Do you ever wonder about America’s place in the world? Maybe my age is showing, but I seem to remember a time when our economy wasn’t bolstered by arms sales to every ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry nation’ one could think of. And I’m sure I remember a time when we didn’t intervene in every conflict that came along, large or small.
Am I just longing for a simpler past, or is there something concrete behind what I’m feeling?
The researcher in me decided to take a look. Are arms sales more common or am I imagining? Have American interventions escalated or am I misremembering?
I started out by looking at an article published by the CATO Institute in March 2018 titled Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy. Since CATO tends to be more conservative and libertarian than me, I thought I knew what kind of argument they’d present. But, boy, was I wrong.
In the executive summary, the authors (A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey) state
Since 2002, the United States has sold more than $197 billion worth of major conventional weapons and related military support to 167 countries.
They note also
Though the U.S. government dabbled in international arms sales after World War I, it was not until after World War II that the United States conducted arms transfers on a large scale.
So much for the argument that the Cold War and its happenings doesn’t have any relevance to our world today.
Next I wondered about US interventions in events around the world. Was the US really more involved?
To find out, I picked up a new book titled Dying By the Sword: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy. Here, the authors, Monica Duffy Toft and Sidita Kushi, base their analysis on quantitative work. They use the Military Intervention Project (MIP), a data set of all US military interventions since America’s founding, and the Militarized Interstates Disputes (MID), an earlier data set on military interventions, to reach their conclusions. They then argue
The unipolar moment in the 1990s brought forth a more interventionist US foreign policy, with higher rates of intervention.
A Look (Way) Back: Grand Strategy
Given the findings discussed above, it makes sense to take another look at American grand strategy and how it has evolved since the end of the Cold War. There’s a strong argument that the concept has become much more muddled. In fact, Dying By The Sword argues that there are now competing visions of how America should relate to the world, ranging from isolation to deep engagement. Be sure to read the book if you’d like more detail on the authors’ typology of Contemporary US Grand Strategies. If you’d like to help Cold War Studies make a small commission, you can buy Dying By The Sword from our affiliate link here. You won’t pay a penny more.
Now, though, let’s look back at a time when there was more agreement about America’s foreign policy goals and objectives, before arms sales and interventions grew more common place.
What was the Cold War?
In my very first post on Cold War Studies I asked the question What Was the Cold War? The answer seemed simple and straightforward at the time,
The post focused on the “grand strategy” of each of the two superpowers during their half century global rivalry.
From the end of World War II in 1945 until the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, the world was polarized by a global conflict between two wartime allies, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Cold War’s impact was global in scope and created political divisions based on free world orientation, socialist orientation, or nonalignment.
The two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — struggled for dominance. Their obsession with national security was reflected in strategies of containment, pact building, and military and economic assistance programs.
To many the Cold War was perceived to be:
- a contest between democratic and totalitarian political systems
- a clash between Marxist and capitalist theories of development/economic progress.
Superpower competition in the less developed world — the Third World — centered on tactics of covert action, insurgency, wars of liberation, and trade dependency. Accompanying activity included escalating militarism and disproportionate allocations of revenue for arms build-ups.
The term competitive grand strategy refers to the rivalry between the individual grand strategies of the two superpowers as they competed for power and influence in the less developed world.
American Grand Strategy
American grand strategy can be defined as an integration of military and economic objectives in the war against communism.
The military component of grand strategy was concerned with repelling the Soviet threat through a policy of containment.
The economic component was concentrated on protecting America’s desire for open markets.
At first these two prongs could be separated. By the end of the Eisenhower administration though the two were intertwined.
American grand strategy evolved into liberal grand strategy as the US became more explicit in its drive to foster democracy and capitalism abroad.
Soviet Grand Strategy
Soviet grand strategy focused on combating the threat of capitalist encirclement and on acquiring the resources necessary to develop economic and industrial prowess as a preparation for the ‘hot war’ that the Russians thought was inevitable as long as capitalism existed.
To summarize, after World War ll, the United States was obsessed with the war against communism and the idea of containment which scholars say “has truly been America’s grand strategy since the late 1940s.”
The overarching US objective was to prevent Soviet penetration of emerging nations.
The USSR, on the other hand, was determined to prevent ‘capitalist encirclement’ of its territories and was eager to prove its economic and industrial prowess.
By the mid-1950s, each superpower believed that the success of its grand strategy depended on “winning” the Third World. The competition to supply military and economic assistance, weapons, technology, and expert advice to the less developed world accelerated.
Cold War rivalry dominated the last half of the 20th century.
Photo by Robert Miller on Flickr