon it-have nevertheless strained the Atlantic alliance to the point where the alliance as we have known it no longer exists.

Fighting power is at the core of grand strategy, but to dwell on fighting power is to neglect both the comprehensiveness of grand strategy and its very purpose. Even definitions of grand strategy now wrongly thought by many to be outmoded stress the integral importance of the financial, diplomatic, commercial, and ethical instruments of state-craft for the purpose of "avoiding damage to the future state of peace-for its security and prosperity."1 Moreover, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has always been more than a military coalition. It is rooted historically in Anglo-American maritime tradition, political democracy, and commercial expansiveness, and has incrementally evolved the notion that Europe and North America have a common heritage and destiny. So long as these aspects of the much broader Atlanticist culture adjust to new realities, the multilateral deterrence machine of 1949-1989 will not be missed. The rift currently troubling longstanding members of the alliance is the American conviction that its members have a "western vocation" and must either have the collective will to act upon it or in the alternative accept its iteration by the United States acting largely alone.2


In the 20th century two naval nations, Great Britain and the United States, accounted for much of the policing of the high seas and the regulation of international trade. The American republic began to prosper as a sovereign entity in a world dominated by British naval power, and its founding generation was astute in recognizing the opportunity thus afforded. "Frederick the Great thought about how to snatch Silesia from Maria Theresa," notes Walter Russell Mead, "Alexander Hamilton thought about how to integrate the infant American economy into the British world system on the best possible terms."3 The republic was also precocious in securing its interests where that system would not. Among the reasons for the creation of a navy as early 1794 was to protect American merchant ships from corsairs raiding along the Barbary Coast of Africa, for the United States refused to ransom captive seaman from pirates in the custom common among European powers. Whatever the changing meaning of the "special relationship" in the 20th centuty, it was indeed uniquely symbiotic and extraordinarily conducive to commerce in the 18th and 19th.

In the second half of the 19th century, the capital demands of a booming American economy brought it within the ambit of the "informal" British empire, that vast network of British-financed enterprises, from cattle ranching in Uruguay to railways in the United States and cotton plantations in India, for which London was the global hub. The British empire approached its zenith over the course of the 19th century even as the parliamentary system of the imperial metropolis experienced successive extensions of the electoral franchise. And beyond the forced annexation of new territories this involved, after all, there was for some the vision of a federal union of the United Kingdom with the overseas British in Canada, South Africa, and the Pacific, fired by ideals which were almost republican and certainly not ignoble.

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